Dialogue With an Atheist on the Relationship of Christianity and Metaphysics to the Scientific Method

Dave Armstrong vs. Sue Strandberg (jstrandb@excel.net)


From public discussions on an Internet List devoted to the question of God's existence: May-July 2001. Uploaded with the full permission of Sue Strandberg. Her words will be in blue:

Well, let us cut to the chase on this.

I love that phrase . . . :-)

Do you agree that it is possible that questions such as the Big Bang, abiogenesis, cell formation, and the origins of the human drive to form moral systems MIGHT have a natural explanation which science can discover?

Of course. I have already admitted this on the list. You must have missed it.

I know you think that the current theories on these subjects are not adequate, sufficient, complete -- but is it possible that there COULD be a natural scientific explanation for these factors which would be adequate, sufficient, and complete?


Could there ever be empirical discoveries that would persuade you that naturalist theories on these issues, at least, are scientifically sound ... and that God may exist, but sustains or created or caused the natural means?

All Christians believe that God created and sustains His creation, whether He used evolution as the means or some form of miraculous special creationism. All theistic evolutionists (guys like Kenneth Miller or Lecomte du Nouy) - I believe - would say that God had to put the initial potentialities into matter to make the subsequent developmental evolution possible in the first place. This is no novel concept. Many Catholics and other Christians are evolutionists.

I'm aware that evolution doesn't directly address the question of God's existence -- usually, science itself has nothing to say one way or the other on metaphysical questions which either claim to be about other realities we can't observe or would look the same whether they were true or not. How would one go about trying to prove that everything is, or is not, inside some other totally inaccessible reality, for example? What kind of observation would be to the point?

No scientific one that I can think of. As I wrote before, one can only determine if the scientific explanation is consistent with some brand of creationist metaphysics or theistic evolution.

I claim that these questions are indeed scientific questions.

Again, how would one prove in a laboratory that God is sustaining the existence of any physical thing? That can no more be done than an analysis of the cells of Jesus Christ could prove that He was both God and man.

Yes, one could not prove or disprove that something is being metaphysically sustained. But that is just my point. We cannot imagine what such a proof would look like. But we can both very clearly recognise that abiogensis, the cell, evolution, and cosmological theories like the Big Bang could have supporting evidence one way or the other. A scientific theory can not only be wrong, but can be known to be wrong.


If not, then you should stop demanding evidence you would never accept, no matter what.

This is moot.

Someone years ago could have insisted that the origin and nature of
lightning was not a scientific problem, but a philosophical one. Where is
the demarcation point?

At events and amazingly complex systems where we don't have the slightest clue as to origin or process, and where known laws cannot even begin to explain them. As Michael Behe stated: we should have the courage to go where the facts lead, even though it may make us uncomfortable. This is not true at all with lightning, though it may have seemed so at one time. People once thought comets were supernatural things too. With more knowledge, that was shown to be a false assumption.

And with more knowledge, things like "irreducibly complex" cells might become explained as the result of understandable natural processes in evolution.

Then I might accept the standard evolutionary theory with regard to that point, but not until then.

You say this has not happened yet, but surely you don't mean to then dogmatically claim that it could not happen, especially when so many people are taking reasonable stabs at the question.

Of course not.

Your very demand for stronger empirical proof in evolution shows that you are dealing with a science question and know this.

Scientists are working on the problem (irreducible complexity, etc.), but what they have told us thus far is little more than "empirical metaphysics" at best and fairy tales at worst.

You must have some sort of thing in mind that would persuade you, some finding or experiment or formula or series of discoveries which would give us a "clue" to a natural explanation.

Sure: an explanation which has causal steps and real descriptions of mechanism and process, like that in any number of other scientific areas; something which has some substance and is not simply believed because it fits into a larger theory; something which gives us more than reverent, faith-filled invocations of the goddesses of Mutations and Natural Selection, as if the mere stating of the words solves the problems under consideration.

You can always keep God above science by keeping it in metaphysics. God-as-theory is far too vague to ever be wrong. Evolution could be wrong. This is what makes it a scientific theory.

It almost seems as if you wish to worship science as this amazing thing, because it stresses falsifiability. Well, I agree that it is wonderful, but it is only one means of knowing among many. I don't see why science has to be King, while all other knowledge is inferior and scoffed at.

I don't worship science. How can one worship something that scoffs at blind
obedience and insists you can be wrong?

Just as I can worship a God who scoffs at blind obedience and insists I can be wrong . . .

How can you worship something which has conclusions which are forced to keep changing?

Just as I worship Someone Whose Moral Law "forces" me to keep repenting when I fall short of it.

It's just that I'm very impressed with a method of learning that doesn't worship me.

Me too! I sure know God doesn't worship me! LOL

When you get right down to it, revelation worships Man by demanding that he trust.

I don't follow your point.

 You equate trust in an infallible God to trust in a method that insists
 that we don't give ourselves too much credit for infallibility, because you
 see God as a Being that humbles one in the same way that science can humble
 someone. The problem here is that you are putting apples against oranges --
 or, rather, apples are being put up against apple-picking.

 God isn't a method. God isn't an approach to how we learn and understand
 things. God is a claim to knowledge itself, a presumed personal Being that
 creates and rules the universe and tells us things so that we may learn and
 understand. This use of God as a means to knowledge is different in a very
 critical way from the use of our reason to get to the knowledge that God
 exists as this means. Humbling yourself before God's revelation is NOT the
 same as using a method that humbles you, that takes care that you do not
 make claims that can't be corrected. In order to humble yourself before
 God's revelation you must simply assume that you are right about what you
 see as a revelation from God. Faith is central to this. And faith is a
 method that flatters us by telling us to believe.

 How can you be so indignant when you see what you think is faith as being
 used in evolutionary theory and then indulgent when it is used on miracle
 claims? If miracle claims are not in any way inconsistent with science then
 why the problem with leaps of faith in any other area? How can you insist
 that you don't need to use scientific methods on God because God is a
 metaphysical being and then claim that scientific methods are perfectly
 capable of showing that it is more likely that God exists than that it

 I think you recognise the arrogance of faith when you see it used on
 scientific claims. The inconsistency is that you don't see that this kind
 of faith is arrogant whenever it is used.

It tells us to admire and cultivate the terrible certainty that one point of view is right -- that revelation is a revelation from God, who cannot be wrong, and not from ourselves, who can.

Such a thing is either possible or not. I say it is clearly possible. Now the trick is to determine whether it is actual. We believe it is, partially based on corresponding reason, and also based on faith. Are 2+2=4 or a=a or e=mc2 also "terrible certainties"?

My complaint is that you are using God as a means to explain nature in direct competition with scientific theories. When God explanations compete with scientific explanations they are no longer metaphysical claims: they are scientific claims. They become another scientific explanation which you feel has more support than different scientific explanations. And there is nothing at all wrong with using scientific criteria on a scientific claim.

I've written enough above about my view of the relationship of metaphysics and science. You seem to want everything to be neatly tucked inside the scientific banner. I would expect that, if you don't acknowledge other forms of knowledge, or don't give them much attention. But you can hardly expect those of us who disagree to adopt your epistemology, just so the argument can proceed further.

This reminds me (here goes my analogical mind again) of Democratic so-called "bi-partisanship." To the Democrats, this means taking the Democratic view (roughly synonymous with political liberalism). I should think that the legitimate meaning of the word, however, is more like ecumenism: working together despite honest and principled differences, to achieve some worthy goal. So if - in order to talk about God as Creator - one must adopt a strict scientific methodology and modus operandi, then the confusion of categories has become victorious and the theistic, Christian argument essentially conceded.

