Missionary atheism, intellectual honesty and John Loftus

I recently had a short but interesting interaction with anti-Christian apologist John Loftus on the blog of progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser.

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John first wrote to Randal:

Randal, I look forward to your book. It’s really hard to write one from the other side of the fence and have it accurately represent one’s opponents. I think you’ll reject the “Rebellion Hypothesis,” which is needed. It’s too bad many Christians aren’t where you’re at on this, but they probably will be in a decade or more.Dr. James Sennett once told me that my book WIBA didn’t contain any straw man arguments as far as he could tell, for which I was pleased. I hope you can do the same.Just recently a guy said the same thing he did:

I was also afraid that the apologetic arguments mentioned in the book would be misrepresented and it was absolutely refreshing to see their arguments accurately presented and cited before thoroughly deconstructing them (many of which were quoted from the very same books I had read as a teen).

http://www.debunkingchristiani…Not everyone will think this, but I have repeatedly caught you doing what Christians on the other side on my fence say that I don’t do. You do mischaracterize the opposition, a lot, but also a lot less than most of them do.”

I responded:

While I once applauded you for your “advice to a Christian apologist”, I do believe your mischaracterize your opponents a lot too, at least much more than Randal does. Contrarily to your current conviction, there are many, many Christians who reject atrocities found in the Old Testament and who don’t view the Bible as necessarily more inspired than other Christian books, however difficult this might be to grasp for a former Protestant having been traumatized by fundamentalism. So I think you should rename your Blog “Debunking Evangelicalism” and try to really understand your opponents before criticizing them, because you seem to be much more interested to win new converts than having a friendly and respectful conversation about our beliefs concerning ultimate reality. This is very sad for polarized America (and more generally our polarized world) desperately needs nice discussions where people do not bully each other. Friendly greetings.

John wrote back

Lotharson, I try to debunk Christianity in all it’s forms. The problem is that Christianity is a many splintered thing. I quote from the authors who claim to represent Christianity so there are no straw men there. I co-authored a book with Randal, a progressive evangelical, and in it I took on his views. That you continue making this claim means you simply don’t understand. Yours is the correct Christianity, right? If I quote you and argue against you will you say the same thing?

To which I wrote back

Hello John, thank you very much for your answer.You spend the large majority of your time debunking Conservatism Evangelicalism, and I read only few things from you concerning <b> non-Evangelical </b> progressive Christianity.
Let me say I am in total agreement with many things you write, yet I don’t view them as a challenge against my own faith at all. You state there are many Christianities out there, and I agree with you. In oder to defeat Christianity (with a capital “C”) you ought to be able to demonstrate that they are all false or extremely implausible. So you have to develop <u> general </u> arguments showing that all forms of Christianity are equally false. Let me give you an analogy.
There are countless <b> conflicting </b> materialist theories of the mind out there.
I would be completely foolish if I were to conclude that materialism is false just because I could disprove <b> one </b> of them. Yet this is clearly the impression you all too often give. After having shown that inerrancy is an incoherent and silly teaching, you give to your reader the impression this shows that <b>C</b>hristianity has been refuted, losing track of the numerous Christians who reject this doctrine from the very start. Your writings about the problem of pain are far better in that they handle a troubling topic for ALL Christians. You are quite an intelligent guy, and I think you would be far more convincing if you stepped back from the culture war and started understanding your adversaries before criticizing them.
Until then you will remain an ideologist in opposition to Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Randal Rauser who are true scholars earnestly seeking the truth. Cheers.

John Loftus clearly shows by a behavior that he has remained a missionary fundamentalist, much more interested in winning new converts to his own sect of atheism than seeking the truth.I first realized this after having read his dispute with the nice and respect full atheistic philosopher Jefrfrey Jay Lowder.The latter took him to task for not caring about the validity of atheistic arguments used to deconvert people.Here is Loftus’s response:

I would no more spend time arguing against an ineffective atheist argument than I would spend time baking cookies I had no intention of doing anything with. Why bother? I’m not interested in a discussion for discussion’s sake. I have a warranted properly basic belief that there is no God, so all that’s left is to persuade believers otherwise, along the same lines as Stephen Law recently argued.”

