"A priori": a little philosophy of big things

These days, while delving in the world of logic and apologetics with the inimitable Ronald Nash, I’ve suddenly become aware of a principle that we’d all do well to pay attention to.

Actually, it’s been sitting at the back of my mind for a while, but a recent series of unconnected experiences have yanked it out of there and dangled it before my eyes:

A priori.

What?

It’s Latin. Some might have come across it, some might have come across it by some other name (think Marcus Aurelius), and some others are already yawning and about to click back to Facebook. But the reality is that we all use “a priori” – virtually every day of our waking lives.

A priori literally means “before the fact”. In terms of thinking (aka “philosophy”) it is defined along the lines of “knowledge apart from sense experience” or “a presupposition”. In human words, “something we know without needing to prove or justify”.

But I won’t bore you with philosophical structures and terms, even though they have a tremendous impact in how we see the world, whether we acknowledge it or not. What I want to point out, briefly, is how often we embark upon a journey of thinking, debating and even outright fanaticism on the basis of something we have assumed, without asking first whether or not that assumption is logical, true, correct, right or even helpful.

Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t become a postmodern suddenly. I’m not saying that there is no a priori knowledge; 1+1 equals 2 and that’s the end of that. But even for us common mortals who don’t get paid to spend our working life theorizing under a tree (but respect those who do), there is a huge implication.

Example: Here is a nice fella who today is celebrating C.R. Darwin’s 200th birthday (and you thought I wasn’t going to say anything about it). He accepts the Theory without quibbles and is dutifully suspicious of all those religious nuts who dare to cast Dark-Ages skepticism on it. To him, evolution makes sense; it nicely fits those weird things we dig up every now and again; it explains the variety of life forms that abound on the planet today, how species adapt, why there is apparent imperfection and even uselessness in many organisms and finally, the time-scale matches star distances, geological formations and development and the data from dating studies.

So, on his way to the Evolution Dinner, someone stops our friend and asks him: “Do you believe that there is a God?” And even though his stomach’s grumbling, he takes time to think about it. “Well”, he says finally, “no, I don’t.”

“Why not?” asks the other guy.

“Because we don’t need God.”

“Come again?”

“Well”, says our friend, warming up to the subject, “natural laws are enough to explain everything in the world. There’s no need for miracles, for divine intervention – even for a Creator sustaining the world. The universe is all that there is, has been, and ever will be.”

“Are you – are you trying to do a Carl Sagan impression?”

“Heh. But the point is this: Since everything in the world can be explained by natural processes, why do we need to pile on the logically unnecessary burden of a Divine Creator? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just have to try that protozoa dish.”

What do we have here? A fictional, albeit surprisingly common conversation that reflects a popular line of reasoning, which in turn is based on a priori naturalism. Translation: our hungry friend begins with the assumption (aka ‘presupposition’) that the world is confined within the natural box, that nothing super-natural exists outside that box, and therefore everything must be explained only by naturalistic processes; and evolution is the best fitting model.

Question: How does he prove that first assumption? Through a scientific experiment? No, because that would be limited to the natural world. How then?

Answer: He can’t. Seriously. But that doesn’t stop him from effortlessly making the leap from “evolution” to “atheism”, even though his reasons are not philosophically adequate.

Now, I know I have oversimplified this particular issue and I’ll get lots of the usual hate mail from angry readers who will accuse me of making straw-men arguments. That’s not my intention. My intention is to encourage us to examine our beliefs on ANYTHING and ask whether or not they are based on assumptions and presuppositions that we might personally like but that do not necessarily qualify as a priori. We might find that while we accuse others of close-mindedness and fanaticism, we are unintentionally guilty of the same.

And yes, I am still a Christian:

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds – Heb. 1:1-2

“Science’s Blind Spot”: thoughts on the Creation/Evolution debate

Every now and then, a strange thing happens in the world of books. Powerful, thought-provoking works go largely unnoticed, while moronic and juvenile scribbles hold the world captive. Truly, we have some twisted values.