Perhaps atheists would love for God (even in Christian theology) to be reduced to merely a scientific construct, but that is not the God we worship. You can't prove this God in a test tube. To me, this is almost as silly as that cosmonaut (Gagarin, I think) going out in space and saying "see, I looked all around and I didn't see any God." LOL

I don't think we get into the philosophical area of metaphysics until and unless we 1) question the foundations of empirical science as a method

You'll have to explain this. To me it just sounds like fallacious "either/or" reasoning and a false dichotomy; yet another instance of the modern tendency to arbitrarily compartmentalize knowledge. But maybe I am reacting too hastily. We'll see . . .

or 2) assume a basic underlying structure which "sustains" or contains or supports all forms of the knowable universe and thus science can't deal with it at all.

All Christians believe this, but it is not incompatible with natural science (nor necessarily with Darwinism); nor can it be demonstrated or refuted by same. It can at least offer some reason to believe that unknown processes could have occurred in the first place. It can give some account, however meager, for irreducible complexity. To that degree it becomes a teleological argument.

If you try to question the validity of science as part of #1 you undercut your claim that science can support or lead to God as the best explanation:

But I have never done that, and never will. You're right: it lies behind my use of the teleological and cosmological arguments, which are my favorite theistic proofs. These enlist science as an "ally," so to speak, especially in my own formulations of them.

if you try to define God as a metaphysical assumption via #2 then I don't think you can bring in God in the form of observable miraculous supernatural interventions which can be distinguished from ordinary natural occurances and thus lead us to belief in God.

You can neither prove nor disprove God from science. But that doesn't mean that one is prohibited from positing that perhaps some sort of Creator/Designer God can provide a good explanation in terms of First Cause for phenomena which remain quite mysterious to us. Even Einstein spoke of some sort of "spirit" in the universe, and I don't think you would question his commitment to scientific method. Even David Hume accepted a version of the argument from design.

And of course science began in a thoroughly Christian milieu. Naturalism or materialism was not believed to be central or fundamental to the definition of science or its method till basically after Darwin's time. This dichotomy you speak of was not always there. Relatively little conflict between science and God or Christianity was observed before 1859, though there were occasional exceptions, such as the much-ballyhooed Galileo incident. Newton could be a devout Christian, yet discover what he did. Likewise with Copernicus, Mendel, Pasteur (who was very fond of the Rosary), Pascal, Kepler, Boyle, Fleming, Faraday, Agassiz, Maxwell, Linnaeus, and on and on.

What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? ;)

Early science had very much to do with Jerusalem. This was no coincidence at all. And unless the history of science is understood, then much of what I argue falls on deaf ears, because the presently fashionable categories of thought and fields of study do not permit it. The only place it can be relegated to is "the fundamentalist, backward, anti-scientific mentality." That's because the discussion hasn't even been allowed in schools and universities for several generations now. So whoever talks differently is immediately labelled by many as ignorant of science and its findings, as Behe was when he dared to think differently and not take in the prevailing evolutionary orthodoxy with his mother's milk. I'm not saying you're doing this to me. I'm speaking generally.

Philosophy and science are built upon the contention that knowledge is hard won by human beings here on earth, and that through the competition of minds we come closer to understanding. It encourages disagreement, demonstration, and a willingness to change and be persuaded.

Don't both build on past accumulation of knowledge, too, though, so that - in a certain sociological sense - science and philosophy both develop time-honored "traditions" as religion does?

Time-honored, yes. Infallible, no.

Yet nothing can ever overthrow Neo-Darwinism, no matter how many flaws it exhibits. This may not technically be "infallibilism," but practically speaking, I see precious little difference. It is dogmatic, it functions as a religion for its avid followers, it must be true (for creationism is either unthinkable or virtually impossible, especially for an atheist, who would have to overthrow his atheism to espouse it).

If a scientist succeeds in overturning or (more likely) modifying a major tenet of science he is eventually given acclaim and honor within science. If a theologian succeeds in attacking a
major tenet of his religion the religion is in trouble: all it has is what it began with, what follows is an attempt to clarify and understand the true revelation from God and that can only pull so far before it becomes heresy and infidelity.

This is true. But I see nothing wrong with it. I see no reason to regard as impossible a point of view whereby something is revealed and not subject to constant questioning. Not all knowledge is philosophy. If you think otherwise, then try to prove it to me. I challenge you here and now. And if you can't, then revelation is conceivable, and your objection is based on mere personal preference, not solid, irrefutable thinking. Your thought would then be based on the unproven axiom:


"All knowledge must be subject to constant attempted falsification or else it is somehow not believable knowledge."

This you can't prove; therefore your objection collapses. In fact, it is even self-defeating, for if the above sentence is indubitably and always true, then the principle or axiom would be untrue. If it is untrue, then my point stands. Either way, your case for "scientism" collapses.

 I have already agreed that revelation and miracles are conceivable. It is
 not impossible that something has happened in the past which goes against
 the known and accepted laws of physics as understood today, nor is it
 impossible that such miraculous events go on today, on a regular basis. The
 issue isn't possibility, but believability. Is it reasonable to simply
 decide to believe in a miracle, or a revelation, on the basis that it
 "might" be true, or is it more reasonable to say that such events are
 unlikely till they can be demonstrated in such a way that they leave out
 human errors in attribution, memory, and transmission? I say the latter,
 you say the former. I base my view  on the demonstrated fact that humans
 can err in such matters, and often do.

 Is all knowledge philosophy? In one way or another, I think so. Your demand
 -- or challenge - that I somehow prove that revelation is impossible  or
 hasn't happened reverses the burden of proof. One person can only prove or
 demonstrate the truth of something to another if there is already a
 background of agreement from which the probability can be measured, a
 common ground of demonstration. You and I already agree that science works
 in verifying claims in reality. We stand together here; I needn't prove the
 value of empiricism to you.

 But you are making an additional claim: there are also such things as
 revelations, as mystical ways of knowing that come from a supernatural
 world of spirit.  Can you demonstrate this to me using the same background
 beliefs we both have about the utility of science in weeding out truth from
 error?  Unless I grant your claims a special status that I don't grant
 others you cannot. If you could, you would not suddenly try to shift burden
 and say "prove it isn't true."

 I know what it would look like to prove the existence of supernatural
 claims via science because I know what it looks like to prove natural ones.
 I do not know what it would look like to disprove them if the lack of
 scientific proof itself is not seen as a prima facia reason to work on the
 assumption that they don't exist. Neither do you, or anyone else.

 I do not claim that the premise "all knowledge must be subject to constant
 attempted falsification or else it is somehow not believable knowledge" is
 indubitably and always true. I try not to deal in indubitable postulates,
 but work towards general probabilities using induction. Thus the statement
 you wrote is a stipulative theory, a working assumption open to being
 falsified. In fact, to argue against it you must assume my good will and
 willingness to be shown wrong. In order to say that this working guideline
 is not legitimate you have to work on the assumption that it IS legitimate,
 and that I ought to change my viewpoint when you can logically and
 rationally demonstrate to me that there are empirical truths that ought to
 be accepted on faith.

 As long as I do not insist that the working assumption is Truth that can't
 be questioned I don't think I'm involved in any self-refuting circularity.
 But when you must assume the truth of what I write in order to challenge
 it, it seems to me that you get into such difficulties yourself.


If you succeed in demonstrating the inadequacy of evolution as explanation you will be supporting science, not attacking it.

That's what I've claimed all along.

If an atheist succeeds in demonstrating the inadequacy or irrelevence of
God as direct explanation for something we're not supporting religion.

No; you're not supporting theism. Some religions do not require any sort of god at all.

Religion is built upon the idea that there are eternal truths which are given to us directly through revelation and intuition, and the most important thing is to have faith, to believe, to accept. "Question all things," says Socrates. "Unless ye become as a little child ye cannot enter the kingdom of heaven," says the Bible. At some point any synthesis of these views is going to run into a conflict.

LOL Now Sue, your extreme dichotomies are getting to be a bit too much to take. You act - typically for a modernist or postmodernist - as if science and philosophy involve no axioms and unproven starting-assumptions, and as if religion has nothing whatever to do with rationality and reason. So for you (as with Bertrand Russell) Thomas Aquinas is no philosopher? We believe that there is reason and there is revelation, and that the two do not have to necessarily conflict. They are simply two forms of knowledge.

