Book Plunge: Evidence Considered Chapter 4

What do I think of the response to naturalism? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Our look at the work of Glenton Jelbert continues. This time it is a response to an essay on the problems of naturalism. He starts by pointing out that methodological naturalism does not equal metaphysical naturalism. Sure, but even still, this is a hard subject to discuss. Just recently, I read a work that had a chapter on this very topic.

Part of the problem is scientific methodology has thoroughly changed. Jelbert’s first time given on this is the 1550’s after the scientific revolution had begun. However, this assumes that there was a scientific revolution. In reality, science had been being done for centuries on without any sort of peep of objection from the church. The church itself was a driving force behind science.

While this is certainly the case in a work like God’s Philosophers, someone could be skeptical and say that that’s by a Christian. Indeed it is, but what if the same was being said by a non-Christian? How about Tim O’Neill? O’Neill is an atheist who would be one of the first to come out against this idea.

Did science get a jump start at a certain point? Yes. For all manner of reasons, but this is not because science was a neglected enterprise. This was a continuation. Industry had been an enterprise before the Industrial Revolution. We had plenty of technology before the technological revolution. There were plenty of things that were digital before the digital revolution.

The medievals were also quite often looking for “natural” explanations of what happened. Did they get the answers wrong many times? Sure. They at the same time weren’t making stuff up theologically and they weren’t doing God of the Gaps arguments. If anything, they wanted to fill in all the gaps. The more gaps they filled in, the more they wondered at the glory of God with a sort of “Wow. It’s really incredible how He did this.”

While we can say methodological naturalism has had some success, we still have to question it. What is methodological naturalism? Both of the terms are hard to define. If we mean that science cannot admit any extramaterial realities whatsoever, when we will have a problem. What if the universe was made by extramaterial realities? Then we have a definition of science that can never get us to the truth.

And what of naturalism? Has this naturalism been scientifically verified? If not, are we not begging the question? Why should a Christian have to go into the lab and bracket their beliefs but an atheist shouldn’t? Why not have both go with their beliefs?

As for no explanatory power behind extra-material realities, I could agree, provided we are not talking about everything that is. You may not need to posit God in an interaction that combines hydrogen and oxygen and gets water, but you do need Him to posit how the hydrogen and oxygen and anything else exists to begin with. The fine-tuning argument itself does point to many people to a designer of the universe. I’m not saying I use it as I’m not a scientist, but if one looks at the universe and thinks it’s the result of a mind, it’s not hard to think there is a mind behind it.

There is also the field of teleology where we look at the purpose behind things. It has often been thought that modern science has killed this, but this is false. Modern science in fact depends on it. Let’s consider evolution for instance. What does evolution do? It allows the most fit to survive so that they can pass on their genes and the creatures that are the most fit do indeed survive. That is teleology in itself. The reality of things acting for an end does not have to posit an intentional acting on their part, much like the arrow doesn’t intentionally fly towards the target, but having a mind as the connection behind things certainly does explain data very well. Those interested in more of this are invited to check the work of Edward Feser on the fifth way of Thomas Aquinas.

Another example could be the ID movement saying that junk DNA has a purpose. I do not say this as a supporter of ID, but if a claim is made, why not consider looking into it? It is my understanding that it has been found that it does have a purpose and why did they think that? Because they posited that there is an intelligence who would not waste in that way.

Besides that, Christians for the most part do not think that this universe requires constant direct intervention. It doesn’t change our looking at it is the work of God. One of my wife’s favorite Bible passages is about being fearfully and wonderfully made. Granting David wrote the Psalm, we can be sure that he knew the basics of modern biology, in the sense that it takes sex to make a baby. There is no indication that David thought all would be well after the Bathsheba incident because the ordinary peasants had no idea what made babies. They knew it very well.

The modern gynecologist today certainly knows a lot more about what happens when the sperm enters the female body, but that doesn’t change anything about humans being fearfully and wonderfully made. The process is deep and intricate, but we are still that. This is also in fact why saying we are the products of evolution would not bother me. The methodology does not change the end result.

Jelbert goes on to say that the rise of modern science led us to be able to say “I don’t know.” It’s something to think that this is something no one ever said before. Obviously they did, because they were seeking answers to the questions. It would also be strange to say that this is because of Christian theism. Do we need to suggest that Aristotle, who did get a lot of things wrong, was opposed to doing investigation?

