An Atheist Reads I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist
Chapter 2: Why Should Anyone Believe Anything At All?
- The chapter opens with a quotation from Blaise Pascal: “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” The irony of this statement being made by a Christian, and then cited by other Christians in defense of Christianity, is lost on Geisler and Turek, I’m certain.
- Geisler and Turek begin with the question, “Why do people believe what they believe?” To answer this question, they turn to James Sire, a fellow Christian apologist (though not identified as such) who conducts a seminar on that very question. Sire divides the reasons people believe what they believe into four categories:
- Sociological Reasons: Parents, Friends, Society, Culture
- Psychological Reasons: Comfort, Peace of Mind, Meaning, Purpose, Hope, Identity
- Religious Reasons: Scripture, Pastor/Priest, Guru, Rabbi, Imam, Church
- Philosophical Reasons: Consistency, Coherence, Completeness (best explanation of all the evidence)
(Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FAITH TO BE AN ATHEIST, p. 51)
- As he questions students at his seminar, Sire demonstrates that no single category of evidence is sufficient on its own to justify a belief. Beliefs based on sociological, psychological, or religious reasons must be checked against the philosophical reasons — are they consistent, coherent, and the best explanation of the evidence? — before they can be reasonably believed.
- Seems reasonable to me. By the way, in this presentation, Sire folds science in with philosophy, essentially erasing the modern distinction between the two and just calling it all ways of finding truth, under the umbrella term of philosophy. In case you were wondering where science was on that list.
Western Logic vs. Eastern Logic?
- “As Pascal said, people almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive. But truth is not a subjective matter of taste — it’s an objective matter of fact.” (p. 54)
- Sometimes. As I said in the previous video, the view of truth presented by Geisler and Turek here is far too rigid and narrow to be of much use, especially when speaking about things like morality or philosophy, which is mostly what they’re doing.
- Someone left a comment on the previous video saying that they were a philosophy student, and found it incredibly frustrating to see how the subject of truth was being handled in this book. The question “what is truth?” has been discussed and argued over by philosophers for thousands of years, and Geisler and Turek treat it as a settled question: “No, no, no: truth is this. This is what truth is.” I’m not a philosopher, or a particularly well-read student of philosophy, but I agree, this can’t be taken seriously.
To Be Burned or Not to be Burned, That Is the Question
- Geisler and Turek move from James Sire to Ravi Zacharias (who is explicitly identified as an apologist), and an anecdote he tells about a conversation with a college professor about the supposed difference between western and eastern logic.
- The professor in Zacharias’s anecdote defines the difference this way: in the west, we use either/or logic, while in the east, they use both/and logic. According to the professor, therefore, the Christian doctrine of salvation can’t be true because, going by eastern logic, salvation comes both through the blood of Christ and through other ways as well, not either through Christ or not at all.
- Zacharias goes on to say, in his anecdote as told by Geisler and Turek, that this professor invited him out to lunch where he further explained the difference between eastern both/and logic and western either/or logic. Zacharias eventually settles the argument by employing the Road Runner tactic. He asks the professor if, when in India, he must either use both/and logic or no logic at all. And at that point the professor admits that the either/or nature of his argument is unavoidable. “Even in India,” Zacharias is quoted as saying, “we look both ways before we cross the street because it is either me or the bus, not both of us!”
- Geisler and Turek compare logic to other fields, asking whether we would accept such an east/west distinction in mathematics, or physics.
- “In fact, despite what relativists believe, things work in the East just like they work everywhere else. In India, just like in the United States, buses hurt when they hit you, 2+2=4, and the same gravity keeps everyone on the ground.” (p. 56)
- Have you ever heard a more absurd strawman argument in your life? But wait, they’re not done. Geisler and Turek continue:
- “Likewise, murder is wrong there just as it is here. Truth is truth no matter what country you come from. And truth is truth no matter what you believe about it.” (p. 56)
- Let me pause and spend a few minutes elaborating on just a few of the things that are wrong with what Geisler and Turek (and through them, Zacharias) are saying here.
