John Loftus' new book, The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True is now in my hands, and yes, it's as bad as feared. I've read the first half, where he makes his general case and "deals" with my arguments (well, some of them, if by "deal with" we mean "misconstrue" and "dance around"), along with those of other critics (Mark Hanna, JP Moreland, Victor Reppert, Randal Rauser, etc).
Since I know my own arguments best, I'll begin this series by dealing with John's critique of those, as he sees them. This is a case where an "insider" perspective may prove helpful.
A couple months ago I responded to Loftus' bizarre charge on his blog that I am a "science denier."
Maybe John didn't have time to read my response. Maybe he sent his book to the publisher in the interval between making the charge, and reading my (admittedly slow) answer, if he did. In any case, on pages 105-108, John doubles down on his criticism, and nurses it to a bubbling, boiling, frothy heights of absurdity.
All of this is based on John's Manichean dichotomy between the forces of light ("science") and those of darkness ("faith"), two terms I doubt even more that he understands, and begin to despair of explaining to him. (Stubborness being definable as, "One's state of mind after viewing one's own tom-fool arguments in print.")
But I am a teacher, and do not willingly stop trying to bring light into the mind of the most recalcitrant pupil.
So let's begin with John Loftus (now printed) charges against me, in regard to science. Readers may find it particularly interesting to see again how Loftus' ally Richard Carrier undermines those charges in parts f, i and n (even though he blurbs this book as "superbly argued" and even "airtight!")
So let's try to blow a little epistemic sunshine up these nether regions. Here's an alphabet of responses to John's argument in that chapter, which could almost be entitled:
John's gossipy style remains readable, and his attacks amuse rather than distress me. With no further ado, let's plunge off the cliff:
4. Objecting to Science Itself
Given that the OTF is based on science, the only thing left for believers to do is to bring science down to the level of faith. This is what David Marshall does:
'Faith involves a continuum of four levels of trust" -- trust in our own minds, trust in our senses, trust in the testimony of people, and trust in God. The first three levels of trust are as true in science as anywhere . . . In fact, scientific evidence is based on faith -- exactly the same sort of faith as informed Christians have in God. Science is always based on at least three kinds of reasonable but fallible faith: trust in the mind, in the sense (sic -- John's error), and in other people. None of these can be proven -- to use mind to prove mind is to argue in a circle. And the senses might be wrong. And there is no scientific test to prove our colleagues honest, reliable, and competent -- only social tests. Yet without evidence on all three, good science cannot be done.'
I am sure all scientists, except for perhaps pseudoscientists within Marshall's own evangelical tradition, would absolutely scoff at this comparison between faith and science. He's negating the trustworthiness of science by placing it on an equal plane with faith. They are basically the same, you see. They both require trusting the conclusions of our brains, our senses, and other people, none of which "can be proven," since there is always an element of doubt, no matter how small.
Let's stop here for the moment. John's two paragraphs here (not counting what he quoted from me) are so rich in misconstrual, one could grow world class tomatoes in them, if they didn't wilt from the heat of ferment.
(a) First of all, in what sense is the OTF "based on science?" If John had said "My theory is based on pseudo-science, as every half-baked superstition of our days appeals to what Ellul called the great 'Myths,'" then I would applaud him for his honesty. But more on the "scientific" grounds of his argument, in a later post.
(b) The OTF as Loftus develops it is really based on the work of a few favored anthopologists, begging the question, rich dallops of psychobabble, and a human propensity Loftus describes well earlier in the book, but of which he never seems to suspect himself:
Human beings are infected with numerous cognitive biases. These biases lead us to prefer to believe and defend what we prefer to believe. (29)
But again, we'll get to that later.
(c) Loftus quotes my words without understanding them much. I am not at all "bringing science down to the level of faith." I am saying John's dictotomy between the two (which he assumes throughout the book, without definition, still less much defense) is completely false! I am saying, if anything, that faith in the Christian sense is prior to and epistemically far more important than science. (Feel free to reach for your smelling salts, visitors from "Deconstructing Christianity.") I am arguing that science in fact DEPENDS on faith for its very survival, epistemologically. (As it did historically for its creation.)