Jelbert’s main piece of information on this is to compare a map with the 1490’s and that of the 1550’s. The maps are from the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. The claim is the earlier one was beautiful and complete in every detail, but wrong because guesses were seen as an adequate substitute for knowledge. Meanwhile, the later one is blank where the mapmaker does not know what is there.

Sadly, without seeing the maps, it’s hard to comment on them. In each case, we are dealing with one cartographer and it’s hard to point to one and see them as representative of the whole of the time. It’s also quite hard to read motives. Guesses were seen as knowledge? How is this known? Has Jelbert looked to see how beliefs were arrived at the time? Does he have any sources from the medieval period that show this?

Jelbert goes on to say that naturalism explained things better than theism. Once again, naturalism does explain things very well, unless you ask it to explain everything to which it fails miserably. Naturalism still has the basic question of why is there something rather than nothing at all? Naturalism can explain how one existent thing becomes another, but it can’t seem to explain why there is any existent thing at all.

Jelbert also says that every technological advance and improved understanding of our universe comes from science. Once again, this is fine, unless you think of anything that is not scientific. If we were talking about moral living for instance, what has been the greatest impetus to moral living except the life of Jesus of Nazareth? If we even want to talk about science, what caused the rise of science but the rise of Christianity itself? If we are talking about the study of the material world, I am not surprised that science does the most there since that is what science is to study, but do most people really think the goods and knowledge of the material world are the best? When it comes to questions of how to be a good spouse, how to love your neighbor, what kind of lessons you want to leave behind, etc., I doubt few of us head to the sciences.

I will not comment on the evolution of personality and such. That’s a topic I have not studied and one I deem irrelevant. To say that we have evolution, therefore God is not needed, is to still have a God-of-the-Gaps theology. If Jelbert wishes to condemn that kind of thinking, he needs to avoid it himself.

He does get into some that evolution cannot guarantee us true beliefs, seeing as many people today are superstitious and such, and I do not mean religious by that. This is in fact the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism put forward by Plantinga. Evolution could give us beliefs that helps us survive, but that does not entail that those beliefs are true.

Jelbert says that reason has provided better results and there is no alternative. Indeed, but why is this so? Is this not a good question to ask? We are often told so much that we should be exploring the questions and this is scientific. If the universe is a result of a cosmic accident, why should it be reasonable and why should we be able to relate to and understand one another? Why does it seem that the mathematics that we have and have developed on our own works so well?

It is quite odd that Jelbert has a chapter on how important it is to ask the questions and explore, but when he comes to the big one, which is about everything, that one doesn’t seem to be as worthy of exploration. As I have said throughout, naturalism is very good at explaining some things, except everything. Jelbert strikes me as pointing to some points and thinking that all points are explained. Also, without looking further at medieval and other sources, I do not think I can accept the claims about the medieval period. I just do not find the arguments in this chapter convincing.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Sense and Goodness Without God Part 6

Is there anything to reports of NDEs? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

I’m not going to get too much into the mind-body subject of this chapter, but I wish to comment on one aspect of it that I think is highly lacking and that is Carrier’s treatment of NDE’s, otherwise known as Near-Death Experiences.

Near-Death Experiences are experiences where the person is on the verge of death (Or in some cases now is actually dead) and they have some sort of experience where they have a separation from their body and give an account of what happened to them when they were dead. Naturally, they do return to their body or else we’d never hear about it.

Now there are some NDEs that we cannot really do anything with in the area of verification. If you die and claim you went to Heaven and met your grandmother there or talked to God or saw an angel, I cannot verify that. It could have happened, but we cannot verify that it happened.

But let’s suppose you die and while apart from your body, you see events that take place. You see meals that your family is making in your absence. You see car accidents that take place. You hear comments that are made in the waiting room.

Also important with such events is that the person is spoken to as soon as possible about what happened. This is one reason among several others that I’m skeptical about the account in “Heaven is for Real”. The account of what happened came much later and very little of it has any verification and as a Christian, I think much of it contradicts Scripture.

In this chapter, Carrier will speak of both NDE’s and OBE’s, but for our purposes, what unites them is the same. A person sees something when we have no reason to think that they would be capable of seeing anything else. (If you’re under anesthesia in the hospital, it’s quite certain you’re not seeing anything for instance.)

