Thursday, May 17, 2007

Evaluation of Naturalistic Skeptical Reasoning

In this post, I will respond to the article written by Paul Kurtz entitled “Why I Am a Skeptic about Religious Claims” on the Council for Secular Humanism Website.

Paul takes the historic position of a skeptical atheist, as opposed to a dogmatic or critical atheist; concluding that “…the skeptical inquirer finds inconclusive evidence-and thus, insufficient reason to believe-that God exists, that God is a person, that all ethical principles must be derived from God, that faith in divinity will enable the soul to achieve eternal salvation, and that ethical conduct is impossible without belief in God. On the contrary, skepticism based on scientific inquiry leaves room for a naturalistic account of the universe. It can also recommend alternative secular and humanist forms of moral conduct. Accordingly, one can simply affirm, when asked if he or she believes in God, "No, I do not; I am a skeptic," and one may add, "I believe in doing good!"

I’ll examine his reasons and show why one should not hold to his conclusion.

PAUL’S FIRST REASON: “The skeptical inquirer does not find the traditional concept of God as "transcendent," "omnipotent," "omnipresent," or "omnibeneficent" to be coherent, intelligible, or meaningful.” Paul’s position is based on approximately seven lines of approach (1) that God is “unintelligible and lacks any clear referent”, (2) that there are problems with the popular arguments, (3) the problem of evil, (4) the problem with historic religions, and (5) the problem with human experience, (6) the problem with contradictions, and (7) the problem with personal claims. I’ll deal with them individually.

MY RESPONSE: I'll deal with Paul's arguments individually.

(1) That God is “Unintelligible and Lacks Any Clear Referent”

Paul writes “To postulate a transcendent being who is incomprehensible to the human mind (as theologians maintain) does not explain the world that we encounter. How can we say that such an indefinable being exists, if we do not know in what sense that being is said to exist? How are we to understand a God that exists outside space and time and that transcends our capacity to comprehend his essence? Theists have postulated an unknowable "X." But if his content is unfathomable, then he is little more than an empty, speculative abstraction. Thus, the skeptic in religion presents semantic objections to God language, charging that it is unintelligible and lacks any clear referent.”

Paul falsely suggests the historic understanding of God’s incomprehensible nature is incompatible with his ability to be known at all and thus to be known as an absolute requisite unto salvation. The Bible speaks to this issue when it says both “To whom then will ye liken God?” (speaking of God as incomprehensible) but at the same time Jesus states “And this is life eternal, that they should know thee, the only true God, and Him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ.” (Jn 17:3) The point being that while it is impossible for man to have knowledge of God that is exhaustive and perfect in every way, true and sufficient knowledge of God can be attained through his divine self revelation.

To illustrate this, who knows the mind of man except his own Spirit and those to whom he reveals himself… and yet at the same time can a man not be known to a degree necessary for both intimacy and fellowship when he reveals himself to others? Cannot the same be said of the One who reveals himself through the divine Logos, even one which took on human flesh and made his dwelling among men? That’s why John writes “”That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his son, Jesus Christ.”

Put another way, is it always necessary to know everything about someone to possess confidence and put one’s trust in, and receive help from someone else? The answer is no. We do it all the time. While God has revealed himself, not only through semen religionis, and general revelation (nature & providence), he has also provided that knowledge of him which is necessary unto salvation through his Word (special revelation) to all those he has chosen to reveal himself (both through the equipping of his Spirit and with his Word), all those who will receive him by faith.

The problem is that following the philosophies of the past and the philosophies of the age, Paul and others demand that God be brought down to the level of the world, while what is needed is rather that man be raised up to the knowledge of God.

(2) That “There are Problems with Popular Arguments”

While presuppositionalist arguments do not rest on the evidence or arguments of popular arguments (though they recognize the evidence), let me point out weakness in Paul’s reasoning concerning the arguments.

First Cause
Paul writes “’What is the cause of this first cause?’ To say that he is uncaused only pushes our ignorance back one step. To step outside the physical universe is to assume an answer by a leap of faith.” But to say this is to deny the very creator-creature distinction that Christianity professes. Any reasonable person understands the argument suggests that any “creation” involves a first cause, which is distinct from stating that all things must have a first cause. To fail to make this distinction in attempting to disprove the independence or self-existence of God is to commit the error of logic known as “sweeping generalization.”

Intelligent Design (ID)
Paul states “Nor does the claim that the universe manifests Intelligent Design (ID) explain the facts of conflict, the struggle for survival, and the inescapable tragedy, evil, pain, and suffering that is encountered in the world of sentient beings. Regularities and chaos do not necessarily indicate design. The argument from design is reminiscent of Aristotle's teleological argument that there are purposes or ends in nature. But we can find no evidence for purpose in nature. Even if we were to find what appears to be design in the universe, this does not imply a designer for whose existence there is insufficient evidence.”

