One of the smartest, most genuine people I have met gave up his faith many years ago (before we met), and it has led to many profitable and interesting conversations. Recently, in our discussions, I pointed out to him Alexander Pruss’s 2009 version of the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument which I find to be particularly convincing. His response was humorous but pressing…
Holy shit, I gotta read that whole tiny print document just to maybe accept a First Cause that is still light years from necessarily being your Christian God?
Not to discredit him in any way, but I have run into this line of reasoning before and find it terribly frustrating. The reason I find it frustrating is that we have these arguments for the existence of God that…
- If they are true, it doesn’t matter whether it is difficult or not. It is true, and…
- The development and defense of these arguments are predicated on the degree of skepticism raised by non-believers.
I will focus on (2) for the remainder of this post. Let’s take a somewhat controversial subject in American society, evolution. It is important to realize that the question here is not what you believe about it, but the role of the skeptic dialectic into coming to knowledge about a particular subject matter. Please put your position on evolution aside for the moment, and focus on this issue of skeptical dialectic.
A crude outline of the dialectic process behind about learning evolutionary theory in America.
Our first introduction in the United States to evolution is likely somewhere in elementary school where our teacher subtly introduces the concept of our relationship to “lesser” animals. However, some children may at this point already have been taught something of this matter by their parents when reading books on dinosaurs, for example.
The real introduction to the theory happens in middle school, where Darwin and his theory of natural selection acting on random mutation is presented to students. Students are taught from a text book which mostly describes in generic terms and generic illustrations the theory. It is at this point that we start to see questions arise. Some students accept at face value the evidence presented to them in the textbook and by their teacher (is this bad?) while others wonder about that evidence and whether it is sufficient.
In high school biology, the theory is reinforced at greater detail, but students who do not rise to the level of Advanced Placement (college-level) courses will never hear phrases like population genetics, epigenetics, genetic drift, etc. But what will happen is inevitably at each phase there will be some people who now feel they have sufficient information to accept the theory, and others who have further questions, perhaps focused more on abiogenesis or successful mutation rates.
At the collegiate level, the availability of copious resources provided by the academic field of evolutionary biology are at the fingertips of the students, but so are new seeds of skepticism as students dig deeper into biological complexity and better understand statistical objections. More students will become convinced, but others skepticism will be reinforced by these harder questions.
Now, here is the question I want to explore: when the remaining skeptics at this level ask of the evolutionary biologist “you still haven’t answered the question of how the initial search problem is overcome given that we know the probability of a simple protein chain forming by chance (already presupposing that there is pre-existing DNA capable of forming those amino acids) is 1 in 10^77?”, and the evolutionary biologist points out a series of peer reviewed papers that attempt to address this objection, is it fair for the skeptic to respond…
Holy shit, I gotta read [those] tiny print document[s] just to maybe accept a[n explanation of protein formation] that is still light years from [explaining the whole of evolutionary biology]?
On fairness in the dialectic
It seems to me that over time on any controversial issue our critiques and beliefs become more sophisticated. As skeptics of a belief, we become better at picking holes in the subject matter, and as adherents we become better at plugging them. This seems true of nearly all attempts at knowledge – scientific, theological or otherwise.
As we engage in this dialectic, it seems to me that as one escalates the sophistication of their objections, they must also be willing to address the sophistication of the response. We would not fault a middle school student for finding it hard to believe that we were once bacteria, but we would fault that student if he or she raised the question of how it could happen and then refused to listen to the response his or her peers offered. Similarly, a mathematician who raises issues with the underlying probability of the search condition in genetic mutation is rightly criticized if he or she does not review the literature which attempts to address his skeptical position.
But, what does this criticism result in? Well, I think it forces the critic to accept a lower position on their confidence level. I think of it something like this…
A person is justified in their criticism only insofar as they have reviewed the strongest responses to their critiques.
For example, imagine a skeptic who does not believe we reached the moon. He or she may have a dozen objections as to why we did not or could not have put astronauts on the moon. However, let’s say the last two objections have to do with a difficult physics objection regarding the thrust capabilities of our initial spacecraft. If the skeptic refuses to engage with the the response (as dense as it will be given the complexity of the subject matter), then the skeptic cannot count those objections as valid in their assessment of the question.
The “It Should Be Easy” Defense
I anticipate that the response to this discussion would go something like this. “Unlike science or history or other forms of knowledge, the proposed God of Christian theism has a vested interest in making it easy to know him, thus the argument breaks down because if this God existed, then his existence would be more obvious.”
Of course, this just devolves into the question of Divine Hiddenness. More importantly, if one accepts that all knowledge is attained through our perceptions, it necessarily follows that there will always be objections available to the skeptic regardless of how obvious God makes his existence. One could, for example, always claim that even physical manifestations of God are merely hallucinations.
So, I don’t think this defense succeeds.
In answering my friend, I think my response will be “you haven’t poked a hole if you don’t verify that it actually made a hole.” I think this is generally a common problem with all skepticism (from both sides of all debates). It is easier to ask questions than to learn answers.