Tuesday, December 29, 2015

How does John Loftus (or anyone) know anything?

Explaining epistemology, how we know what we know, to New Atheists, feels a bit like rolling up a stone in Hades, only to have it slide back down, throughout eternity.  Asking them to stop blindly worshipping "science," and start thinking about our sources of knowledge rationally, is like asking a cat to be kind to mouse-flavored straw men.  (Sorry for the mixed metaphor: I have a cold, so make no guarantees even worse will not follow.) 

I wrote about "faith" and "reason" already in my second book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, in 2000, and then posted my analysis on this site.  In 2007, I then tried again to sort out the monumental silliness that the New Atheists engage in over "faith" and "reason," in a full chapter of The Truth Behind the New Atheism.  Wanting to know what Christians have traditionally said about the matter, I then surveyed three dozen or so key thinkers, from Justin Martyr in the 2nd Century to Stephen Barr (a physicist who has recently written on Christianity and science).  I found, again, that skeptics were grotesquely misrepresenting the mainstream Christian tradition about how faith and reason relate.  Epistemologist Tim McGrew and I later wrote a chapter in True Reason in which we showed that early Christian thinkers in fact solidly related "believing" to public, empirical evidence.  The Gnu idea propounded by Richard Dawkins and others that "faith" meant "believing without evidence, or in the teeth of the evidence," was nothing but an ignorant smear, or sneer, that itself showed little familiarity with the evidence for what Christian really think.  I also added a chapter showing that the New Testament doesn't support the "Blind Faith Meme," either.

But for true "anti-faith heads," or shall we say "blind-faith-in-blind-faith" heads, all the evidence we cite goes for naught.  They flick their wrists, the stone rolls down the hill, and we have to start pushing it back up, all over again. 

There simply seems to be no resting place in their heads for these facts. 

One slightly milder form of the Gnu "Blind Faith Meme" is the conceit that Christianity rests upon some form of evidence so weak and tenuous that it simply can't compete with real, scientific reasoning. 

What is scientific reasoning?  The concept of "Science" seems to expand and contract to meet felt needs.  Sometimes it means "knowledge acquired and capable of being falsified through repeated physical experiments."  At other times it expands to cover broader forms of knowledge like history, as Jerry Coyne did in his tendentious and ignorant (but well-written) recent book, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.  But whatever science is (or Science, since we've saved a cap by not capitalizing god anymore, let's splurge here), it is supposed to be something far higher and loftier than "religious" knowledge (whatever that is), something beyond the capacity of "believers" and their flailing efforts to support their discredited  beliefs. 

And, as a poster at a thread on John Loftus' Debunking Christianity site dedicated to scoffing at me explained blanketly:

"Human testimony is unreliable."

To which I responded, so what is left of science?  What of history?  For all science, and all history, depends fully on human testimony.  Not only do most facts scientists make use of come from other folks, not only does "peer review" mean "we need input from other people," not only are their own machines calibrated by strangers, but even that small bit of science we can do for ourselves is vouchsafed by our memories.

So if Isaac Newton watches an apple fall, he may deduce something about attraction between masses at a distance.  His deduction is based on the fact that he recalls seeing objects fall in the past, and on data from the likes of Galileo or Bruno or Kepler.

That's all history.  It's also all human testimony. 

I think to the extent skeptics support such sweeping generalizations as "human testimony is unreliable," they undermine the hope of acquiring knowledge, the true rational foundations of science along with history, in a vain attempt to get at Christianity.  They are cutting off their noses to spite their face. 

OK, now let's look at Loftus' specific objections. 

John Loftus Critiques What he Imagines are my Arguments

"In what follows is a smack-down of the entire edifice of David Marshall's apologetics (not that he will be convinced of course). Christian apologist David Marshall has repeatedly argued that "All scientific knowledge depends upon human testimony." He does so to put the vinyl siding of scientific respectability over the rotting wood of his faith.

For the record, I dislike vinyl siding.  I much prefer treated wood. 

"He rhetorically asks, "How many eyewitness testimonies were confirmed by DNA evidence?" His point is that DNA evidence doesn't confirm eyewitness testimonies, but rather that the human testimonies of scientists confirm the DNA evidence.

No, that wasn't my point at all.  And that wasn't a rhetorical question. 

First, a little back story.  Another poster tried to undermine the value of human testimony by pointing out that several hundred convictions based in part on eyewitness testimony (of some sort) had been overturned by DNA evidence.  But the poster neglected to tell us how many similar convictions based on eyewitness testimony had been confirmed by DNA evidence (and related expert testimony).   My point was, if you want to evaluate the effectiveness of a method, you can't just tell us how often it fails.  You also have to tell  us how often it succeeds. 