So there is no equivalence between "science" and "faith," anymore than (to appropriate my earlier analogy in a new way) between a field and the strawberries that grow in that field. Science without faith is dead. Faith can live either with or without science, though it welcomes the flourishing of the science that it helped nurse into being.
(d) But of course, we are using the term "faith" in different ways. I despair of explaining to John Loftus what Christians really mean by it, and have meant for two thousand years. Dr. Tim McGrew, an expert on epistemology and the history of Christian apologetics, is co-writing an appendix for the print version of True Reason with me on this topic. Maybe that will help some skeptics with minds less closed than that of Loftus.
(e) John is "sure all (real) scientists would absolutely scoff at this comparison between faith and science."
Actually, in my experience, informed scientists -- not "pseudo-scientists" -- not only don't scoff at this explanation, but often agree with it. (Though properly, defining the relationship between science and religion is the work of philosophers, including of course philosophers of science, not of scientists themselves, whose job it is to search for exoplanets, map salinity in the Mariana trench, or watch how baby chicks feed, as did Richard Dawkins for his doctoral thesis. Though as intellectuals, many scientists rightly try with proper humility in working outside their own fields, to relate their particular work to broader concerns, as do other thoughtful people.)
Among those who have read the chapters in Truth Behind the New Atheism on science and faith without audible scoffing, in fact with expressed general approval, are Allan Chapman, member of the Royal Astronomical Society and an eminent historian of science, Ard Louis, an Oxford University physicist, and other excellent scientists. (John Lennox also wrote me an appreciative note after reading the book.)
Among those who agreed with my expressed take on faith and reason enough to contribute chapters to Faith Seeking Understanding, have been the eminent Canadian quantum physicist Don Page, the astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, and the biochemist Ben McFarland.
Would John Loftus like to call Don Page a "pseudo-scientist" to his face? John has a lot of gaul, but even for him, I hope that would be a bridge too far.
(f) Aside from such evangelical "pseudo-scientists" as John Lennox and Don Page, we also have the testimony of Dr. Richard Carrier, a lesser light by conventional standards, but one of Loftus' leading contributors on science and faith, and a resolute atheist, to put it mildly.
In truth, science is
actually subordinate to history, as it relies on historical documents and
testimony for most of its conclusions (especially historical records of past
experiments, observations, and data). Carrier, Proving
Carrier is actually "denigrating" science in a more literal sense in relation to history here, as we shall see in (n).
(g) The point is not that there is "always an element of doubt," though there is that. The real point has to do with how we know things. Science, as Carrier recognizes but Loftus apparently does not, depends on more basic means of figuring things out. We are talking about epistemology, not running up a flag and seeing who salutes, or blaring trumpets and seeing who falls down before the Great God Science. My point is, science is not a god, but one of many humble tools for finding things out, constructed of previous intellectual materials, one of which can justly be labeled "faith," in the sense I describe it, and Christians have described it for two millennia, now.
But Loftus soldiers on:
How much Marshall doesn't say, but he should, because there really isn't any doubt about gravity, for instance, or the overwhelming consensus of scientists around the world on things like the Big Bang, evolution, continental drift, or the heliocentric solar system. Scientific results like these, and many others, are accepted by all scientists as being virtually certain. Is there room for doubts? Yes, because they are not certain conclusions, only virtually certain ones. By contrast, however, there is a great amount of doubt when it comes to world religions, since not all of them can be true. When we compare the assured results of science to the assured faiths of believers in extraordinary supernatural miracle claims that are virtually impossible within the natural world . . . if science is based on faith there is a gigantic difference between scientific 'faith' and religious faith. At their very best, miracle claims are extremely improbable, as they concern rare, nonrepeatable, and nontestable events. At their very worst, scientific claims are extremely probable, regular, repeatable, and testable. There is simply no epistemic parity here at all.
(h) Notice what Loftus is doing, here. He is not making a scientific argument. He is making a social argument. He is telling us we ought to rely on consensus among scientists.
