An obligation to the facts

Let’s see, where were we? Oh yes, cleaning up some loose ends in Anthony Horvath’s attempted rebuttal.

The important thing for now is that we recognize that our chief obligation is to the facts of our existence, and sometimes reality appears inconsistent and contradictory- and yet there it is.  What does one do in this situation?  Do you throw out your data?  The point being is that you must deal with your data and if you are reasonably confident that your data is legitimate it does not cease to be so just because you perceive it to be ‘inconsistent’ or contradictory.

I say all this because it is absolutely wrong headed to apply Herr Professor’s technique and attitude to supernatural claims and deeply ironic.  Herr Professor, like so many other atheists, deeply imbibes on scientism.  But science itself- meaning, the natural framework alone- provides us with contradictory notions, and yet the data compels us to consider them.  And that’s just within our natural framework!  Never mind revelatory claims!  Nature itself confounds us.

My approach is to verify the facts and to interpret them in the light of the principle that truth is consistent with itself, so it’s hard to see why it would be “wrong-headed” to apply that approach to claims about the supernatural. But I don’t think he really meant to imply that the supernatural is somehow resistant to attempts to discover the truth about it. I think he just wanted to insinuate that scientists have some kind of systematic filter that causes them to reject otherwise-valid evidence just because it happens to be “supernatural.”

This is a combination strawman and red herring. Science does not arbitrarily discard the “supernatural” because of some arbitrary “imbibing” of whatever “scientism” is supposed to mean. Science doesn’t even know the difference between natural and supernatural—it can’t, because it only deals with verifiable facts. No matter what “realm” God is supposed to come from, either His existence is a verifiable fact, or it isn’t. If we could objectively and reliably verify God’s existence, then science would merely expands its definition of the real world to include God. If not, then science has no place for God—not because of any purported bias against the “supernatural” (whatever that means), but because science only works with verifiable facts.

Like many believers, Mr. Horvath overlooks the fact that there is no canonical list of what is natural and what is supernatural. Science only knows what is or is not observable and verifiable in the real world. Science, for example, does not care whether lightning is the supernatural wrath of some offended deity, it only cares what properties and behaviors “fire from heaven” exhibits in the real world. Nor does science have any problem at all with the idea of realms or dimensions beyond the 4-dimensional space-time we commonly perceive. In fact, you can make quite a scientific career for yourself by exploring the theoretical physics of n-dimensional space and multiple universes (provided you do your homework right). An intelligent, powerful being existing in superdimensional space-time (or several such beings) would provide no obstacle whatsoever to science PROVIDED that objective and verifiable evidence could be produced for the existence of such a thing.

Science’s problem with “the supernatural” is that the label “supernatural” is only applied to “explanations” for which claims are made in the absence of evidence, as an excuse for the absence. “Supernatural” means, by definition, that science cannot verify it, because if science could and did verify it (as was the case with lightning, earthquakes, volcanoes, droughts, and other alleged “supernatural” interventions), then it would cease to be categorized as supernatural, and would instead expand the definition of “natural.”

So the idea of scientists having an alleged bias against “the supernatural” is what you might call a “straw herring.” Science is biased against the unverifiable, and rightly so, since the alternative is to descend into gullibility and superstition. Horvath is correct that our chief obligation is to the facts of our existence, which is why his apologetic fails by failing to deliver verifiable facts in support of His God, and offers instead only the rationalization that perhaps this missing evidence might exist in some higher dimension that is conveniently out of reach of scientific inquiry.

Horvath tries to argue that contradictions in the Gospel are analogous to quantum physics, and phenomena such as the behavior of light (like a particle under certain circumstances, and like a wave under others). The crucial difference between these two cases, however, is that you can observe the way light behaves, so your conclusion is based on verifiable observation. God does not show up in real life, however, so you can’t call theological contradictions a case of observed behavior. The two cases are not analogous.

Nor does it help to excuse this deficiency by claiming that God behaved a certain way once upon a time. What you and I have to deal with today is the evidence as it exists today. Ancient dead men said a lot of things, and described a lot of gods (and demons and witches and magic and so on). Our obligation is to consider these stories in the light of verifiable facts, not in the light of arbitrary rationalizations based on speculation about some kind of undefined transcendent dimensionality.

Mr. Horvath made a rather bold (and IMO rather foolish) claim about discerning truth from untruth.

Now, I agree with H. Professor that identifying inconsistencies and contradictions are useful for sorting out falsehoods, but don’t agree that they are the only means.

The reason I think that’s a foolish claim is because inconsistency with the truth is, by definition, what it means for something to be false. If a thing is 100% consistent with the way the truth really is, then it’s not false in any meaningful sense of the word. Conversely, if you’re going to show that a thing is false, then what you are going to show is that there is some way in which it fails to be consistent with real-world truth. Perhaps Mr. Horvath is thinking that some omniscient deity could come along and tell us, “X is false,” but even then, the deity would have to have discovered a contradiction or inconsistency, since that’s what “X is false” means.