- For a start, let’s talk about what’s going on with this anonymous, possibly apocryphal professor. First — and I say this as a layman — I don’t think he knows shit about eastern philosophy. I don’t know shit about eastern philosophy either, but I know enough about it to suspect that the professor in the Zacharias anecdote knows even less about it than I do. Despite carrying on an impassioned, and supposedly lengthy conversation with Zacharias about the differences between eastern and western logic, complete with diagrams drawn on-the-spot to illustrate his arguments, we are told nothing specific about the professor’s position other than that vague bullshit about the difference between either/or and both/and logic. What was he drawing? What was he saying? What points, however erroneous, was he making? And am I really supposed to believe that this professor, who argued so vociferously for his position, was silenced by Zacharias deploying the facile rhetorical trick they call the Road Runner tactic?
- I suspect that the main purpose of the professor in this anecdote is not to demonstrate the fallacy of so-called eastern logic, but once again to demonstrate the stupidity and unreliability of college professors. And until I hear a more specific version of this story, I’m going to assume that it never actually happened, at least not in the way Zacharias tells it.
- “The point is, there is only one type of logic that helps us discover truth. It’s the one built into the nature of reality that we can’t avoid using. Despite this, people will try to tell you that logic doesn’t apply to reality, or logic doesn’t apply to God, or there are different types of logic, and so on.” (p. 56)
- Which people will try to tell me this? Who has said these things? The only people I ever hear talking about moral or philosophical relativism are Christians. If both/and logic is really as prevalent in our culture as Geisler and Turek (and Zacharias) say it is, why is it I only ever hear about it from people like them? I’m not denying that there are people who hold these views, but if they’re so influential in our culture, who are they? Where do they teach? What books have they written? What are their names?
- Most people — eastern, western, all over the world — agree on mathematical and empirical truths. There aren’t huge numbers of people in India who would be willing to argue that 2+2 doesn’t equal 4. But philosophical truths are another story. Eastern thinking (from what little I know of it) tends to value multiple points of view. Hence the idea that a given philosophical belief can be true for one person but not for another.
- Geisler and Turek are very uncomfortable with this notion, and they exaggerate its implications beyond the point of absurdity, suggesting that if one is willing to say that one person’s religious conviction is true for him but not necessarily for someone else, then one must also be willing to deny mathematics or physics. It’s no fair taking a relativist view of moral truth claims unless you’re also willing to take a relativist view of gravity or thermodynamics. But when it comes to philosophy, and particularly to religious beliefs, relativism is just an acknowledgement of reality. You can recognize that there is a wide variety of beliefs, and even that this variety is generally a good thing, without having to affirm every individual belief as equally true or deserving of respect.
- “It’s important to note that we are not simply engaging in word games here. The Road Runner tactic uses the undeniable laws of logic to expose that much of what our common culture believes about truth, religion, and morality is undeniably false.” (p. 56)
- Again, this “common culture” they refer to is a strawman, and their concept of truth is narrow and quite deniable, actually.
Hume’s Skepticism: Should We Be Skeptical About It?
- Geisler and Turek attribute the power of the Road Runner tactic to the law of noncontradiction, which states that contradictory claims cannot both be true, in the same sense, at the same time.
- “When investigating any question of fact, including the question of God, the same Law of Noncontradiction applies. Either the theists are right — God exists — or the atheists are right — God doesn’t exist. . . . Likewise, either Jesus died and rose from the dead as the Bible claims, or he did not as the Qur’an claims. One is right and the other is wrong.” (p. 57)
- Notice how much they have to sand off of these claims to get them to fit the either/or construct. Yes, I suppose if the Christian claim was simply that Jesus rose from the dead, and the Qur’an’s claim was simply that he didn’t, then one must be right and the other must be wrong. But those aren’t the claims, are they? The Bible tells a specific story, and the Qur’an contradicts it with its own specific story — namely, that Jesus was taken up to heaven before he could be crucified, and a look-alike was nailed to the cross in his place. It’s quite possible — I’d argue, quite likely — that both stories are false.
- Also, have they forgotten about pantheism already? It was mentioned in the introduction, but now suddenly it’s either theism or atheism. But if we consider pantheism as a possibility — or deism, which I don’t think has been mentioned at all — then it’s possible for both atheists and theists to be incorrect: there might be a god, just not a personal god.
