I suspect this will be a flame war magnet. On the other hand I feel compelled to write it.
First a bit of backstory. My wife enjoys, often and with engagement, discussing theology with her new friends. One of them, a pentecostal christian, gave her the book I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. I picked it up while visiting her, looking for some book to read, and have forced myself to read through most of it since.
The authors try to prove the correctness of Christianity over all other religious attitudes, but most importantly, prove that Christians are right and Atheists are wrong. And the way they do this is oftentimes insulting, very often ignorant of how to deal with the logical tools they try to use, and constantly reeking of a lack of objectivity in their purportedly objective exposition.
I’ll point out a few points which really grated when I read them, or which came across as just purely obnoxious in this post, and discuss why I take such issue with them.
Bad background research
I later learned that my expectations were too high for the modern university. The term “university” is actually a composite of the words “unity” and “diversity”. When one attends a university, he is supposed to be guided in the quest to find unity in diversity – namely how all the diverse fields of knowledge (the arts, philosophy, the physical sciences, mathematics, etc) fit together to provide a unified picture of life. A tall task indeed, but one that the modern university has not only abandoned, but reversed. Instead of universities, we now have pluraversities, institutions that deem every viewpoint, no matter how ridiculous, just as valid as any other – that is, except the viewpoint that just one religion or worldview could be true. That’s the one viewpoint considered intolerant and bigoted on most college campuses.
(emphasis as printed, G&T p 19)
First off, the stated etymology is false. The Online Etymology Dictionary states
c.1300, “institution of higher learning,” also “body of persons constituting a university,” from Anglo-Fr. université, O.Fr. universitei (13c.), from M.L. universitatem (nom. universitas), in L.L. “corporation, society,” from L., “the whole, aggregate,” from universus “whole, entire” (see universe). In the academic sense, a shortening of universitas magistrorum et scholarium “community of masters and scholars;” superseded studium as the word for this.
and dictionary.reference.com says
an institution of learning of the highest level, having a college of liberal arts and a program of graduate studies together with several professional schools, as of theology, law, medicine, and engineering, and authorized to confer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Continental European universities usually have only graduate or professional schools.
1250–1300; ME universite < OF < ML universitas, LL: guild, corporation, L: totality, equiv. to univers(us) (see universe ) + -itas -ity
and for a trifecta, let’s check out Merriam-Webster
university Listen to the pronunciation of university
Middle English universite, from Anglo-French université, from Medieval Latin universitat-, universitas, from Latin universus
1: an institution of higher learning providing facilities for teaching and research and authorized to grant academic degrees ; specifically : one made up of an undergraduate division which confers bachelor’s degrees and a graduate division which comprises a graduate school and professional schools each of which may confer master’s degrees and doctorates2: the physical plant of a university
Notice how all the sources agree on an etymology that is completely separate from the one G&T use to build their argument. Brilliant way to make me trust the rest of the book – if already the introduction is this manipulative with the facts they use, why should I trust anything else they write?
Large parts of the arguments in the book build on a rhetorical method the authors proudly explain and detail so that their readers can reuse in their own religious debates. Basically, any categorical statements done by the opponent can be defeated by finding some way to apply the statement to itself, and find a shallow, surface level contradiction. By finding some statement, whatsoever, from an enemy that they can somehow bend into a contradiction, they proclaim victory over all arguments that enemy uses. They call this the Roadrunner Tactic (G&T pp39-). Their examples include things like “You said that there is no such thing as truth – is that true?”, “You said that all truth is relative – is that a relative truth?”, “You said that you cannot know truth – then how do you know that?”
The argument strikes me as childish. It’s a clear and vivid case of explicitly avoiding to listen to anything the other people say once you get a hold of anything you can proclaim to be a contradiction.
Yet, when they talk about the biblical sources, this hunt for contradiction somehow never becomes an issue. They make a big deal about how the Big Bang theory is somehow the same as the Judeo-Christian creation story, but won’t touch on things like WHICH of the creations in Genesis is the true one. They go to significant lengths arguing that the New Testament is objective, historical truth, and that everything in the New Testament happened exactly as written – down to every single miracle, and without any editorializing ever, which in turn obviously proves the correctness of the Christian description and the existence of the corresponding deity, without discussing textual contradictions, the difference between allegories, metaphors and factual descriptions, or any of the other myriads of textual issues that crop up.
Hume’s assertion that truth claims should be either abstract reasoning or empirically verifiable is equivalently dismissed by trying and failing to put this heuristic into one of these categories. Kant gets a similar dismissal, by describing – not quoting – a single sentence, and shooting it down with a shallow contradiction.
More examples of the Kindergarten level of rhetoric comes in their wordplay based arguments:
Everything has a cause. Therefore there is a First Cause. Therefore there is a First Causer.
There are absolute Moral Laws. Every Law has a Law Giver. Therefore there is a Moral Law Giver.
These aren’t arguments. They are word plays!
Astonishingly often, G&T argue, essentially, that either everything they say is true exactly as they pose it, or everything is false, completely. And then pick out some aspect of their argument, tweak it, and use the plausibility of that aspect to verify their entire claim.
They claim that spiritual experiences, or for that matter thought, is impossible in a material worldview (G&T p 129). How so? By reducing the question to the point of silliness. Their argument that thought is impossible is that “Chemicals can’t evaluate whether or not a theory is true. Chemicals don’t reason, they react.” Similarly, they dismiss the possibility of spiritual experiences in a materialistic world by just pointing out a lot of people who have had spiritual experiences and claiming that anyone holding a materialistic worldview is essentially calling all of them liars.
