Saturday, January 14, 2012

Theists' defense against atheism and human invention fails

Sean McDowell and Jonathan Marrow wrote a book "Is God Just a Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists", published in August 2010, that claims to defeat the arguments for atheism and show that Christian theism is true. I have not read the book, instead I recently read a book review. Sometimes, reading a favorable book review is enough to conclude that the book fails to achieve its claimed objective. Why and how does this book fail to make a convincing argument against atheism, contrary to the enthusiastic book reviewer's assertions that the book succeeds? Let's take a look at some of the arguments from the book as cited by the book reviewer.

All people, including atheists, have faith in some things, therefore atheist attacks against religious faith are said to be mistaken. One trusts the unfamiliar pilot of a plane one boards; one has faith that the electrician properly wires your house; one trusts the cook at the restaurant where one eats, etc. The problem with this argument is that it is confusing our day to day faith in the behavior, skills, and good will of other people with faith in factual claims made by religions. It doesn't follow that because we trust pilots to not try to kill their passengers that we are justified in trusting that the angel Moroni communicated the wisdom of God to Joseph Smith as asserted by the book of Mormon.

Atheists are then accused of having blind faith in the ideas that the universe came into existence from nothing, that life emerged from non-life, and the human mind arose from mere matter. None of this is true. Atheists follow the opinions of the experts in cosmology, biology, and neurology: Cosmologists, Biologists, and Neuroscientists. These are the people who have devoted their time and efforts to studying and pursuing the evidence about our universe, life, and brains, including their origins. The evidence suggests that our universe contains a near balance of negative and positive energy consistent with its emerging from an unstable, initial "nothing". Nothing is in quotes here because the evidence suggests that absolute nothingness could be impossible, it exists in the minds of theologians but has no evidenced reality. The evidence suggests that the brain is a completely materialistic entity that is the sole source, together with its supporting body, of our minds. The evidence suggests that life emerged from chemistry and is entirely a chemical and physical process. These are, in fact, the conclusions favored by the available evidence. I, and most other atheists, are absolutely convinced that these are the conclusions that are the best fit with the evidence.

The authors of the book are then quoted as asserting "there is no inherent conflict between Christianity and science”. As evidence for this it is noted that most of the early pioneering scientists were theists. However, time passes and more evidence is accumulated. Today, more scientists are atheists than a hundred years ago. People hold inconsistent beliefs, so the fact that there are many people who hold two beliefs is not sufficient to establish that both beliefs are not in conflict.

The authors claim naturalism “ultimately undermines any basis for confidence” in nature’s order and the powers of reason. It is claimed that under a naturalistic worldview, there’s no reason to trust our reason or our senses; they were merely the result of blind Darwinian accidents. Again, this is false. Our reason and senses are effective precisely because they competitively evolved. To the extent animal reasoning and senses were less trustworthy they were out competed by animals whose reasoning and senses were more trustworthy. The process of evolution is thus not only accidental, it is also directional, it necessarily follows a path that "puts us in touch with reality", because the outcome is shaped by competition for survival. A tendency to walk over cliffs is not an outcome favored by evolution.

The authors defend the concept of miracles, “if a transcendent God exists, then it seems eminently possible that He has acted in the universe”. This if x then y is possible logic is sensible here. But we could just as logically say if not x then not y. While the authors seem to be impressed by the standard philosophical arguments for God, those arguments fail by the only criteria that counts, they don't reach conclusions by following the overall weight of the overall evidence. So the authors are mistaken to consider those various traditional arguments for god to be convincing. Arguing from one possibility to another possibility only makes sense when the evidence favors the first possibility.

The authors claim that Hume mistakenly presumes to know the uniformity of human experience prior to considering the evidence. Indeed, we should always start with the evidences. So do the available evidences favor the conclusion that the universe consistently follows a set of laws? Yes, very much so. Pieces of icebergs break off and fall down into the ocean, but equivalent amounts of ice don't jump up and attach itself to the side of the iceberg. Hume was correct regarding this "presumption" of his. Time has a clear direction from past to future because our universe unfolds uniformly according to fixed laws.

The authors then attack Hume’s argument that one should be skeptical about the improbable. “But surely it is perfectly reasonable to believe that an improbable event can occasionally occur”. No, that is not a reasonable conclusion for any particular imaginable event. Again, this depends on the evidence. We know that Royal Flushes in poker are both improbable and an occasional occurrence, while a human language talking donkey is not only improbable, but physically impossible and thus a never occurred fiction. Believing in any such tall tale events that violate the evidences regarding what is possible, a.k.a. a miracle, is, by definition, unreasonable.

The authors claim that there is not good evidence for macroevolution (changes from one species into another different species), only good evidence for microevolution (small changes within a kind). This is false. The evidence for evolution transcends this micro/macro distinction and is strong for both. Macroevolution is also an unavoidable logical consequence of microevolution.

The authors claim that a purely material reality cannot produce consciousness. Again, this is contrary to the evidence. The evidence that we have favors the conclusion that consciousness is an emergent property of purely material brains. Near death experiences are like dreams, we have lots of evidence that they are fictions, they reflect activity internal to the brain, not what it is true beyond the confines of the person. Intention and free will are not sufficient evidence for consciousness being immaterial. We literally don't have evidence that free will is anything more than an illusion, or that if it is in any sense real, that it is in that sense also non-material.

The authors note that atheism lacks an objective and perfect ground to issue objective moral commandments as well as the means to hold all moral lawbreakers to an account. But neither does theism. The authors claim that “In the theistic view, objective moral laws are grounded in the reality of a Moral Lawgiver." That is a circular argument, it fails to establish what are objective moral laws, or how that is determined. Citing the Christian (or Hebrew or Islamic, etc.) bible as the guide for "Morality" is untenable. Those documents are more distant from being a decent, let alone perfect, guide to moral behavior, or laws, than most atheists could write themselves. Furthermore, it is rather obvious that the content of these documents reflect the state of knowledge and attitudes of the people of the place and time where they originated. Again, the evidence strongly favors the conclusion that the only Lawgivers behind these documents are people.

The book reviewer concludes "They offer several of the leading arguments for Christian theism while toppling some of the most belligerent of the objections promoted by the New Atheists. They have written, with abundant care, to attain a thoroughness that is not often established in popular books. The wisdom and excellence with which each chapter is written makes this a crucial volume for the budding apologist’s library."

The arguments for Christian theism, and more generally for religious theisms, in this book, and in the many similar arguments found in other such books, are often seriously flawed, in conflict with the available evidence, and very weak overall. That books like these are popular is an indication that more debate regarding religious beliefs is needed. There is nothing belligerent, or impolite, or counter-productive, in arguing that everyone should believe in macroevolution, in abiogenesis, in global warming, in atheism, and generally in that set of conclusions which are best supported by the available evidence.

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