- Geisler and Turek blame David Hume for the skepticism they say is prevalent in our day.
- Yes, we live in such a skeptical age. How many reality shows about ghost hunting are there, again?
- They briefly summarize Hume’s empirical approach and describe his two conditions for meaningful claims:
- the claim is based on abstract reasoning (a mathematical principle, for example)
- or the claim is derived from empirical data
Kant’s Agnosticism: Should We Be Agnostic About It?
- “While he claimed to be a skeptic, Hume certainly wasn’t very skeptical about these two conditions — he was absolutely convinced he had the truth.” (p. 57)
- You’d think between the two of them, either Geisler or Turek would have found the time to look up “skeptic” in the dictionary. Being a skeptic doesn’t mean you are doubtful of everything, forever. It means you don’t accept claims as true without good reason. If Hume had good reason for being convinced that the only valid claims were those based either on abstract reasoning or empirical data, then that makes him a good skeptic, not a bad one.
- Geisler and Turek then quote Hume from his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, where he recommends committing books containing claims that don’t meet either of his two conditions — specifically, books on religion and metaphysics — to the flames.
- “Do you see the implications of Hume’s two conditions? If he’s correct, then any book talking about God is meaningless. You might as well use all religious writings for kindling!” (p. 58)
- This would be one of those passages not addressed to atheists or skeptics, then.
- If you care first and foremost about what is true, and Hume’s two conditions do turn out to be a valid method of separating solid science and reasoning from what Hume calls “sophistry and illusion,” why panic about the implications?
- Also, did you catch that Geisler and Turek just admitted that there is no empirical evidence for their God? So much for, you know, the premise of their book.
- Next, Geisler tells an anecdote about a college class he took in Logical Positivism, where the professor — who described himself as both a Catholic and an atheist, which totally blew Geisler’s mind — assigned him a presentation on the principle of empirical verifiability, which is A.J. Ayer’s re-formulation of Hume’s two conditions. The principle of empirical verifiability states that a proposition is only meaningful if it is either true by definition or empirically verifiable.
- According to Geisler, his presentation consisted entirely of using the Road Runner tactic to refute the principle of empirical verifiability:
- “I stood up and simply said, ‘The principle of empirical verifiability states that there are only two kinds of meaningful propositions: 1) those that are true by definition and 2) those that are empirically verifiable. Since the principle of empirical verifiability itself is neither true by definition nor empirically verifiable, it cannot be meaningful.’ That was it, and I sat down.” (p. 59)
- I get the feeling reading that passage that Geisler is quite pleased with himself. He’s apparently oblivious to the fact that giving such a glib presentation about one of the signature ideas of one of the most influential thinkers in the history of our culture — an idea, mind you, that had been written about for centuries — made him look like an arrogant, oblivious ass — and a lazy ass, at that. He goes on to describe the hushed silence in the class, which he attributes to the stunned realization of his classmates that he had just refuted logical positivism in a couple of sentences, and how the professor refused to acknowledge that his class and, indeed, his entire school of philosophy, was self-defeating and false.
- Boy, those college professors are all untrustworthy, intellectually dishonest dicks, aren’t they?
- Let’s take a closer look at this supposedly empiricism-shattering thunderbolt. Geisler (and Turek) assert that the principle of empirical verifiability is itself neither true by definition nor empirically verifiable, therefore it excludes itself. But how is the empirical verifiability principle not true by definition? A few pages ago, Geisler and Turek were all about the idea that propositions are either true or false. And “true” is defined — by them — as being that which accurately reflects reality. And how do we determine what reality is? We perceive it. Evidence acquired through the perception of reality — through observation or experience — is empirical evidence. Therefore, following Geisler and Turek’s own reasoning, the principle of empirical verifiability must be true by definition, because any proposition that is not true by definition can only be determined to be true or false by judging whether or not it is consistent with reality.
- Can Geisler really think so much of himself and so little of the last 300 years of western thought, to actually believe that the only reason the principle of empirical verification has stood for so long and been so influential in modern thought is because no one bothered to point out a self-evident and undeniable fatal flaw?