Here I’ll break the rules: I’ll talk about a book I’m currently reading; one which I haven’t finished yet. The reason I’ll dare such hubris is two-fold: First, I’ve almost finished it and second, it has shifted so much of my thinking, that it just can’t wait.

The book is Science’s Blind Spot: The Unseen Religion of Scientific Naturalism, by Cornelius G. Hunter. Hunter is a biophysicist, and is known for his previous books, Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil and Darwin’s Proof: The triumph of Religion over Science, both of which offer some of the most intelligent skepticism on the Theory of Evolution.

There – after dancing around the subject, it finally appears openly on the Microscope.

I’m a Christian. I’m also a biologist, actively working in research. There are people today who will consider both those roles mutually exclusive. I have seen fellow Christians wince as if I told them that I work for a drug cartel (well, I have worked in pharmaceutical industry, ha ha). And even though today there are many new pebbles that scar the smooth interface of Science and Religion (see stem cells, cloning, abortions, LHC, euthanasia), the question of how we all got here is still Hot Topic Number One. And rightly so, since that question determines the direction all the others will go: It’s not strange that Darwin’s Grand Idea is invoked at the very beginning of current debates on life, death and even “sexual preference” issues. It’s clear: if we are the lucky outcome of random mutations over a long period of time, then there is no Greater Morality over our heads except whatever we invent at any time to suit our particular purposes and preferences. But if we were indeed created according to the image of a Higher Person, then things are diametrically different. If God made us, then we ought to take that into serious consideration.

It’s a vicious battle. And if you were hoping that in this post you’d find a quick “warrior’s manual” for either Creationism, Intelligent Design, Theistic Evolution or Naturalistic Evolution, I’m afraid I will have to sadly disappoint you. Maybe in the future – I’m always studying – but for now, all I can do is share some fruits from what I’ve been growing.

There are a few things that I can point out with a degree of certainty. First, there has been a lot of damage done to the debate from both sides (Creationists vs Evolutionists, or the new fashion, Atheists vs Theists). Fair enough. It’s an emotional topic. Right or wrong, Religion is a HUGE aspect of mankind as we know it, and is deeply ingrained in our minds and cultures. We all agree with that, and we also agree that you can’t just pluck it out like a thorn in your shoe.

But I don’t know if all that justifies the inimitable stupidity (I use that term with all its academic force) that is often displayed by many who engage this debate. A great example was the “Does God exist?” debate between the “Rational” “Response” Squad (atheists) and the Way of the Master Radio members (Christians) that took place in 2007 on prime-time US television (I wrote about it before). Most of what was on display from both sides could never qualify as “debate” (watch it for yourself on YouTube), but, in particular, the arguments for and against Evolution did no justice whatsoever to the Sapiens part of our species. Why? Because none of those debating had any proper understanding of Darwin’s theory – or if they did, they hid very well.

And this is painfully frequent example of how this debate goes between people on both sides who really haven’t done their homework. Evolutionists are constantly trying to patch the holes in their hypotheses and models (as all good scientists should – that’s not the problem) and Creationists (mostly Christians) are still utilising regurgitated arguments from the ’70s.

The point is not that it is not a reasonable argument (even Darwin had issues with it), but that, in the eyes of many scientists, it has been answered successfully and alternatives have been long suggested. Not to mention that the recent spotlight on the Tiktaalik fossil has actually revived the “intermediate species” view (which was, of course, previously doubted). In short, it seems to me as if most of the Creationist side seems to be constantly lagging a few years behind, or to not be up-to-date with trends in evolution theory. And that doesn’t help anyone.

I know what you’re thinking: “So you’re saying that we are supposed to keep up with every trend in evolution theory?” Well, yes – if you want to debate a theory that is based on Science, make sure you first understand the science. Ignorant accusations, wild theorising and outright fanaticism does not get you heard. And I say that, openly, to BOTH sides.

