A Theory of Reductive Naturalism: The Metaphysical Foundations of Non-belief

Introduction

What do you believe about God? What about global warming? Do you think euthanasia should be legalised? What about bible study in schools? Whatever your answer to these questions, it is very unlikely that you hold your views in isolation, independently of all your other opinions and perspectives. That’s not how human minds work. Instead, we hold our views in the context of a large set of overlapping and interconnected beliefs about what the world is, how it works, and why things are the way they are. This very large, overarching set of beliefs and conceptions about the world is what I call a ‘worldview’. When ideas become successful or popular, it is very rarely because of the specific merits of one idea considered in isolation. Rather, ideas are usually ‘sold’ as part of a ‘package deal’ – a set of interconnected, internally coherent beliefs about the world which people find attractive. Socialism, Fascism, Christianity, Humanism, and Environmentalism are all examples of such worldviews. As my choice of examples shows, the effect that such worldviews has on the world varies dramatically – ideas can shape the world for better or for worse. If, therefore, we want to shape the world for the better, we need to spread good ideas, and to do that we need to package these ideas in a way that people find attractive. To put it another way, it is not enough to just be right about a whole bunch of unrelated issues. Rather, one needs to incorporate these positions into a unified conceptual whole, to provide a worldview that people find intellectually and emotionally attractive. My aim in this short article is to present an outline of the key points concerning what such a worldview might look like from a Rationalist/Humanist/Atheist perspective. Specifically, the view that I am outlining is a form of reductive naturalism, the meaning of which I will explain shortly. It is a metaphysical theory, meaning that it makes claims about what exists in the world. I do not claim that this is the only possible naturalistic worldview that one can develop, but I do think it is a particularly compelling one which is worthy of serious consideration.

Reductive Naturalism

To begin, I must first explain what I mean by the term ‘naturalism’. This word is used in a variety of ways in everyday language, but in this context I am using it with reference to a particular set of philosophical positions concerning what sorts of things exist in the world. Put most simply, naturalism holds that only the natural world exists. While there is no generally accepted definition of ‘natural’ in this context, the usual conception is that the natural world includes all things that are not supernatural. Supernatural entities are such things as ghosts, spirits, magical forces, immaterial souls, gods, and immaterial forces like yin-yang from Chinese philosophy. Such supernatural entities are typically thought to be highly distinctive from anything that exists in nature in that they are not made up of matter, and do not follow determinate causal laws in the way the natural world does. I should emphasise that natural entities include not only things like particles, organisms, and planetary bodies, but also man-made artifacts like computers and political institutions. The relevant distinction is thus not between natural and artificial, but rather between natural and non-natural or supernatural. Thus understood, naturalism is simply the position that there are no non-natural or supernatural entities.

The version of naturalism that I am here defending is reductionist, meaning that according to this view, everything that exists is either a fundamental particle, or is something that exists and holds all the properties that it does solely in virtue of the arrangements and interactions of such fundamental particles. Another way of putting this is that according to reductive naturalism, if one specified the exact configuration of all the fundamental particles in the entire universe, then this would also be sufficient to determine all the properties of everything that exists within the universe. There is nothing ‘left out’ of reality beyond the arrangements of fundamental particles. A few points of clarification are necessary here. First, when I speak about ‘fundamental particles’ I do not necessarily assume that these are the same as what physics currently regards to be the fundamental particles of nature (quarks, electrons, photons, etc). Perhaps they are, or perhaps they are something yet more fundamental that we have yet to discover. All that is important to my case is that there are a determinate, relatively small number of such things, and that they follow causal laws in principle describable by a ‘completed physics’. Second, when I say that the arrangement of fundamental particles is sufficient to determine all properties about everything that exists, I am advocating a theory of ontology (what exists), not a theory of epistemology (how we know) or semantics (what words mean). To consider a particularly tricky example, according to reductive naturalism, the statement ‘Bob loves his wide’ must ultimately be either true or false in virtue of some state of affairs concerning particular arrangements of fundamental particles. This is not to say, however, that we come to know whether Bob loves his wife by examining states of fundamental particles. Nor is it to say that when we say ‘Bob loves his wife’ we are in any way actually thinking about fundamental particles. Rather, my claim is about what exists in the world that makes this claim true – the so-called ontological basis of the fact that ‘Bob loves his wife’. The claim of reductive naturalism is that even highly abstract and complex states as this ultimately pertain in virtue of the arrangement of fundamental particles. Thus, there is nothing outside of or beyond such particles and their interactions that is needed in order to bring about the state of Bob loving his wife. I am thus explicitly disputing the claim made by some philosophers that immaterial minds or Platonic forms or other non-natural entities are necessary in order to account for all the various phenomena that we know about in the world.

Even given these clarifications, many people typically find this reductive naturalism intuitively implausible. How, they say, can you claim that the interactions of protons and electrons are all that there is to such complex, indescribably rich phenomena as human emotions? A large part of the implausibility of my position, however, is removed once we consider the reduction hierarchically. That is, rather than trying to imagine jumping directly from subatomic physics to human emotions, we should instead think about the stages in which this reduction occurs. Subatomic physics underpins the structure and properties of atoms, which in turn bind together to form molecules. Molecules join together through various types of chemical bonds to form macromolecules like proteins and DNA which make up the cells of the human body. Different types of cells with different functions combine together to form tissues and organs, each with their own role in supporting the life of the organism. In the case of the human mind, neurons connect together in complex networks to form mental representations of various concepts, including ultimately those of loving another person. Considered in this incremental manner, I think the notion that facts about human thoughts and emotions are ultimately reducible to facts about brain states, which in turn reduce to facts about neuronal firing patterns, then down to proteins, molecules, and atoms, is far more plausible than it is if we think simply of jumping from atoms straight to the mind in a single leap.

The utility of a philosophical theory ultimately is determined by how useful it is in accounting for various phenomena that we wish to explain in the world. In the case in question, two of the most difficult phenomena that have led many people to posit entities beyond those of the natural world are the human mind and moral values. In this short article I have space only to very briefly consider these complex subjects, and I certainly do not claim to have a complete philosophical account of either. Nevertheless, I do wish to at the very least sketch the outlines of how a reductionist naturalistic worldview can account for the existence of both mind and morality in a way that provides a space for such phenomena without needing to posit the existence of any additional, non-natural entities.

Before doing so, however, there is one final concept (borrowed from physics) that I must introduce, namely the distinction between a microstate and a macrostate. A microstate is a single complete configuration of all the fundamental particles in a system. A macrostate, by contrast, is a set of microstates that share some property of interest. Macrostates thus refer to ‘higher level’ phenomena, whose existence is nevertheless wholly dependent upon the particular microstate the system is in. For instance, one example of a microstate is the exact description of all the positions and velocities of the air molecules in a room. We can then consider various macrostates which are higher-level properties that nevertheless are entirely determined by the microstate that the particles in the room reside in. refers to the set of all such microstates in which the room has a particular temperature. One example of a macrostate would be ‘the air temperature in this room is 30 degrees Celsius’. This macrostate refers to the set of all possible microstates that give rise to this temperature. Even though there are many possible microstates that can instantiate a single macrostate, the temperature of the room is still determined completely by the microstate. The macrostate is thus just a useful ‘higher order’ concept we use to refer to sets of microstates that are similar in some relevant way.

Applications: Mind and Morality

Applying this distinction between microstates and macrostates to the cases of the mind and morality, we see that under the reductive naturalistic worldview, mental and moral states of affairs can both understood to be a kind of macrostate. In the case of the mind, examples of macrostates could be ‘he perceives the colour red’, ‘she remembers her grandmother’s face’, or ‘I believe that it will rain tomorrow’. These are all mental states of affairs which are expressed in a psychological language involving appeal to believes, perceptions, desires, etc. According to the theory of reductive naturalism I am advocating, all such mental macrostates ultimately exist in virtue of the (exceedingly large) number of microstates that are capable of instantiating them. There is, for example, a very large number of possible ways the atoms in my brain could be arranged such that they correspond to being in a state of ‘deciding’. Indeed, it is possible that microstates quite different to those which exist in my brain are also capable of instantiating mental macrostates, such as the arrangements of atoms making up the circuitry of an artificial intelligence. This position in the philosophy of mind is known is functionalism, and holds that mental states are constituted by the functional workings of a given system, and that different physical systems may be capable of producing the same functions and therefore of yielding the same mental phenomena. The exact details of functionalism are not important here, the point is simply that such a view fits very readily within the reductive naturalist paradigm that I have been developing, and is capable in broad terms of making sense of how mental states can exist in a purely material world. The key idea, then, is that mental states are not some mysterious things that cannot be accounted for in the natural world. Rather, appeals to mental states such as beliefs, desires, perceptions, and, even acts of free will, ultimately refer to very complex bundles of possible arrangements of fundamental particles. We cannot possibly specify in detail exactly what all these arrangements of particles look like, but nor do we need to, as the arrangements are defined functionally by the higher-level properties they instantiate. There is of course no need to replace such psychological terms with talk of fundamental particles, because that would distract from our purpose and lead us to getting bogged down in irrelevant details. The point of this analysis, rather, is that such psychological language and the mental states they refer to can fit quite comfortably within a naturalistic worldview, without needing to appeal to the existence of any additional non-natural entities.

We can apply much the same analysis to the case of morality. Morally good macrostates can be understood as states of affairs conducive to the flourishing or wellbeing of sentient creatures. Morally bad macrostates, by contrast, would be states of affairs that bring about the suffering and misery of sentient creatures. Obviously we would need to articulate in more detail what we mean by terms like ‘wellbeing’ and ‘misery’, however since we can readily identify examples of each I take it that these terms, while fuzzy, have a robust meaning that is sufficient for our purposes here. This position corresponds to the metaethical theory of reductive moral naturalism, though once again, the details of this theory are not of prime importance here. What I want to emphasise is simply the fact that moral states of affairs can be readily accorded a place in this naturalistic worldview in accordance with whether or not a particular microstate instantiates a macrostate that is conducive to wellbeing or misery. Thus, when we say something like ‘killing for fun is morally wrong’, this statement is true in virtue of the fact that the various microstates which instantiate the act of killing (obviously there are many ways to kill someone) also instantiate a macrostate in which the wellbeing of sentient creatures is diminished relative to a comparable macrostate in which this act of killing did not occur. There is no need to appeal to the existence of God or any other transcendent source of morality for such moral macrostates to pertain, as they exist purely in virtue of the fact that certain arrangements of fundamental particles instantiate the wellbeing of sentient creatures to a greater extent than other arrangements. Of course, whether one is motivated to act so as to bring about morally good states of affairs is another question entirely. My point here is simply to argue that the existence of morally good states of affairs is readily explicable under a reductive naturalistic worldview.