Is he wrong to do that? Well, maybe a little. It is possible -- maybe more than one might initially assume -- that the appearance of this universe is some sort of simulation in our minds, or in some larger Mind. We have analogies for such things -- dreams, hallucinations, computer games. And all the facts we rely on to affirm the reality of our belief in the world can also be fit into that explanatory model. The Grand Computer Designer might want us to perceive our world as real, though perhaps it is not.
But I don't believe that. I agree with Loftus that the relative reality of this world is highly probable. I also agree that science is one good way to find out some sorts of facts about that world.
(i) Why should that fact even faintly bother a believer in God? Theists mostly invented science, as Carrier again admits, in part to glorify God in the first place!
But John wants to pit "science" against (religious) "faith." That means science ought somehow to be on his side. This he takes by blind faith.
(j) Some scientific claims ARE "virtually certain," as are some "religious" and historical claims. The reality of an objective external universe was a religious claim long before it was a philosophical one. (I don't know if it has yet really become a scientific claim, as opposed to a necessary premise.) That our universe began, was likewise a Christian claim long before anyone thought of the Big Bang.
I am not, at the moment, arguing that Christian faith is true. I am simply pointing out that some specific religious claims are just as credible as the most credible scientific claims.
"Jesus was crucified." This, also, is a religious claim, and I think it is quite certain.
(k) On the other hand, there are many shaky scientific claims. Did Mars ever hold life? Are there other universes? How did life originate?
That is not science at its "very worst," but at its most speculative and (perhaps) pioneering.
Not all religious claims can be true, yes. Nor can all scientific claims. But science is one method for finding some sorts of things out, while religion is (among other things) a set of ultimate claims about the nature and purpose of things. Let's not adopt John's bad habit of comparing strawberries and the fields they grow in.
(l) Who said there was "epistemic parity?" Loftus simply shows again he does not really understand my argument at all. Science is an epistemology. Religion is not, but analogous to the grounds of all epistemologies (four steps of faith), and relies (like John's own Secular Humanism) on specific results from various kinds of testing. Christian faith may ground and help explain how we know things. It can also be one of the things we know. But it is not itself simply a way of knowing things. Of course there is no "epistemic parity," because only one of these things even claims to itself be a merely a way of finding things out.
(m) Why are miracles "improbable?" Loftus is repeating Humean nonsense that has been debunked more times than the day is long. As Craig Keener shows (and we missionaries generally knew already), miracles are not really that rare, not nearly as rare as many events that science attests. (Or even as murder, to which the Evening News attests -- though science alone can't prove the reality of murder, without historical human testimony. You have DNA evidence? Then you need a cop to place that evidence at the scene of the murder, historically.)
"Marshall opines, 'Those who make wild claims about the scientific method often based their arguments not on good human evidence, but rumor, wild guesses, and extrapolations that would embarrass a shaman.' This sentence expresses such a low view of science that I mention it only to embarrass him. On my blog, Marshall even defended what he said: 'Actually, John, I would say that almost all scientific evidence comes to us as historical evidence. Science,' he continued, 'is, in effect, almost a branch of history, as it transmits knowable and systematically collected and interpreted facts to our brains.' There is so much wrong about this response and so little space. The only reason he wants to bring science down to the level of the historian's very difficult but honorable craft is because he needs to believe his faith history is on an equal par with scientific results, only he places history above science because, he says, science is a branch of history. People of faith must denigrate science in at least some areas, simply because science is a major threat to their faith. That's the nature of faith."
(n) Again, I need only smile, and repeat Richard Carrier's similiar, but in some ways more culpable, "denigration" of science:
In truth, science is actually subordinate to history, as it relies on historical documents and testimony for most of its conclusions (especially historical records of past experiments, observations, and data). Carrier, Proving History, 48
Does it "denigrate" science more, to call it "almost a branch of history," or to call it "subordinate" to history?
