Tag Archives: skepticism
Part of the Arguing About Evil series.
The problem of evil, or argument from evil, comes in two conventionally recognized forms: logical problems of evil and evidential problems of evil.
Logical problems of evil aim to show that the presence of evil is logically inconsistent with the claim that there exists a being which is omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good. In other words, logical problems of evil argue that if evil exists, then the claim that God exists cannot be true, and vice versa. If a logical argument from evil succeeds, then theism is false. Theists respond to logical problems of evil by showing that there exists a possible reason for the existence of evil, which would show that God’s non-existence is not necessitated by the presence of evil. An example of this is Plantinga’s famous free-will defense, which we’ll look at in one of the posts in this series.
The evidential problem of evil, on the other hand, aims to show not that God’s existence given the existence of evil is impossible, but that it is very unlikely. In this case, pointing out a possible reason for the existence of evil would not work. Theists typically respond by trying to show, “with at least a fair degree of probability, what God’s actual reason for permitting evil is.” (Everitt, p. 229) Examples of these attempts include the free-will theodicy (the claim that a world with free will and evil is better than a world with no evil and no free will) and the soul-making theodicy (the claim that evil serves what can loosely be called a character-building function). A successful evidential argument from evil would not show that theism is certainly false, but only that it is implausible or improbable.
Furthermore, both kinds of the argument from evil can rely on more than just the plain fact that evil exists. According to Everitt, “Some authors… distinguish between different versions of the logical problem, and also different versions of the evidential problem according to whether the focus is on the existence of evil per se, or on the huge total amount, or on the distribution, or on the awfulness of the worst evils, etc.” (Everitt, p. 228) One can also distinguish the kinds of evil that these arguments rely on into two kinds: natural and moral evils. Moral evil typically consists of evil brought about by human activity, such as torture and other forms of cruelty, or deceit, or acting solely for personal gain. Natural evils cover the broad spectrum of evils brought about by the normal operation of the laws of nature, such as disease and natural disasters.
Next post, we’ll look at an example of a logical problem of evil.
Readers of my last post will know that I am concerned that Christian apologists – a term that probably accurately describes Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd, authors of The Jesus Legend – may not give naturalism enough credit. Readers may remember that Eddy and Boyd believe that biblical historical criticism is not critical enough, that, in short, it takes its naturalistic assumptions for granted, and these, in turn, arbitrarily eliminate supernatural hypotheses and explanations as potential answers. I will eventually write more about naturalism’s relation to Christian apologetics. Today, I will focus on a second question raised by my reading of The Jesus Legend and the argument made in the book, one that relates to supernatural explanations. The question, to get straight to the point, is this:
- What informs the content of our supernatural explanations?
This might seem like a strange question, since questions about supernatural explanations usually involve the possibility of the supernatural or their explanatory power. This question was prompted by a specific example used by Eddy and Boyd in their book, and which I mentioned in my last post, “demonization” or “demon possession”. Eddy and Boyd write:
“To the thinking of most who witness phenomena like these – and the authors of this work count themselves among them – attempts to explain some of these phenomena in strictly natural terms are implausible, to say the least. The same could be said about a host of other supernatural phenomena that ‘present human experience’ includes – if we step outside the shallow pool of experience represented by the naturalistic Western worldview.” (Kindle Location, 1103)
I pointed out in my last post that, despite these events seeming supernatural to “most” people who witness them, Eddy and Boyd do not dispute that “some, if not the majority” of these reports of the supernatural can be explained in naturalistic terms. (Kindle Location, 1108). Indeed, they are careful to write only of “reports” and “claims” of the supernatural, rather than point to a specific example of the supernatural which refutes ontological naturalism as a true metaphysical description of reality. Nor do they disavow a preference for naturalistic explanations. They do, however, appear to believe that demon possession actually occurs.
I initially was only interested in why “demon possession”, (as in, a person becomes possessed by a malevolent spirit) is thought to be the best explanation for certain kinds of behavior. My interest became somewhat more nuanced as I read more of The Jesus Legend, seeing that Eddy and Boyd weren’t directly arguing that the resurrection was the best explanation for the evidence, but that the explanations used by legendary Jesus theorists didn’t adequately explain their presentations of the evidence, leaving only the explanation preferred by the Christian apologist to fill the gap. But that doesn’t mean that particular supernatural explanation is a good explanation, nor that it is better than other supernatural explanations one can think of.