So this was no "rhetorical question."  I really wanted to know the number -- just one of several questions a reasonable person would ask before accepting such a vague argument against (some sort of) eyewitness testimony. 

One would also have to learn more about the sort of eyewitness testimony that wrongly convicted these folks.  I have certainly never claimed that ALL eyewitness testimony is solid. 

"That's because they saw it and they interpret it for the rest of us. This is crucial for Marshall's defense of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus, and the claims of miracles in today's world. Human testimony is what both science and his faith depend on for truth. If we can know from the human testimonies of scientists the truth about the world, then we can also know from human testimonies the truth about the Easter Event and miracles in the modern world."

I really prefer it when skeptics let me speak for myself, which John is not doing, here.  He's putting words in my mouth.  I point to a few dots on the ceiling, and he draws a pink elephant for me.

As I said in that thread, "human testimony" comes in many shapes and sizes.  Some of it is highly reliable, some of it is not.   As an historian, of course I think historical evidence can be quite credible -- as a human being, rather, since we all think so.   Every single one of us rely on human testimony every single day-- as, for instance, when we obey a street sign.  

What's there not to understand atheists? Checkmate!!

It is not enough that John has led us into a blind alley, now he wants to put blindfolds over our eyes. 

"Checkmate?"  I am trying, in vein, to teach hard-core skeptics to think about faith and reason more clearly.  That's my  modest goal here -- not to prove Christianity.  Still less do I claim so quickly to have accomplished what was not my goal!

No, Marshall doesn't think all human testimony is reliable. How he determines which human testimony is reliable is an important issue though. How does he decide when they contradict each other? My guess is . . .

"My guess?"  Good Lord. 

Even gossip is epistemologically superior to THAT sort of argument. 

. .  . he doesn't trust scientists when their unified testimony is that evolution is a fact. But upon what basis can he do this? He does it because A) he trusts the testimony of pre-scientific believers (as written about in 4th century texts), and because B) he trusts believers who testify they have seen a miracle in today's world. He does so because of trust, which is how he defines the word "faith." Pretty consistent, eh? But also illegitimate!

Huh?  Where in the world did John obtain this hooey?  All this is built upon a solid foundation of baseless speculation about what I think about "evolution," whatever that is, and why he supposes (without bothering to ask me, or read my books) I think it.  All of these assumptions are nothing more or less than the figment of John's heated imagination. 

And those castles in the clouds -- no, he doesn't go that far -- these low-lying vapors, apparently represent his idea of how one investigates facts!  No "science" here, just wild guesses and then suppositions and "gotchas" built on speculation. 

He chooses to trust human testimonies coming from believers of miracles and chooses to distrust the human testimonies coming from scientists when they say otherwise. It's a trust issue, a faith issue. He has faith. Scientists do not have it (or, they don't incorporate faith into their experiments). It's as simple, yet as profound as that. In other words, he trusts believing testimonies over scientific testimonies who say they have conflicting and contradicting cold hard evidence to the contrary. This scientific evidence will be the subject of my next anthology.

More castles in the clouds, based on nothing.  More baseless psychobabble. 

And this guy writes about scientific reasoning?  Heavens above.  Learn how to be a credible gossip first, my friend. 

Marshall does this 1) even though the testimonies of a multitude of believers attest to differing religions;

"Marshall does this?"  No, Loftus GUESSES I do something, without a particle of evidential support.  That's because the New Atheism is afraid to reason, and afraid to base belief on solid evidence, and John is in that regard a typical Gnu.  

But I have already overthrown Loftus' argument from the "Outsider Test for Faith," demonstrating that in four ways, the argument does not harm, but helps, Christianity.  So he can stop appealing to that argument, already. 

"2) even though the brain is a belief producing engine that can and does spit out many false beliefs due to a host of known cognitive biases (as Michael Shermer and others successfully argue);

Fortunately scientists and their groupees don't have brains.  They a transcendent form of angelic being not subject to cognitive biases.  They would never, for instance, base a long argument on evidence that they imagine into being, for instance! 

This argument is a double-edged sword, and also comes perilously close to boring me with how utterly obvious it is. 

3) even though scientists have produced the evidence that fuels productive research in university disciplines;

So have I.  So has every scholar.  Scientists are not different, in that regard, from historians, lawyers, journalists, secretaries, and every other sort of human being that gathers information. 

I hate  kiss-ups.  John is flattering scientists for no good reason, aside from the aura or mana they give off in Gnu subculture.  Farmers were "producing evidence that fueled productive research" 8000 years ago.  Shipwrights were doing it, carpenters were doing it, generals were doing it -- please let's not reduce all productive study to science. 

