Tuesday, 17 July 2012

On Evidence - A Prelude to "My World View"

Before presenting my own world view, I want to address the issue of evidence.  This (long) article also serves as a kind of cleansing process made necessary by the after-effects of subjecting myself to a few podcasts of The Don Johnson Show.  This weekly podcast (www.thedonjohnsonshow.com/) stars Don Johnson and his sidekick-cum-lapdog, Brandon. The show is produced and distributed under the banner of the Don Johnson Ministries (www.donjohnsonministries.com/).  During these podcasts they (and Don in particular) advise humility, interspersed with plugs for the newest book published by Don Johnson.  Apart from humility, the main topic of their meandering discussions is ostensibly Christian apologetics but they stray repeatedly into Christian semi-polemics [1].

Don and Brandon are William Lane Craig fanboys and, being apologists they claim to be pro-reason, pro-rationality, pro-logic and pro-science.  They are so committed to all these that they regularly take Christians to task for airing what they regard as stupid arguments.  Stupid arguments are those such as “There is no evidence for God; you just have to take it on faith”.

Now while I agree that these are stupid arguments, I don't agree with Humble Don when it comes to his assertion that there are other, valid arguments for the God hypothesis. This is in the main because, as Humble Don and his loyal sidekick state, the evidence for God is not materialistic or, in other words: the sort of evidence that proves the existence of God does not lend itself to science.

Despite this, Humble Don and Brandon talk a lot about evidence, but not in the sense that a normal person [2] would talk about evidence.  If I myself were to talk endlessly about evidence, I would feel obliged to present some.

An example of how Humble Don talks repeatedly about evidence, without ever actually providing any, comes from the podcast in which they have a go at Ricky Gervais.  Before they get into it, Brandon talks about his recurrent doubt, which he characterises as “emotional doubt”, Humble Don jumps in and asserts that there is never any intellectual doubt because of the “preponderance of evidence” (I'll be marking all the evidence references in red for a while).  Then Brandon says:
“… when that, when that emotional doubt happens, no matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, what should you do?  You should evaluate the evidence!  And when I have my emotional doubt, and I evaluate the evidence and put my brain back on for four seconds and think rationally and critically and logically about the issues, Christianity comes out on top.
“But when the atheists, some, some, because there are plenty of atheists who convert, right?  But, there are many atheists who will have sort of this emotional doubt come up and then they just stuff it, you know like ‘Well oh, forget about it, forget about it and don’t  inter …’ and that, that’s the moment, that’s the moment when you are ready to really interact with the intellectual arguments.  I mean if, if, if you just have to save face whatever, if your pride keeps you from really dealing with the good arguments well you’re never going to get to it, but when you find yourself in that sort of scared spot, that when they need to tune into this show basically and go ‘Oh yeah, the moral argument is really compelling!’ as opposed to just shutting it out on principle, right?”
They've gone from talking about evidence to raising the moral argument - the moral argument?  This is "evidence"?  But wait, there's more!  

Later, while addressing a Christmas message article by Ricky Gervais, published in the New York Times, Humble Don launches into a riff on the topic of evidence.  They start by setting the scene, and briefly attacking ignorant Christians, apparently a sport that we all enjoy.

“… you may have heard Brandon and me talking about some of the things that are characteristic of atheists, at least as we find them today, a-and some of those things would be theological ignorance, either they do not know, or they refuse to interact with the actual orthodox Christian message.  It’s not there in their rebuttal of ‘whatever it is that you believe, you stupid Christian, whatever it is’. (Laughs) They never actually interact with the Gospel!  Now, that may be, it might likely be, in fact, Christians’ fault.

“I mean maybe no Christians have ever told them the actual message, so they just don’t know it.  And (C.S.) Lewis actually addressed this too, he said: ‘Our doubters, much of their doubt is actually justified in the state of their knowledge.’  So that …”

(Brandon: “They’re ignorant.”)

“Yeah, basically, they’re so ignorant that their doubt is justified somewhat, their interacting with this idea that is stupid.  So I’m going to give you an example of that in this message.  I’m also going to give you an example of an ignorance of Christian epistemology.   Now, this  again … might be Christians’ fault, in that there’s a bunch of Christians out there apparently who don’t believe for the proper reasons.  They don’t have a proper understanding of how you know what you know, a-and so, if that’s the case, it’s unfortunate, but I’m going to point that out.

“And then, thirdly, a lot of atheists that I interact with have a lack of understanding of their own world view – on a couple of levels.  They don’t understand their presuppositions, what they are bringing to the table, based on nothing.  Nothing! It’s just their starting point.