- “Certainly claims that are empirically verifiable or true by definition are meaningful. However, such claims don’t comprise all meaningful statements as Hume and Ayer contend. So instead of committing all books about God ‘to the flames’ as Hume suggests, you may want to consider using Hume’s books to get your fire going.” (p. 59)
- Yes, that was the authors of I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist encouraging their readers to burn the books of David Hume. I have a better idea: as long as you’ve got Hume’s books there already, why not read them. And if you find yourself disagreeing with Hume, work out why you disagree with him. Formulate counterarguments that take Hume’s arguments seriously and actually address his points, rather than trying to summarily refute his fundamental philosophy using a rhetorical shortcut that you think is unbeatably clever but is actually hollow and indolent, not to mention obnoxious.
- Geisler and Turek take issue with Immanuel Kant’s theory of perception, specifically his assertion that though we perceive things with our senses, we never truly know the things themselves because our brains interpret the data from our senses and allow us to comprehend what our senses detect.
- “Kant is saying that the tree you think you are looking at appears the way it does because your mind is forming the sense data you’re getting from the tree. You really don’t know the tree in itself; you only know the phenomena your mind categorizes about the tree. In short, you ‘kant’ know the real tree in itself, only the tree as it appears to you.” (p. 60)
- Pointless, unfunny puns — that’s the ticket to being taken seriously.
- “Whew! Why is it that the average person on the street doesn’t doubt what he sees with his own two eyes, but supposedly brilliant philosophers do? The more we study philosophy, the more we are convinced of this: if you want to make the obvious seem obscure, just let a philosopher get ahold of it!” (p. 60)
- And the more I study apologetics, the more convinced I am that if you want to rationalize your belief in something preposterous and unsubstantiated, you should call an apologist.
Hume and Kant Are Wrong. So What?
- Would you like to guess how Geisler and Turek try to refute Kant?
- “Thankfully, there’s a simple answer to all of this — the Road Runner tactic. Kant commits the same error as Hume — he violates the Law of Noncontradiction. He contradicts his own premise by saying that no one can know the real world while he claims to know something about it, namely that the real world is unknowable!” (p. 60)
- But Geisler and Turek have already admitted that the real world is unknowable in the same way that Kant is saying it is. In the introduction, they said: “. . . we think our conclusions are true beyond a reasonable doubt. (This type of certainty, say, 95-plus percent certain, is the best that fallible and finite human beings can attain for most questions, and it is more than sufficient for even the biggest decisions in life.)” (p. 25)
- Kant isn’t saying we can’t trust our senses. He isn’t saying it’s meaningless to say we know things about the external world. He’s saying that our minds receive data about the external world from our senses and process that data into something we can comprehend, and it is in fact that synthesis of sensory input with the understanding of the mind which we are perceiving when we see and hear and touch and smell and taste things. The point isn’t that we can’t ever gain reliable knowledge about reality. The point is that there is a separation between reality as it actually is, and reality as we perceive it.
- “What we are saying is that you really do know the thing in itself. You really do know the tree you are seeing, because it is being impressed on your mind through your senses.” (p. 61)
- Here’s the thing, though: on the point about our perception of reality being distinct from reality itself, Kant was right. When you see a tree, what you are actually seeing are photons reflected by that tree, which enter your eye and are absorbed by cells called photoreceptors, which convert those photons into electrical signals, which are sent to the brain, which interprets those signals to form an image of the object that reflected the photons. And the other four senses operate on similar principles — sensory input is converted to electrical signals which are carried by the nervous system to the brain, where they are interpreted. Perception is a phenomenon of the brain. When you look at the tree, you are not seeing the tree itself. Literally.
- But, as I said, this doesn’t mean we can’t gain reliable knowledge about reality through our senses. Generally speaking, our senses are very reliable. How do we know our senses are reliable? Because we can check our perceptions against the perceptions of other people, to see if they agree. If I see a tree, and you say you see a tree, and everybody else who walks by says they see a tree, too, it’s reasonable to assume we’re all seeing the same tree, and the tree is actually there.
