An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 7

As I make my way through the Christian apologetics book True Reason, I'm starting to see a fair bit of redundancy. I suppose that's to be expected given that it's just relatively short contributions from a variety of authors, but perhaps a little bit more editorial oversight would have helped.

In any case, Chapter 7 of the book, written by David Wood, is more or less a collection of some prevalent Christian apologetics arguments with a few new ones thrown in. Some of these, like the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments, I've already addressed extensively in this blog so you'll have to excuse the link farm because I have no interest in beating dead horses. And at least one, the "problem of biological complexity", is basically an endorsement of Intelligent Design, and that's an argument that even many Christian leaders outright reject [1, 2, 3] and, while I've written about it before, I don't see much need to dignify an argument for creationism with a response.

I'll begin, though, as I begin every chapter: I'm not expecting to be re-converted to Christianity. I'm simply looking for compelling arguments that provoke me to reconsider some of my key positions.

Chapter 7: The Explanatory Emptiness of Naturalism
Wood lays out his thesis quite clearly:
The success of scientific investigation has led many thinkers to conclude that science will ultimately (if it hasn’t already) make all supernatural explanations obsolete. Whatever gaps remain in our understanding of the world, they are steadily being filled in. Since these ever diminishing gaps form the basis of Natural Theology, arguments for God’s existence will soon have no foundation whatsoever. God has nothing left to do.
It's true that many atheists, including myself, view religion essentially a failed science. It was a means that people used to try to make sense of the world around them, but science has forced gods out of many of its explanatory gaps. But Wood seems confident that he can find some un-fillable gaps. Of course, he doesn't want to admit that it's god-of-the-gaps reasoning; he wants to convince us that the only reasonable explanation for certain things must be supernatural. But as we'll see, that doesn't stop him from essentially arguing:

X cannot be explained by naturalism
Ergo, X is explained by God.

Wood then expresses his argument against naturalism in a syllogism:
  1. If science explains things, then Naturalism is false.
  2. Science explains things.
  3. Therefore, Naturalism is false.
He pretty much just pulled that out of his butt with no support for the first premise whatsoever, but let's not be hasty. Here's how he justifies it:
To see why it is true, we simply need to consider what is required for scientific investigation to take place. If Naturalism can’t account for these necessary preconditions, then Naturalism can’t account for science, and science turns out to be evidence against Naturalism.
Wood makes it clear that he's taking "naturalism" to imply "metaphysical naturalism", which is the belief that the natural world is all that exists. And here, I think, wood is making a fundamental flaw that will color, for worse, all of his subsequent arguments. As an atheist, I do not need to assume metaphysical naturalism to be true in order to reject a belief in a deity. I can remain agnostic on that particular question, while still believing that there is insufficient evidence to affirm the existence of a god or gods. This is where that old chestnut, that atheism is a lack of belief in gods, comes into play. And I'm not going to beat that dead horse either when there's a rather excellent video on the subject here.

Now, incidentally, I do think there are valid reasons to operate on a provisional assumption that the material world is all that exists. I detailed this in my post A slow crawl toward ontological naturalism.

I do want to mention though that the whole concept of provisional assumptions is one that seems to fly right past these apologists. It's like they think you have two options:

a) You can completely disprove something
b) You believe that it's true

...when we all know that there are other options, like this: I don't see any evidence that compels me to believe, so I do not possess a positive belief in that regard; but I can't disprove it either, so I simply operate under the provisional assumption that, until evidence is forthcoming, the claim is false or unsubstantiated. 

Theists can't deny that they, too, susbcribe to this exact viewpoint on an endless variety of subjects. Example: Who can disprove the claim that we are all plugged into The Matrix, and all reality is an illusion? Well, none of us! But the simple fact that we cannot disprove it is not a compelling reason to believe it is true. So we operate under the provisional assumption that it is a false or unsubstantiated claim, and dismiss it until it is demonstrated otherwise.

Similarly, we cannot disprove the existence of supernatural things, but until independently verifiable evidence is forthcoming, we can provisionally reject it.