“It’s not anything to do with evidence or reasoning or anything, it’s just the starting point for their argument.  And they don’t realise it’s the starting point, they don’t understand, they haven’t examined the presuppositions that are underlying everything they say.  So that’s on one level.

“And then, a lot of times, they just don’t have a philosophically coherent world view.  They’re grabbing things from here and there, and bringing it in, again for no good reason.  They have this purported ‘atheism’, this purported ‘materialism’, or whatever it is, but yet they’re grabbing stuff that simply cannot exist within that world view and they just want to bring it in willy-nilly.  So we’re going to give an example of all four of those characteristics in Ricky G.”

When they finally get to the article, they are kind enough to start positively, with Humble Don reading the first paragraph, or rather the first half of a paragraph (eight sentences):

“Let’s just stop, right there.  Now, he may have got this answer from somebody, perhaps some Christian who actually believes that you don’t need evidence of God, that you can have a Christianity that’s ‘true for you’ and not necessarily true for anybody else.  But those people … need to change their beliefs.  (Laughs)  I almost said they’re stupid.  They’re not necessarily stupid.  (Laughs)

“That’s just wrong, that’s not why Christians should believe what they believe.  You believe what you believe because you are convinced that it is true based on evidence and good reasoning.  You don’t get to say, ‘Oh well I just believe it and it’s true for me and it’s not true for you.’  This is ridiculous.  You can’t just believe something to be true for you, that’s not true for Brandon, okay.   Especially a world view and I hammered this last week and we hammer this every week, a world view is a system of beliefs which tells you what is true about the nature of reality.  You don’t get to decide that and whatever is true, is true.

“If it is in fact true that there is a God, then whatever Brandon believes about it, or whatever I believe about it, doesn’t matter – ultimately – what’s true is true.  So it seems that Mr Gervais has run into postmodern Christians, or he’s just throwing this out there, because it’s easier to knock down, that actually don’t have evidence for what they believe.  Oh, they’re just grabbing onto ‘It’s just faith.  I don’t need evidence.  I don’t need proof.  I don’t need any of this stuff.  Aah, I just believe in God.’  Well, this is idiocy.  And he actually goes on to present a nice paragraph that I think is solid.

“He says: ‘(y)ou can’t say, “It works for me.”  Placebos work for you.  My point being, I’m saying God doesn’t exist. I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist. I know faith exists. I see it all the time. But believing in something doesn’t make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn’t make it true. The existence of God is not subjective. He either exists or he doesn’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.’”

This was slightly misquoted and it’s actually the second half of the second paragraph rather than being a paragraph in its own right, but it was close enough.  Humble Don continues (with Brandon babbling in the background):

“Oh that’s good stuff.  That’s awesome.  100%.  Check.  I absolutely agree with him on that paragraph.  All Christians should agree with him.  If you believe in God, it’s because you believe it is true, not because he does something for you.  ‘Well, hey, I got this out of religion, but if you don’t get it out of religion, that’s fine.’”

Brandon gets to speak, with Humble Don talking a bit in support.

“If say why do you believe in God and your answer is ‘Because he gives me hope’, that’s a bad reason.  No, no.  God does give me hope, but that’s not why I believe.  Not at all.  Because I have a future.  Because he watches over me today.  No no no.  That is not why you should believe in something.  Come on.  Not at all.”

There’s a bit of a diversion in which they toot their own horns and refer to themselves as “evidential Christians”, then Humble Don reads some more of the first paragraph, not quite managing to finish it, and continues to speak:

“I don’t know exactly what (Ricky Gervais) is saying … but it seems like what he is saying is that he’d have to know God through “quote scientific evidence” and that is an impossibility.  It’s impossible to know God through scientific evidence.  Therefore, there is no God.

“It seems to me that that’s what he’s saying and if that is the case – what he is presupposing there is that all knowledge must be “quote scientific” but what he must mean by that is that it must be empirically verifiable, it must be matter based, that’s how we know stuff.  And, therefore, since this God out there is clearly not matter, how could we possibly know him, he could not exist.  Basically to sum all that up, it seems that he’s starting from a materialistic presupposition that says matter is all there is and therefore any argument for God, by definition, couldn’t have any evidence for it.

“Now you might say ‘You’re getting a lot from that paragraph, Don’.  Well … I don’t think so.  I think that the third paragraph down backs me up on this.  (Ricky Gervais) continues: …”

(Humble Don goes on to imply that Gervais is setting up and attacking a straw man argument, since Gervais says that a Christian’s beliefs are faith based, not evidence based.)