One possible line of objection to my arguments is that we still do not have a very good understanding of precisely how mental or moral states of affairs arise from (or ‘supervene on’) the interactions of fundamental particles. In particular, there is a sizeable gap in our knowledge between the level of the functioning of single neurons and the emergence of complex mental behaviours and sensations in large networks of neurons. As such, it might be argued that to claim that we can say the latter arise solely from the interactions of the former is premature. In response, I would argue that it is in fact not at all premature to make such an inference. Recall that I am not claiming we have a complete theory of how all of nature works – science is an ongoing endeavour. All I am asserting is that we can account for the core phenomena that we need to, including the mind and moral value, without needing to appeal to any entities outside of the natural world. In doing so, I have given an account as to how the mind and morality can be conceptualised in a reductive naturalistic worldview – I have given ‘a place where they can fit’ in a naturalistic ontology. For this to be plausible, all that is needed is sufficient reason to think it plausible that higher order phenomena such as the mind can potentially arise solely as a result of the interaction of fundamental particles. And I think that the current state of knowledge in physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, and psychology is more than sufficient to affirm that such a belief is plausible. Certainly we don’t have the full explanation as to how this occurs, but I think we have ample evidence to infer that it is plausible that it does. Most everyone is willing to believe that the immensely complex behaviour of financial markets arises purely as the result of the financial activities of individual traders and corporations, despite the lack of a detailed theory as to how exactly this occurs. Likewise, no one would seriously argue that fluid turbulence is the result of anything other than the interaction of molecules in the fluid, even though our understanding of the physics of fluid dynamics is still relatively poor. I thus content that we are similarly in a position to affirm the plausibility of mind and morality arising purely from the result of neural activity in the brain (and hence ultimately the interactions of fundamental particles), even though we lack a complete theory as to how this occurs.

Conclusion

While I have argued that we can plausibly consider complex mental and moral macrostates as existing solely in virtue of the interactions of fundamental particles, I have not provided any arguments to prove that this must be the case. There may well be entities that exist outside of the natural world, and therefore the theory I have sketched here may constitute a drastically incomplete worldview. My argument, however, is that a reductive naturalistic worldview has sufficient explanatory power to account for the existence of all the phenomena we would wish it to. Furthermore, reductive naturalism is a highly parsimonious worldview, meaning that it posits only the existence of the natural world (whose existence almost all worldviews accept), and nothing else besides. My argument, therefore, is that if we can account for all that we need to from the natural world alone, then we have no reason to posit the existence of anything beyond the natural world. As to the existence of entities outside of nature we, like Laplace, therefore have ‘no need for that hypothesis’.

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A Critique of Crude Positivism: Why the Epistemology of Dawkins and Hawking Fails

Introduction

In this essay I wish to address a particular set of opinions that seem to be quite popular among many contemporary atheists, rationalists, and freethinkers. It is not a single specific position, but rather a patchwork of overlapping ideas and perspectives sharing a more-or-less constant core. Being somewhat amorphous, the position of which I am speaking does not really a distinct name. For the purposes of this essay, however, I shall refer to this constellation of views as ‘crude positivism’. ‘Positivism’ is a complex and controversial philosophical perspective, which broadly speaking is characterised by a strong respect for science and empirical enquiry, and an opposition to truth claims based on metaphysical speculation, faith, or authority. My purpose here is not to attack positivism itself, but rather the relatively crude form of it that is popularised, to varying degrees, by figures such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Stephen Hawking. While one again emphasising that I am describing a family of related and overlapping viewpoints rather than a single well-defined doctrine, three of the key most commonly-encountered components of this ‘crude positivism’ are the following:

  1. Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way, namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.
  2. Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social sciences, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge of a distinctly inferior sort.
  3. Pragmatism: science owes is special status to its unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results – it ‘works’. Philosophy, religion, and other such fields to enquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status.

My goal in this piece will be to challenge these three claims. In particular, I will argue that the ‘crude positivism’ typified by these three views presents an overly narrow conception of knowledge, and represents an ultimately fragile basis upon which to ground challenges to superstitution, pseudoscience, and other forms of irrationality. My key contention is that we need to move beyond such crude positivism in order to have a stronger intellectual underpinning for the atheistic/rationalist/freethought movements. A final note on style: when I use the phrase ‘crude positivists’ I don’t mean to imply a well-defined group of people. I just use it as shorthand to refer to those who, to varying degrees, hold to one or more of the three positions outlined above.

Strict Evidentialism

Crude positivists insist that all beliefs, or at least all beliefs concerning anything of importance, ought to be based upon appropriate evidence. While I agree with this as an abstract principle, I have concerns about the manner in which crude positivists typically interpret and apply this maxim in practise. The trouble is that, when challenged, nearly everyone will be able to provide some sort of justification for their beliefs, something that they regard to be ‘evidence’. To consider a specific example, the evangelical Christian may claim to know that God works in the lives of believers because they have seen it happen with their own eyes, and experienced it personally in their own lives. Needless to say, this is not the sort of ‘evidence’ that adherents of crude positivism are likely to accept as legitimate. The question, however, is why not? After all, the justification in question is empirically based, in that it is derived from making observations about the world. Generally positivists respond that such experiences are uncontrolled and anecdotal, and thus cannot be trusted to provide reliable evidence. To this, however, the Christian may simply agree, arguing that while such experiences are anecdotal and thus do not qualify as scientific evidence, nevertheless they do constitute evidence of the relevant sort for the domain in question, namely the domain relating to knowledge and experience of God. According to this perspective, only certain particular phenomena or aspects of reality are susceptible to the investigative methods of the empirical sciences, and the nature of God and mankind’s relationship to him would not be one of these areas that science can study. These phenomena can be empirically studied, but this is done by applying different standards than those used for scientific inquiry, using methods that are much more personal and experiential. Scientific methods are applicable in the scientific domain, while other methods and other forms of empirical evidence are applicable in other domains. I am not attempting to defend this ‘separate domains’ position. Instead, I am arguing that it is not sufficient to respond to a position like this by simply asserting that beliefs should be based on evidence, since that is not the point under dispute. That is, the question is not whether some form of ‘evidence’ is important, but the type of evidence is deemed acceptable, and how that evidence justified claim being made.

A related problem concerns the issue of how evidence should be interpreted. Crude positivists often speak as if evidence is self-interpreting, such that a given piece of evidence simply and unambiguously picks out one singular state of affairs over all other possibilities. In practise, however, this is almost never the case, as evidence nearly always requires an elaborate network of background knowledge and pre-existing theory in order to interpret. For example, in order to understand a historical text, one requires not only knowledge of the language in which it is written, but also a broad understanding of the relevant social and political context in which the text was written. Likewise the raw output of most scientific observation or experiments are unintelligible without use of detailed background theories and methodological assumptions.

Given the important role that background assumptions and perspectives shape our interpretations of a given piece of evidence, it is very common for different people coming from different perspectives to conclude that the same evidence supports wildly different conclusions. For instance, many young earth creationists interpret the fossil and other evidence in light of their pre-existing belief that the bible is the literal and infallible word of God, and as a result they conclude that the extant evidence points to a divine creation event in the recent past, devising various ingenious methods of reconciling their beliefs with the apparent evidence to the contrary. My intent is not to defend creationists, but to illustrate that it is not enough to simply say that creationists ignore the evidence. These creationists are responding to the evidence (indeed they argue that it supports their position), but are interpreting it differently on the basis of different suppositions and approaches. We cannot simply dismiss them as being blinded by their presuppositions, since (as I have just argued) evidence can never be interpreted in a vacuum, free of assumptions or preconceptions, but can only ever be interpreted in the context of an existing methodological framework and various background assumptions. To say this isn’t to endorse some form of epistemic relativism, but simply to point out that if we want to explain why creationists and others like them are mistaken, we have to move beyond the crude positivistic cry of ‘seek the evidence’, and articulate a more detailed set of criteria and epistemological principles upon which certain initial assumptions and modes of interpretation are to be preferred over others. We need to do a better job of explaining what types of evidence are most reliable, how to interpret evidence, and why these approaches are more conducive to the formation of true beliefs than other, competing approaches.

Narrow Scientism

The second aspect of ‘crude positivism’ that I want to discuss is the view I have termed ‘narrow scientism’, which refers to the tendency to dismiss, or significantly downplay, the importance and status of all disciplines outside the natural sciences. Physics, chemistry, biology, and geology produce reliable knowledge, while psychology is a bit of a question mark, and economics and political science are clearly ‘not sciences’, but belong with disciples like philosophy and much of the humanities, the domain of fuzzy opinion and not verifiable fact. This, at least, is the typical perception among my advocates of crude positivism. In my view, however, this disciplinary classification is arbitrary, and fails to demarcate any epistemologically relevant distinction. In particular, what is the justification for the view that the only ‘real sciences’ are only the natural sciences? It cannot be the result of having adopted a superior set of methodologies, since in many cases there is more methodological continuity across different disciplines than within single ones. For example, analytical chemistry and cognitive psychology are both largely focused on laboratory experiments, while in astrophysics and macroeconomics experiments are mostly impossible, and so these disciplines instead rely predominantly upon observation and development of mathematical theories. Likewise, piecing together the evolutionary relationships of different species has more in common with the linguistic analysis of different languages than it does with other subfields of biology. Nor can it be the subject matter of the disciplines which sets them apart, since there is a continuum between the study of primate behaviour in biology and the study of human behaviour in the social sciences, and also between the study of natural history in geology and biology, and the study of human history in the social sciences and humanities. Furthermore, many mathematical models originally developed in the context of physics and chemistry have also been profitably applied to many other fields, especially economics and sociology (e.g. equilibrium theory, network analysis, complex systems theory). My contention here is not that there is literally no difference between the natural sciences and social science or non-scientific disciplines. I do, however, think that there is a great deal of continuity and intermingling between them, both in terms of methodologies and subject matter, a fact which belies the sharp science/non-science dichotomy advocated by crude positivists.

This is not, however, merely a question of whether disciplinary boundaries are sharp or fuzzy. The real point I am trying to make is that crude positivists simply have no justification for elevating the natural sciences (whether their boundaries are fuzzy or not) on a pedestal above all other disciples. That is, I do not think the natural sciences are epistemically privileged in the way that crude positivists claim that they are. After all, what is so special about the natural sciences relative to, say, economics, history, or even blatant pseudosciences like astrology? The most straightforward answer, and I think the one crude positivists have mostly in mind, is that the natural sciences apply a rigorous scientific method not found in any of these other disciplines, and this method is more conducive to finding truth than other competing methods. My response to this is threefold. Firstly, I note that this is not a claim that finds a home in any of the natural sciences (i.e. it is not a scientific claim), but seems to appeal to philosophical criteria that lie outside of science. I do not think there is anything wrong with that, except for the fact that it seems to sit at odds with the crude positivistic view that only science is to be trusted. Secondly, as I have argued above, it is simply not true that the natural sciences systematically apply different methodologies to those used in other disciples. Within any disciple the quality of work varies dramatically, some being much more careful and rigorous than others, and this applies just as much to the natural sciences as to other disciplines. Thirdly, and most importantly, if the superior status of the natural sciences is based on their superior adherence to a particular set of epistemological principles, then it is those principles themselves that are the true bearers of the superior status, not the physical sciences themselves. Applying these same principles to any disciple should yield knowledge justified to similarly rigorous standards. If this is correct, and what is at the bottom of the success of the physical sciences is adherence to a particular methodology or methods of inference, then it is those methods that we should focus on championing, whatever discipline they may be applied in.

