10 October 2013

And, that's all that needs to be said

When I wrote my partial review of Randal Rauser's book What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven?, I intended it primarily to discuss four questions that, to my mind, undermine the logical coherency of the Christian concept of Heaven. I had asked the questions to Randal directly on his blog, a snapshot of which I reposted in the review; Randal did not respond to the questions directly, briefly explaining that he addresses them in this book.

After reading the relevant content in his book, it was my conclusion he had not done a very good job of resolving Heaven's logical paradoxes. On a couple of the questions, he literally did not even try! Worse, the book was filled with all sorts of grandiose claims about what Heaven will be like, and Randal never provided any sort of evidence for his claims.

Randal's response to me was to completely ignore the four topics central to the review, instead diverting the discussion into a criticism of my core epistemological assumptions. But not only was it clearly irrelevant (one does not have to agree with my core epistemological assumptions to agree with my criticisms on the four questions), but it was the argumentative equivalent of trying to sculpt the statue of David with a sledgehammer.  Randal lashed out against the validity of evidence-based justification, something I like to call throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as it was eloquently put by reader AdamHazzard:
My patience with this dodge is simply exhausted. Epistemology is a fascinating branch of philosophy, but if there is an epistemic system that entirely denies the utility of evidence, verifiability and falsifiability in forming beliefs about the physical world, I have yet to hear of it and have certainly never seen it applied to science, law, history, geography, engineering, childhood learning, et alia. Such an epistemic system would render those fields of knowledge, and many more, utterly incoherent. And while it would enable arbitrary religious beliefs, it would similarly enable any arbitrary belief.
But, at the risk of sounding a bit cocky, I don't think Randal was quite prepared for the fact that I'm well-read on epistemology and while I make no pretense of being a professional philosopher, I can hold my own when it comes to clarifying the core epistemological concepts I think are valid. Rather than deal with my responses, Randal wrote a lengthy post extolling his academic credentials, insinuating that I'm out of my league to even question or engage his arguments. 

Keep in mind that these are the questions on which I had repeatedly pressed him:
  • How do you know what you claim to know?
  • If you were wrong, how would you know?
  • Why should anyone else believe you?
I don't think those should be difficult questions for an academic philosopher to answer. Randal's response:
I adhere to externalism, moderate foundationalism, and proper functionalism combined with particularism (as opposed to epistemic methodism). A thorough understanding of those concepts will identify me on the epistemic landscape and provide you with the understanding you seek for what it means to be epistemically justified in accepting theological claims (or to know theological claims).
The bluster here is rather pathetic. If one accepts all of Randal's epistemological assumptions, then it may be the case that they have created a framework in which his beliefs about Heaven are acceptable. But they're not inevitable. There's nothing about Randal's epistemology which inescapably leads to his conclusions. One could quite easily adopt all of the above epistemological assumptions and still form entirely different beliefs about Heaven. Randal hasn't gotten out of the need to answer the above three questions in clear, concise terms.


So that is what came of my partial review of What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven? – a senseless diversion about epistemology followed by grandstanding over academic credentials. When I was a Christian, I remember posing questions like the three above to learned Christians in my church. I always assumed that, being experts in theology, they'd have clear and concise answers to these difficult questions that, if nothing else, would get me started on the right track for further inquiry. Instead, my inquiries were always met with the same kind of irrelevant diversions that Randal has employed.

What's ironic about all this is that after my recent post confessing my exasperation with arguing with religious apologists, I thought I'd read Randal's book anyway simply because he claimed the book answers four questions that I had long taken to be devastating problems for the Christian concept of Heaven. I thought it'd be interesting to hear someone tackle those questions head-on. I never imagined the whole thing would spiral out of control so quickly and dramatically, but it's certainly hammered home my belief that reasoning with religious apologists is, pure and simple, a complete waste of time.

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