The World’s Worst Proof for the Existence of God

I have come to terms. I’ll admit it: Philosophers are less attuned to ‘the obvious’ than most.

I even remember the morning that I realized I had no choice but to accept the stereotype. A group of philosophy faculty and students were gathered in my professor’s office, and we needed more chairs to accommodate everyone. Five or six people calculated the number of chairs needed. Five or six different numbers resulted.

The story came to my mind while exploring John Locke’s epistemology as described in his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and his personal commentary on the EssayThe Sillingfleet Correspondence.

In a previous article, I discussed Locke’s theory of government: whether or not it is correct, I found his ideas, at the very least, readily understandable. So I was surprised by my reaction to Locke’s explorations of ‘human knowledge’. I couldn’t help but feel like Locke and I were struggling to accurately count chairs.

If we join Locke on his journey, by the end we cannot know God exists, much less that Jesus was and is God, much less that core Christian doctrines are true. The Trinity? In Lockean terms, we can’t even know that the house next door exists, or that Barak Obama is President! We can have faith in these things, but to have faith in any given thing, according to Locke, means it is not known:

Faith stands by itself, and upon grounds of its own; not can be removed from them, and placed on those of knowledge. Their grounds are so far from being the same, or having anything common, that when it is brought to certaintty, faith is destroyed; it is knowledge then, and faith no longer.

How did he take us here?

“For with me,” Locke writes, “to know, and be certain, is the same thing; what I know, that I am certain of; and what I am certain of, that I know.”

Locke equates ‘actual knowledge’, or “the present view the mind has of the agreement or disagreement of any of its ideas,” with certainty. ‘Certainty’ is not merely confidence: to satisfy Lockean certainty, the knower must, while knowing, have immediate perceptions of the relating ideas. Any connection between not immediately perceived ideas is less than certain, and is believed only based on probability.

For example, I can only know that ‘my soccer ball is round’ if I am right now perceiving my soccer ball and its roundness. Apart from that, I can’t be certain that it hasn’t ceased to exist or taken on a square shape, even if highly improbable.

If we accept Locke’s terms, we can understand his theory of knowledge. Locke would assert that I don’t know that my friend in the next room exists—it’s only highly probable. I don’t know that I was born in January. I don’t know that God exists.

As we approach the text, we probably come with a fairly solid idea of what ‘certainty’ is—the fuzzy term is ‘knowledge’. If we accept that knowledge is certainty, then sure: I guess I don’t know when I was born or that God exists.

But does Locke’s definition align with our experience, or is he miscounting chairs? While reading, I’m find myself tempted to say, ‘Well, yes, Mr. Locke, five chairs would be right if five people were here, but look—there’s seven of us!’ On an intuitive level, something doesn’t sounding right.

If a father says to his child, “You know I love you,” we don’t normally assume he is trying to say, “You know there is absolutely zero possibility that I do not love you.” That would be false: it is impossible to have a direct perception of another’s person’s internal feeling of love—we can only know the expression of those feelings. What the father refers to is a firm faith in paternal love that he understands to be a kind of knowledge even apart from certainty.

‘Common sense’ intuition will, I think, suggest that the father makes sense, and is not simply speaking lazily. The same applies to a person who says, “I know God exists.” When we hear that, it doesn’t seem we typically take her to mean, “It is absolutely impossible that God does not exist,” nor, “I have a highly probably opinion that God exists.”

Consider Locke’s description of faith.

Faith…is the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deduction of reason, but upon the credit for the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication. …[But] revelation cannot be admitted against the clear evidence of reason.

Revelation as subservience to reason is the vital point. Locke defines reason as: “the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions which the mind arrives at by deductions made from such ideas, which it has got…by sensation or reflection.” Locke claims that faith is not made out by reason, but unless we have had a clear sense perception of God, or resurrection from the dead our lack of grounded ideas implies that even the most basic tenants of faith are, at best, probable opinions.

In one way, this may seem like pointless semantics. Whether faith is ‘knowledge’ or ‘high probability’: what practical difference comes from holding one or the other?