On page 155 he writes “Many fanciful legends have grown up boasting of amazing proofs that a particular OBE was genuine, but they have always dissolved under scrutiny; investigations turn up no corroboration for any of the story’s details, or often uncover evidence that flatly contradicts it.”

Little problem here. Not one such case is mentioned. When looking at recommended reading, I see nothing that in fact records accounts that are favorable towards NDEs. You won’t find, for instance, Michael Sabom’s work on this topic. You also won’t find Habermas and Moreland on this topic, and surely Carrier knows of this since he interacts with Moreland some in this book.

What accounts do we have? Those interested in more are free to read Sabom’s book as well as Habermas and Moreland’s. You can also find interviews of Habermas. One of him on the Sci Phi show in two parts. Here is part 1 and part 2. Also in parts one and two are him at the Veritas forum. You can listen again to part 1 and part 2.

Those interested in a debate can hear the debate he had with Keith Augustine in three parts. part 1, part 2, and part 3.

One caseI think worth mentioning right off is the story of Pam Reynolds, who gave an account of what she saw while she was dead in a sort of standstill operation. She gave a highly detailed account of various things she saw when she definitely had no way of seeing them.

My biggest problem with what I saw here was that once again, there was the sound of one-hand clapping. We are told to value evidence, but only one side of the story was given in the case of NDEs. Evidential NDEs were not presented. Again, the recommended works are highly lacking. No doubt there are several fake accounts out there, but it takes more to say all of them are fake.

Next time we will look at the question of how we got here.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Sense And Goodness Without God Part 1

Does Carrier really provide a good defense of metaphysical naturalism? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Carrier’s book is Sense and Goodness Without God, but it looks like it doesn’t deliver on either account. Going through this book will in fact be extremely laborious for anyone else who tries to do so. (I think of Allie’s repeated question of “You’re not finished with that yet?!” No love, I’m not.) The writing is entirely dry. There is apologies for that saying it will apply at the start, but it never picks up.

Of course, the real meat of a book is found in the arguments that it gives, and in this case, they’re not good at all. We get the sound of one-hand clapping largely, meaning there is often total neglect of arguments for the other side. For instance, in the long chapter on why there is no God, I was hoping I’d see the Thomistic arguments, my favorite ones, interacted with since so many people leave those out. Indeed, they weren’t. In fact, no theistic arguments were interacted with.

Another problem is that Carrier is too much of a polymath. He wants to write a little bit on everything, some of which the reader wonders what it has to do with metaphysical naturalism. Do I really need to know what Carrier’s views are on politics in order to defend metaphysical naturalism? Does it really matter what he thinks about abstract art?

If I’m to take what’s in this book seriously, I am to believe that Carrier is an authority on linguistics, philosophy, morality, free-will debates, cosmology, evolution, theistic arguments, history, economics, art, interpretation of court cases, etc.

We could grant for the sake of argument that Carrier should be seen as an authority on one or two of the issues perhaps, but on all of them? Not a chance. Now there could be some basic study in other issues, but not enough to really be taken as an authority.

No problem! That’s what footnotes are for!

Except there aren’t any.

In fact, he explicitly says there aren’t any! On page 5 he says “I use no footnotes or endnotes.”

Hardly ever will you find a book and page number as a claim for where an argument came from. Instead, at the end of a section Carrier will list books you can read on the topic with the idea that if you read these books, somewhere in there you will find what backs what is being argued. Excuse me if I don’t want to order a dozen books and read through them to verify one claim that will be found somewhere in all of that.

When he does also mention someone he is arguing against, it is a wonder why he thinks that person should take him seriously. Why should Moreland or Plantinga really be interacting with what Carrier says? Does anyone think these credentialed philosophers are going to be listening to the words of someone like Carrier at this point? Now he’s free to make critiques of them, but if anyone will get the benefit of the doubt in this case, it will certainly be these credentialed philosophers. Of course they could be wrong, but I highly doubt that Carrier has shown the case from what I’ve read. For those wanting to see more on the philosophical issues, I recommend reading David Wood’s review.

Because there is so much problematic with this book then, I am not going to have a full review in one post. I am going to handle this as a multi-part process.

Carrier starts with the praise of philosophy. No problem with that! Yet too often in this book one will often find philosophy somehow morphs into science. That is something indeed problematic, but we will cross that bridge when we get to it.

