Showing posts with label true justified belief. Show all posts
Showing posts with label true justified belief. Show all posts

Monday, December 22, 2014

Ten Things Christians Should Keep in Mind When Debating Atheists Number One

Based on my recent post about trying to break my writer's block here's number one:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Consequently, the burden of proof is on the theist rather than the atheist.

I've talked about this before and I don't really want a rehash of the same thoughts.  But, I want to revisit this idea to flesh-out how this really matters (or rather, how it doesn't).  What are the supposed extraordinary claims that the theist is supposedly making?  I can't speak for all the atheists who argue about this, but I assume that most of them are calling miracles "extraordinary claims."  Now, let's look at this.  Are miracles extraordinary claims?  Well, yes.  Of course they are, by definition a miracle is something extraordinary, but they're really only unexpected if there's no God.  If one takes a materialistic approach to philosophy, then a miracle cannot occur.  However, there's an important point missing from this whole conversation about miracles.  The very existence of anything whatsoever is a miracle in itself.  It's an ongoing miracle of creation.  I know, some theologians will balk at this, as the Genesis account implies that God is no longer creating.  Gen 2:1 says that the heavens and earth were completed and that God had "completed His work."  So, where do I come off saying that existence itself is a miracle?  Well, Col 1:17 Paul talks about how, in Christ all things hold together.  In this paradigm a miracle is not surprising at all.  Hebrews 1:3 has an even more active phrasing about how God holds everything together by His power.  So, the God who holds everything together can, by His mere willpower, suspend, cancel, or defy His own control over the entire universe.  Miracles are not nature behaving wrong or differently than it normally does or should.  It's God doing His will contrary to what we think or what we expect.

Also, as I commented before, which is a bigger miracle: A) The universe, for no reason with no cause exists, or B) God made the universe out of nothing?  Again, toss aside materialism for a minute.  If you a priori take materialism to be true then of course the theistic answer sounds extraordinary.  But at face-value the A) choice is obviously much more extraordinary.  I have seen arguments, most notably from Hawking, that attempt to use science to say that because of the laws of physics the universe must exist.  I don't even pretend to understand his scientific arguments, but have read some interesting things online that summarize Hawking and other prominent scientists' claims, and I've got to say, "I'm not buying it."  First off, every time I hear these types of arguments I hear a redefining of the word "nothing."  Now I understand that in certain contexts nothing can mean different things.  For example, one might ask, "What's up with you lately?"  To which you might answer, "Oh, nothing."  Does that mean the same as deGrasse Tyson's use of "nothing" which apparently means some type of quantum field in flux?  Obviously not.  But, these are the types of things I see when I discuss the beginnings of the universe with a materialist.  There was something (called nothing) and it exploded and became something else.  I pointed at Big Bang cosmology as an argument for God with an atheist one time and after going around and around, this interlocutor ended up admitting that the Big Band was true, but we don't know what happened before the Big Bang.  It's funny though, this particular atheist refused to accept that it might have been God. Basically reduced to saying, "We don't know and likely will never know what caused the Big Bang, but I refuse to accept that it could have been God."  If you give me a just-so story and make all your pieces fit together by inventing facts and theories that have never been shown to work in reality and only really work in some outrageous mathematical formula, all of which you cannot explain in terms that any regular person could follow or would accept, I have every right to dismiss your claim as extraordinary.  I have a saying I've been using for a while now (not sure if I've used it in my blogging before, if so I apologize for repeating myself), "Any claim made without evidence, can be dismissed without argument."  These are indeed extraordinary claims, but for sure the more extraordinary is the one that defies definition, explanation, and reason.