Now, there are many resources out there that cast skepticism on evolution, ranging from conservative Creationist (e.g. http://www.answersincreation.org), to intermediate Creationist (e.g. http://www.reasons.org), to theistic evolution, which attempts to reconcile evolution to the text of the Bible basically suggesting that shouldn’t take its first three chapters too literarily (and maybe a few others too while we’re at it). One thing I can say with some certainty is that the dividing line runs firmly between the biblical account of Creation and Darwin’s theory of Nature playing dice, and trying to fuse the two together doesn’t seem to satisfy anyone so far.

And here I return to the book. The first reason I found it to be so interesting was that its claims were substantiated, with frequent and clear references to actual, peer-reviewed research papers and books. As a scientist, I like to know how you know what you know, and I was thus delighted for once to see a responsible, properly researched piece on the topic.

Secondly, the book makes a very significant claim, one that most of those involved in the Creation/Evolution debate actually ignore (myself included). And that is that the Theory of Evolution originated not so much from empirical observation of data (as a normal scientific hypothesis), but rather as an attempt to answer theological concerns.

Don’t panic. Darwin and his friends were no devout Christians. But it is naïve to think that the man set out on the Beagle to look at some birds at the Galapagos Islands and one day “it all just came together”. Nope – read his “(On) The Origin of Species” (6th edition, preferably) if you don’t believe me, and you’ll find him often doing something that few scientists have the maturity to do: Tell his readers how his theory could “be taken apart” (e.g. in the context of incomplete fossil record). It doesn’t mean that Darwin didn’t believe his own ideas. But it does mean that the conclusions he penned down were not purely the result of what we’d call today “scientific observation”.

In his book, Hunter suggests that Darwin’s thinking sailed on a stream of theological angst that was trying, essentially, to separate God altogether from the physical world. Hunter names this “theological naturalism”, and, in my opinion, he’s right.

Hunter finds the origins of theological naturalism in the works of Thomas Burnet (d. 1715), but admits that even those have roots in the thinking of Immanuel Kant, who promoted the slicing between the “Noumenal and Phenomenal” realms. The general idea went something like this: The world as we perceive it is imperfect, asymmetrical, and laden with pain and destruction; thus to assume that God was and is intimately involved in its creation and maintenance is blasphemy, since God is perfect; thus it is better to understand that God merely created the natural laws under which the entire universe and all of life came to be, quasi-randomly. Now, keep going a bit further on this line of logic and you’ll arrive to that cliché of today, propagated by a certain Oxford professor: “God doesn’t exist because we don’t need Him to explain the world”.

Hunter’s point is that it is grossly mistaken to assume that the Theory of Evolution is mere science as opposed to something requiring a degree of “faith”. In fact, I can’t help but think that Richard Dawkins would find this interesting, given his absurd position (of many) that scientists cannot be religious and that evolution is somehow definitive proof that God “probably” doesn’t exist (and people ask me why we call it “new” atheism).

In any event, Hunter’s is an interesting view, and I think it’s worth our attention. If anything, it very accurately explains the virtually religious dogmatism and fanaticism of evolutionists today: It’s not just science. It began with religious concerns and it is constantly pushed, changed, re-changed, modified and evolved even in the face of significant evidence (of which the book gives a good overview).

Despite its 170 pages, Science’s Blind Spot is not an easy read. The writing is often dry and reads like a PhD thesis – not a problem for this kind of subject material, but it certainly doesn’t make the book engaging to a wider audience. It could really benefit from an extensive re-write, expanding and emphasising the key points. Having said that, the constant repetition of those points makes them stick and provoke some thinking outside of the traditional Creation/Evolution debate box. And although it seems targeted mostly to scientists and those literate in the debate, I think there is much in there that many on both sides would find beneficial.

I realise that this isn’t a comprehensive review, and after reading this post I find that it’s not as coherent and informative as I’d like it to be, so I hope you’ll forgive me for that. The Creation/Evolution debate is a huge topic with ramifications on many levels. Here, motivated by Hunter’s interesting and thought-provoking book, I just wanted to share some thoughts on the subject in the hope that you’ll find something helpful in there.

The New Atheism

Last Friday marked a historical landmark for this blog: the blogpost with the shortest life-span.