“This is how Gervais understands the whole interaction between believers and, and these atheists, is that believers are making this claim that on its face is crazy and unverifiable.  There’s absolutely no evidence, on its face.  Well, what world does he live in?   Right? (laughs)  What world does he live in where a religious claim is a priori before you even look at it?  It’s unreasonable and unrational (sic) … because that’s what he’s saying.  That’s not the world I live in!

“I believe, as do billions and billions of other people, that actually the default position if you will, the one the evidence points towards is not this ‘matter is all there is’ view, but, that, there is a spiritual dimension to life, there is a God, and that this is the default call because the evidence points in that direction.  That’s what I experience, that’s what other people experience, that’s what the evidence points toward.  It’s actually only the materialists, only the atheists who are the tiny minority, yelling over here in a corner ‘Hey hey hey! Why do you believe in a god?’

“So he’s saying the burden of proof is on you.  We’re saying ‘No!  The burden of proof is not on us actually.  You’re the one who’s actually presenting a bit of an odd claim here.’”

At this point, the sidekick jumps in (I am proud to see that I totally resisted the temptation to refer to him as a trained monkey, possibly because I see Brandon as being more like a shaved chimp [almost certainly without a perfectly round head] – oops, now I’ve gone and done it after all).

“Everybody has a belief and they need to be able to make a positive case for it.”

Brandon then goes on to equate an atheist with a person who doesn’t believe in airplanes because he doesn’t leave his house and he only accepts evidence sourced from the sensory data that is available in his house and any knowledge sourced from outside his house is “whacky stuff”.

“Well, what I am going to do with that guy?  If he’s unwilling to accept any knowledge outside of his house, yeah, the argument’s basically over.  I have to argue with him on an epistemological level, say ‘Listen, this is not the extent of true knowledge, okay, there’s a whole world out there (laughs), outside your house.  And guess what, there’s (sic) machines that fly and people fly in them all the time … and most people out there believe in airplanes.  And you’re in the minority.’

“Nah, na, ya, ya, you see that’s what this whole ‘scientific talk’ does to the theistic debate.  ‘Oh, this is how we know stuff’” (dismissively) “‘scientifically.’  Well if you’re defining ‘scientific’ as empirical, matter based knowledge and God is immaterial and not known empirically, how are you ever going to find him … scientifically?  You’re not!  You’re never going to do it!  Therefore, what I have to convince you of is that your epistemology is not comprehensive enough.

“You, you’ve got this little tiny area of knowledge.  Sure, you’re pretty good at, you know, counting grain, or whatever, but, guess what, that’s not all there is.  Matter is not all there is to the universe.  And until I can convince you of that, through evidence, fine – but it’s not going to empirical, material evidence … you might, you might see some of that in the effects … of the, of the supernatural, but by its very nature, if it’s not empirical, it’s not matter, how are you going to measure it empirically and through matter.

“And so your epistemology really drives how you approach the subject and, so you’ve got point two per cent or whatever it is of atheists in the world who think that somehow (laughs) you know, they’ve got the corner of epistemology and the rest of the world’s saying ‘Listen, I hate to break it to you, but we all experience the supernatural on a daily basis and … call yourself the Brights all you want, but frankly your epistemology is faulty.

“I think that’s what we’ve kind of being doing on this show for a couple of years now, I mean, we, we really generally boil the debate down to supernaturalism versus naturalism.  I mean it is the physical material world all there is?  Or, isn’t it?  And we, we go and we look at the arguments for it.  So, I think that you’re right; this really is an epistemological question.  How do we access information?  How do we learn new things?  And, if we are closed to a specific area, when in fact there are others, that’s a problem.”

The reason that I’ve gone through the pain of this transcription effort is to show how Humble Don and Brandon the shaved chimp talk.  They talk about evidence all the time (and epistemology which in context, given that they are “evidentiary Christians”, is also a reference to evidence).  But that’s all they do, the closest they get to providing evidence is a statement, by the shaved chimp, in which he states that “we all experience the supernatural on a daily basis”, but this is again a claim to have evidence, not evidence per se.

I also find it amusing that Humble Don gets all excited about Ricky Gervais apparently asserting that religious claims are considered by believers to be true a priori.  Then, immediately, and I mean immediately, within seconds, he states that he believes that the default position is that there is a God.  Um, hello?

The keys to all of this appear in their various podcasts.  Firstly there is a mistake with regard to the relationship between claims and evidence, in the Ricky Gervais themed podcast.  It is the shaved chimp that provides it, but the organ grinder doesn’t correct him:

(Humble Don [HD]) It’s theoretically possible that you could be presented with enough evidence to argue you to a different position …

(Brandon the shaved chimp [Bsc]) Oh, sure.