I was truly dumbstruck after having read that. John Loftus keeps calling Christian theologians deceptive and delusional liars, and here he has clearly acknowledge he is not pursuing truth.In the past, I had a great respect for John and sincerely tried to engage a real conversation with him.Now I am strongly tempted to just say:”Why bother with him? Why should I waste my time with a self-proclaimed ideologist trying to win converts at all costs?”

 

John Loftus, probabilities and the Outsider Test of Faith

John Loftus is a former fundamentalist who has become an outspoken opponent of Christianity which he desires to debunk.

He has created what he calls the “Outsider Test of Faith” which he described as follows:

“This whole inside/outside perspective is quite a dilemma and prompts me to propose and argue on behalf of the OTF, the result of which makes the presumption of skepticism the preferred stance when approaching any religious faith, especially one’s own. The outsider test is simply a challenge to test one’s own religious faith with the presumption of skepticism, as an outsider. It calls upon believers to “Test or examine your religious beliefs as if you were outsiders with the same presumption of skepticism you use to test or examine other religious beliefs.” Its presumption is that when examining any set of religious beliefs skepticism is warranted, since the odds are good that the particular set of religious beliefs you have adopted is wrong.”

But why are the odds very low (instead of unknown) to begin with? His reasoning seems to be as follows:

1) Before we start our investigation, we should consider each religion to possess the same likelihood.

2) Thus if there are (say) N = 70000 religions, the prior probality of a religion being true is 1/70000 p(R), p(R) being the total probability of a religious worldview being true.

(I could not find a writing of Loftus explicitly saying that but it seems to be what he means. However I could find one of the supporters of the OST taking that line of reasoning).

 

Objective Bayesianism and the principle of indifference

 

This is actually a straightforward application of the principle of indifference followed by objective Bayesians:

In completely unknown situations, every rational agent should assign the same probability to all outcomes or theory he is aware of.

While this principle can seem pretty intuitive to many people, it is highly problematic.

In the prestigious Standford Encyclopedia of philosophy, one can read in the article about Bayesian epistemology :

“it is generally agreed by both objectivists and subjectivists that ignorance alone cannot be the basis for assigning prior probabilities.”

To illustrate the problem,  I concocted the following story.

Once upon a time, king Lothar of Lorraine had 1000 treasures he wanted to share with his people. He disposed of 50000 red balls and 50000 white balls.

Frederic the Knight (the hero of my trilingual Christmas tale) has to choose one of those in the hope he would get one of the“goldenen Wundern”.

On Monday, Lothar distributes his treasures in a perfectly random fashion.
Frederic knows that the probability of finding the treasure in a red or in a white ball is the same: p(r) = p(w) = 0.5

On Tuesday, the great king puts 10% of the treasure within red balls and 90% within white ones.

Frederic  knows that the probabilities are   p(r) = 0.10   and    p(w) = 0.90

On Wednesday, the sovereign lord of Lorraine puts 67% of the treasures in red balls and 33% in white ones.

Frederic knows that the probabilities are p(r) = 0.67 and p(w) = 0.33

On Thursday, Frederic does not know what the wise king did with his treasure. He could have distributed them in the same way he did during one of the previous days but also have chosen a completely different method.

Therefore Frederic does not know the probabilities;   p(r) = ?  and p(w) = ?

According to the principle of indifference, Fred would be irrational because he ought to believe that p(r) = 0.5 and p(w) = 0.5 on the grounds it is an unknown situation.

This is an extremely strong claim and I could not find in the literature any hint why Frederic would be irrational by accepting his ignorance of the probabilities.

Actually, I believe that quite the contrary is the case.