It was simply a humorous list of 21 “instructions” that aimed to point out some characteristics of the attitude and apologetics of the New Atheists. I admit that the tone leaned a little towards the sarcastic, but certainly no more than what is allowed in this blog, and definitely nowhere near than the usual vitriol fired by the New Atheists when they attack those who are “simple-minded” enough to still hold onto theist positions.

It didn’t fly. Within an hour of posting the list it was obvious that it wasn’t going in the right direction: one atheist blogger commented in counterattack sarcasm, one guy wrote something that sounded supportive but didn’t make any sense, and five hours and an “astonishing” 18 hits after the blogpost went up, I thought it wiser to take it down. Trouble is inevitable and well-expected with the content of what I usually write, but trouble because of the tone of what I write is something we can all live without. So, apologies to all atheist readers who I unwillingly offended – I didn’t mean to, but that’s hardly an excuse.

So, having said all that, I’d still like to return to the subject, and occupy our minds a little with the rise of the New atheism today. What we’ll say below will actually still echo elements from that list of contentions, but I will try to steer clear of forming “straw-men” as I was accused.

It’s no news that atheism is currently seeing a new day in the sun. Aggressively propagated by eminent academics like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, the idea that God does not exist is crossing rapidly from its old elitist intelligentsia home right into the world of mainstream thinking. It’s no longer something discussed at philosophical symposia in incomprehensible German terminology; it is now vehemently debated and defended in the public square.

Of course, geographically speaking, this isn’t really news to us who live in the Old World. Western Europe has been progressively secularised in terms of social structure and worldview since the Enlightenment, and even the famously religious Victorians embraced a strange, moralistic form of atheism (“I’m a Christian in my body, but not in my mind”).

Thus, I wonder if the alarms sounding from all fronts about the New Atheists don’t have more to do with the sudden spread and wide appeal of their ideas in the US; even though hyper-modernised as a country, even Richard Dawkins finds it necessary to specifically address the “religiosity” of his US readers in “The God Delusion”. But whatever the reason, what is most interesting is the reception of these ideas by a much wider audience than before.

In the following paragraphs I don’t aim to put forth a full-blown apologetic against every single argument of the New Atheism. Others, much more knowledgeable and intelligent have done so, and, even though there is much left to answer, I will give some references throughout. This article will just take an overarching view of New Atheism and pick up some of what I think are its more stringent arguments – in particular, as a scientist, I am interested in the way the New Atheists argue their case by claiming that atheism is the only place that science can lead us.

Before we start, it’s probably best to understand why we refer to this as the New Atheism. Here I will summarise the eight distinctive characteristics of the New Atheism that Dr Albert Mohler gives in his recent book Atheism Remix: A Christian confronts the New Atheists (pp 54-63):

1. It is marked by an unprecedented new boldness.

2. There is a clear and specific rejection of the Christian God of the Bible.

3. There is a rejection of Jesus Christ with a new explicitness and intensity.

4. It is specifically grounded in scientific argument.

5. There is a new refusal to tolerate moderate and liberal forms of belief.

6. There is an attack on religious toleration, which seems to include religious freedom of speech.

7. There is a questioning of the right of parents to inculcate belief on their own children.

8. There is the argument that religion itself must be eliminated in order to preserve human freedom.

Now, discussing the roots of the New Atheism is always an interesting conversation. It usually instigates emotional accusations from both theists and atheists, and – in my personal opinion – demonstrates very quickly the understanding that a person of either camp has on the subject. But it does bring two things into focus:

1) A perceived failure of theism/religion to respond to the modern (and post-modern) concerns. In human words, this means that people today feel that the notion of a God cannot satisfy our big questions. Under this I would tentatively put the general negative-to-hostile feeling that has been generated by the abuses of organised/institutional religion and the often-extreme conduct of the members of various religions (whether such extremism and fanaticism is actually allowed or justified by the core theology of their religion is something that seems unhelpfully ignored by the New Atheists).

