An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 9

This chapter, like the last, meandered a bit before really getting to the point and could have benefited from being a bit more concise. But... this is probably one  of the better chapters in the book so far. Unlike the chapters by Gilson, Edwards, and Craig, it doesn't rely on misunderstandings of atheist arguments and/or quote-mining atheists out of context. The author, Peter Grice, tackles the topic of what "reason" actually is and, with a little dose of Plantinga (essentially the "argument from reason" I've already covered), argues that Christianity and reason are intertwined such that you can't have one without the other.

The downside is that this chapter is, more so than any other so far, clear evidence to me that this book was written with Christians as its target audience. This isn't for atheists like me, and it's not really even for fence-sitters either. It's for Christians who feel troubled or threatened by gnu atheism, and want some reassurance from presumably educated people that Christians, not atheists, are the reasonable ones.

As always: I don't expect to be re-converted. I'm only hoping I'll hear some original arguments that provoke me to reconsider some of my views.

Chapter 9: Reason in a Christian Context
I'll just begin by letting Grice himself spell out his aims for the chapter:
The purpose of this chapter is to encounter reason as it is understood within a Christian framework. This will involve thinking carefully about reason, and perhaps differently than you have been accustomed to. I will seek to clarify and characterize reason, survey its intimate association with Christian belief, and demonstrate how Christianity affects reason’s status.
Okie dokie. Grice actually starts off fairly well:
But is it really, automatically rational to be nonreligious? Of course not. True reason is never so hasty and naïve. Conflating reason with any particular viewpoint, especially while wielding rhetorical or political force, means that the view can no longer be subjected to reason, as it should. [...] Wouldn’t it be far better to admit that reason and morality are both human proclivities, in various states of use and abuse?
Sort of. Of course it is true that people can be nonreligious for all manner of irrational reasons, just as it's true that people can be believers for reasons they perceive to be rational. That's not to say, though, that there aren't objectively right and wrong conclusions on any subject we might reason about – which is why I'm comfortable saying that theism is an inherently irrational position. I believe it to be based in demonstrably false or unsubstantiated claims.

I think one of the problems plaguing Christian thinking is the concept of coherentism. From Wikipedia:
The coherentist theory of justification characterizes epistemic justification as a property of a belief only if that belief is a member of a coherent set. What distinguishes coherentism from other theories of justification is that the set is the primary bearer of justification. 
In case that sounds confusing, Grice dives right into it when he talks about Christianity:
 Many aspects of Christianity sustain and require the use of reason. The doctrine of Creation, for instance, teaches us that all reality has been made by God, and that we are made for this cosmos. Together, these beliefs strengthen our motivation to investigate all that God has made for His glory and our benefit.
As David Marshall discusses at greater length in this volume, it doesn’t seem possible to read the Bible without noticing how it incorporates things like evidence, reason, justification, explanation, proof, defense, knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. Peter admonishes fellow believers to provide their reasons for believing (1 Pet. 3: 15). God invites the Israelites to “reason together” about justice (Is. 1: 18). Jesus emphasizes loving God through the full faculties of the mind (Mt. 22: 37). Paul instructs the church to renew their minds and “think soberly” (Rom. 12: 2,3), to “test all things” (1 Thess. 5: 21) and supplant childish thinking with mature reasoning (1 Cor. 13: 11, 14: 20). Habitually he reasons in the temples and marketplace, and even with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens (Acts 17: 22-31). “All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” come forth in a full revelation of Jesus Christ (Col. 2: 2-3).
The problem with this mindset, which should be so obvious it doesn't need mentioning, is that the truth of the doctrine is presupposed. The biggest problem for coherentism is called the isolation objection, which goes like this (Wiki):
This states that there is no obvious way in which a coherent system relates to anything that might exist outside of it. So, it may be possible to construct a coherent theory of the world, which does not correspond to what actually occurs in the world. In other words, it appears to be entirely possible to develop a system that is entirely coherent and yet entirely untrue.
Here's what I'm getting at: it doesn't matter if you can apply reason to form logically coherent beliefs within the framework of Christianity, because it can be internally coherent yet still completely false.


Evidence that isn't

Grice continues, talking about the role of evidence in shaping beliefs:
The biblical pattern of coming to faith always begins with evidence. The first stage of evidence is the pervasive knowledge of God discernible in creation (Rom. 1: 20).
This is the argument that God is self-evident, which is nothing more than a tautology.
In addition, sometimes the evidence is the experience of personally encountering God. (To automatically dismiss this evidence as psychic malfunction is to beg the question.)
It's not begging the question to point out that the dubious claim of personally encountering a deity is both unverifiable and subject to a litany of cognitive errors – confirmation bias, wishful thinking, groupthink, the sensed-presence effect, etc. etc. It's not good evidence when it cannot be independently verified.
Sometimes the evidence comes from observing the fulfillment of prophecy or witnessing a miracle.
Ditto. Do I even want to get into the whole prophecy nonsense? Biblical 'prophecy' is bad enough, but it sounds like Grice is talking more about the Pat Robertson kind, which is far, far worse.
Following these profound experiences of God and his work, the believer rightly and reasonably continues to trust in God’s existence and good plan through other, more ambiguous, circumstances.
This isn't evidence of reason. It's indicative of profound self-deception rooted in cognitive biases, unfalsifiable claims and unverifiable 'evidence'.