If anything, the hierachical assumptions implicit in Carrier's wording seems to more explicitly imply "denigration." Loftus writes about my allegedly "low" view of science, and "bringing science down," a spatial metaphor that is actually echoed in Carrier's word "subordination," but not in my metaphor of a branching tree.
Of course I express no "low view" of science at all, but only of pseudo-scientific quacks like John Loftus, who doesn't bother even reading and thinking about his own "history and philosophy of science" guru's more viable description of how science and history relate.
(o) While we're doing ad hominems, maybe this is a good time to mention that John Loftus does not seem to have any more scientific qualifications than I do, probably less. I have at least taken chemistry, meteorology, calculus and advanced physics at one of the world's major universities. That doesn't qualify me for much, but I'd like to know what qualifies John Loftus to speak as oracle to the Great God Science. And I'll set my "pseudo-scientific" friends and advisors against his in a battle of qualifications, any day.
(p) But of course the fields most relevant to the Outsider Test for Faith are the History of Religions, Christian Theology of Religions, and maybe anthropology. These are fields in which I can write in spots with some authority. I have advanced degrees in the first two of these fields. My writings on these topics have been vetted and passed, and often warmly praised, by eminent scholars in those fields.
Yet John introduces me as merely "Christian apologist David Marshall."
By contrast, he introduces David Eller, his own main source on the subject, as follows:
He is someone we ought to listen to, since anthropology is his field of expertise. He's studied world religions, their origins, their persuasiveness, their cultural impact, and their evolution. (103)
So have I, as John knows. But John likes Eller's conclusions, and dislikes mine. So he is "someone we ought to listen to," and I am a science-degrading "Christian apologist."
But on we skate, onto even thinner ice:
Marshall goes on to ask, "Why believe that only truths grounded in scientific evidence are worth believing?' According to him, 'That idea cannot be proven scientifically!" Mark Hanna said similiar kinds of things . . . It's very hard to convince people of faith like this that science is extremely trustworthy, which is my point, not that the empirical sciences contain all knowledge . . .
(q) If I had any hair worth speaking of left, this might be the point at which I'd tear it out.
It's hard to convince me that "Science is extremely trustworthy?" No, at this point, it's hard to convince me John Loftus has made a careful distinction in is life.
Science, like history, like math, googling, and playground gossip, is a way of finding things out. It can be done well, it can be done poorly. It can bring us to true conclusions, it can bring us to false or meaningless ones. It is not a god. It does not demand sacrifice of unbelievers. It should not be worshipped and supplicated. Loftus should stop groveling, already, get up off the ground, dust himself off, and begin (perhaps for the first time in a while) to think.
(r) What is the relationship between two terms Loftus appears to take here as synonyms, "science" and "the empirical sciences?" Science, as I pointed out above, in practice is not strictly and purely empirical. It involves an element of trust, in mind, senses, and in other people. It also involves modeling, historical reconstruction, philosophical assumptions, even guesswork, inspired or otherwise.
Nor are all empirical epistemologies science. History is usually not classified as a science, and indeed Loftus distinguished between the two earlier in this point. History is empirical, as much as most forms of science are empirical.
(s) Who cares what Loftus' point is? The Marshall quotation here is from The Truth Behind the New Atheism (29), and I am responding to "positivists." If Loftus does not count himself among the positivists, why act as if I were responding there to him? I don't even know if I knew who he was, when I wrote that book.
Science is trustworthy because it has a trustworthy method, whereas faith does not. Science is trustworthy because its based on objective evidence, whereas faith doesn't need objective evidence . . .
Well of course it does, as McGrew and I, along with others, will show again in True Reason. But Loftus doesn't bother interacting with the evidence that Christian faith is based on evidence -- ironic, isn't it? Or just predictable and tiresome, by now?
Apart from science, what else should we trust? Religious experience? Philosophy? Faith? What's the alternative? Do people like Marshall and Hanna know how science even works? Over the years I have found that one bastion for Christian apologists has been philosophy . . .
Well, I can't speak for Hanna, whom I haven't read. But yes, I think I do have the general idea of how science works, at least as much as John Loftus does.