Of course, I wonder if he has a right understanding of philosophy. Philosophy is not just thinking about stuff. It’s a rigorous process which is why one needs to be interacting with those who have best shown themselves to be authorities and to interact with those who have studied it on an academic level. Hence, while I am a Thomist, I will give a basic defense of my position, but then point to others who know far better than I do, like Edward Feser.

Carrier describes his religion as philosophy and says the following:

“Every hour that devout believers spend praying, reading Scripture, attending sermons and masses, I spend reading, thinking, honing my skill at getting at the truth and rooting out error. I imagine by most standards I have been far more devout than your average churchgoer. For I have spent over an hour every day of my life, since I began my teenage years, on this serious task of inquiry and reflection.” (page 4)

It’s nice to begin a book with a bit of hubris. Readers of Carrier’s book will not learn much about metaphysical naturalism, but they will learn much about Carrier.

On page 5, we find that he says “For all readers, I ask that my work be approached with the same intellectual charity you would expect from anyone else.”

I want readers to keep this in the back of their minds for now. If this is so, then when we get to Scriptural interpretation, we should see this intellectual charity. We won’t. He goes on along these lines on the same page and the following page to say:

“If what I say anywhere in this book appears to contradict, directly or indirectly, something else I say here, the principle of interpretive charity should be applied: assume you are misreading the meaning of what I said in each or either case. Whatever interpretation would eliminate the contradiction and produce agreement is probably correct. So you are encouraged in every problem that may trouble you to find that interpretation.”

I have no problem with this kind of idea. I have a problem with it not being consistent. Again, when we come to Scripture, will we find the same thing? Will we find a desire to try to work out supposed contradictions between events, or will we find there is not even an attempt. You don’t need a crystal ball (Which Carrier doesn’t believe in any way) to know the answer to that.

So since that was short and all of that in the first chapter, I’ll move on to the second for today as well.

This one deals with how Carrier got where he was. Carrier grew up in a background that had this idea that the text should clearly say something. Granted his church was not conservative. Still, there is this hang-up in most American churches today that the Bible should be clear to modern-day Americans. I always wonder why clear to us? Why not clear to 16th century Japanese or 19th century Germans or 13th century Chinese or 11th century Frenchmen or 9th century Italians or 1st century Jews?

You get the picture.

What hubris our culture has!

Carrier also asks why the Bible wasn’t saying much that seemed to be about what was on his mind. Why does it not talk about science or about Democracy? It never seems to register that these were not issues the biblical writers were wanting to talk about. That does not mean they’re unimportant to them. You won’t read hardly anything on my blog about nutrition or medical care, but that does not mean I find them more important. It simply means the focus is elsewhere.

On the other hand, gender equality was there as well to which I can’t help but wonder why Carrier wasn’t paying attention to the first chapter of Genesis? Man and woman are both created in the image of God.

On page 15, we read Carrier say that “In general, no divinely inspired text would be so long and rambling and hard to understand.” He goes on to say:

“The Bible is full of the superfluous–extensive genealogies of no relevance to the meaning of life or the nature of the universe, long digressions on barbaric rituals of bloodletting and taboo that have nothing to do with being a good person or advancing society toward greater happiness, lengthy diatribes against long-dead nations and constant harping on a coming doom and gloom, I asked myself: Would any wise compassionate being even allow this book to be attributed to him, much less be its author? Certainly not. How could Lao Tzu, a mere moral, who never claimed any superior powers or status, write better, more thoroughly, more concisely, about so much more than the Inspired Prophets of God.”

This boils down to an argument one sees repeated often in the book.

I would not do X if I was God.
God does X.
Therefore, this claim cannot be a claim of God.

Never does it occur to Carrier that the Bible is the story of the people of Israel and all of this information is indeed relevant to Israel. The genealogies matter greatly as for the ancient mindset, who you came from spoke volumes about who you were and your history. The judgments against nations that were long-dead would remind the Israelites of God’s faithfulness in doing what He said He would do, which would mean He could also be trusted in to do what He promised He would do through them. Finally, if the Christian claim is true, it means God has interacted to deal ultimately with the problem of evil in Christ. How can that not be towards the advancing of society?