Here, logically inconsistency again rules the day. If there is no purpose in nature or design in the universe, then upon what standard does one deem something as conflict, or tragedy, or evil? How can one define both the presence and distinctions between “regularity and chaos” apart from design? The very arguments beg the question.

Additionally, has it ever occurred to secular humanists why some find no purpose in nature? It’s like saying one finds no purpose in a piece of cloth, or in a computer, without looking outside the object itself.

How does it even make sense of Paul to suggest that skeptics can “do good” if with no purpose “good” cannot even be defined.

Paul states “The evolutionary hypothesis provides a more parsimonious explanation of the origins of species. The changes in species through time are better accounted for by chance mutations, differential reproduction, natural selection, and adaptation, rather than by design.” I’d love to see the proof for chance itself. Is it not true that scientists can prove that even the flip of a coin does not happen by chance, but according to the force exerted, the friction of the air, etc. Chance is no more than the unreasonableness of those who seek to deny the governance and providence of God. Does not even the word “natural” in regard to selection reveal this contradiction. Regardless, while it can be shown that the evolutionary hypothesis has gaping holes, the opinion that it provides “a more parsimonious explanation” is far from reason to arrive at and hold Paul’s conclusions.

Paul states “Moreover, vestigial features such as the human appendix, tailbone, and male breasts and nipples hardly suggest adequate design; the same is true for vestigial organs in other species. Thus, the doctrine of creation is hardly supported in empirical terms.” It’s interesting that Paul cannot even think of these things apart from design. Does failure to understand design at the present necessarily equate to no design? I have keys in a cup at home which I no longer know what they were for, but that does not mean they were not designed for a purpose. At the same time, are there not new uses being discovered daily for things which formerly were not understood. By making such scathing assertions as say these items “hardly suggest adequate design” is to falsely presume one possesses the foundation for making such determinations infallibly.

Paul also in speaking to the fine-tuning argument points out such things as species becoming extinct and human beings dying due to various causes. In no way does his discussion deal with the biblical priority and promise being placed on mankind versus individual or groups of men, or the entrance of sin and its consequences into the world, or the identity or likelihood of something other than God resulting in the evidence which does appear probability wise so fine tuned. Not only this, but by pointing out the shift in the plates does no more than point to the evidence, not the explanation behind the plates (or why the plates did what they did.)

(3) The Problem of Evil

Paul’s arguments are no different from the usual arguments, which fail to allow for the compatibility of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility and the consequences of man’s sin. The result is to assume either the impotence or lack of compassion of God. The problem lies not with God’s nature but with the skeptics faulty logic. It would be like suggesting that since the U.S. government is responsible for its jurisdiction (including its citizens, its justice, and its own interests and the interest of those it governs) that since a citizen within the bounds of the U.S. is killed by another, that either the U.S. government is impotent in that it could not prevent it from happening, or that it lacks compassion. The better logic and conclusion comes from realizing not only that more must be taken into account, but recognize (and allow) that multiple factors work simultaneously, and some within the bounds of the other.

(4) The Historic Religions

Paul argues that while the historic religions maintain that God has revealed himself in history, “…these revelations are not corroborated by independent, objective observers.” Is it not true that it was when Christ revealed not only himself but his truth along with the corrupt and sinful natures and desires of man, that he came under attack. Paul has missed the point of the gospel in that if Christ had been no different from the world, and spoke as one from the world, the world would not have been intent on crucifying him, but the point is he was different, and could not be out-reasoned or put in a corner, so man tried to put an end to him, the very act by which his glory and vindication was exalted the most. While Paul’s arguments here can be made of other religions, God has not left himself without a witness even among unbelievers, not only in Christ’s day, but in our own, as unbelievers not only reveal the truth of God in their nature and corruptions, but fulfill the very prophesies made concerning them.

(5) The Problem with Miracles

Paul states “To attribute inexplicable events to miracles performed by God, as declared in the so-called sacred literature, is often a substitute for finding their true causes scientifically. Scientific inquiry is generally able to explain alleged "miracles" by discovering natural causes.”

Paul fails to recognize that just because natural causes are involved or associated with miracles doesn’t deny the miracle (or that God acts/controls history). Just because a wind or storm or shift in the earths plates may occur doesn’t necessarily either deny or affirm the existence of God. One must rely on faith either that there is a natural cause (fate, or something man has not determined, that established, explains and accounts for the action) or that God has done it (be it something formerly observed and recorded or not). Here again, skeptics seek to use evidential apologetics, but without ultimate foundation or convincing argument.