I'm saying that there is a basic difference in the way science and Greek
philosophy approach truth, and the way religion does.

Of course there is, but so what? What's your point? Are we back to my previous query about your perspective: that science is all there is? Even if atheism were granted as true, this would not be self-evident at all.

The "unproven axioms and starting-assumptions" in philosophy and science -- by which I assume
you mean things like the basic reliability of our senses and the laws of logic -- are shared by religion: these are the starting grounds for all knowledge and all methods of knowledge. It is religion that is adding in new elements, new assumptions, new methods -- or trying to.

Yes, and some of those elements are valid and some are not.

Reason is the means of working out solutions to problems. Revelation is the
means of getting an answer without all the fuss and bother.

If God in fact exists, that is the nature of the case, just as I get a "revelation" from a car mechanic or a brain surgeon about my motor or my brain "without all the fuss and bother." And thank God for that! I have less than no interest in either "philosophical procedure."

That the two do not necessarily conflict is not important.

It is supremely important. But the fact that you so easily dismiss this might explain why we keep acting as ships passing in the night.

It is not up to the philosopher to show that revelation is not adequate:

They do all the time by denying that it is a valid category of thought and knowledge.

it is up to the religionist to demonstrate to the philosopher that it is.

One can't do so when the opponent has eliminated the possibility of it by means of a charge (explicit or implied) of "illegitimate category." The atheist obviously has a huge problem with it (it is categorically impossible because there is no God to give it). The deist and the like has less problem, but there is still a huge hurdle to jump. One only has so much time. I can't dismantle Mt. Everest with my hands and rebuild it again.

And without the ability to rationally demonstrate truth, revelation collapses on any terms but its own.

It is testable by things like miracles and fulfilled prophecy; the first is evidence of a superior power over nature, and the second indicates superior knowledge: consistent with omnipotence and omniscience (and possible timelessness).

We already agree that science can give us true knowledge of the world, we
stand on common ground here. You have to show me that revelation can give
us true knowledge of the world, too, and you can't do it by using
revelation, but by using the same approach you and I share for everything
else, that of reason and science.

Its evidences are mainly in the realm of historico-legal evidence, and you don't seem to think much of that, either.

Do I consider Aquinas a philosopher? Yes. However, I suspect he made some
philosophical errors, from what I understand of what he has written. I'm
not well read in Aquinas, or, at least, probably not as well read as I
ought to be if I were to involve myself in a deep discussion on him. But
yes, theologians are philosophers.

Obviously, if you reject revelation as a form of knowledge, then you must place it outside the realm of reason (so that you don't have to deal with its claims at all - they being supposedly purely a matter of faith, and contrary to reason). But again, you characterize entire fields of knowledge as purely faith (which is certainly an essential aspect, but not its entirety), wholly apart from reasonable considerations. That would come as a huge shock to Augustine or Origen or Justin Martyr or the Apostle Paul or Boethius, Bonaventure, Anselm, Albert the Great, all the notable Christian scientists, Ockham, Duns Scotus, Erasmus, Thomas More, Dr. Johnson, and on and on through all the great Christian thinkers.

It is one thing to not accept something yourself; quite another to paint it in surreal, cardboard-caricature colors (reasonable, intelligent open-minded scientists vs. irrational fideistic closed-minded Christians), so that its practitioners would not be able to recognize it in your description.

If I have done this or appeared to have done this I apologise. I have been
trying to point out that there are basic differences between the principles
of reason and revelation, not between the persons of scientists and
Christians, or atheists and the same. I think that people tend to use a
wide variety of positions and beliefs and approaches to the world, and
there are seldom clear distinctions between different types or kinds of
people. We are all fuzzy combinations of reason and irrationality, good and
evil, tolerance and close-mindedness -- scientists and theologians alike.
Principles are not people, and vice versa.

Fair enough. Thanks. But I still think your thought is far too "dichotomous" with regard to this science vs. religion/metaphysics discussion. I didn't believe you were trying to attack people. I think you can grasp the concept that our view is logically self-consistent without adopting the view itself. You don't seem to be able to accept that. I readily grant that humanism or atheism is self-consistent (I deny its premises).

 I think Christianity is logically self-consistent only if one accepts that
 general consistency is not important or valid, that some claims ought not
 be put up against the same kind of standards as similar claims because they
 are "special." Christianity is logically consistent if one assumes, as a
 postulate, the value -- and virtue -- of faith.

 The only means I have to argue for my viewpoint that it is wrong to use
 such methods of faith on empirical claims about the nature of reality is
 your prior agreement with me that faith is a poor method to rely on when it
 comes to scientific understanding, and that it is a poor method to rely on
 when it comes to religious, supernatural, or paranormal views that are not
 your own.

 There is I think a dissonance between most of your secular beliefs and your
 religious ones, and to the extent that you value consistency and coherency
 in how you approach understanding you will value evidential arguments over
 fideistic ones. The combination of the two is not an easy synthesis because
 the methods of justification which rely on objective demonstration clash
 with the methods of justification that rely on subjective conviction. Once
 you bring in faith all beliefs are on equal footing, and you have no means
 to separate fact from "flapdoodle"  (no, not my own term <g>) .


Science was done by many Christians, but I do not think it came out of the mystical revelation of Jerusalem; I think it came out of the rational marketplace of contending ideas that was Athens.

It was both. Greek philosophy more fully interacted with Jewish/Christian thought in the Middle Ages. Out of this milieu came modern science. If it was solely Athens, then surely it would have developed back during Aristotle's time. But it required the input of Christianity. Why do you think that is? And how can Christianity be something so allegedly foreign to science, when it was so instrumental in its formation? This is why history is so crucial to study.

I see we have different views on the historical background for the
evolution of science. I'm not sure I want to start another thread here, but
I should probably explain a bit why I disagree that it was both -- or,
rather, that science simply could not have evolved without Christianity.

Modern science does not seem to have come directly from the mystical aspect
of Christian thought, but out of a unique combination of philosophical and
historical factors: the renewal of interest in Greek philosophy and its
replacement of dogma with debate; autonomous, self-governing political
states; capitalism and the rise of a middle class with the leisure and
means to have a scientific community; and even the development of the
printing press. I'm not sure that there was anything unique in Christianity
itself that was instrumental in the formation of science. I think it was
the Catholic Church's attempt to merge Christianity with Greek philosophy
which provided one important framework for its development.

The belief that the cosmos is ultimately understandable doesn't necessarily
need to rest on the assumption that it was set up by a rational and
understandable God who can be arrived at through reason,

Not necessarily, but in point of fact, historically, this is what happened. I don't think that can be so easily dismissed.

because the belief that God is rational and understandable enough to be arrived at by reason
instead of faith doesn't seem to come out of scripture, but out of the love the Church developed for the power of deductive and inductive reasoning as espoused by the Greeks. Science is, I believe, an historical fluke, not something that was natural to the progression of human thinking, which is religious in nature far more than it is scientific.

Why, then, if the Greeks - to their great credit - constructed all the essential elements of philosophy over hundreds of years, did science not develop by 300 B.C.?

 I mentioned some historical factors in the earlier email, such things as
 capitalism and the development of the printing press. If you're interested
 in exploring this idea in more depth I would recommend Alan Cromer's
 Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science. Good stuff.

Christians (even creationists in many instances), in fact founded most of the various disciplines of science, including bacteriology, calculus, chemistry, electronics, electromagnetics, genetics, oceanography, paleontology, pathology, physical astronomy, thermodynamics, systematic biology, and several others. Francis Bacon was instrumental in establishing scientific method itself. Leonardo da Vinci was largely using the experimental method even before Bacon! Your attempted dichotomy of science vs. religion/metaphysics would surely appear quite strange to these men.
And this is why history is vitally important, to show how we got to where we are, in the world of ideas.

Evolution tries to explain complexity through smaller steps which are open to scrutiny and criticism.