But Christianity cannot be compared to "Science."  That is a category error.  One is a set of doctrines and a lifestyle.  The other is a method for finding certain kinds of truth.  Of course if we compare a method of finding truth with a lifestyle, the latter can be presented as being a better method for finding truth -- that is, after all, its sole purpose. 

4) even though anyone can duplicate the same scientific experiments and get the same results themselves if sufficiently trained, and if not sufficiently trained can understand the logic of the procedures involved, and if the procedures are too complex there is a trickle down effect where people who can understand the procedures can also testify to the results having been obtained;

I find it tedious when Gnus patronize Christians, as if we had no idea what science or research were like, or had no concept of the practice or benefits of science -- because we worship God, not one of many methods for finding truth. 

5) even though the religious impulse has perpetrated many testimonies of hoaxes and frauds which have been exposed by the testimonies of scientists; and

What "religious impulse" is that? 

Fraud is a universal human phenomena.  People like the historian Polybius, and the theologian Augustine (who scewered astrology) were capably debunking it already thousands of years ago.  This, too, we're asked to credit to science?   Stop the brown-nosing, already, John.  It's embarrassing me. And I suspect it would embarrass a lot of scientists. 

 6) even though religious testimonies usually lack any hard cold corroborating evidence to them, especially when it comes to the ancient superstitious pre-scientific past.

I think the evidence for Christianity is excellent, and show why in my next book

What if we have not done the experiments ourselves? If we don't do the scientific experiments then aren't we relying on human testimony when it comes to the results? Well, these experiments must pass peer review before they are published in any authoritative scientific magazine or journal. So it isn't just one scientist who says this but several of them do so, with the backing of a peer-review process in journals that have gained a high degree of respect by other scientists.

Yes, yes, all very nice.  And good historians have their pals check over their work, too.  And so do cooks, and cricket players have coaches, and 3rd graders pass their papers around to check right answers. 

I'm not completely unfamiliar with the concept of peer review: I'm sometimes asked to peer review papers myself. 

But aren't we simply transferring our trust from one human testimony to several of them when we trust what we read in a scientific journal? Well again, in one sense, yes. But if it's to be called trust then that trust is well-founded. As my grandma would say, "the proof is in the pudding." The testimonies of thousands and thousands of scientists have changed our world by producing computer chips, cruise ships and rocket ships. What has religious human testimony achieved by comparison? It has flown planes into buildings and beheaded people for minor infractions, as but two recent poignant examples.

More adolescent simplifications. 

If John would just read the book I sent him a free copy of, How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: the Inside Story, Chapter Four, he'll see that Christianity has in fact dramatically changed the world for the better.  Partly, yes, by nurturing the embers of science to a warm glow in the Middle Ages. 

But that is not very directly and unambiguously related to whether or not Christianity is true, of course.

Daniel Dennett invented the word "deepity" to explain what believers say in defense of faith. A deepity is a statement that can be taken one of two ways. On the one hand it states an obvious truth, one that is trivially true such that it has no significance or importance at all. On the other hand it can be taken as a profound truth that would be earth-shattering if true. What I quoted above from Marshall is a deepity, his number on deepity, the major one used to defend his faith. He masters in them. His rhetoric without substance is a deepity. It's all he can muster in defense of his faith. He substitutes rhetorical argumentation in place of the evidence because the evidence is not there.

Oh yeah?  Several years ago, Loftus said he rejected Christianity because it hurt women.  I then posted a long series on this site -- still not complete -- showing from history, sociology, and exegesis,of the world's major religious texts, that in fact Christianity has radically transformed the world for the better, for women. 

Here in China, for instance, Christians began the movement to stop the crippling of little girls.  And also introduced education for women around the world.

I offered a huge amount of evidence.  My books, like my blog posts, are chock full of evidence.  If John denies that, he is denying reality. 

And what did I hear from John, in response?

Nada.  Until after a suitable time passes, John repeated his original charges, without at all addressing my disconfirming evidence. 

And that has been the usual way it has gone. 

To complete his critique, ironically, John quotes a number of comments from me in which I make many of the very points I have made in this response -- and which John overlooks or ignores.   I will underline those points below.  All John had to do was read the posts he was copying and pasting more carefully. 

Does anyone else want to have a go at pushing this rock up the hill?  My back is getting soar. 

EVERY single source you cite to undermine human testimony, is itself based on more human testimony! This is really quite amusing. I was right to compare it to "fighting off soap bubbles with a sword." (Call the sword "logic.")

What you speculate about what testimony some other team might offer, does absolutely nothing to change the nature of the situation. All that means is more testimony is better than little testimony: which I do not "concede," it is one of the bases for all serious historical argumentation, as I have often insisted, of course. (We call it the "Criterion of Multiplicity," in some contexts.)