Anyway, enough of that. On to Wood's eight arguments (well... I'm skipping the creationist crap):

1) The cosmological problem

Wood has eight arguments that he'll present, beginning with the question of why the universe exists:
Without the universe around us, science obviously wouldn’t take place. But think about what happens when we ask ourselves if Naturalism can explain the existence of the universe.
First Question: Has the natural world existed for all eternity, or did it have a beginning?
And he stumbles right out of the gate. This is a false dilemma. I've explained why it's nonsensical to talk about the universe having a cause or a beginning (it's like asking what is south of the South Pole), and cosmologists have long rejected this dilemma, because prior to the expansion of the universe time could have functioned very differently – for example, non-linearly. While this is speculative, the important point is that the laws of physics do not force us into the dilemma being proposed by Wood. What follows is Wood's take on the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which I've addressed in great detail elsewhere:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument: the complete rebuttal

That's sort of a big summary, but a search through the site will reveal plenty of posts on the topic.

And in case you think I'm making up the whole thing about non-linear time and other such possibilities that the laws of physics currently leave open, here's a great essay from Sean Carroll – ironically, published in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology:

Sean Carroll: Does the Universe Need God?

2) The fine-tuning problem
In order to do research of any kind, the fundamental structure of the universe has to be finely-tuned for intelligent life. The forces, principles, and constants of physics, certain physical quantities, the ratios between the masses of atomic particles, and the properties of elements and compounds have to be just right, or scientists wouldn’t exist.
Once again, I've already spent ample time on this argument.

What should a designed universe look like?

And, just for fun, a really great video from "Skepchic":

A thorough beatdown of the fine-tuning argument

3) The problem of biological complexity


4) The problem of consciousness
[It's] important to recognize that human consciousness requires more than a large and convoluted brain. Consciousness requires what we call a “soul.” 
Naturalists hold that beliefs, awareness, thoughts, emotions, hopes, and decisions are simply brain states (i.e. physical states in the brain). But what sense does this make? Our beliefs are true or false. An arrangement of particles in a brain cannot be true or false (one arrangement of particles being true, and another being false). We have thoughts that are about things. It makes no sense to say that a pattern of molecules is about anything.
Wow. This is massively confused. Essentially, Wood is conflating conceptual abstractions, such as "beliefs", with physical objects such as molecules.  Nobody thinks that molecules are "about anything"; rather, the physical brain gives rise to conscious awareness which in turn allows us to store and interpret sensory information, and create conceptual abstractions from that information.

I think the evidence that consciousness is dependent on the brain is quite overwhelming. But I think the incoherency of dualism was brilliantly summarized by Sam Harris in one of his debates:

Wood's argument is sort of like arguing that without a spirit, we can't be alive – because we're made up of quarks, and quarks aren't alive! Obviously, there is a serious categorical error here – ironically, one which he avoids when making another argument a bit later.

5) The problem of reason

You've probably heard the old argument from reason popularized by CS Lewis. But in case you haven't, Wood summarizes it here:
We wouldn’t perform experiments or draw conclusions if we thought that our cognitive faculties— the processes that produce our beliefs— were unreliable. But naturalists have a problem here. According to naturalists, our ability to reason is the product of natural selection acting on random mutation. Natural selection, of course, favors traits that help organisms survive and reproduce. So if human reasoning evolved naturally, it’s because it helped human beings survive and reproduce. Does this give us any basis for trusting our reasoning ability when it comes to questions of cosmology, or quantum mechanics, or neuroscience? Not at all.
Wood seems confused as to how evolution works. Things do not evolve "for" any purpose; random variations of genes that are favorable to the species are selected by nonrandom natural selection. That means that while an adaptation may have served as useful, that doesn't mean that it can only have use for that one specific purpose. Our sex drive, for example, would be highly advantageous by compelling us to reproduce. But that doesn't mean that our sex drive can only be used toward reproduction.

As for the broader context of his argument – the old "how can you trust your own reason unless Goddidit" canard, I hit this one too in the following post:

The importance of evidence

If you'd rather not read the whole post, much of it is an expansion on this fantastic video:

A defense of evidentialsim

6) The problem of logic

Wood's not doing too well here, although the problem of reason can be one that confounds a lot of people – like the notoriously awful ontological argument, it's often a bit difficult to pinpoint exactly where the fallacy lies. Wood's "problem of logic" follows along these lines, but he at least avoids the biggest possible blunder by acknowledging that the rules of logic are conceptual abstractions that exist only in the brain. But then he still kind of blunders:

Logical laws are abstract and conceptual. They’re concepts, which means that they only exist in the mind. However, logical laws don’t depend on human minds. The Law of Non-Contradiction was true before there were any human beings, and if all human beings were to die tomorrow, it will still be true. In fact, the laws of logic would be true in any universe, not just ours. So the laws of logic transcend time, space, matter, and all human minds. They’re invariant, unchanging, and eternal.
Man, he was really doing pretty well until the end there. I shouldn't have to point out the foot-in-mouth blunder he makes by stating that logical laws "only exist in the mind" and then immediately claiming that they "transcend time, space, matter, and all human minds".