2) A perceived uselessness of theism/religion in current ideological models. This is best demonstrated in the current vicious Evolution/Creation debate, which, essentially, runs much deeper than the fossil record and is a great example of how the interpretation of scientific data can quickly transform into a philosophy on the actual purpose of our existence. As a personal note, it saddens me as a scientist to see the almost intentional blurring of the de facto boundaries of Science; boundaries that even Prof Dawkins has admitted in a recent debate with his main critic Alistair McGrath. Pure, real, unadulterated Science can only look with a degree of confidence for the what, when, where and how of our existence as a cosmos; the why has always been outside of its scope because it must be beyond its grasp if it still wants to be called Science and not Metaphysics.

So in those two elements there is immediately much to find and understand about the New Atheism and in particular the growing hostile, militant attitude of its proponents. For the New Atheists God is not only dead, He is also useless. Theism, and in particular biblical theism, is not just passively pointless, it is dangerous, a disease; a mental virus that infects the entire human consciousness. So it logically follows that religious people are also dangerous (as Christopher Hitchens would have it), and ample evidence of that can be found from the Crusades to every suicide bomber attack today. Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. lamenting “If God is God He is not good; if God is good He is not God” still echoes through this idea, which some would – unjustly – simplify like this: “I can’t believe that there is a God because there is so much evil in the world”. But clichés aside, it is important to understand that the effects of believing in God today are seen as an active threat.

Nor are they perceived as useful either, as we mentioned above. In fact, Religion and Theism are seen as downright debilitating. Religion is the Big Leash; it’s holding us back with its viral epidemic, making people comfortable with the Unexplained and complacent with the world’s defects and problems. In the greater scheme of things, the New Atheists would argue, belief in God is holding us back from spreading our evolutionary wings, of “becoming all that we can be” in terms of human evolution. Religious belief might have had some evolutionary benefit once (though what that could be has not been proposed by the New Atheists to my knowledge) but it is time to grow out of our infantile minds, as Nietzsche would say, and let Nature take us to the next step.

I always get some flak when I’ve replied to this last one, and not unjustly. Because it is unavoidable that this sort of language immediately evokes some spine-chilling terminology used by some very “destructive” forces in the recent past – namely Nazism and Stalinism. Now, if we disagree with the straw-men attacks of the New Atheists, we really ought not to do the same and accuse them all of wanting to bring about a Fourth Reich. But isn’t it fair to at least mention that their assertion that a completely evolutionary worldview is needed to “save” mankind has been experimented with in the past with far-from-salvific consequences we are still reaping decades later? As a biologist, I am not aware of any new dimensions in the Theory of Evolution and Darwinism that would prohibit such a “logical evolution” in the future. Isn’t it practically an axiom that without a God there is no absolute; that without absolutes morality is relative, and a relative morality can easily redefine itself to anyone’s whim? What honest Evolutionist could argue that whatever Greater Good we devise under a completely naturalistic (and thus, atheistic) worldview will stand forever without fail?

But that, the atheist camp would argue, is irrelevant (hence the flak). Arguments from moralism don’t prove anything – and I fully agree. Besides, religious regimes also have volumes of dark pages in the books of History, and we’d be naive to think that Religion is a safe and proven way to social bliss. Thus, like Prof Dawkins would argue, whether or not we like the Darwinean/Nietzschean dystopia has nothing to do with reality. In other words, if the truth is that God doesn’t exist and evolution/naturalism is all we have, who cares about who likes what and what is right or wrong? Or, put differently, God doesn’t exist just because we’d like Him to (conversely, of course, we can say that God doesn’t not exist just because we’d like Him not to). The existence or not of God must be an absolute – He’s either there or He isn’t. This is why, I think, the New Atheists don’t particularly support the postmodernist philosophy, which decries any claim to propositional truth – including that God exists or does not.

The major question then, to my mind, is whether or not the “God hypothesis” is true or false, since it is from here that all other – theistic and atheistic – arguments follow. Now, in The God delusion Dawkins creates a scale of 7 degrees of belief in God:

1. Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.

2. De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.

3. Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.

4. Pure Agnostic: God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.

5. Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be sceptical.