It has been argued that the subject matter of the social sciences and other such disciplines is inherently ‘messier’ and more complex than the comparatively simpler physical systems studied by the natural sciences. However even if this is true, application of appropriate methodologies should still result in reliable knowledge – the only difference will be that the knowledge will be less precise and known with less confidence, since our understanding of the system in question is less complete and less detailed. This will not, however, result in a qualitatively distinct and far inferior form of knowledge, contrary to the claims of the crude positivists. Some argue that the subject matter of history and social science is such that it is not suited to study by the rigorous methods of natural science. If this were true, it would seem to leave us with two options: either no reliable knowledge about such things is possible in principle (i.e. we can say little or nothing about human history, how societies and economies work, etc), or the reliable methods of attaining knowledge in such disciples are distinctly different and at odds with those used in the natural sciences.

The former possibility strikes me as deeply implausible – why should we not at least be able to know a great deal about such topics through careful investigation, and furthermore how could we possibly know if this were the case given that we could not study these topics? The latter option seems equally unpalatable, for it is essentially identical to the argument by which the evangelical Christian claims that their supernatural claims are outside the bounds of scientific investigation. Indeed, if it is the case that the appropriate methods for studying any subject outside of the natural sciences are fundamentally different to and at odds with scientific methods, then any ground for objecting to irrational or unscientific claims is lost. Religious claims (“the divine cannot be studied scientifically”), alternative medicine (“human health is too holistic to be subjected to scientific methods”), or the paranormal (“the spirits don’t respond under controlled conditions”), it can always be argued that the subject matter lies outside of the natural sciences, and hence different, non-scientific investigative methods are applicable. In my view, this absurd outcome shows that, if we grant superior respect and status to the claims of the natural sciences, it must be because (when conducted properly) the natural sciences utilise justified and reliable general epistemological processes, processes which should similarly be conducive to knowledge acquisition when applied to other subjects. Crude positivists who instead reject any application of scientific methods outside of the natural sciences cannot then simultaneously berate those making religious, paranormal, and supernatural claims for failing to use scientific standards and methods, since by their own admission such methods are only applicable to certain subjects. Narrow scientism, then, is at odds with the core principle of basing all important beliefs upon reliable evidence.

Pragmatism

The third and final aspect of ‘crude positivism’ that I wanted to discuss in this piece is pragmatism, the appeal to the past successes of science as the primary and overriding justification for its epistemically superior status. Science, so the argument goes, simply ‘works’: it puts men on the moon, builds aircraft that fly, and makes transgenic fish that glow in the dark. Ways of knowing that rely on appeals to authority, esoteric knowledge, or personal experience, are inferior precisely because they do not ‘work’ in this way. While I do think this sort of argument has some validity, I think the crude positivist goes too far in advocating practical utility as the defining feature of knowledge. One simple problem with this approach is that many people think that prayer, mystical experiences, etc, ‘work’ in a very real way – they pray to Jesus, and they feel God’s love pouring out over them. The crude positivist, of course, is unlikely to admit that as being a valid example of ‘working’, however all this shows is that science comes out best when judged by its own criteria of what it counts as legitimate ‘success’, while the types of ‘success’ (e.g. drawing closer to god, becoming one with nature, etc) defined by other ways of knowing are simply disregarded.

Beyond this issue of defining criteria for success, there is a deeper philosophical issue concerning the relationship between the ‘success’ of a theory, and the ‘truth’ of that theory. Most of the examples of science ‘delivering results’ are, properly understood, really applications of engineering, not science itself. Of course, engineers utilise scientific findings and theories, but there is nevertheless an important distinction between the development of theory and its practical application. This is important because some schools of thought in philosophy, especially the sort of instrumentalist, pragmatic viewpoints that crude positivists are most closely aligned with, argue that the ability of a theory to deliver successful applications is insufficient to validate the accuracy of that theory in describing the way the world truly is. One example is that of Ptolemaic astronomy: it was capable of generating accurate predictions of the positions of the planets despite the fact that its underlying model for reality (an Earth-centred cosmos with the planets orbiting about crystalline spheres) is completely wrong. To take a more recent example, scientists and engineers still routinely use chemical and physical models which treat atoms as solid spheres interacting in accordance with the laws of classical mechanics. As a description of reality, this is entirely incorrect – atoms are mostly empty space, and what is not empty space consists of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which according to our best theories behave (very loosely) like smeared-out probability wavepackets, evolving in accordance with the laws of quantum (not classical) mechanics. Notwithstanding this completely inaccurate description of the underlying reality, however, the ‘billiard balls’ approach is still very useful and ‘delivers results’ in a wide range of applications. Such examples are one of the major arguments used by those philosophers who adhere to a position known as scientific anti-realism, which is the view that while science produces very useful predictive models, it does not necessarily describe the way things ‘truly are’. Thus, according to this view, science is not in the business of finding ‘truth’ per se, but merely of producing theories that are ‘empirically adequate’ and useful for prediction and practical application.

My point here is not to argue that anti-realism is correct, or that science doesn’t describe reality. Rather my argument is that either way, these considerations pose a problem for the simple pragmatism of crude positivists. If, on the one hand, scientific anti-realism is false, and scientific theories do truly describe the way the world is, then the extreme focus on scientific theories being special because they ‘work’ becomes difficult to justify, since under this view science is special not predominantly because it ‘works’, but because it yields true descriptions of reality. The simplistic pragmatism defence thus simply cannot work, and the fact that other disciplines (e.g. philosophy or theology) may not ‘deliver results’ does not mean that they cannot accurately describe reality. On the other hand, if scientific anti-realism is true, and scientific theories don’t necessary say much about the way reality truly is, then the crude positivist has no basis for critiquing non-scientific ways of knowing for not making predictions or ‘delivering results’. This is because these other ways of knowing (e.g. faith based) don’t necessarily claim to be able to provide predictive models, but claim to describe parts of reality as they truly are. If science and faith/intuition/etc are not even trying to do the same thing, the one attempting to generate useful models, the other not caring about predictive accuracy but about providing true descriptions of reality, then it is unclear how the crude positivist can even compare the two in the way they seem to want to. This approach also seems hard to reconcile with the fact that many adherents of crude positivism do very clearly make truth claims about subjects like religion and the paranormal. If this form of pragmatism is correct, then science and non-science aren’t incompatible, but rather are incomparable, for they are not even trying to do the same thing.

Conclusion

Some people will doubtless read this piece as an attack upon the value of science, or a defence of pseudoscientific, faith-based or emotion-based methods of reasoning. As I have said throughout this piece, however, this is not my intention at all. My goal is in fact to equip skeptics and rationalists to deliver a robust, cogent defence of the value of science and critical thinking in learning about the world, and the superiority of such methods over various rivals. What concerns me is that the constellation of views that I here describe under the label ‘crude positivism’ is quite popular among many rationalists and skeptics. As I have argued, however, I think these views are philosophically naive and very hard to rigorously defend. Worse, some of the more intelligent defenders of non-scientific practices, including religious apologists, practitioners of alternative medicine, and defenders of various pseudosciences, are aware of the problems with such views, and will vigorously critique rationalists who espouse them. I think we can answer their objections, but to do so requires a greater familiarity with philosophy and relevant methodlogical issues than many rationalists and skeptics have, especially when they so often dismiss these fields as irrelevant. In order to advance the cause of science and rationality, therefore, we need to abandon ‘crude positivism’, and replace it with a more sophisticated, thoughtful, and philosophically rigorous account of science and rationality.

The Failures of New Atheism

Introduction

As for social and intellectual movement, the term ‘New Atheism’ is a diverse and contested notion, potentially encompassing a wide diversity of positions and ways of thinking. My subsequent discussion of the differences between ‘New Atheism’ and ‘Old Atheism’, therefore, should be understood as explicating general tendencies, rather than presenting an absolute binary dichotomy. This caveat being made, however, I believe that the New Atheist movement does exhibit sufficient regularities and commonalities for us to make some tentative general observations.

In contrast to Old Atheism, by which I mean atheism as it existed roughly prior to the turn of the Millennium, New Atheism has tended to be much more assertive in the public discourse, much more eager and willing to make its views heard, and much less concerned about respecting the religious beliefs or faith of others. New Atheism also has tended to focus, to an even greater degree than did Old Atheism, on the social and political harms of religion, especially fundamentalist religion. New Atheism has also placed a much greater emphasis on creating a sustained mass movement, and of developing a socially and politically engaged atheism. All three of these trends are themselves worthy of much deeper analysis, however in this article I want to focus on a fourth major trend that I observe in New Atheism, one which I find to be a much less positive development. Simply put, I believe that New Atheism represents an intellectual retrogression from Old Atheism, doing away with the sophisticated philosophical positions of old, and replacing them with a crude form of scientism and general disinterest in rigorous philosophy. In this essay, I will argue that this trend represents a profoundly negative development in the history of atheistic thought, and puts atheists and rationalists in a poor position to counter increasingly sophisticated apologetic arguments.

Atheism: Old and New

New Atheism is undoubtedly a movement thoroughly infused by scientists and the scientifically minded. Beginning with the canonical ‘four horseman’, we find that Richard Dawkins is a biologist, Sam Harris a neuroscientist, and Christopher Hitchens a journalist. Daniel Dennett is the only professional philosopher of the four, though he too represents a particular strain of highly scientifically-minded philosophical thought, and is not himself a specialist in philosophy of religion. Other prominent figures associated to varying degrees with new Atheism include Victor Stenger (physicist), Laurence Krauss (physicist), Jerry Coyne (biologist), PZ Meyers (biologist), AC Grayling (philosopher), Michel Onfray (philosopher), Dan Barker (former pastor), Michael Shermer (historian of science), Bill Nye (biologist), and Neil degrasse Tyson (physicist). Though this list is hardly comprehensive, it is I think representative of the strong (though not exclusive) domination of New Atheism by scientists, particularly biologists and physicists.