Lastly, I want to comment on the final part of the statement, "the burden of proof is on the theist rather than the atheist."  Now, I know I'm only an amateur philosopher, but my knee-jerk reaction is, "So what?"  I, as a theist, have no qualms with making a case.  In general, yes, I'm making a claim.  (I don't think we can completely let off the atheist, but the point still stands, I'm making a truth-claim.)  My claim is fairly simple to prove though, "I believe, with good reason, that God exists."  Throw that one out there and see if anyone can disprove it ... notice some important points before you attack it.  First, "I believe," with this important qualifier, no one, can ever prove my claim incorrect unless that person somehow has mind-reading capabilities, which apparently doesn't exist outside God.  One might attack the second portion, "with good reason."  Well, let's look into various reasons/arguments. There are so many!  I've already mentioned the cosmological argument.  Then there's various design/fine-tuning arguments.  There's the moral argument made popular by CS Lewis in his masterwork Mere Christianity.  And, there are many others, some based on evidence and some on philosophy.  But clearly, there are plenty of "good reasons" to believe.  If you don't accept my claim, then not only are you calling me an idiot who hasn't examined these arguments, but you're making the claim that the millions of other Christians throughout history have all done the same thing.  Now, don't get me wrong, I don't typically think an appeal to authority is a particularly compelling argument.  However, if the authority to whom I'm appealing is sprinkled with such intellectual greats as Plato/Socrates, Aquinas, Newton, and even many of the top ten highest measured IQ test scorers who are at the very least theists, some clearly Christians, I'm justified in making such an appeal.  So, tell me again how you, Mr. Internet Atheist, know that only stupid, backwoods, country-bumkin, redneck, low-brow, Bible-thumpers believe in God.

Sorry for the abundance of sarcasm, but it seems that Mr. Internet Atheist is getting to me.  He's been drinking the Dawkins koolaid and doesn't really have anything new to add to the conversation.  I am by no means creative or worthy to be called an innovator in this discussion, but at least I admit that I'm standing on the shoulders of giants.  I don't know very much, but I do know that I exist and that I have good reasons to believe what I believe.

Screenshot from

Friday, April 25, 2014

Essay on Plato, Descartes, and The Matrix

This is an essay I wrote for my philosophy class last week.  I took a more informal approach than my professor wanted, and my grade suffered for it.  However, I think it's appropriate for my blog.

In all honesty I think this part of philosophy is one of the main reasons many people dislike philosophy in general.  Imagine you're an ordinary student attending an ordinary college and you bump into a doctoral student who's sitting at the college coffee shop and you strike up a conversation.  This student is doing some sort of doctoral work in epistemology and is working on skepticism.  What student would enjoy being grilled with such questions as, "How do you know that's true?"  And, even after giving what a regular person would accept as a common sense answer to that question.  The philosopher asks, "Well, how do you know that's true?"  The student gives another different explanation of justification, to which the philosopher asks again, "How do you know that's true?"  After only a few times most regular people would give up, shaking his or her head walking away from such conversations wondering why some people are so wrong in the head.  Here's another tack.  When I asked my wife some questions about justification and epistemology, after pressing the idea a bit she finally gave up and responded, "people need to think less and go to the beach more."  (We live on a sub-tropical island in the South Pacific.)  Epistemology, especially justification and skepticism can eventually devolve into an infinite regress.  Now, these questions may make for interesting movie ideas like The Matrix and Inception, but it's more akin to irritating to an ordinary non-philosopher.  So, let's talk about three different approaches to skepticism and how/why justification is such a hard topic.

First, and oldest of these three is Plato's cave analogy from Book VII of The Republic.  During this book-long conversation Plato brings up an allegory of people that are chained in a cave and the only things they can see are shadows that are cast along the wall.  An interesting side note, different philosophers see this allegory differently.  I noticed this as I had just listened to The Republic audiobook and then heard a philosophy lecture.  The professor giving the lecture seemed to twist the idea and the people making the shadows into the villains.  The point as I understand Plato's meaning in the allegory is not we should be necessarily be skeptical of reality.  It seems more about how philosophers are the only ones that really explore the depths of reality and it's our responsibility to go back into the cave and teach those people what we've seen.  Yes, every part of The Republic is full of depth and meaning, but the people stuck in the cave and their misunderstanding of reality is not, in my opinion, the point of the allegory. (Plato, Book VII)

Then in chronological order, we come to Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy.  Specifically, Meditation I paragraph 2 stood out to me.  I think this bit is key,  “ … it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false--a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach …" and this, "… it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt."  Though it may seem like it and indeed people often take Descartes for a supreme skeptic, he is not setting out to cause people to doubt he’s merely searching for the only thing that he can really know for sure, without a doubt.  In this search for what can be known with epistemological certainty he says, we'll never reach the point where he could show everything to be false, nor does everything have to have some doubt, just the foundational ideas.  If the foundation is dubious the whole edifice can be considered faulty.  However, in the end, Descartes finds a foundation: I doubt, which is thinking, therefore I exist.  So despite all the doubting and tearing down of the edifice of knowledge, Descartes found the foundation and we can start from there. (Descartes, 1641)

