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We’re In This Together

On a recent broadcast of the Infidel Guy (Sep. 16, 2008), a caller challenged Gary Habermas, the evening’s guest, to reconcile the omniscience of God with human free will. Habermas did his best to argue that there is no necessary conflict, that God knows because we freely choose, we do not so choose because God knows. For my part, I think it’s a legitimate and difficult objection. I’m not yet persuaded by either Molinist or Openness attempts to reconcile the two, much less compatabilism or the notion that it is solved by God’s being outside of time. But what followed is what struck me. Habermas took the opportunity to ask Reggie Finley, the host, whether he, as a naturalist, believed in free will. Reggie paused, then conceded that he was still trying to figure that one out. Good luck, because while free will may be problematic for the theist, it is probably a lost cause for the naturalist. For example, in his excellent and lucid work, The Significance of Free Will, Robert Kane manages to find a place for indeterminacy in matter (in quantum theory), but not for agency, the sine qua non of free will in my judgment. My point is not to wade into the deep waters of human freedom. Rather, I’m taking exception to the widespread impression that it is only the theist who must accept mysteries, antinomies, and quandaries. The truth is, all worldviews are beset by unique difficulties and internal conceptual problems. And, we remain perplexed by many mysteries that we share in common. That is to say, we’re in this together. With our amazing, but limited human faculties, the world remains puzzling to us all. In the ongoing debate about what is and is not real, it would serve us well to be mindful of the problems with which each worldview must wrestle. To that end, here are some that occur to me for both Christian theism and for Naturalism.

Before I begin, I can already see the smart kid in the class gesticulating wildly, “Me! Me! Call on me! I know the answer.” I do not mean to imply that there have not been a multitude of proposed solutions to the issues raised below. One or the other of those solutions will be sufficient for many. And yet, I think it is fair to say that each of them remains problematic, evidenced by the fact that they continue to enjoy impassioned debate. In other words:

It may also be said, and with justice, that much of what I am about to set forth is merely a repetition of ideas which have been expressed a hundred times before and a hundred times refuted; but the repetition of an idea really implies that its refutation has not been final. ~ Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life

Without further ado…

Mysteries, Antinomies, and Quandaries… Oh my!