If the principle of indifference were true, Fred should reason like this:

“I know that on Monday my Lord mixed the treasures randomly so that p(r) = p(w) = 0.5
I know that on Tuesday He distributed 10% in the white ones and 90% in the red ones so that p(w) = 0.10 and p(r) = 0.90
I know that on Wednesday He distributed 67% in the white ones and 33% in the red ones so that p(w) = 0.67 and p(r) = 0.33
AND
I know absolutely nothing what He did on Thursday, therefore I know tthat the probabilities are p(r) = p(w) = 0.5 exactly like on Monday. “

Now I think that this seems intuitively silly and even absurd to many people. There seems to be just no way how one can transform an utter ignorance into a specific knowledge.

Degrees of belief of a rational agent

More moderate Bayesians will probably agree with me that it is misguided to speak of a knowledge of probabilities in the fourth case. Nevertheless they might insist he should have the same confidence that the treasure is in a white ball as in a red one.

I’m afraid this changes nothing to the problem. On Monday Fred has a perfect warrant for feeling the same confidence.
How can he have the same confidence on Thursday if he knows absolutely nothing about the distribution?

So Frederic would be perfectly rational in believing that he does not know the probabilities p(r) = ? and p(w) = ?

Likewise, an alien having just landed on earth would be perfectly rational not to know the initial likelihood of the religions:
p(Christianity) = ?     p(Islam) = ?     p(Mormonism) = ? and so on and so forth.

But there is an additional problem here.

The proposition “the religion x is true one” is not related to any event and it is doubted by non-Bayesian (and moderate Bayesian) philosophers that is warranted to speak of probabilities in such a situation.

Either x is true or false and this cannot be related to any kind of frequency.

The great science philosopher Elliot Sobert (who is sympathetic to Bayesian epistemology) wrote this about the probability of a theory BEFORE any data has been taken into account:

Newton’s universal law of gravitation, when suitably supplemented with plausible background assumptions, can be said to confer probabilities on observations. But what does it mean to say that the law has a probability in the light of those observations? More puzzling still is the idea that it has a probability before any observations are taken into account. If God chose the laws of nature by drawing slips of paper from an urn, it would make sense to say that Newton’s law has an objective prior. But no one believes this process model, and nothing similar seems remotely plausible.”

He rightly reminds us t the beginning of his article that “it is not inevitable that all propositions should have probabilities. That depends on what one means by probability, a point to which I’ll return. The claim that all propositions have probabilities is a philosophical doctrine, not a theorem of mathematics.” l

So, it would be perfectly warranted for the alien to either confess his ignorance of the prior likelihoods of the various religions or perhaps even consider that these prior probabilities do not exist, as Elliot Sober did with the theory of gravitation.

In future posts, I will lay out a non-Bayesian way to evaluate the goodness of theory which only depends on the set of all known facts and don’t assume the existence of a prior probability before any data has been considered.

As we shall see, many of the probabilistic challenges of Dr. Richard Carrier against Christianity kind of dissolves if one drops the assertion that all propositions have objective prior probabilities.

To conclude, I think I have shown in this post that the probabilistic defense of the Outsider Test of Faith is unsound and depends on very questionable assumptions.

I have not, however, showed at all that the OST is flawed for it might very well be successfully defended based on pragmatic grounds. This will be the topic of future conversations.

Is John Loftus a consistent biological robot? Can he avoid redefinitions?

Alex from the website http://www.skeptiko.com

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dealing with paranormal topics interviewed the militant atheist John Loftus.

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I am going to offer my random thoughts as the dialog went forward.

John is a former conservative Christian who has been emotionally abused by Christian fundamentalism which taught him he had to worship an evil God along with an inerrant Bible.

He became a resentful atheist and now seek to destroy the whole Christendom at all costs.

The topic of the interview was the so-called Outsider Test of Faith (OTF) which aims at pushing Christians to evaluate their religion in the same they critically considered other religions.

As a progressive Christian, I completely agree with that!
Actually, when conservative Evangelicals from the website “AnsweringMuslims.com” point out that the Koran is false because it includes immoral stuff, I evoke worse atrocities in the Bible and tell them with love that they ought to treat Muslims as they themselves would like to be treated by Antitheists. Alas I have never gotten any kind of response from them.

I believe that the Biblical Canon is not MORE inspired than book outside the Canon and when discussing with fundamentalists, I often get answers from folks wanting to prove the Bible by assuming (without any reason) that other parts of the Bible is true.