And of course your knowledge of the effects of gravity also depend entirely on human testimony, and nothing else.

You CLAIM to have verified the effects of gravity by experiment. So how do we know that? How do you know that?

Memory. Vision. Instruments created by other people.

Memory is a form of human testimony -- from mind to consciousness.

Instruments, again, introduce an element of dependence on others -- in most cases (unless you are Galileo, making your own instruments) on people you have never even met.

I have never challenged the obvious fact that human testimony admits of various degrees of credibility -- again, that is something I often insist upon. But you seem to be insisting that mere disagreement with your a priori dogmas is enough to render a piece of testimony less credible. On what grounds?

Fools and poor witnesses come in all shapes and sizes and profess a variety of doctrines. There is no "religious testimony," there is just testimony by more or less credible witnesses -- as any non-fanatic ought to readily admit. Or do you intend to admit a doctrine like that of slave-owners, that the testimony of certain races, or ancients, that women, is worth, say, 60% of that of a white, male atheist?

I hope you recognize the sarcasm.

Of course a Buddhist or Muslim's testimony is worth as much as mine or yours. I think the law recognizes that. Are you disputing it?

Again, your original claim was a pretty broad generalization:

"First-hand, eyewitness testimony is unreliable."

To "back that up," you have done very little but cite eyewitness testimony, directly or circuitously -- though admittedly, most of it has not been first-hand. Also, you've begged the question by assuming that "religious" testimony -- testimony from people you disagree with -- is worse than that from people you agree with.


Brad Cooper said...

Nice job, David. Wit the DNA example, you could have gone even farther. There have been a string of examples come to light in recent years of faked and faulty lab results because of deception or error--highlighting even further how science relies on human testimony.

Brad Cooper said...

Brad Cooper said...

Brad Cooper said...

Brad Cooper said...

I was aware of the Massachusetts case, and was able to pull up these others rather quickly with Google while looking for it.....I am sure there is more out there, but this is plenty to make the case. Two of the articles have about a half dozen blatant examples in them......Again, the point is NOT that science is worthless. The point is that science is reliant on human testimony as much as any other area of human knowledge and that it must be weighed and tested the same, also. AND that, if we can do that with science, we can do it with other areas of knowledge, also. And in all areas of knowledge, this leads to various shades of certainty: from not very certain to absolutely certain. It all depends on the kind of evidence that you have--not the means by which the evidence was procured.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Brad.

All of John's arguments here are really just dusts in the air, I should have pointed out.

Originally, on another thread, one of his minions called me "uninformed." I responded, actually on topic at hand, I am pretty well-informed. John then started a thread saying something like "Dr. Marshall is well-informed? Really?" I said, "Yes, really," and John replied by jumping to another topic, and acting as if I had been bragging.

Then in that thread, I challenged the blanket claim that "eyewitness testimony is unreliable," by pointing out that if that is the case, science is history, so to speak.

This last critique of my argument represents John hopping to another series of lily pads, always trying to keep one mountain range out of reach of The Law. It's getting hard for me to figure out what it is that I said, that he's even really disputing.

The data you're citing certainly helps put that old canard to rest. One thing Loftus is certainly trying to do, is to get people to think holy, sacred science is on his side, and I am somehow blaspheming it by making rational intellectual distinctions -- as you show must be done.

Anonymous said...


As I noted on my little blog:

As is the case with some atheists, the man who broadly and/or strongly rejects the trustworthiness and reliability of eye-witness testimony on the basis of studies and/or scientific findings which allegedly show its unreliability is a self-undermining fool, for in order to rationally believe and accept and trust a study or scientific finding, a person must not only trust the eye-witness testimony of the people who did the study, and those who reviewed and edited the study, and those who reported the study, etc., but a person must also trust his own sort of eye-witness testimony to himself concerning seeing the study, remembering the study, and so on; thus, to reject eye-witness testimony in a broad and/or strong way is to simultaneously reject knowledge, rationality, and science is, in other words, utter folly.

Take care.

David B Marshall said...

Exactly. But people who talk sense, or even try to, don't need to remain anonymous here.

Anonymous said...


The reasons for my anonymity are my own, and they are likely not due to the reasons that you are thinking of, but regardless, I appreciated your post.

I might also add, as an aside, that is it not interesting how John and other atheists routinely decry the horrors of religion while playing up the great benefits of science, but they rarely seem to notice the benefits that religion has brought nor point out the fact that Science(TM) has also given us nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, biological warfare, deadly chemicals, and so on. You should do a post on that.

Take care,