  1. For the theist, the mystery of God’s ontological self-existence and power to create ex nihilo if they are not just taken as givens. For the naturalist, the apparent metaphysical impossibility of something coming from nothing.
  2. For the theist qua nonphysicalist, the strong correlation and dependence of mental states on physical states. For the naturalist, the distinctly nonphysical properties of mental states, such as intentionality and qualia.
  3. For the theist, the mystery of nonphysical entities acting upon physical entities in an apparently closed causal system. For the naturalist, the mystery of why or by what the physical constants described in our Natural Laws are sustained and, if you will, enforced.
  4. For the theist qua dualist, the mystery of the soul’s embodiment: when and how, inherited or created. For the naturalist, our intuitive conviction of the persistence of our personal identity through time, that we are ontologically the same persons today as we were five year ago.
  5. Per above, for the theist qua libertarian, reconciling human freedom with the omniscience of God and splitting the horns of the dilemma that if not determined, human choices must then be random. For the naturalist, preserving not only moral responsibility, but also the moral significance of love, sacrifice, hard work, etcetera if we are not the first causes of our actions.
  6. For the theist, the relative hiddenness of God. For the naturalist, the fact that the vast majority of humanity thinks it rational to infer from the existence, complexity, and order of the universe that: a Creator exists.
  7. For the theist, instances of what could be considered design flaws in creatures (Ichneumonidae wasps, tapeworms, Anopheles mosquitoes, injury-prone knees and inverted optics) and the world itself (deadly tornadoes, earthquakes, and
    drought). For the naturalist, giving an account of an incalculably improbable and yet perfectly, or nearly perfectly, fine-tuned universe for human life and flourishing.
  8. For the theist, apparent conflicts between the deliverances of revelation and of reason. For the naturalist, justifying her faith in reason when it is the product of a process that had only survival as a guide; and, when our thoughts can be reduced to chemistry and physics, the sufficient causes of which go all the way
    back to an unordered explosion.
  9. For the theist qua ethical objectivist, the widespread disagreement about what count as moral truths. For the naturalist, giving any account of morality other than cultural relativism, subjectivism, or “might makes right” if there is no transcendent standard.
  10. For the theist, gut-wrenching suffering for which it is impossible to imagine any redemptive purpose, such as an infant dying alone in the Kalahari, hounded by jackals. For the naturalist, gratuitous goods, such as laughter and the appreciation of beauty, which have no necessary connection to survival and reproduction.
  11. For the Christian theist, the checkered past of Christians whose membership includes both slave owners and abolitionists, inquisitors and authors of the Bill of Rights, plunderers and humanitarian aid workers. For the naturalist, the oppression that has characterized secular regimes in the few cases in which atheists have acquired the power to rule.
  12. For the Christian theist, the oftentimes unremarkable lives of those who claim to be “born again” compared to the biblical descriptions of what such transformed lives are supposed to look like. For the naturalist, human evils that in their creativity and cruelty cannot be accounted for merely by the necessities of “survival of the fittest” or nature “red in tooth and claw”.
  13. For the Christian theist, giving a morally satisfying account of ultimate judgment and Hell. For the naturalist, giving an account of our deep seated desire for ultimate vindication and a just reckoning, expressed implicitly by atheologians when raising “the problem of evil”.
  14. For the Christian theist qua biblical inerrantist, giving a morally satisfying account of biblical events sanctioned by the God of Abraham that scandalize our moral sensibilities. For the naturalist, providing moral or rational grounds for rejecting ethical inferences from evolutionary biology that have been used to justify subjectivism, eugenics, colonialism and a preference for one’s own tribe and nation.
  15. For the Christian theist qua biblical reliabilist, the apparent discrepancies in chronology and detail of the various witnesses to biblical events. For the naturalist qua biblical skeptic, the considerable coherence between various accounts of the major events when compared without prejudice to other documents from antiquity; and how, then, to best make sense of these historical claims of supernatural events which seem to be the antecedent causes of the world changing events that followed.

You can judge for yourself whom you think has more work cut out for him. I take it that the task in either case is formidable. Worldviews, comprehensive as they are, are intrinsically prone to difficulties. It should not be altogether surprising that we fall somewhere short of a “Total Theory of Everything”, free of anomalies. No matter which way you find yourself leaning, you will have a pill to swallow, for no doubt there are difficulties in tow. Adjudicating between rival worldviews is no simple matter, requiring the appraisal of numerous lines of reasoning and the weighting of evidences judged to be suggestive of one view or the other. Philosopher Paul Draper, for example, cites this difficulty as the reason for his agnosticism.

I don’t agree with agnostics who claim the evidence is ambiguous because it is absent or vague. I believe there is plenty of clear evidence, but the clear evidence for theism is offset by clear evidence for naturalism. … I find it very difficult to make such a judgment because I find it very difficult to compare the strength of the various pieces of evidence. ~ “Seeking But Not Believing” in Divine Hiddenness

If, unlike Draper, you find yourself persuaded one way or the other, it’s likely that you have been sufficiently impressed by one or more arguments or experiences that operate as non-negotiables by which other evidence must be interpreted. Each of us possess cornerstones of our understanding, and we will go to great lengths to preserve them, even when we cannot quite make them jive with other aspects of our experience. A good place to start, then, is to discover what those foundations are in our own cases, and to investigate whether they are sufficiently sound to merit the hard work required to reconcile them with any attendant difficulties.

At the very least, for me, the recalcitrant difficulties within my own worldview provide a constant infusion of intellectual humility, if not downright despair (epistemologically speaking). I only wish that all parties to the discussion would leave at the door this resurgent nonsense about “blind religious faith” on the one hand and “enlightened scientific reason” on the other. We’re in it together, this quest for truth. With an open mind, may we use the best thinking and wisdom at our disposal to seek the truth about a world that is far deeper and wider than we could have ever imagined.