- So what’s the difference? If the world as we perceive it is an essentially reliable representation of the real thing, why bring up the distinction between reality and perception at all? Why not just say that Geisler and Turek are essentially correct when they say, in essence, that seeing is believing? Because even though our senses are usually reliable, we do occasionally see things, or hear things, or feel things, or even smell and taste things, that aren’t actually there. When this happens, it’s called “hallucination,” and it’s something that most of us experience from time to time. Hallucinations occur in the brain. The problem isn’t with the sensory input, but with the interpreter. Our brains are perceiving things that aren’t there. What this means is, seeing isn’t always believing. Knowing that perception occurs in the brain, that we aren’t able to see/hear/smell/touch/taste the objects themselves, that we all sometimes perceive things that aren’t really there, encourages us to be skeptical of impossible or even highly improbable claims. It reminds us why extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.
How Is Truth Known?
- Geisler and Turek admit that although the Road Runner tactic has shown the philosophies of Hume and Kant to be false (*cough*), the proposition that God exists is not necessarily true.
- “So is it true that a theistic God exists? Is there any knowable evidence that will give us reasonable certainty one way or the other?” (p. 62)
- Back to reasonable certainty again, are we? Also: note the phrase “knowable evidence,” rather than “empirical evidence.” I’m interested to see what knowable/non-empirical evidence Geisler and Turek have to present.
How Are Truths About God Known?
- Geisler and Turek begin their discussion of how we discover truth with first principles, the self-evident laws of logic. They mention the already discussed law of noncontradiction, and the law of the excluded middle, which states that a proposition is either true or the negation of that proposition is true. Geisler and Turek cite their favorite example to illustrate: either God exists, or God does not exist.
- But first principles are only the first step. They allow us to formulate logically valid arguments, but they aren’t sufficient for discovering truth because to know if a proposition is true, we must be able to determine not only if it is logically valid, but also if its premises are true. How do we determine if premises are true?
- “We get that information from observing the world around us and then drawing general conclusions from those observations.” (p. 63)
- Sounds like empirical evidence to me. Just saying.
- Geisler and Turek describe the process of induction — of observing a phenomenon again and again and again and eventually coming to some conclusions about that phenomenon. For example, if you’re holding a baseball in your hand and you release that baseball, it falls. Assuming you’re on Earth, standing on land in normal atmospheric conditions, we can confidently assume that the baseball will fall every time you let go of it. Can you be absolutely, 100% certain the baseball will fall when you let go of it? No. But since the baseball always falls, every single time you let it go, there is no reason for you to expect anything else to happen the next time you let it go. That’s induction. It doesn’t give us absolute certainty; it gives us reasonable certainty, based on observation and experience.
So What? Who Cares About Truth?
- Why do Geisler and Turek take so much space in this chapter to discuss induction? (And their definition and illustrations of induction use up more than a page, which is a lot when you only need a few lines to refute fundamental principles of modern philosophy.) Well:
- “. . . we use induction to investigate God the same way we use it to investigate other things we can’t see — by observing their effects. For example, we can’t observe gravity directly; we can only observe its effects.” (p. 65)
- I illustrated the difference between a real phenomenon like gravity and an imaginary phenomenon like God when I discussed the parable of the elephant and the six blind men at the end of the previous video in this series.
- Geisler and Turek use their book as an example of how deductive and inductive reasoning work together to allow us to discover truths about reality: through induction, we know that books have authors; through observation, we know that I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist is a book; therefore, we deduce that I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist has at least one author.
- “Now here’s the big question: Just as a book requires preexisting human intelligence, are there any observable effects that seem to require some kind of preexisting supernatural intelligence? In other words, are there effects that we can observe that point to God? The answer is yes, and the first effect is the universe itself.” (p. 66)
- The answer actually appears to be no, but I’ll get to that in the next video, when Geisler and Turek blow the dust off of the Cosmological Argument. For now, note how they attempt to slide from “preexisting intelligence” to “preexisting supernatural intelligence” to “God.” Even if we found something in nature that implied the first, we’d still have a long way to go before we could assume the second, or the third.
- Geisler and Turek argue that truth matters, and in particular moral and religious truth matters, because of how it affects the choices people make as we live our lives, and the choices we make collectively as a society. Our ideas about moral truth inform both our personal choices and the laws and public policies enacted by the government.