So progressive Christian do the same experience as non-Christians when dealing with fundamentalists trying to prove their very specific worldview.

That said I believe a valid OTF should mean we are agnostic about every worldview for avoiding biases. I am not sure this is possible to do that while still being able to consider evidence and thinking logically.

Alex agrees with John that Christianity ought to be debunked and dismissed some Christian miracles such as the virgin birth and the empty tomb as nonsensical.
For someone open to the serious investigation of anomalous data, this is strange, to say the least. The empty tomb is a well attested fact accepted by most critical scholars. It is its explanation which is uncertain and heavily depends on worldview commitments.

Alex did not contest any of John’s argument against Christianity (and most of them are actually aimed at Conservative Evangelical Christianity and are very weak against other forms of Christianity) but focused on the problem of materialism and biological determinism.

This is certainly the weakest point in John’s worldview and one he is not well equipped to deal with, since his specialization is in theology, anti-theology, and a bit of philosophical theology.

He was humble enough to recognize this and referred to other naturalism defenders such as Victor Stenger and Keith Pearson. Exposing some fallacies of these authors will be the topic of future posts here…

Alex is a non-Christian theist strongly rejecting materialism and wanting John to defend his own worldview, namely Reductive Materialism (RM) to an outsider like himself.

John is misleading as he said that atheism makes no positive claim at all. This is even worse for Reductive Materialism (RM).

Saying that everything which is real is IDENTICAL to material processes is clearly a positive claim, which not only (given the existence of countless unknown parallel worlds) cannot be reasonably proven but is also probably inconsistent.

John agreed that in one million years (let alone in one trillion years) nothing humans can do matters.

But he emphasized that his actions and his love matter now.

But is John really capable to love, act morally, combat injustices if he thinks at the same time that his love is IDENTICAL to a bunch of molecules, atoms and more elementary particles moving within his brain?

Is that compatible with the way humans over the centuries in the entire world have felt about love?

Would it be not more honest for John to accept the fact that love is an illusion, just a bunch of physical processes leading a self-reproducing chemical system to produce offspring?

John is persuaded that an objective morality exists, and that many stuff described in the Old Testament are wrong (and I partially agree with him about that).

But if everything which is real is identical to particles, and the proposition “Genocide is always wrong” is real, then to what neutrons, atoms, molecules, currents is it IDENTICAL to?

The overwhelming majority of humans would find it absurd to reduce the moral wrongness of an atrocity to a bunch of particles without completely redefining the word.

And when John speaks of making a choice, he is just expressing the fact that his brain molecules are going to push his body to act in a certain way, according to purely physical causes which can be traced back ultimately to the big-bang.

Is that not a striking redefinition of a “free choice”?  How can it be freer than a choice predetermined by God?

John rightly pointed out that fundamentalist and many conservative Christians have a harmful influence on them and others and ought to lose their faith.

I agree and interact a lot with such folks as a blogger. But why should progressive Christians like myself worshiping a God who is perfectly good and loving and rejecting any kind of human dogmas (both outside and inside the Bible) give up their faiths?

And anyone taking a look at my blog, at those of Randal Rauser, James McGrath, the Naked Pastor, Rachel Held Evans, Kimberly Knight and many others won’t fail to see that the antitheistic meme (Liberals and Progressives legitimize fundamentalism) is completely wrong.  We constantly oppose fundamentalism.

John thinks apparently that deism and the belief we live in a very complex computer simulation are not irrational. Great, but if that’s the case, he should view himself as an agnostic rejecting traditional religions.

Considering this whole debate, I regret that Alex did not show slightly more respect to John who was very polite. But I understand it is very hard not getting emotionally involved during such discussions  and I am unfortunately no exception.

I don’t agree with Alex’s final claim that science shows us that consciousness survives death. While sometimes very intriguing, the results of parapsychology and NDE researches are far from being conclusive.

I am much more convinced by philosophical arguments showing that consciousness is not the same thing as material processes studied by science.

Now I am looking forward to receive critical and approving comments!

 

 

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