In theory, yes. In practice, too often no. Once the dogma becomes entrenched, then it is unthinkable to question it, simply because the overwhelming consensus mitigates against such skepticism. Stephen Jay Gould has written as much about various aspects of science. This is not my own novel idea.

God theory explains complexity by bringing in even more complexity and is not open to scrutiny and criticism.

It certainly is open to criticism, but this is philosophy and religion (and/or theology) - as much of evolutionary theory also is.

A theory that deliberately conceals its methods and processes is a problem in a different way than a theory that hasn't yet firmly established that the methods and processes it is claiming happened actually did happen.

I still say you are applying circular assumptions. Evolution is part science and part philosophy. Creationism or intelligent design is virtually all philosophy (though with an obvious close relation to empiricism or observation), with religious elements to more or less degrees. Therefore, it isn't - strictly speaking - subject to scientific methodology, by definition. But then again, the situation is largely the same with macroevolution and the problem of biological origins and complexity. And that's the double standard I keep pointing out. Our views are required to be able to explain and be tested according to scientific rigor, while the same scrutiny is not applied to the areas of evolutionary theory I mention.

If the Universe is defined as All That Has Existed, Does Exist, and
Will Exist then the Big Bang may properly be understood as the beginning of a form of the universe, the one with the properties we observe. Whether Reality has or had or includes other forms (including God) is an open question.

Okay. I have no particular response.

I don't dismiss it, but I do find the idea of irreducible complexity far less plausible than the idea of irreducible simplicity. This is in part because every explanation I have ever heard builds understanding from the ground up, and I have never encountered a phenomenom that is complicated and involved, but it can't be broken down and understood in terms of its parts and their levels of interaction.

Wouldn't the nature of light, sub-atomic particles (quantum mechanics), black holes, and similarly complex notions qualify for such things? Why not brains, DNA, and eyes? It seems to me that you can't explain any of these things in very simple terms.

There are of course many cases where a level of explanation loses its character when the systems which make it up are examined, but this isn't the same thing because one could at least in theory understand the dynamics of the entire process. We don't appeal to irreducible complexity in anything else besides God,

I think we do with the above concepts, and I'm sure many others could be suggested as well.

unless we are talking about relating to people on a personal level, and then we don't deny that people are the result of prior causes and laws, we simply don't bring it up. When I deal with someone socially I usually don't need to take into account that he is made up of molecules, or was formed by biological processes, etc. And this seems to be the way God is being brought in as explanation. Not as an actual explanation as to method, but a social and psychological explanation.

No; rather, as a philosophical First Cause (Aquinas) or Designer (Hume; even Darwin) or the Ground for objective morality (Kant), or "properly basic" (Anselm, Hartshorne, Plantinga). This is philosophy, my dear, not social psychology.

"Why did the volcano errupt" answered not in terms of geology, but in terms of what those people who died in the volcano did wrong, or what their deaths are supposed to teach us so that we may be better people and improve ourselves in relating to our group and Leader.

That is mythology.

But if God exists and effects the universe, it too would be equally within the realm of empirical observation and explanation. I think you've agreed with this several times.

Indeed; and so have several evolutionists I cited. But it is in a limited sense only, as I have sought to explain.

And if it is possible that God exists and it is also possible that God doesn't exist, it seems eminently reasonable to demand the kind of strict empirical evidence that one would demand for any kind of supernatural claim. It isn't that science has ruled out the paranormal and supernatural by Grand Fiat, but that up till now no supernatural claim has been able to establish itself with the same kind of rigor we expect from unexpected yet true natural claims.

What do you mean by "rigor"? if not again a smuggling in of a scientific/empirical epistemology for a Spirit Being, which is irrational from the get-go. Your entire statement above hinges on that definition, and you must explain it in order to escape circularity.

If metaphysical or spiritual beings, be they ghosts, angels, or gods, are
acting in nature then science should be capable of discovering this.

Not necessarily. It can observe results of such actions (as G.G. Simpson stated), but it can't prove that they occurred as a result of spiritual beings. Questions of origins necessarily reduce to metaphysics, whatever view one takes.

Perhaps questions of Ultimate origins reduce to metaphysics, but if ALL questions of origins reduce to metaphysics then science has answered hundreds and thousands of metaphysical questions to our satisfaction. I think it is very easy to pick and choose which questions are "beyond science." Different theists put the barrier at different places: you yourself are more than happy to move the barrier if new information comes up. If new information can conceivably cause you or anyone else to move the barrier, it's only a barrier of ignorance, not one of absolutes. And yes, as much as I have tried to avoid using this term (since I know you hate it), I think we are indeed dealing with a God of the Gaps Argument (there, I am done).

Am I supposed to be surprised? This is the stock answer of those who seem unable to conceptualize categories of thought and an approach to knowledge which dissents from the post-Enlightenment model. If anything is "god of the gaps," though, it is the twin goddesses of Mutation and Natural Selection, which can explain absolutely anything we see in the biological world. We need merely say these words, and all difficulties instantly vanish.

What science is not capable of discovering is whether or not things that are
natural are "sustained" or part of some larger reality which is closed to

That's right. But the results of scientific investigation can lead one to believe rationally (according to Hume) that the processes are so remarkable as to suggest an Intelligent Designer.

For example, Solipsism, the claim that nothing in the universe exists but your mind, is a metaphysical assumption which no additional set of facts or observations could either prove or overset. If somone comes up with a way to "prove" or demonstrate solipsism it becomes a theory.

Of course that is complete idealism, so science would have even less to do with that than with theism, which involves both matter and spirit.

I do not have to "smuggle" a scientific/empirical epistemology into a
scientific empirical claim. If we can investigate the existence and
behaviors of ghosts, angels, or gods through our scientific observations,
the fact that they are "spirits" whose ways of working are beyond our
ability to understand or discover is irrelevent. God is assumed as a
"metaphysical entity" which is answering philosophical questions on a
higher level than those of mere science at the same time that it is being
dragged in as something which has a direct effect in nature which science can detect. I suspect the confusion is not in how I am dealing with God.

Your confusion is with categories of knowledge, and how they relate to and intersect with each other, in my opinion. This has long been an interest of mine, in conjunction with my love for history of ideas.

The Cosmological and Teleological Arguments examine the results of alleged, theorized creation and we believe they strongly suggest a Creator. They tie into the Big Bang and intelligent design / extreme biological complexity, respectively.

God can be neither proven nor disproven in any absolute sense by science (anymore than science can be disproved by religion or theology), but Creation as a construct can be so examined. If it is then decided that the best explanation for nature is a Creator, then that goes beyond science - but so do Grand Materialist or Atheist Scenarios of the Origins of the Universe and Life. I see no difference whatever once we get back to that initial point of inquiry.

Nothing in science is ever proven or disproven in any absolute sense: science doesn't work that way. But if science has lead one to the conclusion that the "best explanation" for what would otherwise be assumed a natural occurance is a supernatural one, then nobody has gone "beyond science" at all. Science is not the study of the natural world: it is the study of Reality.

That's an interesting statement. Care to elaborate?

I mean that if there is a supernatural world which can be somehow detected in this one, which has effects we can observe, then science should be able to discover it. This is exactly what you are claiming. I explain below:

Supernatural entities would not be ruled out as long as they are capable of meeting the requirements of natural ones, which, if they exist and act in distinctive ways which mark them as distinguishable from natural events, they ought to be capable of meeting.

What are these requirements of natural entities?

Observable, measurable, and capable of being independently tested and standing up to alternative theories and explanations in order to achieve a consensus of informed opinion by competent researchers, usually.


The existence of God is a theory. It might be right, it might be wrong. If it is wrong, what other theories are likely, and would they be more consistent with our background beliefs, or less? More, I think. You, of course, don't agree. And that's okay: in Humanism, nobody is damned for an honest mistake in epistemology or metaphysics -- they are not even damned for a "dishonest" one ;)

No particular comment springs to my mind.

