Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Responding to Tim Keller's "Making Sense of God" Talk

The other day one of my former pastors who I am still friends with posted the following video of Tim Keller giving a talk at Google to give an overview of his new book "Making Sense of God".  He specifically asked his non-believing friends if we'd like to have a discussion about it.

I obliged, but it ended up being a 1500 word response and I was pretty happy with it, so I've decided to post it here on my blog.

For reference, here's the video.  My response below the fold only covers the main talk, not the Q&A.

We start off with Keller pointing out that strict evidentialism is self defeating, this is fine as far as it goes, but we can agree that some set of beliefs are regarded as basic, some set of axioms we assume in any world view are taken as starting points.  You either start with axioms, circular reasoning, or accept an infinite regress - this is basic epistemology.  This doesn’t mean you can start with just anything, or at least you can’t and not have people think you’re being very ad hoc.

Second, Keller seems to be endorsing a self-defeating definition of “faith” when he says “it takes more faith to believe in humanism than religion”, which implies that faith in itself is a bad thing. Since when does a Christian pastor endorse the notion of faith as “belief without evidence”? If more faith to believe something is bad, then the corollary is that it’s better to believe something that has more evidence for it.

Next Keller makes a rather uninformed assertion that atheism entails materialism (it doesn’t), and that there can be no objective moral values without belief in a supernatural. This, to anyone who has any philosophy classes under their belt, is obviously false. Atheist compatible ethical systems can provide the same kind of objectivity in moral values and duties that theism can provide (platonism, reductionist theories based on objective facts about human nature/biology).

He says that because we are not immortal on atheism that therefore nothing matters, except that doesn’t follow. Just because “mattering” is temporally finite and person relative doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and that we can’t judge the meaning of someone's life as good and bad using one of the aforementioned atheist-compatible moral value systems.

He just said the atheistic view (read: materialist) of the world entails as many contradictions  as any religious faith. This is going to be a doozy.

Keller says that one objection is that people say “there is no one true way to believe”, and he says “how do you know that?”.  Well we can make a number of inductive cases as to why: multiple religions have the same reliance on subjective experience, held with the same convictions. Belief systems of all stripes, including atheism give us groups of people who can live happy, fulfilled lives, and people who go through life depressed and have problems in their life.  Finally, most supernatural belief systems are based on miracles as their evidence, but miracles for nearly every belief system have either stopped for mysterious reasons, or when they claim to be happening, empirical investigation ends up showing a naturalistic cause. That or claims of miracles are of the improbability kind, which can have a natural explanation. Holy books tend to have repeatable incredible miracles that would lack a naturalistic cause.

Keller says we need to have an ultimate perspective to achieve this view, but that’s false. We can evaluate the evidence for multiple religious claims, be they miracles or creation stories, and see they have the same kind of flimsy basis.  If god existed and there was one true way to him, then one religion would have a monopoly on repeatable, verifiable miracles like in biblical times.

We don’t see that, and so the historical method has a methodological naturalism bias, because that’s what we see in our experience now. Suffice it to say, naturalistic explanations have a long history of winning out over supernatural explanations for a variety of phenomena. That’s one reason to reject specific religions.

Kellers response to the problem of evil is basically skeptical theism, the idea that even if we can’t think of a reason for god to allow evil and suffering, that doesn’t mean that god doesn’t have a “morally justifying reason” to permit it.

This fails on two levels. First, just because you can appeal to the broad logical possibility that god may have unknown (to us) reasons for permitting evil and suffering, this has no justification over the other broad logical possibility that god would have unknown (to us) morally justifiable reasons to not permit evil and suffering.

Second, we know that it is logically possible for god to have created a universe with any number of beings who would, like him, always freely choose to to good (assuming freedom of will is itself a good, but perfect being theology entails god doesn’t have free will with morality, but that’s its own issue).  This seems to be a “better” world than one with suffering.  The idea of heaven comes up here as just such a place, and there is no logically necessary reason beings in heaven had to go through a finite suffering experience. Assertions about ancient people not thinking evil was a reason to disbelieve in god is silly, but I’ll avoid that tangent unless you want me to elaborate.

Kellers approach to say that objections based on what the bible teaches is laughable. He invokes cultural relativism, a view he has to reject based on his theology, as a defense to say our objections to biblical morality, biblical atrocities (slavery, genocide), and the concept of eternal conscious torture being abhorrent is “absolutised”.

First, he himself beliefs in an absolute morality, one far more absolute with its own set of problems with its inflexibility, and second if he is a moral realist, and he thinks we all should be moral realists, then this falls flat.  This is because if moral realism is true, then it is either right or wrong to enslave people, or to commit genocide, or to subject beings to eternal conscious torture.

His problems for secularism/atheism:

  1. “The meaning you create for yourself will be too thin to handle suffering”. False. Millions of atheists have lived and died, and have handled as many circumstances as good and bad as any other worldview.  Christopher Hitchens is a modern example, but there are plenty if you care to look for them. Is it any wonder why atheists tend to be humanists, and value ways to alleviate suffering first and foremost?  We handle suffering by working to alleviate it! We do what we can to help people as much as we can, and at least that’s what humanism teaches, and we show mercy when there is nothing to be done when suffering is too great so we support euthanasia.
  2. The idea that we must find our identity by “doing whatever it is we want to do deep inside and assert it out over and against everyone else”.  That’s just a straw man. Has he read the Humanist Manifesto? Community is highlighted there. This comes out to a kind of hedonism, which is compatible with atheism, but is not entailed by atheism.
  3. The idea that freedom is the absence of restrictions on atheism is another strawman. We have the idea of positive and negative freedoms which can be justified without appeals to a god, so I don’t remotely see how he gets there.  Second the concept of freedoms as self limiting is absolutely a fundamental part of most political philosophy. The idea that “your freedom to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose” is a common refrain, that is indeed a positive freedom that can be argued for on the basis of human flourishing.  Acceptance of this very basic, fundamental concept of the philosophy of freedom destroys his straw man that somehow atheistic conceptions of freedom “destroys our love relationships.”

His rational problems are outrageous.

  1. Theism provides no more justification for the idea that there is “something rather than nothing” than atheism or even materialism if you wanted to go that far.  Theists think god has always existed, and atheists generally think that something material (in some form) has always existed and we have some evidence empirically and philosophically to support this.  Christianity, not atheism, believes “something can come from nothing” with the doctrine of “creation ex nihilo”, as if you could build a log cabin without any logs.
  2. Theistic moral obligation systems have no advantages over atheist compatible theories for objective moral obligations.  Keller as a Calvinist likely holds to Modified Divine Command Theory which states that our moral obligations are constituted by the divine commands of a loving god. The problems are two fold:
    1. This assumes a moral obligation exists (ie. the obligation to follow gods commands), it doesn’t explain it.
    2. It violates the is/ought dichotomy by reducing oughts to an is. Most, if not all theories of moral obligation do this, but to say theism can do it and be fine but atheistic meta-ethical theories can’t is special pleading.
  3. The idea that there is a special beauty in Christianity, especially in light of Keller’s Calvinism, is frankly absurd.  I am sorry if this is offensive, but he made the argument and I have the right of response.  What he doesn’t mention is that god created the world knowing it would fall, and that he’d have to create a subset of people, the reprobate, for whom it would have been better to have not been created or to be created as a being with no soul (a bird/dog/etc). God created knowing those people would be condemned to eternal conscious torture, so that the elect could get into heaven and enjoy god.  Despite the fact that it’s logically possible to create only the elect, and so an omnipotent god could have done that.  Yet we are supposed to call this view of Christianity beautiful? That’s insane.