Now we come to the 1999 pop culture treatment of skepticism.  Though not as deep as Descartes’ or Plato’s treatment of not being sure of what anyone knows, it’s still an interesting portrayal of skepticism.  How would it feel to be hooked up to some kind of super-computer?  It seems like it’d be impossible to know unless there were some way to break out.  There has to be someone there with the red pill offering answers to all our questions.  Despite the implausibility of a select few having the unexplainable ability to twist the matrix to their desires, including Neo’s (Keanu Reeves’ character) ability to twist reality and give himself god-like powers in the computer-world that is somehow controlling everyone else’s thoughts.  Though the movie does paint a rather interesting dystopian picture of what it would look like for computers to control everyone’s mind, it seems completely implausible to me.  Though of course, that’s just what the mind-controlling supercomputer would want me to think. (Wachowski, "The Matrix", 1999)

So, how can we escape these epistemological puzzles?  How can we prove that we’re not all in a deep Inception-like dream, or Plato’s cave, or haunted by Descartes’ evil demon? (Descartes, 1641, p. I 12)  Well, short answer is, we can’t.  Well, not enough that we could dispel all doubt and forever put to rest any metaphysical skepticism.  One challenge would be to ask the skeptic how one can live with complete doubt of everything at all times.  Also, the self-refutation of the claim that we’re in a computer, that doesn’t need proof that we’re in a computer.  In other words, prove to me that we are just brains in a vat or disembodied thoughts swimming through an intricate computer SIM world.  However, to me the best test for the metaphysical skeptic is to change something with your mind.  I’m not asking for a miracle.  I’m just saying that if all we consist of are brains floating around in a vats, we should be able, at least a small amount, to manipulate the world around us with only our minds.  I understand that to do so in front of a group of people would seem impossible because not only would one have to change their own mind’s perception of a thing, but everyone else’s as well at the same time.  However, in the privacy of one’s own room or even just one’s own mind, one should be able to change something simple.  Like the bending spoon scene in The Matrix, everyone, with practice should be able to convince oneself that “there is no spoon” and make it appear however he or she wanted.

Despite the character Cypher’s opinion that deception is better than the truth, I’m going to have to side with (well Morpheus and) Plato that it is much better to seek the truth and when one has at least caught a glimpse of it, pass it along so that everyone tries to unhook from the matrix or break the chains binding them in the cave.  Though we can never get to that point, it’s better to live as if that isn’t the case and seek out knowledge than to slog on or stick one’s head in the sand doubting that we even have heads.  Much like Professor Kreeft says of Aquinas building a huge philosophy on a single small foundational point. (Kreeft, 2009)  We can rest on Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and build our epistemology from there.  Even if we’re just brains in vats, at least we’re somebodies.  Even without a body, our minds still exist.  If this is some elaborate dream someday we’ll wake up.  We should build our noetic structure a bit like this dome:

(Geodome, 2004) and have the foundation, though shaky it may seem, if rooted deeply in the foundation that no matter what parts of the dome are doubted the pile upon which it rests is immovable.

Once we’ve established that foundation let us add some depth to the foundation by placing it in God.  That’s not to say that we cannot or should not take the existence of God on faith.  But, if one is driving down the road looking at street signs one cannot live as if every one of them is a lie.  And there are so many signs that point to the existence of God.  So, though I may have, like everyone else, started life taking all knowledge through the evidence of authority; I have since grown up and matured and thought through my philosophy quite a bit.  I have come to a point where the foundation is firmly fixed on my own existence and that existence only makes sense with the existence of God.  On that foundation I build my beliefs.  If someone were to prove to me without a doubt that JFK was assassinated by conspiracy with two shooters; my geodesic dome of knowledge wouldn’t fall apart.  In fact I see this as a kind of synthesis of foundationalism and coherentism.  I really only hold one (or two) basic belief as my central belief.  This is how the coherentism system gets started, with at least one or two foundational beliefs upon which other are built.  My foundation doesn’t depend on my senses.  If anything, my foundation can be said to be the only possible guaranteed a priori knowledge, that is, that I exist.  If I don’t exist and I don’t know that I exist, how can I be asking myself if I exist?  Sure, it might be that my body doesn’t exist and my senses are all untrustworthy, but I most certainly exist and I can use deduction, induction, blind faith, gut feelings, and whatever I want to justify any belief above the foundation.  Each different justification has its own level of importance in the structure that is my belief system.  I can’t escape the question, “how do you know?” any more than any other thinking person, but I can justify what I know in many different ways and the more I defend something the more difficult it is to take it away.

If only everyone could hang out in places like this.