In any case, the laws of logic do not even hold in our own universe; quantum mechanics cannot be describe by classical logic. I talked about this in the above post "The importance of evidence".  And if the laws of logic don't even hold in our own universe, what basis is there to assume they must hold "beyond" our universe?

The laws of logic are conceptual abstractions derived from our everyday, Newtonian frame of reference; for example, modus ponens, or If p, then q, is the principle of cause and effect. We know this to be valid for our everyday frame of reference because, at Newtonian scales, we observe cause and effect. But on quantum scales, particles behave probabilistically rather than causally.

This, incidentally, is my primary objection to the entire field of Natural Theology. Natural theology essentially tries to make inferences about the supernatural using the laws of logic. But again – since the laws of logic do not apply even within our own universe at quantum scales, why should they apply to anything beyond our universe either?

7) The problem of Natural Uniformity

Wood continues his issues with provisional assumptions, and here it really sticks out like a sore thumb:
How do you know that the future will be like the past? You obviously assume that Nature’s laws are uniform. I just don’t see how you can defend this assumption. You can’t appeal to the past as evidence that the future will follow the same laws, because that’s precisely what we’re questioning. It turns out, then, that you have no basis for believing that the results of your scientific investigation tell us how we should expect the world to behave. All this talk of natural ‘laws’ becomes groundless.
Here's how you defend the assumption: it's provisional. It's derived from the best available evidence, which in the case of the uniformity of nature, is overwhelming. We've never seen any variance anywhere, ever. EVER. So sure, maybe there could be variance somewhere. But we so far have no reason to believe that could ever be the case.

Think of it this way: can you be absolutely certain that there is not some yet unknown law of physics that, in a few moments, will cause you to fall through your chair, crashing butt-first to the ground? Of course you can't. But you can be reasonably certain there is no such law because nothing like it, or anything that might even suggests it could plausibly exist, has ever been observed anywhere. So it's a safe provisional assumption that your chair will remain a solid object. No faith in deities required.

8) The problem of value

Here, Wood again conflates conceptual abstractions with physical things, suggesting that since 'values' are not 'real' in a physical sense, we must be spiritual creatures in order to have them:
Yet, if Naturalism is true, there are no objective values (i.e., values that are valid independent of our opinions or preferences). Of course, in a naturalist’s world, human beings would still be free to value various things, such as life, money, freedom, pleasure, and so on. But in Naturalism, such values are either personal (I like grape soda best), cultural (we like freedom of speech in the West), or a product of evolution (we should work for the good of our

If we seek scientific knowledge because we value knowledge as good in itself (not simply for its benefits), and Naturalism holds that nothing is good in itself, then Naturalism will always undermine science. This isn’t to say that scientific exploration will come to an end if everyone adopts the naturalist’s worldview. It’s simply to point out that there will always be an underlying tension between science (which presupposes certain values) and Naturalism (which cannot support such values).
I don't know where he gets this idea that science presupposes the existence of values as intrinsic, objective properties of the universe. Values are conceptual abstractions, and to do science we only need to presuppose that we value certain things because it is in our better interest to do so.

Who would argue, for example, that it is in our better interest to develop vaccines for disease that, in the past, wiped out millions of people? Who would argue that it's in our interest to develop cures for diseases, to develop computers and cars and whatever else? All these things have made life in the 21st Century vastly safer, more efficient and more comfortable than it's ever been. We live longer, and are generally healthier, than humans at any other time in history.

Now, why should we value our own well-being at all? Because, biologically, we are self-interested creatures. It's simply a fact of our existence. We could deny that fact, sure, but that would be true in any reality – why should we value, for example, eternity with God if not because it is in our best interest to do so, and it just so happens that we (most of the time) have a vested interest in our well-being?  Even a supernatural regress does not escape this axiomatic truth (which, incidentally, is at the core of Sam Harris' arguments in The Moral Landscape)

Wood concludes:
Putting all of this together, we see that Naturalism is bankrupt as a worldview.
Putting a bunch of terrible and long-discredited arguments together, we can see that apologetics is bankrupt as a branch of philosophy. 



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