We are not dealing with an initial point of inquiry that exists in a metaphysical haze where nothing can be determined from observations if we deal with empirical, evidential arguments for the existence of God. We are working within a system that assumes that empirical evidence is not only valid, but ought to be examined in a systematic way. I think you are confusing a nonphysical being that can be discovered through empirical methods with a metaphysical assumption which would be unaffected by any observation whatsoever.


This demand is based on the assumption that humans are prone to error, and anecdotes and personal experiences which can't be shared -- and thus can't be checked -- might be a wrong interpretation of experience. We are very easy to fool, and it is even easier to fool ourselves, as Richard Feynmann once noted.

Oh, I agree wholeheartedly to that. But I apply that to your kinds of folks, too, as well as to my own camp. :-)

Demanding empirical proof of the existence of Spirit does not seem to be unreasonable or irrational to me, but responsible.

Please explain to me how that can make any sense.

Spirit sounds an awful lot like Essense of Personhood, and we have a rather sorry history of injecting Essense of Personhood where it doesn't go.

No particular comment.

My point was that we have both a natural explanation for why we
might feel a need for a God

I don't think so . . .

and a supernatural explanation which includes all the elements of the natural explanation, plus adds in the fact that >there really is a God. Occam's razor, as you know, does not tell us what is true.

Nor does an arbitrary acceptance of empiricism to the exclusion of metaphysics, religion, revelation, experience, or any sort of knowledge outside of science.

It simply cuts out the extraneous as unnecessary to the explanation. God might exist, but I don't think its existence is required in order to explain why human beings might have a desire for "God." This desire seems to be plausibly accounted for by elements we experience in our lives, the existence of which elements is not under dispute.

So there is no God in fact, but it just so happens that the vast majority of human beings in all times and places have developed a belief in some sort of God or spirituality. And you find that a plausible reason for there not being a God . . . That's as silly as a scenario where, say 90% of the people were atheists somehow "proved" that God must exist!

I think those religions which insist on complete consistency with secular methods of demonstration are more likely to be trustworthy in moral issues.

I contend that Christianity is more intellectually respectable than any other religion (followed very closely by Judaism).

And when it comes to religions not your own, this would probably be what you yourself would feel comfortable with, too.

I use the normal means of proof and intellectual arguments with any viewpoint I examine. To the extent that they are deemed "secular" (which is debatable) then I am using "secular methods."

Not much you can do about being accused of being a witch.

Nope, but not much you can do about having the misfortune of being in your mother's womb, when she doesn't want you for some reason, either. Talk about the "innocent" being falsely accused . . .

Is scientific knowledge the only reliable sort of knowledge? It may not be the only source of knowledge, but I think we both tend to count it the most reliable source if we are talking about answering empirical questions about the nature of reality.

But of course: that is true by definition, so it is completely uncontroversial. Yet it doesn't rule out things like telelogy or a Creator, either, because that is not its domain, and it can't speak on those things (though many atheist scientists deign to do that anyway).

I don't understand. How can you both argue that science and a study of nature can lead one to the conclusion that God exists and there is a design and purpose in the universe and also claim that whether God exists or whether there is design and purpose in the universe are not science's domain and "it can't speak on those things?" According to you it speaks very eloquently indeed.

I was answering specifically your question: "we both tend to count it the most reliable source if we are talking about answering empirical questions." Teleology and God are not directly empirical questions (though, arguably, they are, indirectly, in a sense). All I was saying was that science is the most reliable guide for matter, but that it can't rule out spirit. There is no contradiction here at all. One is a positive assertion, the other a denial of a negative assertion. I think it is common sense and a self-evident truth.

I think that as long as you claim that God is known because it intervenes in the world in a measurable way which can be distinguished from purely natural causes -- as long as you point to scientific evidence for the existence of God -- then it is not only legitimate, but obligatory, for science to question the existence of God the way it would any other theory.

All I'm doing is expecting modern science to be consistent with its materialistic premises. If it wants to claim that it has domain over matter, fine. I have no problem with that at all. But when it claims that it can pronounce negatively and dogmatically on spiritual matters, it is overstepping its bounds. This is a double standard, but not the best science, as I understand it. It is a corruption of science, and hubris. Science needs to understand that it is not the sum of all knowledge, and that it is a branch of philosophy. Philosophy in turn intersects with religion at a certain point. I've gone over these things again and again on this list. I just don't think you grasp the point. It's difficult to see beyond one's paradigm and presuppositions.

And religion intersects with science as soon as it makes claims about the
nature of reality based on observations in this world -- claims that can
support theism against atheism. I'm not sure to what extent we can say that
metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality are immune to all
criticism. This seems to be a gray area here. If NO observation,
experience, experiment, or scientific finding could impact one way or the
other on the viewpoint, it may be beyond science because it is also beyond
our ability to know.

But this is not true with Christianity. There are a number of things which would theoretically disprove it or cast very strong doubt upon it; e.g,:

1. Produce proof of the existence of the bones of Jesus.
2. Prove that the New Testament was actually written in, say, 600 A.D. (so that no Apostles or eyewitnesses wrote it).
3. Prove that Jesus never existed.
4. Prove that people have existed eternally.
5. Prove that physical reality is an illusion.

For example, if tomorrow I wake up and discover that I am a brain in a vat
-- scientists hold a mirror up to the single eye floating on the fluid (a la
Roald Dahl) and convince me with strong evidence that all I have
experienced up till now has been fed into me by machines, it would probably
not take long before I begin to wonder if this scenario of my being a brain
in a vat is not itself being fed into my brain by machines, and I am some
other brain in some other vat, perhaps, or a thought that I am a brain in a
vat, or something else very different. Thus, solipsism cannot be completely
refuted by any imaginable evidence whatsoever, and therefore is a
metaphysical belief beyond of reality beyond our observations -- and any
ability to know for sure.

But is metaphysical naturalism a theory that can't be refuted? Not if God
exists, and not if we can know this some way. It's a working assumption, a
theory capable of proof or disproof.

In some sense, maybe, but how does one go about proving that God set in motion and is controlling in some sense all natural laws and all events, in His Providence (as all Christians believe)? If you can give me such a "proof" I would be much obliged.

To say that belief in God is a metaphysical belief can either mean that no matter what, we can always say God exists: or it can be metaphysical naturalism disproven -- which means it is a theory. Evidence counted for it. This puts it on par with other
theories. And open to scientific confirmation or provisional dismissal.

I think the evidence counts for it in a cumulative sense (many aspects of thought and observation being consistent with it, and making it more plausible than atheism). One can't absolutely disprove God's existence or naturalism, or much of anything, when you really get right down to it. But we all proceed on the basis of axioms anyway, and we all believe things whether or not we are philosophically sophisticated.

Science can't pronounce negatively and dogmatically on anything. It is not
a means to Knowledge and Certainty, but to Understanding, to tentative
conclusions which can be used as working assumptions to live by. In this it
is far more consistent with the Greek ideals of philosophy than with the
Eastern ideals of religion. It does not start out with indubitable premises
from which all certainty is derived, but with observations and experience
from which testable theories are induced, theories which must be open to
change because the men who form them can be wrong.

Science is thus that branch of philosophy which comes out of the ideal of
discussion, dispute, demonstration, and the competition of ideas in
understanding the nature of reality because it works from evidence
available to all, whatever their "faiths." One can always claim that there
are realities which science can never investigate, of course --

Is that not obvious? Science deals with matter, so that IF there is also a spiritual reality, clearly science can't investigate it except insofar as it affects or interacts with physical reality, where its results could then be scientifically observed. But to get from cause to result in terms of some compelling "proof" is still a huge problem, and the materialistic person will always see the evidence as insufficient to establish that.

and one can then claim through faith any damn thing they want about these realities
without fear of contradiction or being proven wrong.

They can and do. For my part, I have argued that Christianity is entirely consistent with logic and science, but that in some respects it transcends science and mere reason. It is not irrational but in part supra-rational. One can go beyond something without contradicting it.