Stepping back a bit can reveal how Locke’s theory does matter. His theory didn’t stop with mere transfer of terms. Locke says that things not tied to physical reality are not certain, and therefore, cannot be known. This (though maybe unintentionally) grounds later philosophical assertions that anything metaphysical is not even probable, seeing as probability itself is not a ‘sensible’ idea. (See Hume.)

Arguably, the logical conclusion of that assertion is the contemporary divorce we see today that divides ‘science’ and ‘faith’. The secular academic community has been infused with the idea that scientific beliefs are ‘knowable’, but faith beliefs are personal and ‘irrational’.

Maybe Locke should slow down and recount the chairs. Knowledge intuitively seems separable from absolute certainty. Claims like, “I know when I was born,” “I know you love me” or “I know God exists” are understandable. In fact, I know they are understandable. ‘

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Digging into Darwin

Darwin’s Dead and He Ain’t Coming Back…or so the Christian bumper sticker says. Personally, my favorite is the one of the Jesus fish eating the upside-down mutant fish with legs labeled ‘Darwin’. In the Jesus vs Darwin showdown, apparently survival of the fittest is true after all.

For many Christians, the instinctive reaction to Darwin, author of the theory natural selection—not, as commonly thought, the author of theory of evolution—is defensive and even hostile. Darwin, some think, is the guy who tried to kill God in the 19th century. He’s the main cause of modern secularization; his theory is in direct opposition to Christianity.

Everyone and their great-uncle’s cousin have an opinion about Darwin. But few have slogged through his five hundred-page classic The Origin of the Species—the book that influenced the future shape of biology, geology, botany, et cetera, et cetera…

But is it possible to let Darwin speak for himself? Not without cracking open Darwin’s text.

From the Introduction, Darwin states that his purpose is to show that “the view which most naturalists entertain…that each species has been independently created—is erroneous.” His goal concerns the origin of species, not the origin of life. Throughout the course of Origin, the exclusive focus of his work is the interconnectedness of specific species and how they trace back to one or more ‘archetypal’ organisms.

In fact, not even until the last pages of his work does Darwin address more universal implications of his theory:

Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction.

Assuming that the analogy holds true, Darwin still never attempts to answer where that ‘prototype’ might have originated. He certainly never rules out the possibility of a divinely orchestrated evolution that utilizes the means of natural selection. It would seem that, if a Creationist wishes to dismiss Darwin, it must be on scientific, not religious grounds—common descent of species is possible within the Christian conception of God. As author G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.”

Whether discussing the hive bee’s architectural genius or the tyrannical, slave-making habits of the Formica rufescens ant, Darwin’s observations of the natural world evidence how miraculous it is. If those species had a common ancestor, would they be any less miraculous? For my part, and aside from any concerns of the theory’s accuracy, I find the idea of God using the gradual processes of the natural world to develop his energy from a single seed even more awing. But for any Christian, The Origin of the Species is well worth reading, particularly while keeping that in mind. Give Darwin the benefit of the doubt: he’ll open up an amazing world of intricate and diverse, yet unified life. No cannibalistic Jesus-fish required.

The opinions here expressed are solely that of the author.
…well, not solely, but you know what I mean.

The Problematic Suppositions of Wired

Amy Wallace’s essay “An Epidemic of Fear,” published in this month’s issue of Wired, is both perceptive and worrying. Wired’s articles often comment on the growing debates between social groups and professional communities. This month’s feature focuses on the conflict between anti-vaccination proponents—mainly parents—and the scientific community that contends they are necessary.

Wallace’s essay, while offering some sympathy to parents, argues heavily in support of the scientific community. Unfortunately, her view also creates worries about parental rights.

Consider Wallace’s comments about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children:

In certain parts of the US, vaccination rates have dropped so low that occurrences of some children’s diseases are approaching pre-vaccine levels for the first time ever. And the number of people who choose not to vaccinate their children (so-called philosophical exemptions are available in about 20 states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, and much of the West) continues to rise. In states where such opting out is allowed, 2.6 percent of parents did so last year, up from 1 percent in 1991, according to the CDC. In some communities, like California’s affluent Marin County, just north of San Francisco, non-vaccination rates are approaching 6 percent (counterintuitivly, higher rates of non-vaccination often correspond with higher levels of education and wealth).

