Prove It!

Increasing the risk that I’m moving closer to this site becoming little more than a mindless portal to DagoodS‘s excellent article posts, I simply can’t help but post about yet another very excellent article of his.

In Prove It!, DagoodS argues insightfully that theists and atheists will often walk away from debating, each feeling secure in the knowledge that their argument was won—and both being correct—because of a fundamental difference in their concepts of what the Standard of Proof is:

A good example of this is the[…] debate on inerrancy. What is it that we often see? A person proposes a contradiction.[…]

And what does the inerrantist do? Proposes a solution that, while technically possible, stretches one’s credibility. Then the person proposing the contradiction points out more details within the account that appear contradictory. The inerrantist proposes a solution that is logically possible.

Back and forth, each making essentially the same point over and over. Never moving. Why? Because they are using two completely different standards of proof!

The person proposing a contradiction is using the “more plausible” standard. Whereas the inerrantist is using the “any logical possibility” standard.

So the skeptic keeps talking in terms of how this claim is not plausible, or how this does not plausibly fall into line with the other account. And, frankly, is prevailing under their standard of proof. The inerrantist talks in what could possibly have happened, or how it is possible that Judas suffered three mortal injuries, none of which was fatal. And, frankly, the inerrantist is prevailing under their standard of proof.

Each walks away, thinking, “Gee, I won, because the other person failed under my standard of proof,” neither realizing what a waste of time it was.

6 thoughts on “Prove It!

  1. Jamin Gray

    Yes, I’ve been to a great many of these debates between atheists and Christians and have come to the conclusion that, while they are interesting up to a point and can help to learn to be an apologist for your worldview (which is important), they don’t really “prove” anything. I don’t want to trivialize debates over the historicity of religious texts, because the truth or falsehood of certain claims within are of the utmost importance, but there are larger issues to think about. Honestly if someone approaches me about a contradiction in the Bible, my response is usually, “well, it’s possible one of the accounts is incorrect.” Most of the time the person confronting me is stunned because they assumed I would argue to the death for the inerrancy of the Bible. But I just don’t think it matters whether two accounts of the same story have the exact same details, or whatever the contradiction is. I’m perfectly willing to say there may be inaccuracies in one or more of the accounts and move on from there. Maybe the inerrantist is right. Maybe he isn’t. I don’t actually care and would prefer to argue (if we must) over larger issues. An atheist sees a material world everywhere he looks. I see a world designed by a Mind and I see evidence of his work throughout creation. The fact that the atheist and I can disagree so fundamentally..that we can look at the same things and come to completely different conclusions, now THAT is something worth discussing ad infinitum.

  2. Micah Post author

    Hi Tim,

    I read those three links, but I didn’t see anything in there to suggest that divine election is hardwired, only that some spiritual experiences or connections are visible on brain scans (which I’m mildly surprised is newsworthy). And it is hard to imagine that such could be the case, considering there are plenty of examples of people converting from disbelief to belief, and vice versa.

    My own former conviction of the existence of God was no less real than my current conviction to the contrary; only a few years of learning, experience and growth separate the two. If I had been hardwired to believe a certain way, I would either have never lost my original faith in Jesus Christ, or else I would never truly have been convinced of him in the first place (of course, some try to argue this tautologically, since no “Real Christian” would ever lose his faith in the first place).

    So no, I can’t believe that the schism is entirely insurmountable, at least for individuals. I do think, though, that a far more frequent cause of conversion in either direction, is emotion and circumstance, rather than faith or logic (as Valerie Tarico suggested), so I think you’re probably right that in general, debating the point is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. I’m not sure that this means that the debate is not worthwhile, though: the debaters are hopefully still helped to understand both their own and their opponent’s positions more clearly.

  3. Timothy Roloff

    Neurotheology’s claims are more than of just spirituality showing up in brain scans. For an atheist, I would think this research points to the existence of what Douglas Adams called an”artificial God”. The Slate article says researchers could see the biological imprint of atheism in Richard Dawkin’s brain. The fact that you can measure something like that implies to me that atheists and theists should adopt a truce similar to the one Stephen Jay Gould offered between science and religion.

    Research on “political cognition” lets scientists predict an individual’s political dispositions from a brain scan. Weltenschaung has both been shown to be mostly innate, out of the reach of reason. Madeleine Murray O’Hare and Mother Teresa wouldn’t see eye to eye if they were to debate for eternity. It wouldn’t be just that they started with different axioms; the composition of their minds was fundamentally divergent.

    Does the cannon of atheism have an equivalent to Matthew 5:16? Should you convince the Jehovah’s Witness at your door to become the next Bertrand Russel, or just take his flyer and bid him cuique suum? I’m not saying you should let others run roughshod over your beliefs in the public sphere; I’m saying it may be more personally fulfilling to be a pluralist than a polemicist.

    “…you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man’s life and a code of moral values, were made by religion…” – Ayn Rand

  4. Micah Post author

    I have split up my responses to your comment: my response to the neurotheological aspects are found here; I have responded to your proposal of a truce between theists and atheists, in the form of a separate post, Atheism Versus Theism.

    The Slate article says researchers could see the biological imprint of atheism in Richard Dawkin’s brain.

    Yes, but it still offers no evidence, nor even the argument, that this is somehow innate, or that this imprint does not change along with one’s views (which, clearly, have been known to change over a lifespan). I don’t find temporal lobe sensitivity—particularly when measured by a “psychological questionnaire“ instead of by a machine—to be remotely indicative of a preordained way of thinking.

    In fact, the Slate article in particular seems to specifically say that the research is showing the thoughts and ways of thinking that a person is having or has had, rather than any sort of predictive properties on what a person is going to think through the rest of one’s life:

    London cabbies have been found to have unusually large hippocampuses, a piece of the brain important for making mental maps. So do mice trained to run mazes. If the mind is what the brain does, any kind of exercise is bound to leave a physical trace.…

    This high-tech imagery has a way of stating the obvious: As you fix your thoughts on the otherworldly, you lose contact with your immediate surroundings. Likewise, Newberg discovered stirrings in language regions for the nuns, who were meditating on a Bible verse, and in visual regions for the monks, who were imagining a sacred object. When he scanned Pentecostals speaking in tongues, both the frontal lobe and the language center blacked out as they abandoned themselves to a proto-linguistic frenzy. If he’d lit a stick of incense, the olfactory bulb would have joined the show.

    These seem very clearly to be discussing past and current thinking, rather than future.

    I’m fairly sure that the only way you could really demonstrate the point you’re trying to make is if you were to obtain brain scans of a person while he was an on-fire, completely committed Christian of some experience (as I have been), and then later compare it with his scan after he had converted to atheism, and show that the two brain scans were equivalent. I’m personally skeptical that this would be the case.

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