As I mentioned before, the big problem with Mr. Horvath’s reasoning is that it is a universal rationalization that boils down to universal agnosticism, the idea that we can’t know the truth about anything. Are there contradictions between the book of Mormon and the Bible? Well, we know from looking at quantum physics that we can see things as contradictions when they really cohere on some higher level, so the apparent contradictions don’t mean that Mormonism isn’t true. Does the Bible contradict the idea that God created some people to be gay, and approves of that sort of relationship? Maybe from our perspective it looks like a contradiction, but you know, when a sphere intersects a plane, it looks different from what it really is in 3D space, so maybe gays are right after all. Or maybe Fred Phelps is, despite the contradictions between his ministry and a whole slew of things the Bible says. You can’t ever really know whether an apparent contradiction is wrong, or if it just looks funny because it’s transcendent.

Or can you?

In the first place we need to be clear about just what constitutes a contradiction. Flat out contradictions are hard to come by. “This is A” and “This is not A” is a contradiction. “This is A” and “This is B” is not necessarily a contradiction. It may be an inconsistency, but that may just be because there isn’t currently enough information to resolve it. One must be careful. For example, “This is a bird” and “This is not a bird” is a contradiction. “This is a bird” and “This is a sparrow” is not a contradiction, and if you didn’t know that sparrows are kinds of birds I suppose you would view this as an inconsistency.

Let’s apply that to a specific case, starting with the idea that “This is A” contradicts “This is not A”. If Jesus is 100% God, then Jesus is omniscient, because God is omniscient. (“This is A.”) If Jesus is 100% man, then Jesus is not omniscient, because man is not omniscient. (“This is not A.”). Therefore “Jesus is omniscient” contradicts “Jesus is not omniscient,” QED. It does not help to say that Jesus is omniscient and is only pretending not to be, or to say that Jesus is omniscient and just isn’t using it at the moment. Hidden omniscience and unused omniscience are not the same as absent omniscience, and therefore the statement “Jesus is omniscient” is a contradiction of the statement “Jesus is not omniscient.”

Or let’s look at “This is a bird” and “This is a sparrow.” That is, “sparrow” is a specialization of the more generalized class of “birds”. In the same way, “person” is a specialization of the more general class of “beings”—all persons are beings but not all beings are persons, just like not all birds are sparrows. And God, as traditionally defined, is a specialization of “person”—all Gods are persons, but not all persons are Gods. Hence, since “God” is a specialization of the broader category of “persons” it is just as contradictory to say “Three persons are one God” as it is to say “Three birds are one sparrow.”

You can try and rescue the Trinity by changing the definition of “God,” and divorcing it from the essential Entity->Being->Person identity specialization. Maybe being God is not a matter of the essence of what an Entity/Being/Person is, but is just an attribute that can be shared in common among many, the way mankind exists as many individuals sharing a common humanity. The trouble is, if you do that, then “God” ceases to be the identity of a specific individual being, and becomes a category of multiple beings, i.e. polytheism. Or you can define “God” as an aggregation of lesser parts, rather than as an individual identity, in which case the Trinity still collapses because each Person in the Trinity becomes less than the whole God.

Or you can combine the two approaches: is Jesus 100% of what God is? If you say “yes,” then that leaves 0% for the Father and the Spirit. But if the Father is also God, then there is some portion of God that is “not-Jesus”, which means Jesus must be “not 100% of what God is.” But if Jesus and the Father are both 100% of what God is, and there is no portion of God that is either not-Jesus or not-Father, then there is no distinction between Father and Son, because what one is, the other is also (the Father can’t be “not Jesus” because the Father is God, and no portion of God can be “not Jesus”). And if you say the Father and the Son are both 100% of what God is, without being the same 100%, then you have a contradiction, because that’s 200%, and a thing cannot be more than 100% of itself.

These are the sorts of “A vs. not-A” contradictions that send apologists like Horvath looking for other dimensions in hopes of finding some place inaccessible enough that the rest of us can’t prove that there’s not some inscrutable resolution hiding there. They’re not issues of form or shape or other attributes that change appearance depending on how you look at them. They’re essential issues of identity and being—the “is or is not” which he offered as defining a “flat out” contradiction—and they make simultaneous, conflicting assertions that reflect the social, political, and theological conflict that gave them their original doctrinal form.

In the end, Horvath’s argument ends up being an Emperor’s New Clothes argument.

Herr Professor’s approach… is to insist on applying the expectations of 2D math and logic to the claim without taking into consideration that nature of the thing allegedly ‘breaking in.’ This results in circular reasoning- a logical fallacy (since we apparently care about logic), for obviously if you insist on interpreting all data naturalistically (as 2 dimensional) then you will always conclude that what you perceived has a naturalistic explanation.

