Being Reasonable

It’s pretty common (and eminently unjustifiable) for atheists to argue that religion is somehow opposed to reason.  One book actually argues that atheists are trying to defend reason from an assault by religion.  Since being reasonable is good, which I suspect most people believe, they want us to be atheists.  Atheism, in their considered opinion, is the only reasonable option.

Now, there are any number of obvious logical flaws with this position–in addition to obvious historical flaws–of the sort that they largely ignore because they’re less concerned with being reasonable than sounding reasonable.  (Sadly, Christians have been far too ready to sound unreasonable by contrast.)  I can’t discuss them all within my thirty minute window, but I thought I’d point out a couple.

The first is (perhaps genuine) confusion between proximal and distal causes.  Imagine that a mobster is found dead in the street.  The proximal cause of his death might be that he was shot.  The distal cause might be that some rival mobster “put out a hit” on him, I believe the language goes.  Now, it’s entirely nonsense to argue that those two causes are in competition.  Nevertheless, this is the position atheists are in when they argue for the non-existence of God based on something like evolution.

They might say something like this, “Since humanity evolved, and we have good evidence it did, then it was obviously not created by any God.”  The truth or falsity of evolution is entirely irrelevant to creation; one is a question of How, the other a question of Why.  The question of How humanity came about is confused for the question of Why humanity came about.

Imagine another situation: let’s say that we’re discussing Susan, a new university student in Paris.  A parallel to the atheist argument might be:  “Since Susan arrived in Paris by bus, and we have good evidence that she did, then she was obviously not in Paris to attend university.”  Again, the question of How Susan arrived in Paris is confused for the question of Why Susan arrived in Paris.  We all know this to be ridiculous.

The same sort of error persists in any argument about the laws of physics, psychology, et cetera.  Having a clear understanding of How, even if we grant that we do always have a clear understanding of How, is largely irrelevant to the question of Why.  In fact it prompts larger Why questions about the very substance of the How.

So if we grant evolution, rather than explaining humanity, we now have an additional question:  why does this elegant unrolling of complexity work?  The beautiful answer that atheists give, and this is provided by the venerable Dawkins, is that it happens slowly.  I think at that point, the most appropriate Christian response is pity.

But there’s an associated error, which is sometimes tied up with Ockham’s razor, or simplicity, or necessity.  For those who are unfamiliar, Ockham’s razor is a pragmatic preference for the hypothesis that requires the fewest assumptions, or at least a balance that pursues the greatest explanatory power with the fewest assumptions.

A bolder form, put forth by someone, is that a premise which is unnecessary is irrelevant.  Atheists argue that they can explain the world and everything in it without having to rely upon God, and therefore since the God premise is unnecessary, it’s irrelevant.

Now, it ought to be evident that Atheists can “explain everything” only if we’re willing to be confused, or to ignore all of the parts that are interesting, meaningful, or complicated.  In short, they can explain all of the simple things and are willing to ignore what they can’t explain.

I’m not talking about ignoring things that are currently not understandable (like the existence of consciousness), or even things which might be obviously skewed to their opponents (like miracles), I’m talking about ignoring things which they’re own method precludes (like choice, or the reliability of Reason).  And this is ignoring the rather significant topic of consequences: what would it mean to live in a world of only How and no Why?

Atheist scientists will sometimes argue that Christian’s worship a “God of the gaps,” relegating to God anything which science cannot explain.  They then point out that science explains more each year, and that the purview of such a God is decreasing.  It’s entirely untrue that Christianity has ever had a God of the gaps, except as espoused by those who were mistaken about God, but atheists themselves serve a truth of the boundaries.  They have set very narrow limits on what premises they’ll accept, and they only call true what can be build from those premises.

And there’s the crucial bit, because they don’t choose those premises based on either simplicity or explanatory power.  They don’t decide based on Ockham’s razor, but on a sort of pragmatic selfishness.  They accept only those premises which require nothing from them.

As it happens, theism is infinitely simpler than the increasingly cumbersome acrobatics that atheists must pursue in order to explain our universe.  The most elegant solution they have is that we’re lucky.  We’re the lucky ones who happen to live a recursion of the universe which supports life.  And we’re the lucky one’s who live on a planet that supports life.  And we’re the lucky ones who benefit from life surviving in spite of the odds, and in fact multiplying and diversifying.  We’re the lucky ones who benefit from life emerging, unbidden and arbitrarily, from unlife.

But Luck isn’t, in and of itself, a simpler premise than God  It isn’t even a premise with more explanatory power.  It’s only a premise that doesn’t demand anything from us.  It isn’t reason that leads people to accept it; it’s fear.  An arbitrary universe is easier to accept than a created one, because an arbitrary universe will never say that I have sinned.

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Bill Nye Doesn’t Understand Science

I saw an interview today in which Bill Nye talked about the need for a scientifically literate future.  Specifically, he thought that people needed to understand that Creationism was “clearly wrong,” and harmful to our economic future.  As an explanation he suggested that science holds the keys to all sorts of technology, which we use everyday, whereas Creationism taught children not to use their critical thinking skills.

I’m a scientifically literate person; I really enjoy science.  From early childhood I was also taught to use my critical thinking skills effectively and thoroughly.  I have a masters degree even, gained primarily through coursework in critical engagement.  This is why I know that Bill Nye is the one who’s “clearly wrong.” Continue reading

Conventional Wisdom Ate My Homework

Many decades ago when I was in primary school, we had a thing every year called a “science fair,” which was the school’s opportunity to reinforce the important educational values of shame and confusion.  They never went well for me and are probably one of the reasons why I’m still stupid to this day, but one in particular stands out in my memory.

Here’s the question: if you discovered a foul-smelling box of dirt sitting in an otherwise Continue reading