Friday, December 28, 2012

Exponentially Increasing Reasons for Disbelief

Over at Cross Examined, hosted on Patheos, Bob Seidensticker points out the exponential improbability of the claims of Christianity. So, with Christmas now securely behind us, let's have at them--those real substantive questions won't answer themselves.

There was a point a good number of year ago where I would have scratched my head and wondered why Bob's argument is so persuasive. Not that I would have found myself persuaded: I was much more fascinated with why other people were persuaded. Now I am quite sure Bob plays the part of an unrepentant Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, supposing them to be giants, pretending to make a serious contribution to a broader discussion about the intellectual claims of religion. But this all goes without saying. People with opinions tend to preach to the converted. Bob is as guilty as I am, in this respect, at least. My problem with Bob's argument has less to do with Bob's disbelief than it does with the terms of his argument. I couldn't care a wink about Bob's disbelief, as I think him entitled to his opinions, just as I hope he thinks me entitled to mine, but I have to wonder about the so-called rationale for believing as he does.

Bob does his absolute best not to let on that he has set up a straw-man. Notice, however, the five steps Bob leads his readers through to illustrate the exponential improbability of God's existence:

1) I own a car.
2) I own a third-century Christian manuscript.
3) I own a 400 ft. nuclear submarine.
4) I own a time-machine.
5) There exists a supernatural being who interferes in the lives of mortal beings.

One of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn't belong in a series of statements illustrating exponentially increasing improbability of certain sorts of claims. In fact, claims 1) - 4) have to do with personal possession, which presumes the existence of the thing possessed, whereas claim 5) has to do with existence as such.

Bob crosses a barely perceptible line between claims of one sort and claims of another sort. The first four claims are claims about natural states of affairs. Granted that the fourth claim hovers at the edges of scientific imagination; time-machines still belong to the realm of natural items. The fifth claim Bob derogatorily labels 'supernatural', which he no doubt equates with non-existence, but which properly denotes something that exists above, before, and/or beyond the natural.

Now both the terms and the illustration that Bob uses presume two fundamentally different types of claims are being made. Neither of these are insuperable obstacles that a more careful thinker could find their way around, but they do point to a conceptual difficulty. Namely: the claim that God exists can never to be treated as if it were on par with the claim that I own a car; or better yet, that a car exists, and I own it.

Why? Good question. Bob seems to believe in the efficacy of scientific investigation, so let me answer from that vantage. Ancient religious questions were rarely, if ever, framed with the concerns of the modern scientist in mind. A biologist, for example, assumes that cells exists, but wonders what to make of their functioning.

The questions ancient religious authorities asked, answered, and wrote down in the religious texts that still inform people's outlook on human life down to the present day, on the other hand, wonder why there should be anything for a scientist to study in the first place, and what the existence of that anything implies about how people ought to live their lives. Ought we treat our neighbours as if they were animals or not? Ought we speak the truth, as best we understand it, in a public setting or not? These sort of questions can be extended into a modern setting. Ought we judge religious claims against the standards of scientific investigation or not?

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