However, most modern materialists end up subscribing to something similar to what Douglas Hofstadter describes: spiritual experiences are products of the mind, and thought and experiences are all products of complex high level automata that run on materialistic hardware.
Another expression of their bad logic is to reject any attempts to disprove anything without providing proof for an alternative. Any argument that rejects a hypothesis, no matter how ridiculous the hypothesis, is void in their eyes (or at least when it suits them) unless the argument proposes and more convincingly than them argues for an alternative hypothesis.
To me, a mathematician who every so often deals with highly non-constructive arguments, the argument is preposterous. Pointing out flaws in arguments CERTAINLY can be done without providing “better alternatives”. It happens all the time – not only in mathematics, but even in this very book!
Another amazing bout of bad logic is the following progression:
God exists. Therefore miracles can happen. Miracles are miracles because they glorify God. False miracles are false miracles because they glorify Satan. This is a real difference between miracles and false miracles. Miracles have happened because we have eyewitness reports of miracles – many of them in the bible. The eyewitness reports are plausible because the witnesses have no reason to lie. People demanding reproducibility of miracles should be ashamed of themselves and shut up, since the Big Bang, speciation and macroscopic evolution all are singular events too and thus cannot be reproduced. And since miracles can happen, God really does exist.
Co-opting old scientific theories and picking fights with dead people
The Big Bang used to be controversial in discussions with religious people, and brought out as a prime argument against the materialistic/science focused/atheist ideas. In G&T it gets introduced as a sign of there being a need for a Prime Mover in the world – one of the three arguments for a theistic world they introduce. And at this point, they break out the bad math in force.
G&T have a hard time with the idea of mathematical infinities. They have a hard time with properties of infinities. And their arguments involving infinities are almost all of them horrible, mindnumbing and idiotic. The one occurring when they try to prove the existence of a Prime Mover is as follows:
1) Infinite sets have no ends.
2) Now is an end to history.
3) Therefore history is finite.
4) Therefore there was a beginning.
5) Therefore there was a creator.
Only … there is no issue whatsoever in thinking about, talking about, and using semi-infinite intervals. The fact that NOW is one end to the interval of time they’re talking about is not an argument that there has to be a finite length to that interval. Much more interesting would be to analyze the behaviour of space time near singularities – such as the Big Bang, but then you would need to listen to scientists younger than 100 years old today…
They then lend credence to this argument by bringing up scientists and atheists who have favoured the idea of the Steady State universe – which last I checked was discredited in the late ’60s and today doesn’t have particularly many supporters whatsoever.
They bring in the Divine design argument by the anthropic principle. This reminds me of an old skit by Tage Danielsson, who talks about the safety of nuclear reactors by discussing probability theory – and points out that the probability of a nuclear incident is vanishingly small, basically non-existent, all the way up to the point when it’s already happened. AFTER that, the probability that it would have happened shoots up to 1.0. This is the exact same fallacy that G&T are committing in their application of the Anthropic principle – they try to argue around hypothetical computations of a probabiity that this particular universe could come into existence with all the parameters needed to support human life, when clearly it already happened.
Checking the lotto numbers for the CA state lottery for yesterday, I see that the winning numbers are 4, 15, 29, 43 and 56. Isn’t it amazing that exactly these numbers would come up? It is against odds of 1:176000000 (numbers taken from the CA lottery FAQ)
Of course this isn’t all that exciting. Any particular combination of numbers here has equal probability. Once the numbers have been drawn, those are the numbers drawn. It doesn’t make it more or less surprising that these numbers came up. It is similar with the Anthropic principle, only that we only ever have a consciousness present to OBSERVE the universe once the parameters allow for the formation of such a consciousness AND such a consciousness has formed. It is not all that spectacular that the universe fits us because, well, we fit the universe.
Reliance on bad sources
For anyone who has been reading Good Math Bad Math, there are some names that should be easily recognizable. One of the more important is Michael Behe, who introduces a specified complexity measure, called specified complexity, couched in mathemagical language and fuzzing about, without any decent definitions, in order to argue that macroscopic evolution is impossible and that the only way that we could get the diversity we observe in nature is by divine fiat.
Behe here is brought up as a rare beacon of truthful light. And the specified complexity argument cited – not detailed, but cited – as convincing proof of the need of a Divine Creator.
Humans cannot be moral beings
Whenever I encounter this argument I grow slightly more afraid of the person who’s proposing it. Basically, the idea is that there has to be a God, because without a God who watches your every move and makes sure you stay Nice, there is nothing whatsoever propelling anyone to be Nice. Thus, without a God everybody would turn Evil overnight, and society would collapse.
I always thought this argument told me more about the person proposing it than about the existence of a God.
I think this is all I can stand writing for now. After all of this, G&T go into specifically proving that the New Testament is true in every aspect, since there are historical sources corroborating the factual claims (there was a Messias figure called Jesus, and he walked around, did stuff, and was crucified), and then arguing that everything else in the New Testament has to be true since the writers had no reason to lie about what they wrote. The counterarguments they care to discuss are all disputing the existence of a historical person in the first place, and never about the interpretation of the experiences of the writers – obvious, since in the eyes of G&T, there is no such thing as a spiritual experience without the spiritual component: it is inconceivable that spiritual feelings could have any source different from the Christian God.
To summarize, reading this book regularly made me want to tear my hair or throw it at the wall. The authors write with conviction, but the sheer density of covert manipulation and tweaking of facts is nauseating.