The figures sound alarming. Wallace provides reasons for us to believe that vaccination exemptions result in serious health concerns for both specific individuals and larger communities. The issue, however, is garbled amidst Wallace’s concern that parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated are doing so on irrational grounds—even though, as Wallace points out, the majority of parents abstaining from vaccinations live in more highly educated communities. Yet she says that naysayers oppose vaccinations because of fear and “unmet need,” as opposed to scientific evidence or reasonable doubt. She adds:

…Science loses ground to pseudo-science because the latter seems to offer more comfort. “A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,” [Carl] Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. “There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.”

Wallace’s attention to the motivations underlying parents’ objections to vaccinations does not cohere with her primary thesis that vaccinations are necessary. Furthermore, her comment that these objections are a result of fear and irrationality is not far removed from the kind of remarks Sigmund Freud makes in his Civilization and It’s Discontents. He writes, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it, we cannot dispense with palliative measures.” Like Freud, Wallace implies that parents are trying to assuage their fears using superstitious means. This line of thought implies that our unmet fears and needs are irrational, and so the direction in which we point our fears and needs is unjustifiable.

Of course, we cannot deny—nor should we—that we are liable to hold beliefs that are not wholly logical. Wallace’s position, however, not only has the capacity to generate more fear among anti-vaccine proponents, but it also has the capacity to undermine parental rights. If she argues that parents who object to the scientific community about vaccinations are irrational, perhaps they should not be allowed the freedom to choose not to have their children vaccinated.

Yet the fact that fear exists among parents does not imply the absence of reason. With all the controversies surrounding treatments, as well as updated information about side-effects and the rise of medical information available online, parents are justified in questioning scientific authority. By dismissing parents’ concerns as illogical, Wallace feeds this distrust. Respect goes both ways. If the scientific community is truly a bulwark of logic and reason, it should seek to bridge the gap between parents and doctors by effectively communicating about the challenges and controversies regarding science and medicine. Furthermore, if Wallace wants to convince parents that the scientific community should be trusted, she will also seek to bridge this gap, instead of engendering more doubt. ‘

No On David Michaels: A Chance to End the Sale of Science

When scientific evidence becomes a commodity, it is cheapened and easily misused, making it difficult for anyone to sort life-saving facts from fiction.  Remember this story about the “scientifically based” scare tactics used to market Bisphenol A -free plastics?  Thanks to the efforts of Fenton Communications, the liberal marketing firm behind the “General Betray Us” campaign, BPA has a bad reputation, especially among parents who worry the chemical may harm their children.  These parents pay exorbitant prices for BPA-free products, despite the fact that numerous independent studies have proven the chemical’s safety.  Many of these more expensive products come from BornFree, the company that hired Fenton Communications.  BornFree makes money every time the BPA controversy comes up in the news; they benefit from phony scientific evidence.

Unfortunately, we may see more of this in the near future.

An editorial in yesterday’s Washington Times highlights David Michaels, President Obama’s nominee to head the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).

The Times describes Mr. Michaels as “a virulently anti-business epidemiologist” who “is one the nation’s foremost proponents of allowing junk science to be used in jackpot-justice lawsuits.”

It turns out David Michaels was also behind the anti-BPA junk-science scare campaign which has cost Americans untold numbers of jobs and has lined the pockets of trial lawyers with millions of dollars from the pockets of hard-working parents who bought into his fear campaign.

Mr. Michaels has admitted that the phony-science racket works well for sellers:

“Tobacco figured this out, and essentially it’s the same model,” said David Michaels, who was a federal regulator in the Clinton administration. “If you fight the science, you’re able to postpone regulation and victim compensation, as well. As in this case, eventually the science becomes overwhelming. But if you can get five or 10 years of avoiding pollution control or production of chemicals, you’ve greatly increased your product.”

No one benefits when science is prostituted in this way. Everyone loses when scientific evidence can be bought and sold as a commodity because this weakens even the most legitimate findings, making it difficult to distinguish between real and invented dangers.

President Obama has pledged to “restore science to its rightful place”, and happily his administration now has a perfect opportunity to do so.  The Senate must help end the lucrative sale of scientific claims by rejecting David Michaels’ nomination to head OSHA. ‘