- Similarly, religious truth matters because if the Bible is true (just to cite a totally random example), then all those who are not Christians are destined to spend eternity in Hell. If, on the other hand, the Qur’an is true, then Christians (among others) might be in for a rough time in the afterlife.
- “On the other hand, if the atheists are right, then we might as well lie, cheat, and steal to get what we want because this life is all there is, and there are no consequences in eternity.” (p. 68)
- And as we all know, refraining from a life of wanton crime and selfish, destructive impulse-indulgence only because you fear the consequences of such a life after you die is the highest form of morality.
- Geisler and Turek are not inconsiderate of the more immediate implications of religious truth. Suppose, for instance, the teachings of Muslim fundamentalists about Jews are true. Wouldn’t it be better, Geisler and Turek ask, to teach people that God wants them to love each other instead?
- But what if that isn’t true? What if the anti-Semitic Muslim teachings are true? I’m glad they aren’t — but are we pursuing truth, or are we advocating for a particular worldview we’ve already made up our minds about? (Rhetorical question.) Speaking of that worldview:
Next: Chapter 3: In the Beginning There Was a Great SURGE
- “The Saudis may be teaching that Jews are pigs, but in our country, by means of a one-sided biology curriculum, we teach kids that there’s really no difference between any human being and a pig. After all, if we’re merely the product of blind naturalistic forces — if no deity created us with any special significance — then we are nothing more than pigs with big brains. . . . Instead of good citizens who see people made in the image of God, we are producing criminals who see no meaning or value in human life. Ideas have consequences.” (p. 68)
- Yes, the prisons are filled with atheists and Darwinists. Although at least they said “blind naturalistic forces” and not “random accidents” or something like that. That’s progress, right?
- If you think the theory of evolution proposes that there is no difference between a human and a pig, I have to question your understanding of the meaning of the words “evolution,” “human,” and “pig.”
- Are Geisler and Turek advocating a kind of relativism here? Earlier in the book they complain about how people are (supposedly) relativistic when it comes to religion and morality, but not mathematics or medicine or physics. But why is biology any different than those things? Just as there are established, objective truths in physics, there are established, objective truths in biology. Common descent, adaptation, natural selection, speciation — these are facts, these phenomena occur, they are just as real as gravity or electromagnetism. How is it one-sided to teach these facts to students and exclude contradictory claims, which we know to be false? Is it one-sided to teach Einstein to physics students? Should we throw Aristotle in there, too, just so they can hear both sides and come to their own conclusions? Teach the controversy in physics class — that’s what I say!
- “On the positive side, Mother Theresa helped improve conditions in India by challenging the religious beliefs of many in the Hindu culture. . . . Because they believe that those who suffer deserve their plight for doing something wrong in a previous life. So, if you help suffering people, you are interfering with their karma. Mother Theresa taught Hindus in India the Christian principles of caring for the poor and suffering.” (pp. 68-69)
- No, Mother Theresa taught Hindus the difference between watching the sick waste away and die in the street and watching the sick waste away and die on a cot in a warehouse hospital without painkillers. Mother Theresa believed that pain brings us closer to God. She didn’t ease suffering; she sanctified it.
- I do agree with Geisler and Turek on one thing, though: it does matter what is true. I want to know the truth. More than anything else, that is the star that guides me. That conviction is what pulls me up and makes me aspire to be better than I am, the conviction that truth matters and I want to know what is true, no matter how troubling, no matter how disruptive, no matter how disillusioning. Can Norman Geisler and Frank Turek say the same? Before I can judge, I’ll have to know what they claim the truth is, and what reasons they have to support their claims. And that comes next — they’ve spent the introduction and the first two chapters shadowboxing, making the unnecessary argument that it’s possible to know the truth about things. Next, they begin presenting their case. We’ll see if they ask questions and seek answers courageously, honestly, and intelligently, or, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, if they choose the comforting fantasy over the hard truth. Given what I already know about apologists, I have a pretty good guess which way they’ll go, but we’ll just have to wait and see whether or not that particular induction is borne out by the rest of this book.