Science and the supernatural

In a comment over at my other blog, tokyotodd writes:

In order for a worldview to be capable of addressing questions about God or miracles, it must first posit some sort of methodology by which these objects (if they existed) could be detected and empirically verified. This requires knowledge of the objects being investigated, without which it would be impossible, or at least highly presumptuous, to make predictions about how we might expect to encounter or observe them. This would seem to rule out naturalism as a useful worldview, since it simply presupposes the nonexistence of the supernatural and therefore cannot really address questions about it (except to regard them as meaningless).

There are indeed difficulties involved in the investigation of the supernatural, but the scientific worldview isn’t one of them. Science (sometimes called “naturalism” in the same way evolution gets labelled  “Darwinism”) is entirely neutral on the question of natural vs. supernatural, and has routinely investigated phenomena that were popularly regarded as supernatural at the time. The problem with the supernatural is the vague and volatile definition of what “supernatural” is supposed to mean.

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The apologist’s dilemma

Thanks to some articulate and well-informed comments on yesterday’s post, I now understand that there’s a lot more to it than just needing to verify your conclusions before you accept them as true. Verificationism (or at least, the strict forms of verificationism that William Lane Craig was referring to) can go so far as to say that unverifiable statements can’t even have meaning. In other words, if I can’t verify whether or not it was raining on June 12, 4BC, the proposition “It was raining on June 12, 4BC” doesn’t even mean anything. I can’t even ask whether it is true or false because there’s no way to know what those words even mean.

Ok, strict verificationism overstates its case. So far so good. The question then becomes, “So what, then?” Even granting that verificationism, or at least certain forms of strict verificationism, might have gone too far, what does that have to do with Christianity? Craig’s opening argument was that the alleged collapse of verificationism led directly to a resurgence of Christian philosophy. But why would that be the case? What is it about Christianity that benefits from such a change, and what does this mean for apologetics and natural theology?

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A few people have commented (with good reason) that my last post was guilty of quote-mining William Lane Craig. And truth to tell, I don’t think I gave enough of the context of the original quote to give people a fair idea of what Craig was trying to say, nor did I do enough to address the point he was making in the original article. I gave the full article a more thorough discussion over at my other blog, but I wanted to highlight a point or two from Craig’s argument because they’re fairly interesting on their own. Here’s the quote.

Back in the 1940s and ’50s, many philosophers believed that talk about God, since it is not verifiable by the five senses, is meaningless—actual nonsense. This verificationism finally collapsed, in part because philosophers realized that verificationism itself could not be verified!

That’s an interesting disproof, because it’s somewhat paradoxical. Suppose you come to the conclusion that verificationism is false. How can you know whether or not that conclusion is really correct? If it’s correct that verificationism is false, then one of the things you can no longer verify is your conclusion that verificationism is false.

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I’m my own grandpa

This week at Evangelical Realism, we take a look at one big factor that William Lane Craig leaves out when trying to decide what Jesus must have meant by “the Son of God.” According to the Gospels, Jesus’ mom was impregnated by God Himself, making Jesus God’s (bastard) son—a relationship of mere biology rather than shared divinity. In the process of typing out “the son of God” versus “God the Son,” though, it struck me that the story of the Virgin Birth really wreaks havoc with Trinitarian theology. If Jesus is the son of God, then whom, exactly, is he the son of?

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Debunking Skepticism

A believer who goes by the handle “Jayman777″ has written a blog post taking me to task. He’s not happy with my remarks at Evangelical Realism about how William Lane Craig handles the historical arguments for Jesus.

I have not read this book by Craig but DD’s post contains a few problems common to arguments from skeptics that should be addressed. I will restrict my focus to whether the Gospels are the best sources for reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus and whether the Gospels are generally reliable on historical matters.

Fair enough, I welcome his input. Let’s see what his criticisms are.

DD begins:

Christianity is, above all else, a story. . . . Miracles like healing someone born blind, or resurrecting someone who died three days ago, only happen in the tales told from the pulpit and in ancient parchments.

Notice how it is merely assumed that miracles do not happen in the present. It is hardly surprising that when you presuppose metaphysical naturalism, and you judge the Gospels on this basis, that the Gospels are determined to be of questionable historical value. But what if we take an approach that is neutral concerning the occurrence of miracles?