(HD) At which point, you would begin to intellectually doubt Christiantity …

(Bsc) Well, yes, what, wh-what, what those arguments would have to do is explain the evidence better …

(HD) Right.

(Bsc) … than the Christian claim.

The interesting phrase here is “explain the evidence better than the Christian claim”.  What does that mean?  This isn’t a scientific mode of speech.  Evidence supports or contradicts claims.  Claims claims may be consistent (or inconsistent) with the evidence but they don’t explain evidence.  Perhaps consistency with claims is what Brandon meant.

Somehow, I don’t think so.

The following is another exchange, taken this time from ‘Why Christianity is more Reasonable and Scientific than atheism’:

(HD) “I’ve got an article here from the LA Times, from … two days ago, I think. Ah, called ‘A Universe without Purpose’.  And this, this is, this is I think the ultimate baseline for these guys, it’s not even that matter is all there is or that, you know, we jus’, just study empirically, although we’ll talk about that.  Ultimately, I think, their starting point is ‘life doesn’t have any purpose and, and I like that actually’.  That, that’s his whole argument, ah Lawrence Krauss in the LA Times, ‘I’m glad it doesn’t have purpose, I don’t have to conform myself to anything, I can do what I want!’ (Laughs) That’s his argument.

“I think that’s actually the, I’m going to call that superstitious, that is actually a belief grabbed in spite of all the evidence and held on to closely in spite of reason or evidence, or anything else because that’s the way you want the universe to be, ultimately.”(Bsc) “So you’re saying the starting point for the atheists is that there is no purpose out there and that the, what we actually should do is say that there is a purpose? Are you going to get into why we pick the one over the other?”

(HD) “Ah, yes, I will, but what I want to expand a little bit more.”

(Bsc) “Go ahead. …

(HD) “…Yeah, we’ll flesh that out … but yeah.  I think it’s, the short answer is that, I think, it is self-evident that, that it’s almost axiomatic that things have purpose, that it is evident to us that, for instance, parts of our body have purpose, that the heart has an inherent purpose.”

(Bsc) “Now in the case of the heart someone might say we can, you know, test that, the biologist … or the, or the …”

(HD) “But I’m getting the, I’m talking metaphysically now.  I’m talking, is it just accidentally, is it there for no reason, it’s just lucky, ya … you know, the fact that it pumps blood around your body is just a simple meaningless fact?  Or is it there to pump blood around your body? And this actually has been a, you know, on one side you have Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas saying things have meaning and purpose, and on the other side you had this whole philosophy that said ‘No no no, there’s no inherent purpose in anything.  We label things having purpose.’  But anyway, I … I don’t want to get too far afield.  But , go ahead, you had a question …”

(Bsc) “No well, I … I just two follow up comments on it.  So, on the one hand we might say that, ah, life has purpose and we see this, it’s almost a self-evident truth, and in case you wanna, you know, cause a ruckus about that, just a few other things that seem to be self-evidently true, um, I would say morality existing and certain things being good and bad but, but here’s, here’s kind of a weird sounding one but I think it’s good.  Um, the existence of other minds.  I don’t mean other people, I mean other minds.  Thinking, willing things, or emoting things. 

“And ah, you really could be, you know, we use this all the time, but you really could be in the Matrix, you could be the only thing that exists and, you know, you just imagine the whole rest of the world.  Our sense that there are other minds out there seems to me to be basically a properly basic belief or axiomatic.  It is, it is, um, it’s something that I assume, that I almost have to assume, th-th-this, that this is how I, this is how I perceive the world. And I don’t think there is anything wrong in having that sort of a belief but if you really want to press the point, ah, of scepticism on that point, I’d have to say you, it is a bigger reach to say ‘Oh, no things don’t have inherent meaning”, I think the more natural baseline is things do.  But if you need some reasons for it, I think we can provide a few.”

(HD)  “Well … and I, I should, I should qualify my statement there because on this show we generally argue in the sense of we establish a piece of data that we can agree on, ‘can we agree that this is a fact?’ and then we offer a best explanation for that data, so it’s a hypothetical, propositional thing where I’m trying to find the best explanation.

“Now, ah, guys like Aristotle and Aquinas would not have accepted that as the reason to believe there’s meaning.  They would argue that there is meaning necessarily and they would offer all their proofs, as a logical proof.  And so there’s the difference between, for instance, Aquinas’ five ways – those are, ah, just proofs, you can, you can argue with his premises, but he’s not arguing in the way that I think we usually do, where we say ‘Sure, it seems like, what’s the best explanation for the fact it seems like the heart has purpose?’