 Reason and the Resurrection

This one is a little out there.
The paradigmatic case of a rational faith is the Resurrection of Jesus. Critics scoff, saying, “We have science; we know that dead men don’t rise! Only the superstitious ancients could believe a silly myth like that!”
I have no idea what critics he's thinking of here.
What kind of evidence did Paul have for the bodily resurrection of Jesus? He and the early Christian community were galvanized by the shared conviction of multiple eyewitnesses, based upon “many convincing proofs.” For a period of forty days, their once-crucified leader lived, breathed, spoke, and ate among the group of people who knew him best: the once-cowardly Peter, then the twelve of the inner circle; afterward, “more than 500 brothers and sisters at once, most of whom are still living,” followed by his own half-brother James, then all the apostles, and finally the once-hostile Paul. 11
There's a related article on Paul's Resurrection Creed over at Daylight Atheism that looks at Paul's passage contextually. An excerpt:
One final point about this passage that Christians often overlook is that Paul lists his own "seeing" (Greek ophthe) of Jesus alongside all the others, drawing no distinction among them. But Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, either before the resurrection or after it. His only experience of Jesus, according to both Acts and his own letters, was a purely spiritual, visionary one. But since he describes it in the same terms as all the others, this implies that those others - the five hundred witnesses included - were also purely visionary, not an encounter in flesh.
For me, it's pretty cut and dry, however: Grice's logic falters because it takes Pauls claims at face value. Take, for example, his claim of 500 witnesses. We don't actually have 500 accounts independently corroborating each other; we have one person claiming there were 500 witnesses.
The appeals to eyewitness testimony for this critical event establish the early Christians’ very high regard for reason and objectively evaluated evidence.
Even if we assume that Paul was referring to a literal, rather than visionary encounter, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. [1, 2]


Reason and Christian Practice

When it comes to the application, Grice inadvertently stumbles over something that, in my estimation, is one of the most serious problems for theistic "objective morality" arguments:
The disciplined moral and spiritual life requires the mind [uh... doesn't everything?] since "by testing you may discern the will of God, what is good and acceptable.
If Christians had really figured out a way to discern the will of God, they wouldn't spend so much time arguing over what it is. That's a huge problem for theistic views of morality: how do you know what God wants? Even if we ignore the conflicting claims of all religions and talk only of Christianity, Christians cannot agree on what God is, the extent to which God intervenes in the natural world, the proper way to interpret the Bible for moral guidance, etc. etc.

Grice claims that "we" (as in Christians, showing who the target audience is here) "draw on knowledge gained through general revelation [...] and special revelation, the great resource of scripture, with its every episode teaching us something of righteous character." That's a pretty generous interpretation of the genocidal maniac that was the god of the Old Testament, but the real elephant in the room is that Christians have not established any independent, objective measure by which they can claim to be properly interpreting scripture.


Epistemology, teleology

Grice makes a quick detour referencing Plantinga's argument from reason, which basically says that unless a God created us with minds capable of discerning true and false beliefs, there's no reason to believe that our rational faculties are reliable. I've already addressed the question of how beliefs are justified in this post (which I feel like I've been referencing a lot):

The importance of evidence 


Then he goes after naturalism, and it gets bad:
Naturalism is a monism. Under monism, all existence is part of a single continuum. This entails that distinct categories such as animal, vegetable, and mineral are illusory and arbitrary with respect to fundamental reality.
I have no idea what Grice is smoking, but it must be strong. Even if we accept that we are only material, and that the universe is made up quarks, or maybe 1-dimensional strings or whatever, that doesn't make categorical distinctions arbitrary. There are self-evidently relevant differences it categories of objects.

It may be useful at this point to talk about Stephen Hawking's model-dependent realism, which says that there is no picture- or theory-independent model reality. What we have, rather, are different levels of description. Newtonian physics could be thought of as one level of description, quantum mechanics as another; but the fact that the universe is fundamentally made up of quantum stuff doesn't make Newtonian physics any less "real". Hawking:
"According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that both agree with observation ... then one cannot say that one is more real than another. One can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration."
"It might be that to describe the universe, we have to employ different theories in different situations. Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied."
Grice is basically saying that on naturalism, a rock and a person is just an arbitrary distinction of some fundamental construct of the universe. But he's overlooking that categorical distinctions can be emergent, and distinct from anything fundamental.

Anyway, if that all seems kind of weird and masturbatory, that's because it is. Grice's real point is this:
If human beings are not essentially different from our material bodies, then the notion of a unique person or "self" evaporates.
Nonsense. The "self" is an emergent construct with relevant distinctions from other emergent constructs (like animals and minerals).

There's a brief allusion to cosmological arguments which I've already covered amply, and then Grice gets into some really odd claims regarding design and the notion of teleology, which he correctly describes as "the assignment of purposes, goals, or ends to things". Grice's argument is basically that because the study of biological organisms includes discussion of functions (e.g., "'To circulate blood' is the purpose, or normative standard, which in turn defines whether the heart is functioning properly"), and any discussion of function necessarily entails teleology.

This is just a total non-sequitur. Grice is arguing that if something has a function, it must have been designed with that function in mind. That's sort of like saying that since some people sleep in their cars, cars must have been designed for people to sleep in them (well... some of them are, but you get my drift). One of the key concepts in evolution, elucidated beautifully by Daniel Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, is that it does away with teleology precisely because it shows that functions can be emergent – that is, functions can arise from a blind, algorithmic process.

By overlooking emergent constructs and functions, Grice erroneously concludes that a rejection of theism inevitably leads to materialist reductionism.

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