Book Plunge: Evidence Considered, Chapter 7

Does atheism account for the data? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

In chapter 7, Jelbert responds to another essay of David Wood on explanatory scope of worldviews. It’s about God, suffering, and Santa Claus. Many children believe Santa Claus puts presents under the tree because our parents say so and we tend to think they’re reliable. Okay. Some of us might have better reasons for believing in such phenomena than others.

Wood’s main point is that atheism is not an explanation and when the gifts show up, who do you think? Theism has great explanatory power on the other hand and if the only problem is suffering, there are more than enough reasons for that. So what does Jelbert say?

His first paragraph in response is worth quoting in full:

The ancient Egyptians saw the brute fact of the sun rising each day. They explained that this occurred because Khepri, the scarab god, would push the sun across the sky ahead of him like a beetle pushing a ball of dung. It is unclear whether the ancient Egyptians ever took this “explanation” seriously, but the point is clear; a divine explanation is no explanation at all.

It really is a wonder that a paragraph such as this is typed. Jelbert wants us to look and say that this is obvious nonsense, but is it really? If you are an ancient Egyptian, do you not want to explain things some way? If you know of no other explanation, what is wrong with a divine one?

Jelbert says that a divine explanation is no explanation at all, but this is most certainly false. There are plenty of arguments for atheism. I do not consider them true arguments and fewer still are good arguments, but they are at least arguments. There are many explanations for how life came from non-life and while it is quite likely that some of them are false, they are still explanations. Even if something is seen as a bad explanation, a bad explanation is still by definition, an explanation.

If Jelbert wants to say that it is clear that this doesn’t explain things, he would need to show how. Has he demonstrated that there is no god named Kherpi pushing the sun? Perhaps Kherpi is invisible and has a superpower that we mistake to be a natural law like a character in a comic book. Do I think this is true? Not at all. Could Jelbert prove that it is isn’t? Doubtful.

Furthermore, this assumes that all divine explanations are equal. Why should I think that? Could it be some cases of theism have more explanatory power than do others? Is it a stretch to say that there’s more evidence backing the New Testament being true than there is backing the Book of Mormon being true? If Aristotle’s natural theology can end in a deity very similar to that of the three great monotheistic faiths, could it be because there was some explanatory power to that and the evidence led that way?

Not only this, if Jelbert is saying that divine explanations are not explanations, then is he not begging the question? He would like to say he’s open for evidence of God, but God would certainly have to explain something if He existed. Yet if Jelbert says that an explanation of God would explain nothing, then He is asking us to give something that doesn’t exist, mainly an explanation that cannot explain and yet have it be something that explains the data to him.

To base this on one example would be like looking at a fossil that has been seen to be a fraud in defense of evolution and then say, “Well as you can see, an evolutionary explanation is no explanation at all.” Jelbert would rightly say “Yes. That was wrong, but look at all this other data here for this better explanation!” I agree, and I will do the same for theism.

Jelbert goes on to say that for thousands of years, humans thought they had all the answers and all the explanations. No scientific advance was needed. That’s why they were resisted. I wish to know what history Jelbert is reading. If he thinks that during the medieval period they were only discussing theology and philosophy, he is badly mistaken. Often, the argument he’s using comes with this graphic:

Such a graphic though shows an abject ignorance of the medieval period and one that I suspect Jelbert has never really looked into. We cannot know because Jelbert cites no historians of the period here. All of this is just asserted, it’s almost like Jelbert wants us to take him by faith. I reserve the faith for the atheists. I prefer to check to see the evidence first.

Tim O’Neill is quite good at dealing with this. As he says on his blog:

It’s not hard to kick this nonsense to pieces, especially since the people presenting it know next to nothing about history and have simply picked this bullshit up from other websites and popular books and collapse as soon as you hit them with some hard evidence. I love to totally stump them by asking them to present me with the name of one – just one – scientist burned, persecuted or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any. They usually try to crowbar Galileo back into the Middle Ages, which is amusing considering he was a contemporary of Descartes. When asked why they have failed to produce any such scientists given the Church was apparently so busily oppressing them, they often resort to claiming that the Evil Old Church did such a good job of oppression that everyone was too scared to practice science. By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists – like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa – and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents have usually run away to hide and scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.

Jelbert here could complain that I have just pulled into the debate another Christian apologist so why take the claim seriously? He could say that, but he would be wrong. O’Neill is no Christian apologist. In fact, he’s actually an atheist.

The point is the Christians in the medieval period were indeed busy trying to find explanations. Sometimes they were right explanations. Sometimes they were not. I would like Jelbert to find the time where the medievals explained scientific conundrums simply by saying “God did it.” If he can’t, then Jelbert has bought into a theory of history without any evidence. Perhaps by his standard he has an explanation that is no explanation at all.