The problem I have with your insistence that science is helpless in understanding spiritual
reality is that you don't seem to understand that spiritual reality might
not exist. There might be no God. There might be no miracles, no angel

Of course these things are theoretically possible, but that is another discussion, isn't it? I am trying to show that if these things exist, that they do not inherently conflict with either science or reason. I am arguing (in this dialogue) primarily for the coherence and consistency and rationality (also plausibility) of Christian belief, not that it is true (which I can hardly do in any single discussion because I believe that conclusion is reached on the basis of a multitude of various evidences taken together).

And if there is not you have insulated yourself from criticism, from finding this out, and from being forced to change your view or be persuaded to another one.

Not at all; this doesn't follow. How one approaches reality and truth claims is a distinct proposition from the truth or falsity of the same claims. I have the same approach to evidence and truth and epistemology whether Christianity is true or false, as you also do, whether humanism is true or false.

When religion does not conflict with science, it swallows it whole. All
discoveries are consistent with the existence of God. All discoveries are
also consistent with the nonexistence of God. The problem is that you seem
to want to have it both ways: science can in no way rule that any discovery
is inconsistent with the existence of God -- but there are many discoveries
which are not only consistent with God's existence, but are INCONSISTENT
with atheism.

That shouldn't surprise anyone due to the extraordinary, multi-faceted nature of the Christian God, whereas atheism is simply a negative, "minimalist" proposition, that this marvelous God does not in fact exist. So, e.g., one can observe:

1. The theory of gravity is perfectly consistent with the notion that God could have caused the physical universe to perpetually operate under these laws, as a function of design or teleology.
[note that this is merely a logical claim of consistency; not an alleged airtight, undeniable "proof" - and that is all I have ever claimed in any of my arguments]

But one cannot say:

2. The theory of gravity proves that God does not and cannot exist.
There is no "epistemological symmetry" here and thus no double standard, because proposition #2 is simply a much more difficult thing to prove, by its very nature. You can substitute the "laws of natural selection" or thermodynamics; it works the same way logically. It's the old thing about "it's very difficult to prove a negative."

Sometimes God is in this shadowy spirit realm of gassy metaphysics outside of our empirical sciences and sometimes God is a competing theory of the universe which walks and talks and sounds just like a science theory, but isn't because God is a metaphysical being.

What you see as an ethereal and arbitrary inconsistency seems that way because of the nature of the relationship of philosophy, science, and religion. It gets complicated around the edges, where the different types of knowledge intersect. It's kind of like the edge of a seashore. Where precisely does the shore begin and the sea end? It's not so easy to determine (especially considering tides). Yet we know there is a shore and a sea.

Or, e.g., consider "infinite smallness" (one of my favorite thought experiments in philosophy). If we take any material thing and keep dividing it in half, how far can we go till it becomes nothing? Or is that even possible? No matter how small something is, it can be cut in half, right? So are we able to get to a point where it can no longer be cut in half? Can matter merge into non-matter, by successive gradations?

Perhaps that is the difficulty with science and metaphysics/religion. You have already agreed  that science is a type of philosophy, and metaphysics is also a type of philosophy, and arguably religion is a particular sort of metaphysics (at least in part). The edges are blurry, and my comments reflect that. Your task would be to demonstrate that the edges are not fuzzy, in order to establish that my claims in this area are what are fuzzy, illogical, and arbitrary.

Can science rule against the probable truth of astrology? What about the
ability of rocks to think? Can science investigate whether it is likely
that people can communicate through mind alone or can move objects at a
distance with thought?

It could, by observing results and making deductions, yes. I have stated this all along. I even cited noted paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, saying the same thing.

Can science tentatively rule out the existence of phlogiston, of chi energy, animal magnetism, and the ether? Where does one draw the line?

Where such things are utterly inconsistent with science. I haven't seen where Christianity or God falls into that category. The Big Bang is not inconsistent with ex nihilo creation. Evolution is not inconsistent with a notion of creation (of a particular type; i.e., not instantaneous, but progressive and prolonged; directed by God rather than random mutations) - nor are any natural laws. That may bother you, but this is logical reality, so get over it! LOL

Are fairies on the same side of the line of investigation as angels, or do angels exist in a special category because people see them as proof of God's love?

Fairies are derived from mythology, which process of thought is quite different from revelation, which claims to be based on history and a direct revealing of God to man.

If you strip the idea of God down to its basics, if you pull away all the
bells and whistles and hand-wavings and tears, what is being asserted is
that a Person which consists of Mind and Intention exists without a body in
a way that is obscure, causes effects in a way that is abstruse, and
supports and sustains everything in an ambiguous, vague, unclear,
mysterious, enigmatic way beyond our ability to understand. And yet it is a
person. Like us.

This is what we believe based on revelation (but also partially from natural theology). It requires some faith to believe in the Christian God, too.

I agree that science cannot rule this out completely, but I see no reason
to put this concept into reality. And every reason to think this is simply
another case of human beings trying to egocentrically see ourselves and our
concerns as the center of cosmic interest, the main characters in a
narrative which comes out of our own minds and tries to turn reality into
our image.

That is quite spectacularly ironic, coming from a humanist, who truly puts man "and our concerns as the center of cosmic interest." In humanism, man has to be at the center of inquiry because there is no God to even challenge his preeminence! So if Christianity is egocentric, how much more so secular humanism?!

 I think this is a very important confusion here in how one sees Humanism,
 and theists are not the only ones to make it. We do not put man at the
 center of importance in all things, nor make humanity preeminent, nor do we
 consider our concerns to be of cosmic interest. There is not necessarily
 any conflict between being a humanist and believing in God.

Instead of  seeing atheism as putting man first over God, I see it as being willing to
 accept an austerity and clarity of understanding that doesn't put man
 above God but puts self-control in methods first above any conclusion we
 make, including whether God exists or not. Human beings are the inescapable
 ultimate reference point for their own understanding because human
 understanding is always that -- human, and thus fallible.

 In science, man tries to take his subjectivity out of the equation as much
 as possible. In religion, subjectivity is primary as a method of inquiry,
 because in order to say we have methods that go beyond reason we must go
 into faith, intuition, and insight, egocentric methods that confirm instead
 of public methods that demonstrate. The humility involved in bowing to a
 God and rejecting human capacity to understand is not the same thing as the
 humility involved in bowing to our fallibility and insisting only on the
 strict and rigorous methods of science before we decide whether or not
 there is also a God to bow to.

 The primary disagreement between us then seems to be this: does rejecting
 science and objective means of inquiry in order to have faith and trust in
 subjective methods of knowing constitute humility -- or arrogance? When one
 decides that certain claims about the nature of reality require that we go
 outside of science one is rejecting the methods of community in order to
 embrace the methods of the individual. It doesn't matter what the
 conclusion is, or how one bows to it. To put methods of subjective
 individualism above methods of objective verification seems to me to be
 pride of self.


God is not a "purely metaphysical question" any more than other paranormal
or supernatural claims. Questions that are purely metaphysical would be
unaffected one way or the other by ANY scientific finding, any observation
and experience that human beings can have, like solipsism. God is supposed
to be known through experience, and science can "point to God." Science can
point away from atheism. This is what you insist on. Thus I think we are no
longer dealing with a purely metaphysical question now. If I am
inconsistent because I am using epistemic methods on God, then so are you
and all the other theists who are using Natural Theology or other
evidential arguments.

Sigh. Sue, Sue . . . How is it inconsistent to say that the edges of metaphysics and science are blurry and confusing, or that natural theology and things like faith and the ontological argument are not contradictory, but complementary?

If I'm wrong about God I'm open to being convinced, because metaphysical
naturalism is, despite the words "metaphysics" in the name, a theory. It's
a working assumption about the nature of reality.

Fine, then. Tell me how I could possibly overthrow it in your mind? And please, come up with something more realistic and plausible than [philosophy professor] Ted Drange's "cosmic star-writing." LOL I've already given several straightforward, quite theoretically possible ways to disprove Christianity. Now you do me one better . . .