Combined with the “straw herring” fallacy he injected earlier, the message here is quite clear: the only reason atheists are silly enough to perceive a contradiction between the Emperor’s apparent nakedness and the fine clothes he is supposed to be wearing is because they are only looking at things 2-dimensionally, and are failing to consider the possibility that from some lofty and transcendent point of view it might be possible to see clothes. So Christians go ahead and believe that the Emperor must be wearing clothes, because they don’t want to be foolish, like the atheists.

Let me just point out that Horvath isn’t seeing any clothes either. He has no meaningful, verifiable answers for the problems that sent him in search of other dimensions in the first place. He merely raises the possibility of the existence of an unverifiable realm in which there might exist the possibility of some means of reconciling the contradictions and inconsistencies that he can see as well as we can. It’s an Emperor’s New Clothes pose that flatters believers with the assurance that they are wise enough to see what isn’t there, while slandering non-believers with the undocumented assertion that they’re ignoring vital data.

Horvath isn’t working with data drawn from some transcendent realm of existence, he’s dealing with the stories he’s heard from other men. The actual real-world data, which is as accessible to us as it is to him, happens to conflict with these stories, just as the stories conflict with themselves. We need to let the data—the objective, verifiable facts—drive our interpretation of the stories, instead of letting the stories drive our interpretation of the facts. The former is science. The latter, gullibility.

 
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Posted in CAMWatch, Realism, Science, Unapologetics. 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “An obligation to the facts”

  1. Brad Says:

    The phrase ‘scientism’ is used to refer to the cult of science. It is a way for some apologists to deride those who place trust in the principles of science: merely state that skeptics form a pop-culture and are not really the holders of a valid epistemology, and then you’re safe from their criticism!

    I think that technically the term ‘natural’ strictly refers to matter, energy, and physical information. Of course, if we expand the definition (or go by the colloquial meaning) to refer to the collection of general models that we believe correspond to reality – whether physical, intangible, or otherwise – then we can also include gods, ghosts, demons and magic in these models of nature.

    You say the crucial difference between Quantum Mechanics and contradictory theology (Gospels, Trinity, etc.) is that the former is observable. I think Ebonmuse said the same thing. But, to me, this always begs the question, how is QM contradictory? Where is the “X & (not X)” derived from the principles of QM? I don’t see it. In fact, if I’m interpreting the physics correctly, ‘wave’ is just a generalization of ‘particle,’ so there isn’t really a problem at all. Thus, the QM analogy is a false one.

  2. John Morales Says:

    Brad,

    Horvath tries to argue that contradictions in the Gospel are analogous to quantum physics, and phenomena such as the behavior of light (like a particle under certain circumstances, and like a wave under others). The crucial difference between these two cases, however, is that you can observe the way light behaves, so your conclusion is based on verifiable observation. God does not show up in real life, however, so you can’t call theological contradictions a case of observed behavior. The two cases are not analogous.

    You say the crucial difference between Quantum Mechanics and contradictory theology (Gospels, Trinity, etc.) is that the former is observable. I think Ebonmuse said the same thing. But, to me, this always begs the question, how is QM contradictory? Where is the “X & (not X)” derived from the principles of QM? I don’t see it. In fact, if I’m interpreting the physics correctly, ‘wave’ is just a generalization of ‘particle,’ so there isn’t really a problem at all. Thus, the QM analogy is a false one.

    1. In light of the mutual conclusions I’ve bolded, you only think you disagree with the Deacon.
    2. It invites the question, it does not beg it. :)
    3. Current understanding has changed; back when QM was being formulated, waves were considered to be a disturbance propagating through a medium, whilst particles were considered to be objects in themselves, so it was a great wonder and an apparent contradiction that something could seem to be both, depending on how it was observed.
    4. The Deacon is highlighting the difference between apparent contradictions based on Revelation and those based on observation.

  3. Brad Says:

    1. My disagreement was not that QM was a false analogy for the Gospels; Duncan and I both agree on that. My disagreement was on “the crucial difference” – which I think is that QM is really not contradictory, while the Gospels are. This means that the whole defensive tactic is left once again without a crutch to lean on. To my mind, merely saying QM is observable while the Gospel stories aren’t doesn’t drive home the point heavily enough.

    2. I don’t know about you, but it was sure begging me. ;)

    3 & 4. Fair points – and the “apparent” qualifier is truly critical here.

  4. John Morales Says:

    Brad, I appreciate the response.

    Yes, regarding 1, I thought it a possibility but addressed your literal point.

    My disagreement was on “the crucial difference” – which I think is that QM is really not contradictory, while the Gospels are.

    I guess you’re technically right – QM was determined not contradictory ex post facto, because it was amenable to empirical determination, whilst Revelation can never be so.

    The Gospels are rather ambiguous (witness the tens of thousands of Christian sects), but indeed the contradictions therein are logical, not just observational as with wave/particle duality, and therefore intractable.

    Re 2, begging the question