This preponderance of scientists in the New Atheism contrasts greatly with the much larger proportion of prominent philosophers among Old Atheists. Key atheist figures from the twentieth century include Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul-Sartre, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, Anthony Flew, Michael Martin, John Mackie, and Richard Rorty. All of these figures, with the possible exception of Freud, were notable philosophers who provided robust and challenging arguments against religion. Such thinkers, as I have indicated, are much less preponderant among the New Atheists. Indeed, a number of New Atheists or allied thinkers, such as Dawkins, Krauss, and Tyson, have publically expressed their disinterest and indeed active distain of philosophy in general, or philosophy of religion in particular. From their public remarks, many New Atheist thinkers and their supporters seem to endorse some form of scientism, a view (not widely accepted even by scientifically-minded philosophers) which asserts in essence that science is the only legitimate way of acquiring knowledge about the world. New Atheism has largely turned its back on serious philosophy, embracing science as the queen of all human knowledge.

The Christian Resurgence

Contrasting sharply with the New Atheist turn away from philosophy, since roughly the late 1960s there has been a surprising resurgence of theism in general, and conservative Christianity in particular, within the Anglo-American philosophical world. This resurgence has been manifested in several ways, including the publication of a series of highly influential works by thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Robert Adams, and William Lane Craig. Supporting this burgeoning Christian scholarship have been two academic societies, the Evangelical Philosophical Society was (founded in 1977), and the Society of Christian Philosophers (established 1978). Both these societies have their own peer-reviewed academic journals, respectively Philosophia Christi and Faith and Philosophy, which regularly publish articles relating to Christian theology, philosophy, and apologetics.

This resurgence of conservative Christianity with the academy has been mirrored by the rise in popular evangelical apologetics. A simple Google search reveals a positive cornucopia apologetic ministries and organisations: The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (founded 1995), Creation Ministries International (founded 1977), The Christian Apologetics Alliance (established 2011), Reasonable Faith (founded 2008), and Cold-Case Christianity (founded 2013) are just a few representative examples. Many of these groups and thinkers are financed and publicised by evangelical Christian universities such as Biola University, Denver Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Southern Evangelical Seminary, all of which also over masters degrees in apologetics. Needless to say, organised atheism lacks anything like this degree of institutional support.

This new brand of evangelical apologetics bears little resemblance to the uneducated, scientifically illiterate caricature that New Atheists frequently present of theists. On the contrary, many of these Christian thinkers utilise a wide range of cutting-edge discoveries and concepts from both philosophy and the sciences. In his Kalam Cosmological and Fine Tuning Arguments, for example, William Lane Craig synthesises old philosophical arguments with new scientific discoveries and ideas such as the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem, Boltzmann branes, and quantum cosmology. Alvin Plantinga has constructed a sophisticated and much-discussed version of the Ontological argument using modal logic, and has also built upon recent work in reliabilist epistemology to develop a careful argument defending belief in God as properly basic. Richard Swinburne has used principles of inductive logic and bayesian inference to argue for the Resurrection of Jesus. Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins has argued on the basis of modern findings in biology and neuroscience for the compatibility of Christianity with evolutionary biology.

New Atheism’s Intellectual Shortcomings

What do the New Atheists have to say in response to this rising tide of increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced evangelical apologetics? With a few exceptions, such as the excellent writings of Dawkins and PZ Meyers against creationism, and the work of Stenger critiquing the Fine Tuning argument, on the whole the answer seems to be relatively little. One searches in vain through the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and others for detailed, careful examination of the apologetic arguments raised by Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig, and others. Indeed, as I noted above, generally New Atheist thinkers express considerable distain for philosophy of religion, and evince little or no interest in presenting carefully-crafted responses to apologetic arguments. A related severe shortcoming of the New Atheist movement is its predilection towards outmoded scientistic approaches to philosophy, harkening back (though generally without attribution) to the early-twentieth century Vienna School in holding that claims which are not scientifically or empirically verifiable or testable are meaningless and not even worth discussing.

The New Atheist movement is also particularly poor at advancing any positive arguments in favour of atheism as a worldview. A common approach is to mock religion for its many absurdities, denounce its many negative social and political consequences, and then make various self-aggrandising statements to the effect that modern scientific discoveries in biology, physics, neuroscience, etc, have made theism obsolete and indefensible. The multifarious epistemological, ontological, ethical, and other assumptions which underpin such beliefs are rarely addressed, and almost never with reference to contemporary literature on the subject.

There are a number of atheist philosophers who have produced sophisticated, thoughtful responses to Christian apologetic arguments, including Kai Neilsen, Theodore Drange, Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, and Michael Ruse. Such thinkers, however, have substantially lower profiles than either their New Atheist or Christian apologist counterparts, and also typically have not been much associated with the New Atheism movement. Indeed, Michael Ruse has been highly critical of New Atheism, describing it as ‘a bloody disaster’. Similar views have been echoed by other philosophers, for example in The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, it is remarked that ‘New Atheists are largely seen as bush-league by professional philosophers of religion’.

My assessment of New Atheism as a movement, therefore, is that it represents a shift in atheist thinking away from the philosopher and towards the scientist, and consequently has led to a relative decline in the intellectual standing of atheism as a worldview. Indeed, whilst New Atheism has been successful in raising the profile of non-belief and in drawing greater attention to the harm and injustice perpetrated in the name of religion (both noble pursuits to be sure), I believe it has failed in its endeavour to provide a rigorous, carefully constructed, philosophically defensible account of the world around us and our place within it.

Why it Matters

Why should we, as rationalists and critical-thinkers, care about these developments? I think there are several reasons. First, as freethinkers we have an obligation to the pursuit of truth through examination of the best available evidence, careful argumentation, and critical analysis of reasons given for different beliefs. It reflects very poorly upon our position if we continue to repeat the slogan ‘there is no evidence for the existence of God’, whilst turning a blind eye to the many rigorous, carefully-development arguments that have been and continue to be advanced by Christian apologists and theistic philosophers.

Second, inquiring minds who seek out the best evidence and arguments increasingly are encountering the writings of Christian apologists and philosophers, and then searching in vain for persuasive responses in the New Atheist literature. This leads some, I suspect non-trivial, number of people to either adopt or maintain strong evangelical convictions. This is of concern to me because it represents, particularly in the case of young thinkers, a diversion of talent and intellect away from potentially more productive endeavours such as science or humanist causes, towards Christian apologetics programs, theology, or Christian ministry. To me it is a tragedy that even a single person would devote their life in pursuit of a false set of beliefs, let alone that this may happen in part as a result of the failure of New Atheists to provide clear and robust refutations of apologetics material. A corollary of this is that atheists themselves might also be concerned about holding false beliefs, particularly if they cannot provide adequate responses to apologetic arguments.

Third, the prestige and influence of any intellectual movement is, in the long run, substantially affected by its ability to add to the store of human knowledge, and to produce new and insightful ways of understanding the world. For the most part the New Atheists, (in disturbing contrast to the new apologists), have failed to do this, and I believe it is partly as a result of this failure that their influence in intellectual circles is waning, and will continue to wane unless the movement substantially lifts its intellectual game.

All of my criticisms of New Atheism would not be so much of a concern if this represented but one among many competing brands of atheistic belief, since if New Atheism proved not up to the challenge of providing rigorous philosophical responses to the new apologetics, other approaches to atheism could fill its place and step up to the intellectual mantle. Unfortunately, given the relatively small monetary and organisational resources of atheist, freethought, and humanist groups (certainly in comparison to the many incredibly well financed Christian churches and universities), it seems that there is not really room for more than one significant ‘brand’ of atheism. New Atheism seems to have ‘crowded out’ other approaches to atheism, at least in the popular consciousness and discourse. Consequently if New Atheism fails to present a philosophically rigorous and persuasive response to the new apologists, this will be taken to represent a failure of atheism or freethought as a whole to provide such a response. To avert this deeply concerning outcome, we as rationalists, freethinkers, skeptics, and atheists, must learn to better combine the New Atheist passion not to be silenced with the Old Atheist respect for careful philosophical argumentation. Anything less represents, in my view, an abdication of our intellectual and social responsibilities.

Sources

Craig, William Lane. “Does God Exist?” Philosophy Now (2013).

Dougherty, Trent, and Logal Paul Gage. “New Atheist Approaches to Religion.” In The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, edited by Graham Oppy, 2015.

Ruse, Michael. “Why I Think the New Atheists Are a Bloody Disaster.” Science and the Sacred (2009).

Taylor, James E. “The New Atheists.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015).

A Naturalistic Worldview: Talk Notes

Attached is a link to my slides from a talk I presented at the Humanist Convention in April of 2017 (last week as at the time of posting). They summarise some of my recent thinking about metaphysical naturalism, an argument in defence of which constitutes the majority of the talk. I hope they may be of use and interest to some. Eventually I will get around to writing up my thoughts into a proper article, which I will post on my blog. I anticipate, however, that it will be significantly more technical than these slides, so these may make a good ‘first introduction’ to some of these issues for people with less philosophical background.

A Naturalistic Worldview 2.0, Apr 2017

If Jesus was Raised, Could the Bible be False?

Synopsis

In this piece I consider what we can infer about the bible, in particular the New Testament, beginning from a belief in the divinity of Jesus. I argue that there is no straightforward, direct relationship between Jesus’ divinity and the accuracy or reliability of the gospels or of Paul’s teachings, and thus Christians should be more cautious in making hasty leaps from one to the other, and should be more ready to acknowledge the role that faith plays in their convictions regarding scripture.

Introduction

A great deal of scholarly attention and critical debate has surrounded the question of whether or not there is sufficient historical evidence to establish the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I myself have written a number of pieces regarding this question. Here, however, I want to venture into realms of inquiry that I seldom hear addressed at all. In particular, I want to consider the question of what we can infer if we came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? That is, suppose that one comes to believe that Jesus was resurrected, and furthermore that we was really the Jewish Messiah and also the son of God. The question I want to ask is: what then? What can we infer from this knowledge?

To set the scene more clearly, suppose I arrive at this belief as a result of some minimal facts-type argument for the historicity of the Resurrection, which leaves me with belief in perhaps the empty tomb, the resurrection, and early proclamation that Jesus was raised by God as vindication of his divinity, but little else beyond this core bedrock. Another route may be an experiential one: I could believe that I have come to a knowledge of Jesus’ divinity through direct personal experience of some kind, experience which allows me to form a justified belief that Jesus is Lord, but does not tell me anything substantive beyond this. In either case, we have determined to follow Jesus and shape our lives in accordance with his will for us. But before we can do this, we need to ask, what is his will for us? I think the typical response from many Christians is just a sort of automatic acceptance of much or all of what the Bible says as being the true ‘word of God’. Not so fast. As I have stated, all we have established thusfar is that Jesus is the son of God. We don’t yet know much else about him or his teachings, at least not in any detail. What did Jesus say? What did he teach? How should we understand our lives and our relationship to God in the light of this knowledge? I think the answer to these questions is far from clear.