If God exists, one could always put it into a Naturalist metaphysics by
simply defining God as one more natural phenomenom that works according to
natural laws that are less knowable from our standpoint, but of course this
is not what you are asking. You are asking what would prove the existence
of God to me, and I think I have answered this before, if not in this
thread, then in others:

I would want the same kind of evidence that would prove the truth of
astrology, ghosts, fairies, cold fusion, homeopathy, and tarot card
reading. All these things might be true "some of the time" but if they
can't meet scientific criteria we feel comfortable assuming they work "none
of the time." I want public demonstration: replicable, testable, regular,
falsifiable, predictive, and available to all. Not ancient stories that we
can all read; not anecdotes we can all hear; not mystical revelations or
appeals to ignorance or arguments that such a claim is "beyond science and
reason" and backed up with bad analogies.

I don't want "if you believe you will see" or "if part of the belief works it is all true."
And most especially I want evidence that can't be just as plausibly explained as the
result of natural causes. I want scientific evidence that a Mind is
controlling the universe, that the universe was created with intention, and
that everything is part of a Grand Design, not the pattern-seeking
cause-inferring intuitional insight that this must be so or we would not be
here. If God exists it ought to be able to effect the universe in ways that
are specific and verifiable and distinguishable from natural explanations.
I want scientific proof of God or Naturalism wins by default.

So yes, the stars in the sky that spell out "I AM" would be hard to explain
without the existence of a super-powerful intelligence we would call God.
If God exists, the starwriting is not unrealistic, and the theory that God
did it would be by far the most plausible explanation. To demand less than
scientific evidence is not showing love for God: it is showing love for a

Is God a theory?

For those who regard religious matters as merely philosophical propositions and not primarily matters of faith yes. This is the fabled "god of the philosophers."

Could it be wrong?

Theoretically, yes.

Could we know it to be wrong -- or can we only know if it is right?

I think both beliefs require either faith or unprovable assumptions and axioms. There can be no absolute proof or disproof, in my opinion - not in the purely philosophical or scientific realm. On the other hand, I think there are forms of religious "certitude" which are quite different modes of knowing, as explicated notably in John Henry Newman's classic Grammar of Assent  - available online on my Newman page.

If we admit that science might actually be a reliable means of understanding ALL of reality

If all of reality is material, maybe, but then there are many mysteries and puzzles in science as well, some of which may never be resolved.

and that metaphysical naturalism is a serious possibility, then theism might win, but it might not. If it is excluded a priori then theism can't lose.

And vice versa. I come down on the side of theism . . . :-)

Science can't deal with metaphysical claims as such, but it can deal with metaphysical claims which have taken on the shape and form of empirically-based theory. If some findings can be said to especially "support" the existence of God,

In the sense of "not inconsistent with" (especially this might be asserted given a lack of empirical, causal explanation, as with irreducible complexity).

then other findings can be said to "go against" it. Science has a voice, because you have given it one.

Well, the distinction would be between "consistency with" (a metaphysical theory, possibly including God) and negatively pronouncing upon purely metaphysical questions from a supposedly empirical epistemology. I think these two things are qualitatively, essentially different. The former is entirely logical; the latter is illogical and even a bit arrogant, in my opinion, perhaps involving a sort of dishonesty or "sleight-of-hand," whether intentional or not (it is usually not intended, but flows from a lack of "metaphysical self-awareness," so to speak, or a certain intellectual naivete, utterly typical of postmodernism).

Revelation, intuition, and inspiration may give us correct knowledge about the facts of the world, but if you want to check to see if they have gotten it right I think you have to use the only method which is open to investigation and dispute.

Isn't historical-legal evidence of any worth? We use that to determine what happened in a certain place at a certain time, and who did what, right? Why can't it be used to verify miracles and suchlike, which are in the domain of religion?

Stories and anecdotes will verify all sorts of claims as long as the listener has little reason to be skeptical. Historical-legal  evidence could verify miracles or other unconfirmed phenomenom in the strong sense -- it could persuade critics -- only if the historical-legal evidence was  able to meet the strict standards of science, in that it could rule out human error and alternative natural explanations. I don't think it can do this.

It seems, then, that you are of the mindset that science is the key to all knowledge, or all reliable knowledge. I find that to be an absurd proposition from the outset. Do you frown upon all court cases on the same grounds? "Beyond a reasonable doubt" isn't enough? We should not convict any criminal unless "the historical-legal evidence was able to meet the strict standards of science, in that it could rule out human error and alternative natural explanations"?

If a court case contains assertions that the accused flew through the
window and was seen dancing with the devil, yes, I would frown on the
reliability of this eyewitness testimony. If the eyewitness claimed they
saw YOU do this, you would call for scientific backing quick enough, I
think. Spectral evidence was ruled inadmissable after the witch hunts in
Salem. Damn good thing, too.

But I was simply talking about forms of knowledge besides science, not legal evidence of supernatural events in particular.

We can rule out many things beyond a reasonable doubt,  we just can't rule
out anything beyond an unreasonable doubt. If we claim that all miracles
and magic and supernatural and paranormal experiences are "beyond science"
then we have no way to draw a line between truth and superstition, real and

Scientific studies done today on paranormal claims show that so far no evidence has been able to confirm the existence of ESP, precognition, ghosts, PK, magic, reincarnation, etc.

Why should this surprise you, all these things being alleged spiritual phenomenon? What does that have to do with science? One might be able to demonstrate - again - that such explanations are conceivably consistent with the evidence. E.g., that the messed-up house from an alleged poltergeist cannot be proven to have been messed-up by any other cause.

I used to try to do telepathy, ESP, the Ouiji Board, astral projection, all sorts of weird occultic stuff, back in the 70s. I was very serious about it. In a way, I see this in retrospect as an openness to possible supernatural realities, a form of open-mindedness, rather than pure gullibility (though it was partially that, too). I simply needed more information, upon which to make rational choices about what I would consider "spiritual realities."

But I would contend that it was post-Christian secular culture which influenced me to pursue these things in the first place. TV shows like The Outer Limits and One Step Beyond and The Twilight Zone - arguably - were means of propagating non-Christian supernaturalist worldviews among the populace. In a truly Christian society, much of this material would be frowned-upon, if not outright forbidden; considered harmful to souls.

If these are real phenomenom this seems suspicious.

I don't see why.

Other studies, however, have been able to demonstrate that humans are liable to confirmation bias, wishful thinking, self-deception, selective thinking, post hoc reasoning, subjective validation, communal reinforcement, urban legends, ad hoc hypothesis, etc. Absolutely. And these would be some of the reasons that could be put forth for unbelief, as well as false religious belief (or true belief, stumbled upon for the wrong reasons).

Supernatural claims are unlike other claims in that exaggeration and error are much more directly connected, and much harder to check. They are singular extraordinary events which can only be believed or not.

Science can "confirm" a miracle in the sense that it can admit that it has not the slightest idea (let alone explanation) how such-and-such an event happened. Medical doctors talk like that all the time with regard to healings. But mainly, miracles are verified by historico-legal methodology.

Miracles are not verified by historico-legal methodology.

You can only say this by defining them out of existence in the first place, as Hume did. Hardly compelling . . .

They are believed by individuals who choose to combine a story with faith.

But there is such a thing as scientific verification. There have been plenty of instantaneous healings, verified (or, not contradicted, at any rate) by medical examination. But atheists and anti-supernaturalists will always find a way to dispute them.

The argument from ignorance is a weak one. When we have strong evidence that people are both ignorant and can err and couple this with an anecdote that does not fit in with our public, shared background knowledge it is more reasonable and consistent to assume an unknown naturalistic explanation over a supernatural one, human error over human reliability.

On the whole, yes, but this doesn't rule out any miracle ever taking place.

Science assumes that people don't know everything and can make mistakes so
we check ourselves against each other. Leaps of faith tell you to put trust
in the promptings of your intimate and personal desires. Such leaps can
take one anywhere.