There is no indication in The Jesus Legend that Eddy and Boyd have considered alternative supernatural theories that explain what they call demon possession (and the same applies to the resurrection, if am I remembering correctly), which leaves me wondering whether these explanations are dependent for their content on readily available examples of the supernatural. If reports of demon possession are as widespread as Eddy and Boyd claim they are, and if most of these reports can be explained in naturalistic way (as Eddy and Boyd also suggest), why should not one think that existing superstition is influencing the kinds of supernatural explanations we give for events that are difficult to explain? Would any of the symptoms of demon possession lead us to infer that a malevolent spirit had entered the victim’s body if there was not already an association between demon possession and those symptoms in our culture? What if those symptoms are equally well explained by the existence of a supernatural bacterium?
I don’t know, and I don’t expect I’ll have the answers soon. It’s not something The Jesus Legend covers, despite being a book that purportedly concerns itself with methodology. Perhaps, eventually, I’ll come across a work of apologetics that doesn’t take for granted the possibility of other supernatural explanations.
As I’m writing this, I’m halfway through the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge (although I am still blogging my way through the second of the books I’ve chosen to read). At this point, I think it has become clear to me that there are a few problems have to be dealt with.
- First, I don’t have the knowledge to evaluate some of the arguments being made in these books. For instance, having read Jesus Interrupted, Reasonable Faith and The Christian Delusion, I’ve found two very different pictures of the historical Jesus. Bart Ehrman argues that Jesus was really a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, who predicted the coming of the kingdom in his day and age. William Lane Craig argues for a more traditional and Christian understanding of Jesus and, if I am not mistaken, makes no reference to other understandings of Jesus (such as the one described by Ehrman). I don’t know what to make of such different and apparently contrary positions without reading more.
- Second, some of the books set by the challenge are too easy. I’ve skimmed through the contents of Guy P. Harrison’s 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God and I don’t see what I could gain from reading this book. It seems to be aimed at people who have never seriously thought about their beliefs and just take them for granted. Contending with Christianity’s Critics also appears to set the bar a bit low, since it aims to respond to the New Atheists. I’ve read some stuff by Hitchens and Dawkins and others years ago, and while they probably made an impression on me when I was completely new to the debate, I don’t feel I need to deal with them now. What I remember of them doesn’t seem convincing to me.
- Third, the books don’t seem be interacting well with each other. Granted, I’m only halfway through the list, but the scope of the books I’ve read defending Christianity seems much broader than those of the skeptical works. For example, Reasonable Faith argues that miracles are possible and can be demonstrated to be probable, provides a series of arguments or the existence of God, presents a view of the historical Jesus and also argues that the resurrection is the best explanation for the historical evidence we have. Meanwhile, Jesus Interrupted barely touches upon the question of miracles (and I think Craig provides the better argument here, unless I’ve misread Ehrman somehow) and provides a lot of useful general information about the Bible and the historical Jesus. At best, Ehrman’s book can be opposed to a single chapter in Reasonable Faith. The Christian Delusion (one of the books I’ve read but haven’t reviewed yet) consists of about fifteen essays. Many of these are interesting, and some of them are probably important to keep in mind, but very few of them have anything to say about the arguments found in Reasonable Faith or Layman’s Letters to Doubting Thomas (which I’m reading at the moment). Harrison’s 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God almost certainly doesn’t engage these arguments either, which leaves Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God. This seems like a rather heavy burden for a single book to bear, even though I haven’t considered the arguments found in Contending with Christianity’s Critics or Swinburne’s Is There a God?. (One might also mention that Carrier is a historian, not a philosopher, unlike the authors of the apologetic works).
As a solution to these problems, I’m planning to increase my general knowledge relating to these topics. There are a few books I’m considering, although it’s a bit difficult to find which books are reliable (especially about the historical Jesus and the New Testament) . I’m also planning to read more difficult books which discuss these arguments. I’ve already set my eyes on Theism and Explanation by Gregory Dawes, because it looks like it engages with Layman’s Letters to a Doubting Thomas and Swinburne’s Is There a God?. Layman’s book isn’t as advanced, though, so I’ll probably balance things out something else by Swinburne. All this is assuming that I don’t find Theism and Explanation too difficult to read. I’ve never studied philosophy, so this solution might not work for me.
This post, unlike all the previous ones, covers four chapters of Reasonable Faith, and will be akin to a quick review rather than an analysis. The reason for this is that there’s a lot of material to read before one can make a proper analysis of these chapters, so instead, I’ll make a few general comments about each one.
The Existence of God
Chapters 3 and 4 provide a series of arguments which support the existence of God. These arguments come in various categories:
- Cosmological arguments
- Teleological arguments
- Ontological arguments
- Moral arguments
I don’t claim to be able to provide a rebuttal to any of them, nor will I try, but I plan to eventually make available the literature I find and read about each of these arguments.
I guess the important question is whether I find any of these convincing. Right now, I can only say “no”, even though I probably can’t rebut the majority of them. That might seem a little inconsistent, but I think there is some merit in not being convinced too quickly.