Of course, I would not deny that one should read the great philosophers. I certainly think so. They comment on many issues the biblical writers did not comment on. I happen to enjoy going through the Golden Sayings of Epictetus for instance. Yet why should I think the Bible is written largely with the idea of telling me how to be a good person? That is in there, but that is not the main point of Christianity. The main point is how God is dealing with the problem of evil in Christ. Being a good person is part of that, but not the whole of the situation.

It’s not a shock also to find on page 16 the complaints about the God of the Bible. The picking up of sticks in Numbers 15, the idea of judgment through war on those who were opposed to Israel, genocide and fascism, slavery, etc. All of these have been seen numerous times before, but it’s nice to see that intellectual charity disappeared so quickly. No. You won’t find Carrier responding to responses to these. They’re just asserted.

Be wary always of the sound of one-hand clapping.

Carrier in fact on page 16 says “It does not good to try in desperation to make excuses for it. A good and wise man’s message would not need such excuses. It follows that the Bible was written neither by the wise nor the good.”

So let’s see what we have here.

A good and wise man’s message does not need excuses. (I’m sure Socrates would have liked to have known this when he was on trial. However, we see no defense of Carrier’s claim whatsoever.)
The message of the Bible needs defending. (No problem here.)
It follows then that the Bible is not from a good and wise man and certainly not God.

But it doesn’t! The first claim is not backed at all! How many good and wise men in history have had to give account for their actions? How many have written defenses of their own message? If Carrier ever has to defend himself from his critics, does that mean that he is not good and wise since if he had a good and wise message, it would not need defense?

It’s furthermore just a way of saying to avoid looking at the evidence on the other side. Why should someone not want to do that? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do, especially if we are to follow the path of intellectual charity?

On page 17, Carrier says when he finished reading the Bible, that he declared that he was an atheist.

Really? The most you could declare is you think the Bible’s message is false. You certainly can’t get to atheism! There are so many more arguments for theism than just the Bible. Did Carrier not interact with them?

On page 18, Carrier talks about what the experience was of declaring himself an atheist in the society around him.

“For the first time, rather than being merely consistently pestered, I was being called names, and having hellfire wished upon me. It was a rude awakening.”

I am sure right now Christians in Sudan faced with death constantly are thankful they do not have it so rough. There’s real persecution. Carrier was called names and had hellfire wished on him.

This is amusing considering how just before he talked about the awful history of Christianity. He talks about the terrible things they’ve done and are still doing such as “trying to pass blasphemy laws to murdering doctors, from throwing eggs at atheists to killing their cats, from trying to dumb-down science education to acting holier-than-thou in pushing their skewed moral agenda upon government and industry alike.”

For murdering doctors, I suppose he’s talking about abortion doctors. If so, the huge huge huge majority of Christians stand outside abortion clinics and protest and offer help to those considering an abortion. This is entirely within their legal rights to do. For those who are bombing clinics and murdering doctors, we certainly condemn those, but this is the rare rare rare exception to the rule.

Of course, there’s always the great danger of having eggs thrown at someone and having their cats killed. I know I regularly go out and meet with my evangelical brethren. We get together at the grocery store and buy a mass of egg cartons and look for atheist houses and let loose! When we find their cats, we kill them and bring the corpse to church giving thanks that we tormented the atheist.

Of course, there are some legitimate problems in all of this. I have no desire to dumb down science education for instance and think Christians make a mistake when they treat the Bible as if teaching about science. At the same time, if someone wants to present evidence for a view like ID, for instance, a view I’m somewhat skeptical of as a Thomist, then let them do so. I’m open to it. As for holier-than-thou types, I have zero patience whatsoever with them. If Carrier thinks he finds Christians annoying, he’s not the only one.

Well Carrier certainly does show how he views the opposition. As he says on page 19 when writing about the Christianity he faces, “So great is the threat of this superstition against individuals, against society, against knowledge, against general human happiness, that it would be immoral to not fight it.” He later describes it as a crusade. (So apparently Carrier doesn’t condemn all Crusades.)

Sometimes people wonder why I speak in the language of battle. This is why. I believe the stakes are high and ironically, I see holding to an atheist system as a threat to society. Of course, to be sure, my idea of combat is only intellectual though I do use physical metaphors to explain the picture. I don’t doubt that Carrier has no desire to use physical violence either in this kind of debate, but I wonder if atheists in history have thought the same way.

We’ve only gone about 20 pages through and already there’s a lot to deal with. We’ll deal with even more next time.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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