The Gospels as History

Let’s start with the gospels. These are the texts which claim to present the words and deeds of Jesus during his life on Earth. Our first problem: which gospels? Of course there are the four canonical ones, but there are also dozens of others. How do we know which of them (if any) accurately preserve the words and teachings of Jesus? How about we restrict ourselves to only early writings, say first century or maybe early second century at the outside. This seems a reasonable approach – later materials are much less likely to preserve accurately the sayings and teachings of Jesus. Restricting ourselves in this way, we are left with the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, plus the first century Gospel of Thomas, and (depending upon exactly when it is dated) also the second century gospel of Peter. We also know of a number of other gospels and similar texts that existed in the first and early second century, which survive today only in brief quotations or fragments found in other sources.

Having restricted our analysis to these five or six texts, we next ask: who wrote these gospels, and where did they get their material from? The answer to the first question is that we don’t know. All the canonical gospels are anonymous (the titles the bear today being later additions), while Thomas and Peter are widely agreed to be pseudepigraphies (i.e. written by someone other than the person claimed in the text as the author). As to the second question, the answer is disputed and complicated, though suffice it to say most scholars would agree that the gospel writers had access to eyewitness testimony of some form, perhaps direct or indirect as preserved through oral tradition or earlier sources. Exactly how much and how accurate this testimony was is the subject of scholarly dispute. For our purposes, I think we would have enough to come to confident beliefs about some broad points. For example, its clear that Jesus taught to love others, to have faith in God and follow him, to be a friend of the poor and downcast in society. He was known to be a miracle worker, to speak with great authority, and he spoke at length about the coming kingdom of God. I’m sure that more could be added to this list, but the real difficulty comes to when we ask about specifics. Christians generally believe a great deal more about Jesus and his teachings (his ‘gospel’) than just these ‘bare bones’ general facts. Can we justify these more specific beliefs given our starting point?

One approach to take would be the purely historical one. We could go through the gospels, canonical and non-canonical, and exhaustively apply careful historical criteria to vouch for each and every purported deed and saying of Jesus, making a judgement as to their likely historicity. This is essentially the approach that was taken by the Jesus Seminar, and although their methodologies have been criticised (as has nearly everything in NT studies), I think they serve as a useful indicative case study as to where this approach is likely to lead. They ended up rejecting over 80% of the deeds and sayings of Jesus reported in the gospels, and even if we were to reassess their criteria, we doubtless will find it difficult to firmly substantiate a large number of the individual claims made in the gospels. I think this approach is a defensible one, however it is doubtful to me that the Christian will be able to build up anything approaching the sort of canon of Jesus’ teachings that they typically believe in, and not with the same level of confidence. I also doubt that this approach would tell us what to do with the writings of Paul (see below).

So why, you might be wondering, did we end up with these four gospels exactly, and not any of the other gospels which existed at the time? The answer to this is complicated, but in short, the early church over the second and third centuries gradually came to a consensus that these four gospels, but none of the others, were sufficiently reliable to include in the canon. Notice this key point: we are trusting the wisdom of man in regard to what is included in the New Testament. Perhaps this process was divinely guided (more on that idea later), but at the very least it is very clear that the immediate, direct responsibility for what ended up in the New Testament canon was the actions and decisions of early Christians over the first couple of centuries. The NT did not fall as a divine package straight from heaven, but as a messy outcome of historically contingent forces. As such, we have to be careful judging its accuracy.

The Gospels as Scripture

A second approach, more commonly taken in practise it seems, is belief in divine inspiration. That is, if we believed that the canonical gospels were authoritative texts produced through divine inspiration and whose content has been protected from being corrupted or changed, that would allow us to be confident in taking the words and deeds of Jesus as reported in the gospels as accurate. Indeed, I think most Christians just reflexively and uncritically assume that if Jesus was the son of God, then obviously what the gospels say about him is divinely inspired, right? I question the validity of this inference. Remember, Jesus said nothing at all about the gospels – obviously, as they weren’t written until after he ascended! Nor does our belief in the resurrection and divinity of Jesus entail anything about the gospels themselves – Jesus could have been raised, but the gospels could still be the work of man and not divinely inspired (even Christians believe that most gospels are like this). Reliance on the early date of the canonicals is useful for historical analysis (see above), but its unclear that this especially relevant to the question of whether they were in fact divinely inspired. One argument that comes to mind is an explicitly theological one. We might reason that, given that Jesus is the Son of God, it is reasonable to believe that God would ensure that his essential words and deeds were preserved accurately to serve as guidance for future generations. I think this is the much more plausible option, and something akin to what many Christians (perhaps implicitly) believe. I think, however, that on closer investigation we find a number of problems with this approach.

First, we know that at least some of the books in the New Testament are pseudepigraphies, that is they were written by someone other than the person who claimed to write them. First and Second Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians are all widely agreed to have not in fact been written by Paul, despite the fact that they purport to be his letters, and the the early church believed them to be such. From this we can infer that the process of determining the NT canon was imperfect, subject to errors. This is not necessarily inconsistent with the process being (to an extent) divinely guided, but I think it does raise a certain level of doubt, certainly to the precision of the process. It seems far more likely that the spirit and core content of God’s message was what was protected, and not all details. This is not purely an academic exercise. As an example, the famous passage often interpreted as an injunction against women preachers “but I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” is found in First Timothy.

Second, we know that some passages of the New Testament, in particular the gospels, were added or changed later. Most famously, the earliest manuscripts of Mark that we have end with the women running away after finding the empty tomb, and include no references to Jesus’ postmortem appearances. We know therefore that some later Christian or Christians inserted an ending onto Mark, and that this ‘improved’ version came to be the predominately accepted version in Christian circles. Again, this casts doubt on the complete integrity of the canonisation process or divine inspiration argument. Another example of a passages not attested by the earliest manuscripts include the story of the woman taken in adultery found in John 7-8. There are also many shorter phrases and passages absent in the earliest manuscripts. Given that the earliest manuscripts generally date from the third century, I am left to wonder what other versus may have been added or changed at a still earlier date, from which time no extant manuscripts survive.

Third, there are passages in the Gospels which cannot have been eyewitness testimony, and bare all the hallmarks of being later inventions, embellishments, or legends. Examples include the genealogies of Jesus (widely disputed, and differing between Luke and Matthew), the birth narratives (which are almost completely different in Matthew and Luke, contain various historical anomalies, and for which there is no clear source), and various statements attributed to Jewish or Roman authorities even when none of Jesus’ disciples were present (for example Matt 27:62-66). Perhaps some details that were not passed on by eyewitnesses were divinely inspired directly, though there seems to be no reason for this when everything else is supposed to come through eyewitnesses, and to me this hypothesis seems rather ad hoc.

Fourth, what is our reason for believing that God would act in this manner? Where does this belief come from? It seems to be nothing more than an assumption. Weighing against this assumption are a number of facts, including that God had not previously revealed and protected his word in this way to serve as a witness to the world (so we have no precedent for this – I don’t count the Old Testament as a precedent because its codification only predates the New Testament by a few centuries, and anyway was only a holy text to the Jews, not to the world). Furthermore, we know that God (if he exists) permits contradictory revelations to be believed, written down, preserved, and widely disseminated: at least one of the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Koran must be examples of such false texts. This isn’t definitive reason to believe that God did not preserve the New Testament, but I think it does cast serious doubt on the assumption that god would do such a thing. What is the basis for this inference about God’s motives and behaviours? It seems that the reasons I cite are at least considerable reasons for doubt that God should act in such a way. Even if one doesn’t regard my reasons against as compelling, one must have a substantive reason for this belief and not merely take it as an assumption.

The Role of Paul

Another fascinating angle to this question is how Paul fits into this story. Paul was exceptionally influential in shaping the practices and doctrines of the early church. Indeed, it is my view (along with a number of other scholars) that it is largely thanks to Paul that the early ‘Jesus movement’ sect within Judaism evolved into the distinct religion we now call ‘Christianity’. But remember, our starting point was belief in Jesus’ resurrection and his divinity. Where does Paul fit into all this? Paul never even met Jesus; he only claimed that Jesus appeared to him a couple of years after his death. But heaps of people then and now claim that Jesus (or other figures) appeared to them – why believe Paul but not anyone else? Furthermore, even if Jesus did appear to Paul and he converted as a result, does it follow that everything Paul says about religious matters is taken as the word of Jesus himself? That seems to be a rather big leap to me – what is the justification for it? We know that Paul met with Jesus’ disciples, including Peter and John, did they not approve of his teachings and doctrines? Well, Paul says that they did, but we don’t have anything from Peter or the others, so we don’t know what their side of the story was. Did they really agree with everything Paul was teaching and doing? Perhaps they agreed only with most of it? Some parts but not others? Most of what he said, but with some qualifications? We have mentions in Acts about early disputes between Paul and other disciples, though little detail of the content of these. So how do we really know that Paul’s writings accurately reflect the beliefs and teachings of Jesus in all respects? I’m not saying that Paul was in total disagreement with the disciples, but there may well have been notable differences and sharp disputes. So when Christians appeal to Paul’s teachings about (for example) homosexual behaviour (something Jesus is never recorded as having said a single word about), how are we to know that Paul is accurately reflecting what Jesus would have to say on the subject?

A natural rejoinder is that if Jesus were divine, God would not allow his teachings to be distorted (even to a degree) or changed so soon after his death by people claiming to speak in his name. But once again, we must ask what the basis is for such an assumption? How do we know that this is how God would think or behave? Furthermore, this hypothesis seems to be in conflict with the stories in the Old Testament, where the Israelites repeatedly and very rapidly fall into apostasy after having received God’s word through his prophets. The bible, Old and New Testaments, warns explicitly about false prophets who would claim to speak in the name of God. Christians think Mohammed and Joseph Smith were false prophets, despite them being very successful in attracting followers and spreading their message, just as Paul was. So the argument that God would not permit this to happen appears dubious. Perhaps the argument could be refined to say that God might allow false prophets to arise, but not so close to his earthly ministry in time and location. But this seems problematic too. Firstly, what reason do we have for believing that God is so sensitive to time in this way? Secondly, we know that there were many figures just before and just after Christ, people who claimed to be the Messiah, people who claimed to write gospels of his life, people who promoted various doctrines which were later judged heretical (e.g. the gnostics). There just doesn’t appear to be any evidence that God provided some sort of ‘window of protection’ around the life of Jesus wherein false teachings could not arise.

One final reason for trusting Paul might be that he knew Jesus’ original apostles. Perhaps they didn’t agree with every little thing, but surely they supported him in broad outlines, as otherwise we would surely have more records of deep disputes and discords between them. This is perhaps the case, though it seems to me that we know very little about the details of what was going on at that time, other than what Paul chooses to tell us (our other source for that time is Acts, which was written decades later by an unknown author, so its hard to judge its objectivity on such matters). More importantly, however, is that we don’t have any particular reason for believing Jesus’ disciples to be highly reliable transmitters of his word. From their presentation in the gospels, they are often portrayed as not understanding Jesus’ purpose of message, and being less then conscientious about their duties. They are described as bickering with each other and arguing about who was the greatest. Peter denied Jesus three times, and the others ‘forsook him and fled’. Now this isn’t to say that the disciples did not understand any of Jesus’ teachings or could not have preserved his words with some reasonable degree of accuracy, but I don’t see any particular reason to treat them as bastions of unquestionable authority and truth when it comes to Jesus’ teachings and message. There seems to be no reason why they could not have got things wrong. Thus, even if they did approve of Paul and his teachings, that doesn’t by itself validate them as conclusive and fully authoritative, as if they came from the mouth of Jesus himself.