6. De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.

7. Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.

Dawkins classifies himself as a number 6 on the scale, saying that no sane person can say with absolute certainty that God exists or does not exist. He does, however find that God is highly improbable. His view is rather peculiar (to say the least) since he reaches this conclusion by way of a philosophical fallacy (in my untrained eyes): Dawkins rightly states, in several places, that the designer of a thing must be at least as complex as the thing itself, if not more, and complexity is inversely proportional to probability. Thus, he extrapolates and says that God – the ultimate Designer of all things – must be so vastly complex that He inversely becomes vastly improbable as a being.

This is where things become intensely philosophical – and it is important to understand this. If, for example, you read through Alvin Plantinga’s in-depth critique of The God delusion, your head will spin – not because of pretentiousness, but because of necessity: Dawkins himself opened Pandora’s box (good for him, of course) by understandably thinking that he could dismantle theism by taking apart every historical argument for the existence of God, including Anselm’s ontological argument (a God that exists in reality is greater than a God who exists only in our imagination; we imagine/understand God as the greatest being of all; thus God cannot exist in our imagination/understanding only, He must exist in reality as well).

So what is Dawkins’ fallacy concerning the improbability of God? Simply put, the whole argument assumes that God would also be part of His creation, where the inverse relationship between complexity and probability applies. But, by definition, God, would transcend His creation, or otherwise He would not be God. Furthermore, there’s the question of whether or not God should be thought of as complex in the Dawkins sense of being composed of multiple parts. In classical theology (e.g. Thomas Aquinas), God has been thought of as simple in that He is immaterial and in that He is without “distinction of thing and property, actuality and potentiality, essence and existence, and the like” (Alvin Plantinga – see link above). In this sense again we can say that a simple, immaterial, spiritual God would not, by definition, fit into the complexity-probability model, even though His creation might.

But what is of particular interest to me is Dawkins’ own declaration that the “God hypothesis” is, by its very nature, an untestable scientific hypothesis (i.e. there is no experiment we can devise and perform to equivocate it), there is no good reason to accept it as true. Now, this might ring like the right tune to our “rational” ears, but I think that it has a central flaw: Since the “God hypothesis” is by nature untestable, it cannot, by nature, be treated as a regular testable hypothesis (according to Karl Popper’s definition). In other words, since God, by definition, must transcend the material world (and thus transcend the realm of Science), what makes anyone think that God should be “discovered” by any scientific means? In fact, if He could be conclusively discovered by a microscope or telescope, then He wouldn’t, by definition, be God – certainly not a God any theist would believe in.

I’m sure this argument won’t dismantle the New Atheism machine, but I hope that it demonstrates two things: First, that one of the central arguments of the New Atheism makes a very mistaken assumption (that God is part of His creation) and second, that the perceived division between Science and Religion seems more artificial than real.

I’ll have to end this “lengthy discourse” here, but I hope that it will stimulate some thinking and discussion. The New Atheists have put forth more arguments than the ones we’ve briefly touched upon here, and hopefully we’ll be able to address more of them in time.

Furthermore, I appreciate that I haven’t even touched upon the arguments from Evolution and how all that fits into the conversation of the New Atheism. This was intentional, mostly because there simply isn’t enough space here. But I do plan to revisit the whole issue and we can look at it in some depth, hopefully in the context of the current Creation-Evolution debate. Here I just aimed to introduce the New Atheism and dissect it a little. We also haven’t looked at the other New Atheists, but I thought that looking at Richard Dawkins would cover some good ground. In the same way, I’m also aware of the fact that we haven’t looked at John Lennox, an Oxford mathematician who has raised some substantial arguments against Atheism’s claims through the Philosophy of Science. All that at a later time.

Finally, I’d also like to recommend Peter S. Williams’ extensive critique on The God Delusion, which you can find here.

For now, I’d like to close with the Bible’s calm, confident, and very unpretentious way of responding to atheism – in my mind, the Bible itself is the ultimate proof that a personal God does exist:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. – Rom. 1:18-23