Descartes, R. (1641). Meditations on first philosophy. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue.
Geodome -- Geodesic design software. (2004, November 11). Geodome -- Geodesic design software. Retrieved April 20, 2014, from
Kreeft, P. (2009). The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books.
Plato, The Republic, “The Allegory of the Cave” Book VII, 514A1-518D8.
Wachowski, A. (Director). (1999). The Matrix [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures :.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Discovering the Philosopher in You Part 2: Knowledge: How Should Knowledge Be Analyzed?

For those of you that missed my last entry, I'm working my way through a series of philosophy lectures by Prof. Colin McGinn of Rutgers University.  I find it kind of interesting that Prof McGinn chose to lecture in this order because in lecture one about skepticism the idea that we have knowledge or certainty (I'll be using the term knowledge for this entry but the two are more or less interchangeable in this context) is assumed.  I would think it might have made a little more sense to cover what is knowledge before questioning and being skeptical that one can have knowledge at all.  Nonetheless, we're on lecture two now about analyzing knowledge.  I apologize in advance because some of this stuff is considered dry compared to some other topics within philosophy.

Some of the first things we must consider when starting a philosophical analysis of something is what are the necessary conditions and what are the sufficient conditions for the idea being considered?  In this case, what is necessary for one to have or do to know something?  And, what is sufficient for one to have or do to know something?  The traditional answer to this question goes back to Plato's time (though I haven't personally studied Plato's epistemology), that is, a true, justified belief.  Belief, in this sense isn't the same as a religious or political belief (per se), rather a stab at the truth in thought.  One cannot think something is false and yet believe in it.  So, belief in its nature includes at least the attempt at truth, though one can guess at something and end up getting it wrong.  Justification is important for knowledge because, if one is to be rational, one cannot just say, "I believe this or that just because" or if one refuses to consider objections to one's beliefs they're being irrational.  Also, without justification things can end up being true by guessing and that's not complete knowledge either.  These things seem to be necessary conditions for knowledge, but as we'll see with the examples they aren't necessarily all the sufficient conditions for knowledge.  Let's move on to those examples because, to me, they're the fun parts of this concept.

Example number one to show how having simply true, justified beliefs are not enough to claim knowledge.  Suppose my brother comes to visit me every Tuesday afternoon, and it's a Tuesday and I'm expecting him and my friend, who is generally trustworthy, tells me my brother is at the door.  However, for whatever reason, my friend happens to be lying this time (the reason for the lie is not important), and my brother is not at the door.  At first we have an untrue, but justified belief that my brother is at the door.  However, as I'm going to meet my brother at the door, unbeknownst to my friend, my brother shows up at the door.  Did I know my brother was at the door?  No, not really even though it was true that he was at the door and I was justified in that belief.  But, no I didn't know that he was at the door at any time.  The second one is better (at least I think so).  You're driving through the countryside and you're seeing all the typical things one would expect to see, fields with bales of hay or straw, barns, livestock, etc.  Then, without realizing it, you are driving along and the things you've been observing, are now all fake.  So here we have justified beliefs (that the things we're seeing are real) but they're not.  Then, without your knowledge of it being so, there's a real barn in amidst the fake.  There, you have a true (at least about that one real barn) justified belief.  But that doesn't seem to be enough for knowledge in this case.

So there you have it, true, justified beliefs are required to have knowledge of something, but apparently are not the only things necessary to know something.  There have been many arguments and there doesn't seem to be any clear answer to what else needs to be added to true, justified beliefs to comprise true knowledge.  I certainly don't have the answers, again I'm just bringing up the question.  According to Prof McGinn's lecture it seems that there has to be some kind of causal relationship the truth and the belief(s) to be true knowledge.

Here's my only divergence from Prof McGinn.  I'm not saying that it's true knowledge, but I would posit that having a justified belief can lead to one believing that something is true to the point that it's true to that person.  Take the characterization of the mathematician, John Nash, in the movie A Beautiful Mind, the character played by Russel Crowe is plagued with delusions so powerful that he truly believes that they're real.  So, in effect, they become real to him.  It may not make any difference in reality, but to the individual things that are not true, with enough justification and powerful enough belief it can become real to that person.

What does this mean to you and me?  Honestly, not much.  I believe that there's a personal creator God.  There are many different justifications for that belief, they're generally covered in apologetics.  No one can prove or disprove the truth of that claim, but at least two of the necessary conditions for knowledge have been met for me.

Hiji Falls