Conclusions

So where does this leave us? It seems to me it leaves us at a position, not of total skepticism regarding the teachings of Jesus (recall that I did argue for a historical core that is beyond reasonable doubt), but nevertheless of substantial uncertainty concerning many details and specifics. Thus, even if we do believe in Jesus as the son of God, it remains quite difficult to infer particulars about what he taught, and how he would want us to live. My point in this piece has largely been to emphasise that the latter does not follow clearly or directly from the former, and that even granting the former leaves us with considerable doubt and question about the latter. In light of this, I think Christians should be more upfront (as some already are) about the fact that there are considerable elements of faith underpinning their beliefs – not just in the divinity of Jesus, but also that the New Testament accurately preserves his teachings, deeds, and doctrines. I think that a great deal more justificatory work needs to be done in order to bridge the gap between belief in Jesus and belief the New Testament, particularly belief in all of the New Testament as the direct word of God. I do not believe that Jesus was the son of God, but if I did arrive at this belief, I would be seriously considering these questions. Given their importance, I think Christians should pay more attention to them then they typically do.

The Wisdom of Christianity and the Foolishness of Atheism: What Atheists Consistently get Wrong

Introduction

I recently attended a public discussion called “How do You Know”, in which atheist Peter Boghossian engaged in dialogue with Christian Richard Shumack concerning various matters of religion and epistemology. This piece is written in part as a response to that event, though I will also draw upon and refer to the numerous other interactions I have observed between Atheists and Christians, and commonalities I have observed therein. It is necessary to clarify right at the outset that the title of this piece is shamelessly adapted from Richard Shumack’s book The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, and that in speaking of ‘Atheism’ and ‘Christianity’ in this way I do not intend to make sweeping generalisations about such diverse bodies of thought. So please do not read ‘atheists’ to mean “all atheists”. Rather, I am talking about general tendencies that I personally have observed, whereby many atheists often to make certain types of arguments and rebuttals which I believe are unsound and poorly researched. Needless to say, many Christians do this as well, however what I want to focus on in this piece are instances, far more common than I think many atheists would like to admit, when the arguments or rebuttals made by atheists are of far lower quality than the Christian arguments they are directed against.

Atheists and Scientism

“The worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t” – Lawrence Krauss

“My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, “What are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?”” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

“Almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead… philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics” – Stephen Hawking

There is a very prominent strand of atheist thought which, with varying degrees of accuracy, can be described as ‘scientistic’, advancing the view that scientific processes are the only reliable or justifiable methods for arriving at knowledge of the world. Peter Boghossian made remarks to this effect numerous times, repeatedly arguing that scientific methods are the way to truth, and that looking at objective evidence is the only truly reliable way to form beliefs.

I have some sympathy with this line of argument. Those who have been around for a while will know that I have advocated arguments along similar lines before. However, I have lately backed away from at least some of the more extreme, less cautious forms of such ‘scientism’, since I don’t believe it to be philosophically defensible. Schumack said during the event “New Atheists believe in scientism but philosophers don’t”, and in essence I agree with this statement. There are numerous deep philosophical problems with the idea that scientific methods are the only valid ones, or that we can determine what is true by ‘looking at the evidence’ in the relatively straightforward way that Boghossian seems to imply, or that we can dispense with philosophical analysis in addressing these sorts of questions. Below I will give just a few illustrative examples of such problems, which atheists typically do not address and seem generally unconcerned with:

  1. Evidence: what is evidence? What is it about certain events or experiences that make them evidence for something else? Unsurprisingly, this is a hotly disputed philosophical question which science seems to lack the tools to address by itself. Particularly relevant philosophical problems include the theory dependence of observation (in brief, that it is not possible to interpret any empirical evidence absent some pre-existing theoretical framework), and the underdetermination of theory by observation (namely that there are always a large range of potential explanations equally consistent with any observations). These and other similar questions in epistemology or philosophy of science are essential to grapple with if one is to defend a robust ‘evidence-based’ epistemological methodology, however atheists very seldom address these issues at all.
  2. Explanation: we know that science explains things, but what exactly is an ‘explanation‘? What properties distinguish good explanations from bad ones? There is little agreement about them among philosophers, and no clear way of answering the question within the bounds of what is generally thought of as ‘science’. We may also ask what is it about theistic or supernatural explanations which makes them so inferior to those provided by science in all circumstances? Boghossian said at one point that even if Jesus appeared to him in front of a large crowd of witnesses he would still not be convinced (I have made similar statements), because he could not rule out alternate explanations such as aliens. The question is, on what basis should we conclude (as he implied, and others have explicitly stated) that an alien intervention constitutes a better explanation, or is more likely, than a supernatural one? Unless we assume a priori that supernatural explanations are inherently implausible, it seems difficult to justify this assertion, at least not without a great deal more analysis and clarification of relevant concepts than atheists typically provide.
  3. Probability: Boghossian mentioned a number of times ‘the likelihood that one will have true beliefs” (which is language very similar to that which I have been known to use). There are, however, several different interpretations of probability which entail different interpretations of the meaning of probabilistic statements such as those being made by Boghossian, and little agreement about which of them is ‘correct’ or when different conceptions may be most applicable. Again, it is difficult to see how such disputes can be resolved within science itself, without recourse to philosophical analysis.
  4. Semantics: a fairly common critique of philosophy is that it concerns itself predominantly with endless and largely pointless debates about the meaning of words. Neil deGrasse Tyson expresses this view in part in his quote above, and Boghossian hinted at some similar notions at various times in his presentation. The problem with such critiques is that we absolutely cannot get around debating about the meaning of words. Consider this statement: ‘philosophy is not very useful for learning about the world; science is much better suited for finding truth’. Is this statement (or others similar to it) a statement that is the product of scientific, or of philosophical reasoning? To me it seems very much the latter and not the former, in which case the  strong anti-philosophical views expressed by certain atheists are self-undermining – they are making philosophical claims in the act of denouncing philosophy. If we do need to do philosophy in order to consider a question like ‘is scientific reasoning a paramount method for finding truth?’, first and foremost we need to consider what is meant by the word ‘science‘. Likewise when analysing concepts like ‘evidence‘, ‘reason‘, and ‘explanation’, we have no recourse but to discuss the meanings of these words and the concepts they attempt to describe. Maybe we could say ‘don’t use such confusing words then, just say more precisely what you mean’. But what is it they we mean exactly? What words could we use in place of ‘explanation’ or ‘reason’ to be more precise? To answer that question we need to know what is meant by these words, which is precisely the question we were hoping to avoid. Hopefully the point I am getting at is clear: atheists absolutely need to do philosophy, and that necessarily involves debating about the meaning of words. Complaining about this is foolish and results not in replacing philosophy with its much better cousin science, but instead in replacing some philosophy with other, bad forms of philosophy.

Atheists and Jesus

“I have no idea about whether Jesus was a real historical figure” – Peter Boghissian

“It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all… although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history” – Richard Dawkins

In the past I have been quite vocal in criticising Christians about their lack of engagement with what I consider to be essential aspects, questions, and issues pertinent to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Here I want to shift the direction of such criticism, and emphasise some points that I have made before (and indeed strengthen them to a degree), with regard to the lack of engagement on these points by most atheists. In particular, it seems from my experience that if Christians are perhaps generally not as informed about historicity questions as I think they should be, atheists are in general at least ten times worse. Only a very small number of atheists appear to have any knowledge or interest in such matters at all, and even many who do seem to use what knowledge they have as a drunk uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination (I didn’t invent this lovely turn of phrase, like basically all my ideas it was shamelessly stolen).

Here I want to focus on addressing some of the common falsehoods, misconceptions, and irrelevancies that I hear from many atheists, a number of which were raised by Boghossian or by various audience members during question time.

Outright False Claims

  1. Jesus probably never existed: though I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the language of some Christian apologists responding to this who have used phrases like “historically certain” (I don’t think anything is certain, in ancient history least of all), nevertheless I am in agreement with the thrust of this response, namely that to reject the existence of the historical person of Jesus is to reject the overwhelming majority of scholarly work on the matter, secular and sacred alike. We do not have totally unequivocal evidence beyond all conceivable doubt of any sort that Jesus existed, but to deny the historicity of Jesus is to reject the consensus of relevant experts to a similar degree as do climate change deniers and other proponents of pseudoscientific theories. I don’t think Jesus mythicism is quite as bad as Young Earth Creationism, but the difference in terms of the solidity of scholarly consensus is mostly a matter of degree rather than of kind. Expressing scorn at one for being ignorant of relevant scholarly whilst simultaneously embracing the other is, in my mind, deeply problematic.
  2. The bible is all fairytales and is not a historical document: this statement goes too far even for the Old Testament, and most certainly for the New Testament. Certainly many scholars have raised questions about the historicity of particular details of the New Testament accounts, for example the miracles and the birth narratives, but to say that the NT has no historical content or value is once again to completely reject the consensus of relevant scholars. Atheists who do this arbitrarily treat the NT documents differently to essentially all other ancient documents, which are likewise written by biased (in the sense of not being totally disinterested in their subject matter or the reactions of readers) persons who held views that today we would likely regard as dubious. Unless an atheist likewise wishes to mostly or entirely reject essentially all ancient documents, it is unjustifiable for them to refuse to consider the historical evidence of the NT on the basis of such considerations.
  3. The bible has been translated and re-translated several times: Boghossian didn’t claim this, but it is something that I occasionally hear atheists say. The claim is false – current English translations are compiled by large teams of scholars working from documents written in the original ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Such translations and the documents from which they are derived are not beyond criticism on certain points, but nevertheless one cannot say that the bible has suffered from multiple rounds of translation. (Note: this was true of the very earliest English bibles, which I believe were translated from the Latin Vulgate, in turn translated from the Greek, but this is no longer the case with modern translations).
  4. The story of Jesus bears many similarities to other mythical Gods: it is true that the story of Jesus bears some similarities to claims about other deities. In particular, ideas of a virgin birth and of a ‘dying and rising god’ are found in other mythologies of the ancient world. But the many lists of alleged similarities one finds posted in various online forums are for the most part inaccurate: some of the similarities are invented, others exaggerated, and in all cases differences are ignored (readers can research the details at their own leisure, I won’t get into them here). Furthermore, even if such similarities pertained, I cannot recall ever having heard an atheist present a clear explanation as to what could be inferred from this fact. At least to me, the notion that corrupted divine revelations pertinent to Jesus could have become entrenched in the mythology of various ancient peoples would explain such similarities quite as well as the notion that they were the product of careful copying by the authors of the New Testament.