Bertrand’s Benediction

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find… that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect. ~ Bertrand Russell in The Problems of Philosophy

Note: I’m particularly keen to accurately and fairly express the nature of the difficulties listed above, so please consider leaving a comment if you have suggestions for improvements.


2 thoughts on “We’re In This Together

  1. Hi Nathan–

    Thanks for all your work here. I agree with about 65% of your list. Most of the parallels you’ve pointed out are relevant and represent roughly equal challenges for either side. But below I’ve highlighted what I consider to be some problematic items.

    Problems in Practical Ethics and… The Existence of Objective Morality?

    9. For the theist qua ethical objectivist, the widespread disagreement about what count as moral truths. For the naturalist, giving any account of morality other than cultural relativism, subjectivism, or “might makes right” if there is no transcendent standard.

    I would be interested to see if you would revise this statement after our conversations. It seems to me there are a wealth of viable objective moralities available to the atheist. In any case, I think the more relevant parallel here would have been the disconnect between practical ethics and metaethics for atheists.

    Theodicy and… Psychology?

    10. For the theist, gut-wrenching suffering for which it is impossible to imagine any redemptive purpose, such as an infant dying alone in the Kalahari, hounded by jackals. For the naturalist, gratuitous goods, such as laughter and the appreciation of beauty, which have no necessary connection to survival and reproduction.

    I completely disagree. I don’t mean to be the smart kid, but the fact is that evolutionary theory encounters no real difficulty in explaining “gratuitous” goods. The problems invented by positing an omniscient, omnibenevolent God in a world of suffering must be borne by theists alone.

    Christian Non-Exceptionalism, God’s Immorality and… Psychology?

    12. For the Christian theist, the oftentimes unremarkable lives of those who claim to be “born again” compared to the biblical descriptions of what such transformed lives are supposed to look like. For the naturalist, human evils that in their creativity and cruelty cannot be accounted for merely by the necessities of “survival of the fittest” or nature “red in tooth and claw”.

    13. For the Christian theist, giving a morally satisfying account of ultimate judgment and Hell. For the naturalist, giving an account of our deep seated desire for ultimate vindication and a just reckoning, expressed implicitly by atheologians when raising “the problem of evil”.

    Again, you’re overestimating the problems evolution has in explaining human psychology. Try reading “The Moral Animal” by Robert Wright, “The Science of Good and Evil” by Michael Shermer, “Primates and Philosophers” by Frans De Waal, “Dragons of Eden” by Carl Sagan, or even “How the Brain Works” by Steven Pinker. These questions simply aren’t nearly as difficult for the naturalist as Christian non-exceptionalism or the immorality of God is for theists.

    Biblical Skepticism and… Premodern Tomfoolery?

    15. For the Christian theist qua biblical reliabilist, the apparent discrepancies in chronology and detail of the various witnesses to biblical events. For the naturalist qua biblical skeptic, the considerable coherence between various accounts of the major events when compared without prejudice to other documents from antiquity; and how, then, to best make sense of these historical claims of supernatural events which seem to be the antecedent causes of the world changing events that followed.

    But let’s be honest. Is it really hard to “make sense” of why premodern peoples prone to superstition corroborated each others reports of supernatural activity? Again, the difficulties raised by assigning inerrancy or infallibility to a human-made text can only be borne by fundamentalist Christianity. There is no parallel in atheism.

    My worries notwithstanding, overall, your thesis is well taken: we really are all in this together. There are plenty of problems with either position, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise.
    [Modified by: Andy Walters on January 02, 2010 12:20 PM]

  2. I think you’ve boiled it all down quite well. Each of your points seem pretty well balanced. Likely, most individuals will have more/fewer problems with individual points depending on the knowledge they have acquired through reading and/or experience. What I appreciate most (and what I wish more people on both sides would do more of)is your willingness to be honest about the problems. It would seem most people are more concerned with defending their own biased opinions than with seeking truth. Thank you for putting this together. It is very thought provoking!

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