(6) The Problem of Contradictions

Paul states “The Bible, Qur'an, and other classical documents are full of contradictions and factual errors. They were written by human beings in ancient civilizations, expressing the scientific and moral speculations of their day. They do not convey the eternal word of God, but rather the yearnings of ancient tribes based on oral legends and received doctrines; as such, they are hardly relevant to all cultures and times.”

In this section, we find a combination of opinion, poor scholarship or prejudice toward the evidence. For example, for one to assert that “none of the N.T. authors knew Jesus directly.”, one must deny either the Scripture itself or the testimony of the authors themselves, along with the vast wealth of extra-biblical testimony not only by the church fathers, but historians of antiquity, etc. This approach shows more antagonism to the truth than evidence denying what Christians proclaim as truth.

(7) The Problem with Personal Claims

Paul states skeptics have a legitimate basis for doubt concerning the personal claims of experience with God “unless or until such claims of interior experience can somehow be independently corroborated.” He goes on to state that subjective claims must have “external veracity.” While I do not deny the existence of false claims, and while Paul’s assertions might sound experientially sound and logical to some, the question again becomes not whether there is evidence but whether one will accept the evidence. For example, doesn’t the fact that so many across generations, cultural barriers, languages, etc., who speak to the same experience, meaningfulness, and benefit present itself as evidence. Regardless of whether there are others who present false testimonly, the question is not whether there is evidence, but how one interprets it and whether or not one accepts it. For example, those who have progress in sanctification show external differences. Will you attribute it to common to man, or as something which finds its source in God. Again, skeptics appeal to evidence, but fail to recognize the important role presuppositions and prejudices play in the determination.

PAUL’S SECOND REASON: Claims are uncorroborated by objective eyewitnesses.

MY RESPONSE: See (4) above.

PAUL’S THIRD REAON: The Source of Moral Values

MY RESPONSE: Nothing new with Paul’s arguments (culturally informed, no need for, Christian differences, superiority of naturalist’s ends, etc.)
Paul does not deal with: (1) The influence upon all cultures beginning with a common ancestor (who had the law!) (2) The contradiction that presents itself in that if there is not absolute law, the questions concerning the legitimacy, standard, and enforcement of laws, and (3) Whether human autonomy and freedom means anything and can result in any better end if there is no purpose and no moral or ethical standard.

PAUL’S FOURTH REASON: Confirmation of immortality and eternal salvation


To Paul’s objection that “the forms of salvation being offered are highly sectarian.”
1. Paul’s exegesis and conclusions concerning the recipients of biblical salvation leaves lots to be desired. The biblical distinction is based squarely on the issue of faith, not sectarian according to the qualifications Paul prescribes.
2. Paul’s claim against universality fails to distinguish between the offer and the acceptance of salvation.

To Paul’s objection that “there is insufficient scientific evidence for the claim that the "soul" can exist separate from the body and that it can survive death as a "discarnate" being, and much less for the claim that it can persist throughout eternity.”
1. Paul fails to distinguish between the brain as an organ (instrument) and the brain as the being (cause)
2. Paul fails to consider that seeds often go to a dormant state but come out of that state to “live again”.
3. Paul must reject the testimony of the Scripture which reveals that not just believers but unbelievers witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus.
4. Paul must reject the testimony of ALL who have “near death” visions/experiences.
5. Paul denies presupposition and prejudice when he states that near death experiences “can be explained in terms of natural, psychological, and physiological causes.”

PAUL’S FIFTH REASON: The righteousness (goodness) of man.

MY RESPONSE: Humanistic septicism doesn’t just imply the collapse of all values, but the legitimacy and relevance of all values, even the explanation or existence of values.

Paul states “Though ethical values and principles are relative to human interests and needs, that does not suggest that they are necessarily subjective. Instead, they are amenable to objective, critical evaluation and modification in the light of reason.” Too bad Paul fails to state who’s standard, why it is objective, who will be the critic, why their evaluation should be accepted/followed, etc. You can run around the merry-go-round all you want, but at some point, a basis for the answers must be provided, something which secular humanists cannot do.

Conclusion: While on the one hand, at face value and first read, some might think that Paul sounds quite intellectual and makes some good points, but in the end, when dissected and when discernment is applied, not only does he fall far short of providing reasons and justification for one not to believe in God and further to embrace humanistic thinking and arguments, by presenting arguments full of inconsistency and illogical reasoning to arrive at his conclusions, he encourages one toward the opposite. One should not be surprised with this, for the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God, and apart from this, both foundations and the fables that arise from them will fail miserably and fall in the face of truth, which is found in no other than God, and received by faith.

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