Irrelevancies and Distractions

  1. The NT accounts were written decades after the events they describe: most (though not all) Christian arguments for the historicity of the resurrection hinge on the claim that people like Peter and Paul claimed to have seem the risen Jesus (alone and in groups), and were later harshly persecuted for their beliefs. That personal acquaintances of Jesus (which Paul wasn’t but Peter and the other apostles were) made such claims is widely accepted by relevant scholars, and therefore is problematic for atheists to deny (see also above about Jesus never existing). If this crucial fact is accepted, then it is largely or entirely beside the point how long after the event the gospels were written, because the key historical detail they contain pertinent to the matter has already been admitted. If the atheist wishes to argue that the gospels were written so long after the event that even this central fact is unreliable, then they are going against the consensus of scholarship.
  2. There are contradictions and inaccuracies in the NT: along with (I think, though I haven’t seen survey data) the majority of scholars, I agree that there are events recorded in the NT which are very unlikely to be historical and which are both seemingly internally contradictory and at odds with extra-biblical evidence (the birth narratives being my favourite example, the genealogies being another). Some Christians won’t agree with me on those points, but that’s irrelevant here. The key point is, what I think about these passages, and indeed what other scholars think about them, is not essentially relevant to most of the arguments that Christians make concerning the evidence for the resurrection. It doesn’t matter that the birth accounts are problematic. The evidence, so the argument goes, rests on the eyewitness testimony provided by the apostles and others and recorded (perhaps not first handed but recorded nonetheless) in the New Testament.
  3. There are many other competing miracle claims: this is not completely irrelevant (and indeed I have written quite extensively on the issue of comparative miracle claims), however it is not sufficient for an atheist to merely cite the existence of competing miracle claims in other religions, as the existence of false miracles does not preclude the existence of genuine ones (though it may well alter relevant probabilities concerning our belief that the miracle is genuine). As with anything, the details of a claim, including the evidence available and the potential presence of competing non-miraculous explanations, need to be examined and compared to those of competing claims. I have been critical of Christians for making relatively little effort to do this, but in my experience atheists tend to be equally disinterested in such an endeavour, which is perhaps even more problematic given that atheists tend to spend more time talking (at least in general terms) about ‘other miracle claims’.

Conclusions

My purpose in writing this piece is not to point fingers or imply that atheists are stupid or ignorant (though undoubtedly some are). My purpose is rather to promote better, more carefully considered dialogue between Christians and Atheists, where all persons take the time to think carefully through their own arguments and those of their opponents. Atheists typically pride themselves on being rational and basing their beliefs on evidence, but very often I have found they are far less consistent in applying these ideals to questions of religion and philosophy than they should be – not that I am perfect myself, but I think we can all try harder. Making arguments which are grossly dismissive of the scholarly work on relevant matters, as unfortunately atheists often do, is not helpful in moving forward dialogue on these very important matters. It is also not consistent with an unyielding and impartial (or as near as we can make it) search for the truth, wherever such a search will lead us. This is the search I am on, and I warmly invite all others, Christian and Atheist alike, to join me.

The Question of Christianity: A Personal Manifesto

Synopsis

In this article I outline the general framework of my overarching approach to the question of whether I should become a Christian. Beginning with William James’ observations that the decision regarding whether to adopt Christianity is both momentous and forced, I acknowledge that Christianity is not merely an intellectual exercise nor necessarily something we decide upon purely by our own volition. Nonetheless I conclude that the question of whether Christianity is in fact true is still paramount, and proceed to examine how one might go about determining the answer to this question. In doing so, I discuss the need to consider arguments for relative plausibility rather than certainty, and outline my view about the importance of basing our beliefs on reasons and evidences that are reliably truth-tracking. I then apply this framework to four major types of arguments advanced in support of Christianity: philosophical arguments for God’s existence, arguments based on the bible, experiential evidences, and the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, in each case discussing how compelling I find the arguments, and why I ultimately find them to be insufficient. I then briefly consider three arguments which I believe mitigate against the truth of Christianity, namely the problem of evil, religious confusion, and evils done in the name of Christianity. I conclude with some reflections on the importance of the question and a plea for more sustained dialogue.

Background and Methodology

Momentous and Forced Options

Most fundamentally, the question I seek to answer is not ‘is Christianity true?’ More important to me is the even broader question ‘should I live as a Christian?’ The second question is related to the first, but the two are not synonymous. In particular, the question as to how one should live one’s life is much deeper and richer than merely a question concerning what is true. It depends not only on questions of facts about existence, but also on one’s values and on a certain element of personal choice as to what one wishes to commit oneself to. It also depends upon the set of plausible alternative life paths that are available, and their relative strengths and weaknesses.

To take a fairly trivial example just to illustrate the point, if Buddhism is true (read ‘the claims made by Buddhism about suffering, reincarnation, nirvana, etc’) and I don’t become a Buddhist, my journey toward enlightenment will be that much slower, but I will still have another chance in another life. This is not the case for Christianity or for Atheism, and as such, the cost of being wrong about Christianity is greater (at least by this analysis) than the cost of being wrong about Buddhism. This is similar to William James’ idea about how ‘momentous’ a decision is: choosing not to live as a Christian is a more momentous decision than choosing not to live as a Buddhist.

The decision to live my life as a Christian is thus what William James calls a “momentous” one: it has weighty consequences. It is also what he calls a ‘forced option’, meaning that I cannot decide to merely sit on the fence and wait until I have more evidence available. Like the decision to get on a train or to get married, there is no middle position available: either I live as a Christian or I do not. I may decide to postpone serious thinking about the question until later, but then I have already made the decision (at least for the moment) to not live as a Christian. I thus find myself forced to choose one path or the other. I can switch paths at any time, but at any given time I am always on one path or the other. (Note that I don’t wish to imply that living as an atheist and living as a Christian are totally distinct paths that always diverge, nonetheless they clearly diverge in enough ways for me to speak of them constituting different paths.)

The Key Questions

So how can I decide whether or not I should live as a Christian? For me there are three main subsidiary questions that I need to address in order to arrive at an answer:

  1. What is the probability that Christianity is true? By ‘Christianity being true’ I mean that ‘Jesus really was the son of God who died and was raised for our sins, etc’.
  2. Is living as a Christian a morally good life? This is where I raise concerns such as being able to trust that God is good given apparent biblical atrocities, etc.
  3. What are the costs of living as a Christian? Here I don’t mean things like ‘won’t get to sleep in on Sundays as often’, I mean more substantive things like giving up other goals and priorities.

Currently I am most interested in answering 1, as I think this is the most important and most difficult of the three. As such, the rest of this essay will be concerned with this question. I may address 2 and 3 in a future piece.

What Role for the Holy Spirit?

Christians generally believe that becoming a Christian is not primarily/not only/not at all (depending on their theological dispositions) something one chooses for oneself. They generally believe that it is something that happens through the grace and intervention of God and the Holy Spirit. I do not wish to dispute this, only to highlight that this point seems to me to be not particularly relevant to my enquiry here. Should I just wait until the moment when God decides to make himself known to me in a way that I will accept, ‘road to Damascus’ style? Whatever the exact role God may or may not play in the process, I still need to decide how to live, and I need to go about answering this question in the best way I can. I can’t control what (if anything) God decides to do for me, and so I find it useful just to speak as if converting to Christianity were something entirely up to my own volition, even if, theologically-speaking, many Christians would not agree with this. Thus, I’m using this language as a shorthand so that I can avoid making this qualification every time.

The Need to Consider Plausibility

How can I decide how likely it is that Christianity is true? In considering this question, it is important to understand what I mean when I talk of probability or plausibility. The fact of the matter is not probabilistic – either Christianity is true or it isn’t. But since I don’t know what the fact of the matter is, the question becomes one of how confident I can be given the evidence that is available. That is, how strongly does the evidence support the contention that Christianity is true over alternate possibilities? I think it absurd to say that it is impossible that Christianity is true, and likewise absurd to say that it is impossible that it is false. Maybe one quarter of both my atheist and Christian readers alike will now find themselves disagreeing, but so be it – I feel quite confident in claiming that neither extreme can be justified. Having ruled out certainty in either direction, I am left in the uncomfortable middle position of having to weigh up relative plausibility. This is no easy task, and so we are led back to our initial question – how can it be done?

Evidence and Truth-Tracking

It is my view that there is only one useful way (meaning ‘a way that actually helps us to achieve our object’) to go about answering this question, and that is by utilising what I (very broadly) call “reason and evidence“. Although there are always more subtleties and complexities than can be gone into at any one time, for now I’ll define “reason and evidence” as being those things that help us, with some better than chance degree of reliability, to ‘track the truth’ of propositions in some relevant subject domain. This notion of truth-tracking is subtle, but extremely important. Informally (I can present a more formal analysis another time for those desiring of more rigour), something is truth-tracking if the presence or existence of that thing tends to go along with, or be indicative of, the truth of certain propositions in a particular domain.

Consider the simple example of tossing a coin. My looking at the coin and seeing which side it landed on (in general) reliably tracks the truth as to what side it actually landed on. If I close my eyes and make a random guess, this does not reliably track the truth of what side it actually landed on. If I was incredibly tired and removed my glasses, my looking at the coin would probably less reliably track the truth as to what side it actually landed on, but would probably still be better than random guessing. Thus truth-tracking is an inherently probabilistic notion, always a matter of degree.

To take a more relevant example, suppose I find an argument for God’s existence which, upon consideration, I find to be quite compelling. Rather than merely assuming that because the argument seems compelling to me, that therefore the conclusion is likely to be true, I ought to ask myself ‘how reliably truth-tracking is the process of people like me analysing such arguments about God’s existence?’ The answer is, in general, that this process is not very reliably truth-tracking at all, as so many intelligent and honest people come to such different conclusions despite going through essentially the same process. I am therefore very wary of any argument which relies on me (or any other lone person) coming to a conclusion on the basis of their own analysis when there exists substantial disagreement on that question among epistemic peers (a consideration which, it should be noted, makes me at least somewhat less confident about nearly everything I say in this piece).

It is often difficult to determine how reliably truth-tracking any given type of argument or mode of reasoning is. However, difficulty in making such a determination does not entail that the concept has no value. It seems that we can say with reasonable confidence that beliefs based on widespread scientific consensus are quite reliably truth-tracking, those based on consensus of historians are somewhat less reliable but still fairly good, arguments that appeal to careful philosophical investigations are quite unreliable but probably still better than naïve unreflective opinion, while convictions based on subjective personal experience are often very unreliable at tracking truth. I wish to emphasise that this does not constitute an adoption of some form of scientism. Subjective personal experience can often be a reliable truth tracker (e.g. how hot is it today?), but I don’t think it very reliably truth-tracking for questions of the sort ‘how likely is Christianity to be true?’. For our purposes here, therefore, I believe it is accurate to say that scientific sorts of evidence are much more reliably truth-tracking than personal experiential evidence.