Jelbert does take this kind of approach as he says that science comes to explain things that we used to explain with deities. Perhaps some did, but where are the Christians doing this? He does say that many Christians just move on to the next scientific difficulty. Right now, the big argument is that God tunes the universal constants. What happens when another explanation is found for that?

Dare I say it, but I agree here. I do not use the fine-tuning argument because first off, I do not understand the science behind it. If someone does, they are free to use it. However, even if I did understand the science, if I used it, I would not use it alone. I would never hang my theism on a scientific argument. I think it’s wrong to hang any worldview on any scientific argument. This is why I use the metaphysical arguments of Aquinas that are untouched by science.

Jelbert goes on to look at Wood’s question asking if we should reject an explanation that explains the data. Jelbert says that the answer is yes. He points to pseudo-science. Unfortunately, he does not give any examples and this is just a way of begging the question. Jelbert says we reject hypotheses when they make predictions that fail, but what failing prediction does he have in mind? Furthermore, if it fails at a prediction, it’s not really an explanatory hypothesis so Wood is still safe.

Jelbert’s next statement is again worth quoting in full.

And what of Wood’s idea that atheism explains nothing? If we include all scientific discovery in this (Which is reasonable because science is a naturalistic endeavor), it is hard to imagine a more wildly inaccurate statement.)

The reality is it’s hard to imagine a more wildly inaccurate statement than Jelbert’s! Why should we say science is a naturalistic endeavor? What about atheism is essential to science? A Christian and an atheist can do the exact same experiment in the lab. Their worldview does not affect the outcome. We could easily imagine a world where there are only Christians and the science would work the same way. We could easily imagine a world where there are only atheists and the science would work the same way.

Jelbert is also confusing methodological naturalism with metaphysical naturalism. The use of the former does not entail the latter and even still the former is a difficult term to define. Can it be that if any scientist looks at the data and thinks that it looks like a deity has been involved, that he has ceased to do science? What would he think of Fred Hoyle’s statement that

“A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”

If a scientist says something like this, are they automatically excluded? It’s hard to not think of Lewontin’s statement.

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

It amazes me that so many atheists ask for scientific evidence for God, which I consider to be a category fallacy really, and then rule out any science that points to God. It’s also a problem because what if God is the explanation? If so, then we are doing science at the outset that cannot reach the truth because we have ruled out the truth in advance based not on science, but on philosophy, and bad philosophy at that.

Still, Jelbert will look at the questions and one question is why is there a world at all? Jelbert says that if we want to ask the purpose, we have to consider everything, including the evil in the world, which Wood thinks is better explained by a good God. I find this quite fascinating.

You see, when Jelbert looks at Wood’s claim, Wood has to look and consider all the data and consider all possible explanations. When Wood gives a claim, Jelbert is only willing to consider naturalistic explanations. Why does Jelbert say we have to consider everything, but he himself doesn’t?

We also have to ask is evil an exception or is it the norm? Dare I say it, but quite likely Jelbert wakes up in a warm bed every morning, has food in his refrigerator, drives from place to place, has a home where he has air conditioning and heating and cable TV and the internet, and goes through every day not fearing for his life. Does he really want to say that good is the exception and not evil?

As I have said also, if we go to other cultures where suffering is much more prevalent, they do not really talk about the problem of evil. I suspect more of us do because we have a sort of entitlement mindset. We think that we are owed a certain kind of life.

Jelbert then says that if it’s individual purpose, we have to create our own, but he prefers his as an atheist more than as a Christian. Conclusion? By most measures atheists have a better explanation. Ah yes. We used the great sample of one and came to a conclusion of all atheists. Well let’s go with this.

I as a Christian have a great purpose in my life that is a Christian purpose. If I went and asked my wife and she agreed with me for herself, then that would be two. By Jelbert’s standards then, Christians have a better explanation. Does that seem ridiculous to you? It is.

Something Jelbert never seems to ask is why do we ask the question anyway? Why do we think that there is a purpose? What is this longing in us that thinks that we are actually supposed to matter? Do we really matter? If we don’t really, why live like we do? Why deny reality?

He then goes on to the question of why the universe is fine-tuned. He chalks it up to selection bias, but this seems odd. Nature has a bias? Jelbert in doing this has just taken nature and made it his deity. He also presents the fallacious argument that if we are here to observe it, then the universe must be fine-tuned to evolve and support life. This is like the case of being sentenced to death tied to a stake and facing you are fifty sharpshooters with laser scopes on their rifles. Somehow, they all miss and the official in charge says that divine favor must be on your side and lets you go. When asked why it happened you say “Well of course it did, because I wouldn’t be here if it didn’t!” Yet this is the very thing to explain. Most of us would think the game had to be rigged somehow.

As for diversity, that is explained by evolution. Now here’s another problem for Jelbert. I could happily accept evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life. Evolution is not a problem to my theism. The problem is as has been said, Jelbert has to accept it. It’s the only game in town.

