Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Manual for Creating Atheist: Strict Rejoinder

At the very heart of MCA rests an unspoken assumption. It is an assumption that Boghossian never mentioned throughout the entire project. And yet, it is so excruciatingly obvious that if the project were going to be a success, this assumption could not remain an assumption. Somewhere along the way, Boghossian had the duty to deal with the one very critical issue that he never bothered to address. That critical issue is basically this: Christian faith is never placed beneath or subjected to the authority of human reason. In case you are wondering, this is the philosophical problem of the criterion. It is a legitimate problem that Boghossian prefers to ignore. According to Christian theism, human reason does not set itself up as the magistrate over faith. Since when is Christian epistemology under any obligation to subject itself to rationalism or empiricism? Neither of these systems is willing to submit to a distinctly Christian epistemology, are they? Boghossian assumes that the Biblical faith of Christian theism is subject to the standards of human reason that he wishes to place upon them. He never bothers to show us why his standards are superior or absolute. Rather than show us how Christian theism must pass the test of his version rationalism or empiricism, or a combination of the two, Boghossian assumes that it is so. He could not be more wrong. Christian theism actually argues that human reason must serve as the minister of faith, not her magistrate. Human reason is in service of Biblical faith, not the other way around. I believe so that I may understand, not I must understand in order to believe. This is Biblical Christianity. This is Christian theism. (Think of Leonidas in 300: this is Sparta!)

In “Loc. 452” Boghossian makes this statement: “If a belief is based on insufficient evidence, then any further conclusions drawn from the belief will at best be of questionable value.” Frist, there are some critical questions that this statement must answer. Second, we want to examine what results when we turn this statement on Boghossian’s claims. From a critical perspective, Boghossian has to distinguish in detail, without ambiguity, what he means by sufficient evidence so that we understand what he means by insufficient evidence. He also needs to help us understand what qualifies as evidence. Finally, it would be helpful for him to provide some understanding of how he defines value in terms of argumentation. What happens when we use this single statement to criticize Boghossian’s view of religion? The answer is really quite simply. Since Boghossian rests the success or failure of his entire project on his belief that the accurate characterization of faith is “pretending to know something you do not know” we are in a sound position to be able to assess the quality of his project and determine if it in point of fact adds value to the conversation. This will not be a small criticism that I will level against Boghossian’s argument.

Boghossian’s appeal to human reason to argue for human reason is viciously circular. One would assert that Christian theism does the very same thing with faith. But this statement does not actually represent the facts, as they exist within Christian theism. Christian theism does not appeal to faith as its final authority. Instead, Christian theism appeals to Scripture as its final authority and its criterion for what qualifies as the only consistent worldview, the only valid epistemology. Scripture sets itself up as the authority to which all human predication must submit. The skeptic may claim this too is circular. In response we say it is not viciously circular because as far as Christian theism is concerned, we are speaking of God’s rightful claim of absoluteness in this case. If God does exist as the ultimate source of all knowledge, then what other source could He appeal to but Himself since he is the highest authority to which appeal could be made? In other words, Christian theism is consistent to appeal to their final resting point, namely God, in support of all human predication. To rest the argument on other grounds would be terribly inconsistent even if some Christians actually do so. Should it surprise anyone that opposing systems would appeal to two different authorities for their criterion of belief, and would actually hold to differing epistemological schemes? Boghossian ignores the problem of the criterion and instead pretends that philosophy has it all figured out and that philosophers are in complete agreement on how human knowledge works. Apparently he is unfamiliar with Michael Williams work on “Problems of Knowledge – a critical introduction to epistemology.” Williams says, “The problem of unity poses the question: is there just one way of acquiring knowledge, or are there several depending on the sort of knowledge in question?” [Williams, Problems of Knowledge, 2] Boghossian does not even acknowledge that there are different kinds of knowledge, and hence, different methods for knowing them. 

This is not a small problem in his project. It is one of the first questions a good Christian thinker will ask if you attempt to engage him/her on the question of Christian theism. The problem of the criterion is a most thorny problem. You see, in order to create a criterion by which beliefs may be justified, you must already have some idea about it before you create it. This is a problem. What you are searching for is something that transcends, a standard that comes from out there somewhere. You are looking for a reliable and dependable judge. But if you create the judge, how objective is that? This is the problem of the criterion that Boghossian ignores entirely. The atheist needs to understand that the Christian thinker will not ignore that problem. The minute you ask us to justify our beliefs, we are going to ask you to justify your idea of justification without appealing to your own idea of justification. But don’t let this dissuade you from engaging Christians. I hope you engage lots of Christians, real ones, the type that actually know how to think well about Christian theism.

The second problem with Boghossian’s project is his insistence on giving faith a philosophical or rational definition as opposed to allowing the faith community to define their own terms. “If facts alone are at stake, on overdose of emotionally tinged language can only be a hindrance and should be regarded with suspicion. Even eloquence should be shunned where information is the sole purpose. For facts are most effectively conveyed when they are stated in a plain and objective manner.” [Engel, With Good Reason, 71] When defining faith Boghossian should have just stuck with the plain facts of how Christian theism defines faith rather than not only assigning to it a wrong definition but an emotionally charged one at that. The common Hebrew words for faith are ‘aman, the act of believing or trusting, batah, the idea of being secure, trust in, hasah, seek or take refuge, shelter, and hesedh, faithfulness, loyalty. [McManis, Biblical Apolgetics, 381-383] There are others but you get the idea. The NT encapsulates the idea of faith in the word, pistis. In Christian theism, faith means laying hold on the promises of God in Christ, relying entirely on the finished work of Christ for salvation, and on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God for daily strength. Faith implies complete reliance on God and full obedience to God. [Morris, Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 498] Given that Boghossian’s aim is to refute faith, and given that his entire definition of faith is categorically false, I could end my review here and conclude with any rational person that Boghossian’s project is an embarrassing failure. But I have a few more things to say.