(t) What else should we trust? Well our eyes, for one thing. After all, we use our eyes to read most of the science we read -- and again, I suspect I have read at least as much as John Loftus.
What if our eyes tell us it's raining outside? Well believe them, of course! Unless you've just done LSD, and the rain is purple and falling upwards.
What if your eyes tell us you now see, whereas you couldn't before, but Jesus just smeered some mud in them and prayed for you? Tell yourself it's all a dream, because your "religious experience" isn't proven by science!
This is a practical question, which again Loftus avoids simply by sheer force of glibness. In fact, one way Christianity has spread is through miracles. Getting raised from the dead is not epistemically the same category of"religious experience" as, say, a warm glow when you sing outloud in a group. it is glib and irrational to conflate all such experiences, and to dismiss all religious evidences as Loftus does elsewhere in this book. We'll talk about that in a later blog, though, I think.
(u) Should we "believe" philosophy? We should tentatively accept sound philosophical arguments that are based on premises that appear to be true, of course. Does John have a problem with that? If not, why the rhetorical and doubtful edge to his question? Doesn't he recognize that his whole book is full of philosophical arguments, even if not always very good ones?
He seems to remember this a little later:
Don't get me wrong. I value philosophy. In fact, I use it, and it certainly helped me to think critically. It's just that I no longer value any philosophy that is not scientifically informed. Marshall and Hanna are clearly uninformed about science . . .
(v) But again, I have to disagree with Loftus here. I value lots of philosophy that is not at all "scientifically informed" in the modern sense, or even in some cases by any decent ancient science. What would the world be without Zhuang Zi, Lao Zi, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Epictetus, the author of Ecclesiastes, or Augustine?
Their writings are among the intellectual treasures of humanity, from which anyone but a fool can learn a great deal. I bet John Loftus owes some of them, too -- as usual, he is just spouting off without thinking, first.
(w) How am I "uninformed about science?" Again, Loftus refuses to point to any actual scientific errors on my part, or evidence of ignorance. The accusation is vacuous.
Despite (Hanna's) claims, though, new paradigms of science do not completely overthrow the previous ones . . .
(x) Well no, fortunately. And that is one of my main points in rebutting Loftus in True Reason: that the Christian Gospel also does not "completely overthrow" insights in religious traditions that come before it, but builds upon them in rich and astonishing ways.
(y) John does not interact with that argument anywhere in this book, it seems. And yet here he echoes my argument, to distinguish religion from science! Did he even bother reading to the end of my chapter rebutting him in True Reason?
(z) In fact, of the four arguments I give to show that Christianity passes the Outsider Test for Faith, John only mentions one in this book. And that he garbles, as I intend to show in a later post.
So there you have it: an Alphabet of Errors, in just a few pages of John Loftus' new masterpiece. (Carrier: "the greatest book Loftus has ever produced . . . superbly argued, air tight, and extremely useful . . . After reading it and sincerely applying its principles, anyone who really wants to be rational will be on the road to atheism in no time.")
The biggest problem with the book so far is that it is shallow. John has most evidently not challenged himself. He has not thought deeply about faith, science, or the history of religions, despite many challenges and much encouragement. He looks at the world with secular-colored glasses, and refuses to remove those glasses, even in his sleep, even when he's writing about an "outsider test for faith."
This is, in short, an intellectually lazy work. John has not subjected his own ideology to any sort of real test. He is wallowing in a stew of his own first principles.
Even while reading his critics, and affably responding, if I can judge by his response to my arguments, John has simply not bothered to do the hard work of thinking through challenges "from the inside," trying to understand them, and asking if he might even learn something from them. This book is a monument to the confirmation bias it warns against.
I am especially disappointed that Loftus did not even bother to mention three of my four arguments for Christianity passing the OTF -- even though he implicitly admits the premise of the last two, that new paradigms ought to build on old insights, not merely "overthrow" them. That is precisely what is wrong with his exclusivist understanding of the Christian theology of religions.
Well, at least that means I probably won't have to much revise the two versions of my critique of John's OTF that are also due in print in the coming months.