“He’s saying ‘I can prove that the heart has purpose and that everything has purpose’ and that the rejection of that notion, the denial that, you know, the heart, has a purpose, is a metaphysical claim that he would suggest is provably false.  But I don’t want to get too much into that … we’ll do that another day …”

Humble Don cuts off the shaved chimp just before he could present something vaguely resembling evidence to support the claim that the heart has inherent purpose (which I can only assume will be an Intelligent Design-type argument).  So what evidence are we left with to support Humble Don’s claim?

First Humble Don says he thinks ‘it is evident to us that … the heart has purpose’ and later he says he’s looking for ‘the best explanation that it seems like the heart has purpose’.  Well, which is it?

Brandon the shaved chimp provides the staff answer: that the more natural baseline is to assume that things do have purpose since it is a self-evident truth.

Note the use of the word “evident”.  Don and Brandon are self-professed “evidentiary Christians”.  They talk about evidence (evidence as a concept, not evidence qua evidence) but, at least from this tract, it seems that they include “things that are evident” as meaning “evidence”.  "Evident” means “clear to the vision or understanding”, thing that are evident are not necessarily true - this is especially so if one has limited capacity for understanding.  The boys even include things that appear "self-evident" which, by definition, are "evident without proof or reasoning".  This means they would be accepting things which seem obvious to them without proof or reasoning as evidence!  Any argument that is based on the truth of a premise which is considered by one party to be self-evident and therefore unquestionable can only spiral into a childish “yes, it is”/“no, it’s not” exchange.

It occurs to me that an "evidentiary Christian" would be accurately characterised as "a person of Christian faith who believes things that are (self-)evident and ignores anything that is a bit complex or in contradiction to firmly held presuppositions", rather than (as implied) "a person who has sought out and critically evaluated actual evidence, rigorously applied logic and reason, irrespective of where it led and reached a justifiable conclusion that Christianity is true".Humble Don considers (humbly) that he and his shaved chimp are prime examples of “evidentiary Christians”, but when one listens closely to them (painful as that is) they are extremely evidence-shy and far too willing to go along with whatever conclusion they consider to be self-evident.

Listening to them on this reminded me of one weekend back in my undergraduate days when I was encouraged to attend a “Miracle Meeting” at a friend’s church.  He thought it would turn me around and I thought it would be interesting to witness first hand the sorts of evidence that Christians have available.  I thought that I might have my world view challenged by their revelations – but this was not to be.The "miracles" described were uniformly prosaic and mundane.

In the sparsely populated church hall, believer after believer stood and told a story about how they had some sort of trouble, until someone else from the congregation gave them a hand.  That's a "miracle"?  Where were the loaves and fishes?  Where were the resurrections?  At least they could talk about miraculous sightings of Jesus in raisin toast!  Something other than "someone was nice to me".  To quote the shaved chimp: "Really?  I mean, really?  Come on, man, come on!"

Hearing these stories of kindness and generosity as "miracles" made me wonder just what the people telling them thought of human beings in general.  Were the people in this church being told, from the pulpit, week after week, that their fellow humans were these horrible beasts who were incapable of pity or mercy, incapable of kindness or generosity and that it is only through the miraculous intervention of Jesus Christ would anything good ever be shown by them?  Yes, I did walk away from that evening with the words "brainwashing" and "sect" ringing in my ears.But if it is a bona fide "miracle" when someone reaches out and gives you a hand just when you need it, just how low is the miracle bar?  Is holding the elevator a miracle?  Someone making you a cup of tea?  A whole evening out without getting glassed?  If I ever go to another "miracle night", perhaps I should get up and declare: "I fell over when leaving a church service one day and while I was lying there on the floor, only two of the congregation kicked me.  Not only that but only one of them was able to kick me hard enough to break any bones ... hallelujah, it's a miracle!"

I wonder if Don and Brandon's secret treasure trove of evidence is filled with testimonies of mundane miracles?The Risk in Sharing a World View - The second prelude


[1] I use the term semi-polemics to refer to a job only half done.  Per wikipedia:"... unlike debate, which may seek a common ground between the two disputants, a polemic is intended only to establish the truth of a point of view while refuting the opposing point of view."

[2] It may be arrogance on my part to consider myself a “normal person”, but I am writing from my perspective.

I also think that both of them say “impirical” all the way through, rather than “empirical”, but it could be their accents.  The shaved chimp seems to say “avaluate” as well, but again, it could be the accent.  To be consistent, I would have thought that it should be “impirical” and “ivaluate” or “ampirical” and “avaluate”, but who knows.  Humble Don most certainly says “unrational”.

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