Well, now you are again trying to construct a huge chasm between scientific rationality and the gullibility of faith. This is probably what I find least attractive in your argument. You show a detailed understanding of many of the Christian arguments, but then you seem to fall prey to rhetorical exaggeration again, which I think is much less helpful than most of your words.

It's a matter of caution: better the discipline of "I don't know but it is
probably a natural occurance and not a miracle" over "I don't know but I
believe." From my point of view, anyway. :)

Sure; I agree with that, but again, it does not rule out the possibility of a miracle in all times, and places.

It is possible that miracles have indeed occurred and been faithfully recorded in the past.

Thanks for small favors. :-)

But even if this is the case it is not reasonable to believe in them outside of the religion they have supported.

That's not true. They can stand on eyewitness testimony regardless of religion.

You are under no obligation to renounce Christianity if other people from other religions claim that their holy men have done miraculous things. You are justified in being skeptical.

I'm skeptical of particulars until I see the evidence. But my religion doesn't require me to deny all miraculous events technically "outside" of itself. Quite the contrary. These could either be from God or from demonic spirits.

But of course, they might be right. So what level of evidence for miracles in another religion would cause you to reject Christianity and embrace a new belief? I strongly suspect it would not be anecdotes, however ancient, and however well-attested by the devout and pious.

You're right. Miracles alone would not make me renounce Christianity. I would also have to be presented with counter-explanations of the Christian evidences which are more plausible in every case than the Christian ones. I have never come remotely close to that. Mostly I see a bunch of illogical and silly nonsense (many proposed alleged biblical contradictions), misinformation (e.g., Jesus never existed), and sheer ignorance (e.g., Hitler was a Christian) when it comes to the understanding of my religion.

The Bible could be a book filled with contradictions, Jesus a combination
of mythic and historic elements, and Hitler a rabid Christian and
Christianity still be true.

If that was "Christianity," I certainly wouldn't be one.

All irrelevant. Which is why I don't bother with these arguments. Perhaps this is the result of having had most of my early contact with liberal Christians.

Same as me!

It may also, of course, be that neither an inerrant Bible, a founder draped in myth, or an example of a Christian I don't like has anything to say about the basic tenets of Christianity or their truth.

If Jesus was not what He plainly appears to be in the Gospels, then rest assured that Christianity would be fundamentally changed, if not altogether undermined. Remember, we claim to be Jesus' disciples, and we believe Him to be God in the flesh. If indeed He is not, if that was merely a myth created by later zealots unconcerned with truth, then Christianity would collapse. St. Paul basically says that.

One can always simply "increase understanding OF " God and Christ instead of reevaluating the probability that there IS a God or Christ.

Possibilities are fine; demonstration quite another thing. All I've seen in the skeptical theories of Who Jesus Was, is a bunch of nonsense, far more mythological than is claimed for the Bible and orthodox Christianity.

If you begin with the prior assumption that the supernatural is as
plausible an explanation as the natural, it is virtually impossible you
will ever be persuaded to change your mind.

Both exist. Whether the supernatural has occurred in any given instance, is another question, and one where I virtually agree with you.

A fake psychic doesn't disprove all psychics. 1,000 fake psychics and a clear explanation of cold reading won't work against one amazing story. Lack of scientific evidence doesn't
say anything about that one special miracle event that can't be repeated.
You can believe all supernatural claims or some of them, deciding on
whatever criteria you want where you will draw the line between the likely
and the unlikely, once you have abandoned the means to restrict yourself
from human error.

But I haven't taken that step; nor has Christianity as a whole. This is where you are mistaken. To accept the reality of the supernatural realm is not the equivalent of being a gullible simpleton who believes every cock and bull story he hears, or believing in any fantastic thing whatever (sort of an Alice-in-Wonderland mentality). You seem to be equating Christian supernaturalist belief with the worst excesses of unsubstantiated evidence. That's unfortunate . . .

If the Mormons claim that there were elephants and steel swords in ancient America and this conflicts with our background information in archeology and zoology, I think neither one of us would be particularly impressed with an insistence that revelation is a better way to know than science so this disparity doesn't count at all against the truth of the Book of Mormon.

Of course not. My view is that science and revelation are both valid forms of knowledge and that it is as nonsensical to speak of science as superior to religion (or vice versa) as it is to speak of the superiority of an apple to an orange, or Bach to Beethoven. They exist on their own and they are both valid. And both can be irrational. Incidentally, I have used this same argument against the Mormons. :-)

If a scientific finding you accept and a revealed truth you accept conflict, however, which one is likely to be revised?

There are many apparent conflicts. If the present physical/astronomical evidence suggested, e.g., that the universe were eternal, you could be sure that the materialists would be loudly proclaiming that there was no creation. But since the evidence shows a beginning at present, we don't hear much about it. Sometimes, things get ironed out in the end. The Christian has faith that both fields of knowledge are consistent with each other. What we see in science at the present time gives no great grounds for doubt of the Christian outlook of the compatibility of science and Christianity, and indeed much support.

I'm not sure what you wish to argue: do you wish to assert that there can be no real conflict between the claims of your religion and those of science because they will always be consistent and supportive of each other,

Yes, we believe this in faith, and nothing we see currently in science has caused us to revise this opinion. On the other hand, atheists are so uncomfortable with the Big Bang theory that they are now coming up with completely fanciful scenarios of the "oscillating universe" and the "hyper-universe" so that no hint of a possible theistic creation would ever be considered for a moment.

or do you wish to assert that there can be no conflict between the
two because they deal with totally different areas and science can neither
support nor undermine belief in God?

Absolutely not. That would be the fideistic or presuppositionalistic or (I say) "irrationalist" positions. It's difficult to comprehend how you wouldn't know this about my views by now. The very fact that I state that science and religion overlap, and my use of the cosmological argument prove that I don't believe the above at all.

Those are two different approaches, I think, and you seem to shift from one to the other.

I hope I have explained why I am not shifting, but merely moving through fuzzy areas, where anyone would not be able to totally nail down the boundaries.

Would an eternal universe cast doubt on your theory that God exists? I suspect not.

It would be difficult to reconcile with creation ex nihilo.

If the Big Bang were to be overthrown, I think that deep reflection would reveal to you that the apparent conflict was not a conflict at all, and the new information is just as consistent, if not more so, with God's existence -- and the Bible.

I would have to see what the alternative is, to even comment. But clearly, materialistic scientists are every bit as reluctant to admit that anything discovered by science, no matter how remarkable and extraordinary, is consistent with a Designer God, as Christians are to espouse the converse. Both sides work within their grand theories.

Revealed truths always bow to observation and test or people end up like the poor Mormons, valiantly digging around in the Mayan ruins claiming to find evidence for great Hebrew civilizations.

This is silly; there is a third way, just outlined.

From what I can tell, your third way consists of "reconcile." Or rethink.
Or redefine. This way "being wrong" is not an option.

"Wrong" is an option, but exceedingly unlikely, just as is the case with atheists. I don't see any big difference epistemologically here, granting initial starting-points.

I would submit that atheists within science have been far more irrationally dogmatic and reactionary than Christians making claims based on science. As soon as Darwinian evolution came around it was proclaimed that there was no longer any need for a Creator, as if the theory had anything definitive to say about that. Both Darwin and T.H. Huxley expressly denied this (so would a guy like Catholic evolutionist Kenneth Miller today), yet that was not enough to stop the nonsense and over-confident claims.

I do not know of nor can I think of any "revealed truths" which have given us any knowledge we could not have gotten without the supernatural revelation -- as long as we are talking about this world.

If you mean strictly the physical world, perhaps not, although creation ex nihilo might be said to have preceded Big Bang cosmology, as agnostic astronomer Robert Jastrow suggested.

As for revealed truths of spiritual realities beyond this world, they don't come in conflict with science, but they don't necessarily say anything significant or true, either.

Not if one is prepared to disbelieve them come hell or high water.

No. If Hell and high water come we'd all be up to our necks in evidence. I am prepared to believe in that case. No problem. ;)


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Uploaded on 19 July 2001 by Dave Armstrong from list dialogues.