First, I have questions about their premises which I can’t answer and that Reasonable Faith doesn’t cover. Second, I don’t enough about the science that relates to one of the cosmological arguments and to the teleological arguments. In the former case, I purposefully avoided reading Craig’s dealing with cosmology, simply because he is not a cosmologist. This might seem lazy and unfair, but so far, I’ve always been disappointed by non-expert theists and atheists who engage with cosmology (though, to be fair, Craig does seem more knowledgeable about it than most people). In any case, I might return to it once I have a better picture of the models Craig discusses and the state of current cosmology. Currently, I have no way to tell if Craig’s presentation of the science is correct, and it seems a bad idea to get my first exposure to the science through a nonscientist. Third, and finally, I know that laymen often underestimate how complicated arguments like these are, and until I have read more about them, I won’t be confident about accepting or not accepting the argument.
History and Miracles
Chapters 5 and 6 deal with history and miracles respectively. The former argues that it is possible for us to know history with some confidence, and deals with various objections to this argument, while the latter argues that miracles are possible and that it is possible for there to be enough evidence for us to believe one has occurred. I disagree with a few minor points in these chapters, but these points are not relevant to the conclusions of these chapters, which I agree with. I won’t go into detail here, because I don’t think the conclusions of these chapters are controversial or require further reading to accept. That said, I’ll probably have a post sometime next week about of these minor points I disagree with, which relates to the slogan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. I’m not entirely sure that Craig gives this the treatment it deserves, so I’ll look into it in my next post.
My next post on Reasonable Faith should deal with the last two chapters, after which I’ll start reading another book set by the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge.
Earlier this week I wrote that I would be taking the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge made back in 2010 by Luke Muelhauser of commonsenseatheism. Now, I’m halfway through Bart D. Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted. Ehrman is an agnostic and an author of several popular works about early Christianity and the New Testament. Jesus Interrupted is not a book that sets out to debunk Christianity. Rather, its aim is to present an accessible overview of the scholarly consensus in biblical studies about a number of issues, including Biblical authorship, the reliability of the books found in the Bible and the historical Jesus. Ehrman’s aim, as he explains in the first chapter, is to make known to the churchgoing public what is established and uncontroversial to Biblical scholars. He explains that there is a huge difference between what the public learns from their pastors (at least in the United States) and what academics know about the Bible. This point has particular resonance for me, because it parallels my experience with Christianity. Almost none of this basic information about the Bible was, to my recollection, discussed or explained in the hundreds of sermons I’ve heard or the numerous catechism classes I attended. (I was vaguely aware of the New Testament Apocrypha, which were referred to once and twice in a positive way.)
Ehrman, in the first four chapters, makes three important points, which you can read as a quick summary of the rest of this post.
- We don’t know who wrote most of the books in the New Testament. The Gospels were probably not written by eyewitnesses, and there are books or letters whose authenticity is disputed in the New Testament canon.
- The authors of these books had different opinions about who Jesus was, and did not necessarily agree with each other about his teachings. They interpreted and presented them differently, leading to discrepancies between them.
- These books are not inerrant. There are mistakes, later additions by editors and contradictory claims.
Back in 2010, Luke Muelhauser of the now closed commonsenseatheism set up a challenge for Christians and atheists called the Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge. This challenge, like John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity challenge, invites people to attempt a rational and careful consideration of their beliefs, by having them read a list of books written by skeptics and Christians alike. I’ve been interested in Loftus’s challenge for a long time, but it’s aimed solely at Christians and thus lists only skeptical works. Luke Muelhauser’s challenge is less one-sided, and as I want to give each side a fair chance to convince me (after a few years of following skeptical blogs and works), I wish to take up the challenge.
Unfortunately, the Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge is quite difficult, requiring an advanced knowledge of philosophy and involves reading about 10,000 pages of material. Hence, the easy and more manageable version of the challenge.
I intend to go through the books recommended by the easy version:
- Bart Ehrman – Jesus, Interrupted
- C. Stephen Layman – Letters to a Doubting Thomas
- Guy P. Harrison – 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God
- Paul Copan, William Lane Craig & others – Contending with Christianity’s Critics
- John Loftus & others – The Christian Delusion
- William Lane Craig – Reasonable Faith
- Richard Swinburne – Is There a God?
- Richard Carrier – Sense and Goodness Without God
This leaves me with a digestible 2600 pages. I’m not likely to follow this particular order, given that I’ve already acquired some of these books, but I will be posting a short review whenever I finish one of them. Along the way, expect me to post questions I have, things I find interesting or relevant, and the like.
I also want to learn more about the history of Christianity and biblical scholarship in general, so I’ll probably do a bit of side-reading while working my way through these.