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The meaning of life

In a comment on my latest post at Evangelical Realism, advenioadveritas writes,

It also appears that in your zeal to dismantle Craig’s argument you fail to provide any meaning to life in place of the Christian one he is arguing for. The Dostoevsky quote is especially apt for Craig’s argument because it recognizes the ultimate end point of life without some reason for it. Contrary to your strong belief you cannot arrive at any other logic conclusion to the meaning or life morality other than meaningless nihilism without some truth that is never changing. Which I’m guessing doesn’t fit in your worldview, I could wrong about this though.

I’ll admit I’m not entirely clear on what this person is trying to say, but it sounds like he’s saying that our only two choices are faith in God or meaningless nihilism. And that’s clearly wrong.

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Freudian slip?

Call me an optimist, but I can’t help suspecting that William Lane Craig secretly knows that his arguments for God are deficient, and is just not admitting it to himself. As evidence, let me cite this little slip up from Chapter 7 of On Guard.

First, we’re not in a position to say that it’s improbable that God lacks good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world.

He’s trying to make the argument from ignorance, that humans have limited knowledge of time and space, and we don’t know all the circumstances, and yadda yadda, and therefore God might have a good reason for allowing suffering. But read it again: he’s not saying our human limitations prevent us from saying God is unlikely to have a good reason. He said we can’t call it improbable that God lacks a good reason. Or to cancel out the double negative, he actually wrote that we’re not in a position to say that God probably has a good reason for allowing suffering.

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William Lane Craig and free will

Over at the other blog, we’re still working our way through chapter 7 of William Lane Craig’s On Guard. This week, Craig tries to make it sound like the Almighty was forced to impose suffering on mankind, due to circumstances beyond His control. You can read the whole thing if you’re interested, but for this blog I wanted to take a look at just a snippet of his reasoning. According to Craig, the atheist believes human suffering is inconsistent with the existence of God, which necessarily assumes that God could have created any world He wanted, and that a loving God would not have created suffering.

If God is all-powerful, He can create any world that He wants. Is that necessarily true? Well, not if it’s possible that people have free will! It’s logically impossible to make someone do something freely.

How much can Craig get wrong in just four sentences? How many problems do you see?

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The problem of honesty

One of the biggest problems for Christian apologetics is what to do with the problem of evil. God is supposedly all-good, all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. What’s more, He is also supposed to be the only truly self-existent Being. Everything else that exists was either created directly by God, or by a chain of cause-and-effect whose First Cause is ultimately God.

That’s a problem, because the world abounds in what Christians refer to as sin and evil, which should not be there. If the only self-existent Being is a perfectly good and loving Almighty God, then only good things should result from His deliberate and sovereign actions, even indirectly. No necessity can constrain God except those which are inherent in His nature, and thus if God’s nature does not require evil, then there can be no necessity that evil exist. As an almighty God He should be capable of creating a world without evil, and as a loving God He should want to do so. Thus, the existence of such a God necessarily implies the absence of evil, which contradicts what we see in real life.

William Lane Craig attempts to address this problem with an approach that is both subtle and profoundly deceptive: instead of directly confronting the contradictions raised by the existence of evil, he re-frames the debate into one where the only question is whether God’s existence is incompatible with human suffering. Since there are at least some circumstances where “no pain, no gain” is a valid observation, this re-definition stacks the deck in his favor, and leaves him with an easy out. The uncritical reader is then left with the feeling that Craig has dealt with the ancient Problem of Evil, when in fact all he’s done is a simple bait-and-switch.

(Read the rest of this post at Evangelical Realism. We’ve started chapter 7, and it’s a doozy.)

The Dawkins/Lewis debate

Looks like the fine folks at “Truthbomb Apologetics” have set up an impromptu “debate” of their own between Richard Dawkins and C. S. Lewis. It has this in its favor: it’s short.

Richard Dawkins: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

C.S. Lewis: “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”

Notice the difference in the two approaches. Dawkins’ approach is based on reason and evidence: we consider the consequences that would result from having a universe created by a good God for the purpose of bringing souls to eternal bliss, and the consequences that would result from the absence of such a God, and then observe which set of consequences is closer to the data we actually observe. Lewis, on the other hand, uses an equivocation fallacy to make it sound like the evidence has to point to God no matter what form it takes.

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