Needless to say, if I knew what the truth was, I would just believe that, and then I wouldn’t need to worry about all this nonsense about plausibilities and truth tracking. But since I don’t know of any place where true beliefs rain from the sky or grow on trees ready for the picking (that is, there is no easy way to just get straight to true beliefs without mediating processes), I must resort to the next best thing – finding methods that track truth and apply them as best as I can. This won’t guarantee that I hold true beliefs in the end, but given that I don’t know what the truth actually is, this method gives me better chances than any other.

Starting Points: Atheism and Agnosticism

Having established some basis for how I will conduct my analysis, I will now say a few words concerning my starting point. Of course, this is really only a hypothetical starting point, for in practise we all start from wherever we happen to be at the moment, bringing all our personal experience, knowledge, biases, and quirks with us. Nonetheless, I think it can be helpful to consider such a hypothetical starting point as a way of framing one’s thinking. Understood in this manner, therefore, I start from a position that I call atheistic agnosticism. Let me explain each of these terms.

I start from a position of atheism, because I believe that absent a reason to believe something, the proper default position is not to believe it. Crucially, this is not the same as saying that one disbelieves it. Consider “there are an even number of hairs on my head at this moment”. I do not believe this proposition, for I have no reason to. That does not, however, mean that I affirm its converse, “that there are an even number of hairs”, which would be equally unjustified. In this sense I am agnostic: I do not know. I begin the enquiry about Christianity, therefore, as an atheist in the sense that I do not affirm the proposition ‘God exists’, and an agnostic in that I do not have any particular reason to prefer atheism over theism.

I believe that in order to shift from this position of agnosticism and move my confidence in one direction or the other, it is necessary to have, as I say, ‘reasons and evidence’. Remember that by this I just mean things that help me to reliably track the truth of whatever proposition I’m examining. Thus, saying ‘I need a reason to change my beliefs’ is, for me, tantamount to saying: ‘I will only alter my best guess about what is true away from the initial agnostic position because of some factor which I have reason to believe will reliably improve my best guess about what is true’. So I’m not looking for reason or evidence that feels compelling to me, or that helps me to convince others, or that (by some other standard) grants sufficient epistemic ‘warrant’ or ‘justification’ to my belief. I am looking for things that will help me track the truth, so that I can increase the chances that my belief will be accurate, given that I start out from a situation of not knowing what the truth is.

Four Types of Arguments for Christianity

Having laid out this rather extensive groundwork, I will now fairly briefly consider four broad classes of reasons that I have heard offered in support of increasing one’s credence in the truth of Christianity. I find some of these arguments more compelling than others, in the sense that some of them cause me to raise the plausibility I assign to the truth of Christianity more than others, but ultimately none of them cause me to increase my credence by enough to push me above some fuzzy but nonetheless real threshold beyond which I would be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. For each type of argument, I will briefly explain why I find it lacking.

Philosophical Arguments for the existence of God

This includes the cosmological argument, ontological argument, teleological argument, etc. Philosophers are not the experts on God’s existence, but they are expert on the question of evaluating the strength of philosophical arguments. As such, I regard the collective opinion of professional philosophers to be more reliably truth-tracking than my own personal attempts to evaluable these arguments. Since philosophers are a state of fairly considerable peer disagreement concerning the strength of philosophical arguments for God’s existence, some being persuaded by them, while others are not, I find it hard to accept that the strength of the argument s is sufficiently strong either way for me to reliably make a large update to my opinion in either direction.

On balance, I do think that arguments such as the cosmological argument and the fine-tuning argument constitute some reason for increasing my credence in the proposition that God exists, however because of the immense disagreement surrounding them (and also the many unknowns to which such arguments necessarily appeal, such as knowledge about the nature of time, causation, and possible alternate laws of physics), the amount by which my credence is increased is not large.

Arguments based on the Bible

This category includes arguments based on the power, majesty, coherence, transforming influence, beauty (etc) of the bible. Such arguments are, I think, even weaker than philosophical arguments, in the sense that the fact that one may find a particular holy text to be very powerful, transforming, coherent, etc, is clearly not a very reliable tracker of whether that text is actually true. All one need do is examine what Mormons say of the Book of Mormon, Muslims of the Koran, Buddhists of the Pali Canon, Hindus of the Upanishads, Sikhs of the Guru Granth Sahib, and many other such examples, to see that this method of arriving at beliefs about religious texts is exceptionally unreliable. Most people who read a religious text and find it to be compelling nonetheless are not followers of the correct religion (whichever religion that turns out to be).

Even worse, there are no real criteria on which to judge these sorts of properties. Philosophical arguments are often difficult to judge objectively, but at least there are some clear and agreed upon standards for doing so. In the case of comparing holy texts I would say there are none at all, and that all judgements made concerning the beauty, coherence, and power of such texts are fundamentally little more than subjective reactions which are not truth-tracking in the slightest. Muslims say the Koran is without comparison among any book written by man. Christians say it isn’t. Who is to judge? I know of no criteria on which this can be decided (note that I’m not talking about criteria for historicity. I’m talking about beauty, coherence, power, etc). In the end, I simply find no good reason (again, read ‘truth tracking reason’) to shift my belief in response to considerations such as these.

Subjective and Experiential Reasons

Subjective, experiential, personal reasons for believing in Christianity are not reliable trackers of truth, for essentially the same reasons noted above. Namely, such reasons are clearly not truth-tracking given the immense amount of religious disagreement. Millions of people from dozens of religions around the world and throughout history have reported all sorts of spiritual, supernatural, personal, mystical, divine experiences which have been immensely formative and persuasive for them, and on which they believe their own particular religious beliefs can be justified. Given that such experiences are so diverse and contradictory, however, it is clear that this is not a reliably truth-tracking process for forming beliefs about any particular properties of the divine. Some people think that these are all different manifestations of the same underlying God or spirit, but Christians (generally) do not believe this. Christians believe that they have correct beliefs about God and other religious have incorrect or less correct beliefs. If we are to determine the truth of this claim, we must seek out evidence beyond from subjective religious experiences, for these equally well support essentially all other religious claims. I think subjective religious or spiritual experiences can have value in helping one to stay committed and motivated in one’s chosen faith, but not in providing evidence (in the sense I understand it) that the path one has chosen is the correct one.

Historical Evidence for the Resurrection

The historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is, in my view, by far the strongest piece of evidence in favour of the truth of Christianity. Nevertheless, after a great deal of thought and consideration, while I do find that it constitutes a reason for thinking Christianity more probable, I do not think it provides sufficient evidence to overcome the countervailing factors I discuss below. I outline my thinking on this point in detail in my HBS model of the resurrection appearances. In very brief terms, I believe that human psychology and sociology is more than capable of explaining what took place with Jesus’ followers after his death, and that no reference to supernatural interventions is warranted or necessary to explain the way events unfolded.

Three Arguments Against Christianity

I will now, again very briefly, outline some considerations that lead me to think that Christianity is relatively less likely to be true. These reasons are not definitive, but I do think they hold some value as being somewhat reliable in helping me to arrive at true beliefs.

The problem of evil/suffering

I believe that the existence of the immense quantity of apparently pointless suffering in the world is less likely in a universe governed by an all-powerful and all-good God as posited by Christianity. It is true that such a God may have reasons or constraints unknown to us that explain the continued existence of such evils, however I do not believe I have any reason to believe that such reasons or constraints exist. Merely stating this as a possibility does not change the fact that, given what we do know, the amount of suffering that exists in the world and lack of any evident reason for much of it is more consistent with a universe that is not governed by a Christian God than in a universe that is. As such, I believe this constitutes a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity by some non-trivial (though not enormous) amount.

The Problem of Religious Confusion

This problem mirrors concerns raised above about religious disagreement and diversity. It seems to me that the Christian proposition that God wants all mankind to enter into a relationship with him is less consistent with the immense plurality of religions and of apparently genuine religious piety and experience, than the proposition that religion is an invention of man (or also the proposition that God is indifferent to which religion we follow). Again, there may exist reasons why God allows so much apparent religious confusion and competing revelations, etc, however as noted above, the mere possibility of their existence does not alter the fact that we do not know of any such reasons, and yet we do know that religious confusion exists, and seems to conflict with a Christian God’s desire to relate to all of mankind. As such, I consider the problem of religious confusion/divine hiddenness to be a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity. Again, not by an enormous amount, but by an amount that is not insignificant.

Evils done in the name of Christianity

This includes such things as Old Testament atrocities allegedly commanded by God, misogynistic teachings of parts of the Bible and many churches historically, events such as the crusades and inquisitions, Christian homophobic teachings and doctrines, and other such things. None of these are definitive, and indeed I probably regard them as weaker than the previous two concerns, however I do feel that they mitigate somewhat against the plausibility of Christianity, so I include them here.

Conclusions

The brief analyses of the various arguments I have provided above will no doubt be unsatisfying to many readers. They are intended more as summaries of my thinking and as starting points for further discussion, rather than as comprehensive or definitive accounts. All in all, after considering the arguments, I am left in a position of thinking that the reasons advanced for increasing my credence in the truth of Christianity are outweighed by the reasons to reduce my credence, and so are insufficient for me to be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. (Note, however, that I am less confident about my ‘reasons against’ than I am that the provided ‘reasons for’ are insufficient).

Returning to my original question, I find that the probability that Christianity is true given the truth-tracking reasons I have available is too low for me to feel like becoming a Christian is the best decision for my life. This is where I currently stand, acknowledging a great deal of uncertainty and ignorance on my part. I am constantly searching for additional reasons, new considerations, and previously unconsidered evidences that may lead me to change my mind. Indeed, I think I have good reason to expect to find at least some such reasons and evidences, as I have changed my mind about such things several times in the past. My opinion is therefore provisional and subject to change as I learn and think more. That said, I will not change my beliefs without reasons of the sort I have described. I want to believe truth things and live my life accordingly, and truth-tracking reasons (or something very much like them, even if I choose to abandon that particular mode of description) are the best way I know of achieving this, given the state of ignorance in which I begin.

I would hope others would join me in this quest for truth, and that we can aid each other in pursuing our end with firm resolve, not wavering, without fear for what false beliefs we may need to give up, or new true ones we may need to adopt. This journey is not easy. We must not get complacent because of the comfort of a waystation we find along the way. As long as ignorance remains – and for us humans it always does – the journey must go on. We must not be satisfied with anything less than beliefs that are as true as we can reasonably make them. For questions as important as those we consider here, nothing less will do.