The third challenge with Boghossian’s project is that it is far too broad. It is an illegitimate practice to lump all the religions of the world into the same category just as much as it is to lump all philosophies and philosophers into the same category. I suppose this move would make the task at hand much easier, but it simply does not work. For example, to compare Mohamed with Christ and radical Islam with Christianity is an ad hominem attempt to polarize the conversation. If a person is familiar with radical Islam and unfamiliar with Christian theism, they would be tempted to think that Christians are also strapping bombs to their chest in certain parts of the world and murdering innocent people all under the guise of religion. This tactic is despicable and reflects the desperation and weakness in Boghossian’s arguments. My experience has been that only the weakest arguments resort to ad hominem. Anyone that knows anything about world religions knows that they tend to be radically different from each other in very basic ways.

Another serious problem with Boghossian’s skepticism is that it contains far too much certainty. He speaks as if philosophy has attained absolutely epistemic certainty when in reality the state of affairs is just the opposite. The consensus necessary to arrive at some of the absolute statements that Boghossian makes simply does not exist. The truth is that rationalists and empiricists do not agree even among themselves on the exact nature, definition, limits, and even value of human knowledge. How is it, then, that Boghossian can lead his readers to believe that philosophy has arrived at uncontroversial views in epistemology and metaphysics?

In addition, Boghossian’s insistence on referring to faith as a virus or mental condition to be cured is one of the most bizarre and extreme ad hominem arguments I have encountered. There is no question that this view of faith represents only a small portion of skeptics and the rest would do well to avoid it and him. Every noetic structure, be they primarily rational, empirical, or something else, at the end of their chain beliefs, arrives at faith. Because we are not omniscient, this reality is impossible to avoid and it is one we cannot afford to ignore. As Boghossian himself boasts, there are a lot of things we simply do not know or understand. Christian theism affirms that God created the world from the beginning. At the same time, Christian theism confesses that it does not know how God could do such a thing. We just don’t know. We also do not know how God could bring us the Scriptures as a product of both man and God Himself. We know He did it, but we do not know how that worked. Quite frankly, it is borderline insane to refer to faith as a virus or mental illness. In addition, for a state employee to encourage professors to punish kids with faith, as part of his strategy to purge faith from society, suggests a totalitarianism that should frighten not only the Christian. It should frighten everyone. What is the next item on Boghossian’s list? What else does he not like about society that makes it less than the perfect society according to his ideas? Seems to me that there was a monster in Europe not that long ago who also thought there were elements in society that made it less than desirable.

The final challenge I wish to point out is the lack of coherence in Boghossian’s philosophy, or noetic structure. His system is self-referentially incoherent and I now wish to list the reasons why this is the case. In the first place, Boghossian promotes the idea of creating skeptics. But his own system displays a level of certainty about things that no skeptic could hold. Boghossian pretends that human reason is neutral, that it is simply there. It is as if there is nothing upon which human reason rests, no ground. But this cannot be the case. Even human reason requires a ground. And that ground cannot be its own self. A thing that rests upon its own self is at once absolute and self-sufficient. Human reason has been wrong far too often and admits to far too many limitations for it to be absolute and self-sufficient. “A complete demonstration of each of our beliefs by means of other independent beliefs cannot be given.” [Bahnsen, Always Ready, 198] In order for Boghossian’s system to work, he must supply a set of standards to which all humanity can appeal as absolute and self-sufficient. But this he cannot do, and he does not attempt to do. Perhaps he realizes how irrational such an attempt might be. Boghossian requires neutrality on the subject of God and faith before he can get his project going. However, neutrality on such matters is impossible. Boghossian has an ax to grind and it emerges at the very inception of his project. In fact, it is the catalyst for his project. Boghossian requires the very thing he denies in order to make his project meaningfully intelligible: a certain standard. He criticizes faith for lacking evidence, but cannot provide any evidence for the very logic he uses to make his criticism. He defines faith incorrectly as pretending to know what you do not know and then proceeds himself to do just that! 

Boghossian pretends to know that faith cannot possibly be accompanied with good reason. But when asked to provide justification for his view on justifiability, he is silent. In order for Boghossian’s system to work, it needs to justify itself apart from the nauseating “that’s just the way it is” non-answer answer we hear so often. If you ever hear someone say, that’s just the way it is, you should know that is not a statement of reason, but rather, a statement of faith. It is not biblical faith mind you, but it is the sort of philosophical or rational definition of faith that is often confused for biblical faith. Boghossian’s view is self-referentially incoherent because he insists that faith has no foundation and that this is good reason to rid it of society when his own system also rests ground that also is without a foundation. By the way, faith is actually grounded in God. “The non-Christian rejects the Christian view out of hand as being contradictory. Then when he is asked to furnish a foundation for the law of contradiction, he can offer nothing but the idea of contingency.” [Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 204-5]

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