Wednesday, February 06, 2013

God and Reason 3 - After the Course

After the third lecture in the "God and Reason" course I fell into conversation with someone I assume is a Waterloo undergraduate. Intelligent and articulate, he asked me some questions about my worldview and made a number of questionable claims. I don't know his name, but I'll refer to him as "M".

M has a pre-scientific view of the world and believes in spirits, souls, and so forth. I have done my best to reconstruct his claims, but if I am wrong in any particular I would be happy to correct it.

M does not accept the theory of evolution. He agrees that "microevolution" takes place, but does not accept "macroevolution". [See here and here for brief responses.] He asked me, "Were you there?" in response to my listing some of the evidence for evolution; this is a typical ploy of the creationist Ken Ham. However, M has never taken a course in evolutionary biology. (Here is how paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson would respond: "If a sect does officially insist that its structure of belief demands that evolution be false, then no compromise is possible. An honest and competent biology teacher can only conclude that the sect's beliefs are wrong and that its religion is a false one. It is not the teacher's duty to point this out unnecessarily, but it is certainly his duty not to compromise the point.")

M thinks there is no problem of pain for animals because animals don't have souls. (Theologian William Lane Craig has made some related claims, to which you can see good responses here.)

M thinks that the historicity of Jesus is the "most well-supported of any figure in the ancient world". He believes there are secular references to Jesus as early as 15 years after his death. This is not so. I gave him my e-mail address and asked for an example. So far nothing has come.

M tried a version of Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, but he wasn't quite sure where he was going and he eventually gave up with that.

M thinks that his god sets an absolute standard of right and wrong. He is completely fine with the slaughter of the Midianites (even the children), as depicted in the Bible. Although M believes that the Ten Commandments set this absolute standard (and prohibit murder), he also stated that if his god told him to kill someone, he would.

In many ways M seems typical of the hundreds of Christian evangelicals I've talked with in my life. I hope that a university education will broaden his horizons a bit and he will learn more about the theory of evolution and the evidence for it before he rejects it.


Anonymous said...

A few comments on the "were you there?" question.

People who ask that question are showing that they are willing to discard vast amounts of knowledge in order not to accept the evidence for evolutionary biology. I dare say that they show that they recognize that they need to discard vast amounts of knowledge to do so.

One example of the knowledge that would be discarded: They know that no one was there. They would (rightfully) recoil in disbelief if someone said, "Yes, I was there." Yet how do they know that you weren't there? They weren't there to observe that you weren't there.

And it should be pointed out that science shows its strength and usefulness when it tells us about things which are not directly observed: Things which are too distant in the past, or too distant in space, or too small, or too large, or too fast, or too slow, or are invisible in the spectrum detected by the human eye, etc. We don't need science to tell us about what is evident and tangible.

What this means is that the "Were you there?" people are presuming an epistemology (something like nihilism, solipsism, or maybe only omphalism) without having any justification for it, one which has the disadvantage of discounting lots of things which seem to be knowledge, and which may even be self-defeating. All of this is needed to refute evolutionary biology?


Jonathan Blaney said...

I find the idea that Jesus is the best-attested figure of the ancient world quite staggering.

For someone like Augustus we have coins, inscriptions, statutes, the remains of his house, his autobiography...

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Yes, Jonathan, it is a common claim by Christian evangelicals (Lee Strobel, for example, is one that makes this claim) and yet another one that is without any foundation.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

He believes there are secular references to Jesus as early as 15 years after his death.

If he comes through with the evidence, be sure to pass it along, because I agree with you that he is wrong.

But even so, what a low standard to set! Would a report from 15 years later have any evidential value? Imagine someone today wrote a book about something that happened in 1998; say the sentencing of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Your first question would probably be: did they make effective use of the primary material from the time? My point is, you would not confuse something written 15 years later with primary evidence.

Galactor said...

Were you there?

Of course, not one person alive was "there" to witness whether Jesus existed or not.

This doesn't seem to be a problem for christians.

SLC said...

I would ask the question as to whether Mr. Ham was there when Yeshua of Nazareth was allegedly executed on Calvery? There is not a jot or a tittle of written evidence from anyone who was allegedly there and reported on the event. The Christian bible was written a minimum of 30 years after the event by individuals who weren't there, had never met or observed Yeshua, and wouldn't have know who he was if he walked into a room.

Leslie said...

"Although M believes that the Ten Commandments set this absolute standard (and prohibit murder), he also stated that if his god told him to kill someone, he would."
I think every person who admits to this fundamental belief about their god - that their god has a right to order them to commit murder - should be put in preventive detention immediately for the safety of the rest of society.

True, as an atheist, I assume his god does not exist and therefore will not ever command him to murder any of us.

But what if this man has a hallucination of it commanding him? He has already proven that he has no moral fiber which would countervail such an impulse. He can't be trusted to hear the little voice of conscience which tells most of us to cool down and wait to see if murder still seems like a good idea when we're sober ...

Anonymous said...

What would people do if God instructed them to tell a falsehood (or, let's say, just not go into the whole truth about some unimportant matter like the details of a flood)? Is there some moral code higher than the word of God against telling falsehoods (unlike the case with killing people)?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

It seems to me a Christian has 3 possible responses to the Midianites:

1. Claim it is ethically OK for their god to kill innocent children -- 'cause he's god and makes the rules.

2. Acknowledge that their god does not live up to ethical standards that we ourselves hold and so is not actually all-good.

3. Acknowledge that their bible is not inerrant and that the Midianite story does not reflect what their god did.

Number three seems the easiest out to me, but one that those committed to the inerrancy of their bible cannot deal with.

Number two seems reasonable, too. Why should their god be all-good? After all, he created Ebola.

But inexplicably, number 1 seems to be the answer I get most often.

The Thought Criminal said...

You can imagine that if you purposefully pretend that most Christians are biblical fundamentalists, when large numbers of Christians are not. Other ideas are that 1. People lied about God telling them to do that for evil purposes, 2. that it is reported but it never happened the way it was reported, 3. it's a national myth, as some recent archaeological reports indicate much of the "history" in the historical books is. And those are just three ideas. But those books weren't written by Christians, anyway.

I came back to tell you I mention you, again, in my post today.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Your 1, 2, and 3 are subsumed under my 3. I agree entirely that this is a reasonable way to deal with it.

As for your posts, I am completely uninterested in what you have to say.

The Thought Criminal said...