Saturday, September 09, 2006

Found: Two Goalposts

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

Obviously I have taken a bit of a break from blogging, my last post having been made one and a half months ago. My dialog with Ernie has been the major emphasis for awhile, and while he was traveling and moving, it was pretty easy to take a break. But now that Ernie is back, looking for an argument, I guess it's time to devote some time to writing again.

In his post, Ernie sets forth what he hopes might be a reasonable characterization of my foundational objections to Christianity. Has he succeeded? He certainly captures some important elements of my thinking. I will try to state them succinctly myself and then perhaps highlight what I think are important differences between his "Woodman" version and my version.

Using the word "theory" in the sense of an explanatory framework, I assert that a theory built on naturalism can provide a better explanation of the world and specifically of the history of Judaism and Christianity than a theory built around Christian monotheism (or any other theism). Such a theory can explain features of the Bible and its development that are inconsistent with divine inspiration and divine authority. Such a theory can provide a more reliable foundation for morality than supposed divine authority. Such a theory provides a better explanation for the existence of both natural and moral evil. Such a theory can better explain the variety of religious beliefs and experiences found throughout the world, and the variety of beliefs held by those who self-identify as Christians. In short, I believe a naturalistic (non-theistic) theory has greater explanatory power than Christianity-as-theory does.

There is, of course, a great deal of elaboration that might accompany those claims, but for my purpose here I hope it will be sufficient. How does that compare to Ernie's Woodman? Really pretty well, I think. Regarding "[e]pistemic dependence on received Scripture as a reliable indicator of divine will", I would go beyond calling such a belief merely unjustified and irrelevent; other beliefs, including belief in the existence of a Creator God, I would call unjustified epistemically and irrelevent morally.

I hope readers will find this consistent with this list of assertions I made three months ago, when I had intended to start detailing my reasons for disbelief.

Ernie also advanced two propositions that he is willing to defend:

  1. Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry.
  2. Belief in the Biblical narrative regarding God's role in shaping religious faith is as central and well-justified as belief in the scientific narrative regarding evolution's role in shaping anatomically modern humans.

These are strong claims, as I am sure Ernie is aware. I look forward to seeing Ernie's elaboration and defense of them. While perhaps due to a misunderstanding of our mutual goal at the time, one of my frustrations in this "diablogue" has been the higher-than-helpful ratio of assertions to justifications and perhaps we have now arrived at the point where we can remedy that problem.

P.S. For those who might stumble by that question the evidence for evolution, the article I would recommend most highly is 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent by Dr. Douglas Theobold. This is not, however, specific to "evolution's role in shaping anatomically modern humans." As I am not actually sure of Ernie's particular position on the subject, I suppose it is possible that Ernie does not feel the standard he is suggesting for (II) is as high as I think it is, but considering the standard he presents for (I), I strongly suspect he intended the second standard to be high as well.


Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Alan,
Great to be back in DiaBlogue. Two quick questions:

a) We've stumbled before on the definition of "naturalism" -- do you simply mean there is no measurable theistic activity in the universe?

b) Would you concede that if I succesfully defend these assertions, I will have 'proved' my case? That's why I've avoided going from assertion to justification in the past.

Thanks -- no need to email, I'll check back in 24 hours. :-)

Alan Lund said...

Regarding naturalism, yes, that is essentially what I mean.

In some ways, I think the terms "natural" and "supernatural" can be misleading. I have come to think of "natural" as that which operates according to known or suspected regularities; what is supernatural is that which is completely beyond explanation (in terms of mechanism). According to this view of nature and supernature, the boundary can shift as we learn, and the existence of the supernatural is no more than the existence of our ignorance. If we could detect a deity or deities and explain (at some level) how they interact with the universe as we presently understand it, they would become part of nature.

But when I wrote "a theory built on naturalism", I did mean to imply something along the lines of "no measurable theistic activity in the universe", not that I expect we will discover and describe (and theremore make natural) an agency that we would presently describe as a supernatural deity.

As far as your two assertions go and whether they are sufficient to "prove" your case, well, it depends on how you develop them. For instance, as I have stated before, I assert that beliefs can have transformative power even when false. Religious faith can therefore be shaped by the Biblical narrative without that narrative being true. Now if I am parsing your statement correctly, you are in fact asserting that God exists and that the Bible describes his role with a fairly high degree of fidelity.

In any case, I am certain that a successful defense of those two statements would be a significant achievement, sufficient to force me to re-evaluate my conclusions, though not necessarily to abandon them, depending on how things go. (I do not understand your explanation for avoiding justification in the past, however.)

Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Alan,
Yeah, I am asserting that God exists with a comparable level of "fidelity" to the way physicists believe quarks exist. Fair enough?

Plus, the reason I haven't provide strong justification for my assertions before is that I wasn't clear i) which ones you had strong counter-assertions for, and thus ii) which would actually further the debate if I "proved" my case. Now I do, thanks.