You see, for me, I happen to think that we know a lot more about the gestation process than our ancestors did. We know that there is no divine intervention involved every time a woman gets pregnant. Does that change the truth of the Psalms that we are fearfully and wonderfully made? Not at all. God using a naturalistic process does not change Him being behind the process and the great mind that developed it. I consider evolution in the same light.

Jelbert says that Wood has no explanation, but Wood does. Jelbert can’t just throw out God as an explanation entirely. Wood could easily say “I do not know the specifics of how God brought about the diversity of life, but I see enough evidence for Him so I know He did it and if He does exist, then He is behind it somehow.”

Jelbert goes on to ask that if scientists discovered how abiogenesis takes place, where would that leave the theist? For me, it would leave me in the exact same place. It would not be a problem. God is never meant to be a stopgap. I could instead ask Jelbert, what if it doesn’t come up? Jelbert has a lot more hanging on the science than I do.

What about miracles? Does God explain those? Jelbert says that there are conflicting miracle claims in many religions. It would have been nice if we had been told these claims. For instance, Christianity would happily accept the miracles of Judaism. They’re part of our Old Testament. Islam meanwhile claims no miracle except the Koran. Miracles that show up in the hadith later on are quite likely not historical and the Koran admits many miraculous things about Jesus.

What about other religions? Pantheistic systems like Hinduism don’t explain miracles because all is God. What is behind the miracles? Is God changing God? This certainly doesn’t work where the extra-material world is an illusion. What of Buddhism? Buddhism seeks to break people away from attachment to the world. Miracles make no sense here either.

It’s also worth pointing out that I do not rule out miracles in other religions because they are in other religions. I actually have this strange idea. Let’s go with a case by case study and look at the evidence for a claim before we decide if it’s true or not. I realize this goes against the atheistic position of ruling them out a priori, but that is just what you do when you go by the evidence. Chesterton said years ago that the theist believes in the miracle claim, rightly or wrongly, because of the evidence. The atheist disbelieves in it, rightly or wrongly, because he has a dogma against them.

What about the idea that some miracles are the work of demonic powers such as the devil? Jelbert says that we need to be able to scribe to the devil a very devious mind if we hold this. I don’t think it will take a lot to convince Christians of that. This is someone Jesus said in John 8 was a liar from the beginning and is a murderer and no truth is found in him.

Jelbert also says it’s amazing so many people were born into the right religion, but does this not go against his science? Jelbert just happened to be born in the right part of the world where they have scientific explanations instead of theistic ones. Isn’t that a wonderful coincidence? This is simply the genetic fallacy.

Jelbert does present the evidence of Sai Baba as a miracle worker. He says that we dismiss the claims and say he was just a con man. I have not looked at the claims so I cannot say. I can say I would not just dismiss them. If evidence can be shown that he was a con man, then that does damage the evidence for miracles. He goes on to say that the Gospel writers were not witnesses of what they wrote, but reported other traditions uncritically. In later chapters he looks at the historical Jesus, so we will deal with this then. Shortly here, we could simply recommend the newest edition of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham.

It’s also worth pointing out that Jelbert does give a source here some and that source is Wells. Wells was not and is not a New Testament scholar. In fact, for some time, he held to mythicism. It is a wonder why Jelbert takes someone like that seriously, but it is quite likely any port in a storm.

Jelbert does say the New Testament has Jesus doing miracles such as raising the dead and feeding miraculously which were done by Elisha. Well of course! What does he expect? Jesus is doing reenactment and showing that He is greater than Elisha while staying in the tradition of Elisha. Of course, Jesus healed the blind as well and that didn’t happen in the past, but I suppose we just speak where it did happen and ignore where it didn’t.

He goes on to quote Wells saying that the letters of Paul don’t mention miracles. Why should they? The letters are not biographies. They are written to tell of the life of Jesus. The only reason to mention a miracle is that it is relevant to the needs of the people. Are we to think that telling the story of the multiplication of food would somehow help the Corinthians deal with food offered to idols?

We do need to go into some more New Testament as Jelbert does look at the appearances. Jelbert points to an evolutionary development based on the number of appearances, but how does this mesh? The account with the most experiences by far is the first one, the found in 1 Cor. 15. Still, this is discussed more in later chapters so we will deal with it then.

Jelbert then concludes that atheists can be thankful for their existence, their families, their friends, and all that these entail, but I want to know, thankful to whom? Jelbert has no one to thank for his existence and if he wishes to say the universe, then the universe has become the deity. If the universe needs an explanation, who could the universe thank?

In the end, I have to agree with Mike Licona on this, that methodological naturalism can often be a safe space for atheists. I, meanwhile, as a Christian theist can accept science happily and have no problem. I could accept the explanations of evolution and such given in this chapter and my worldview in Christian theism is not altered one iota. Jelbert could not say the same about theism.

We’ll continue next time looking more at science itself.

In Christ,
Nick Peters