Response 3 to
'Theology Achieves Nothing?'
by Paul Hazelden


Introduction

This is the third response to the 'Theology Achieves Nothing?' article, following the 'A Response to 'Theology Achieves Nothing?'' and 'Response 2 to 'Theology Achieves Nothing?'' articles.

This time, I give my reply first, followed by the response I am replying to, as that text is a bit long and hard to follow, especially as the author has used capital letters to make it stand out.

My Reply

I hope you don't mind, but this is beginning to fall into a familiar pattern:

So, for example: you talk about repeating events; I say that events cannot be repeated, and you say that nobody has ever claimed that events can be repeated. It rather sounds like you are agreeing with me, but don't want to admit it!

Since we are now in agreement on this point, can we come back to the point you were trying to make? You said that supernatural events cannot ('by definition') be repeated, while natural events can be repeated. We now agree, I think, that events in themselves cannot be repeated, but a similarity between events can lead us to predict what will happen. So, when I drop a stone, it falls. Each dropping stone is a new event, but we see an underlying similarity.

But, if we are talking about repeating patterns, there is no obvious difference between natural and supernatural events. I gave you a clear counter-example to your claim, which you seem to ignore: every time a person believes in Jesus, they receive eternal life. This is a repeating pattern, just as much as the falling stone is. Because it is a supernatural event, it cannot be measured with a stopwatch or tape measure, but the effects can be seen in the lives of the people who have experienced it, and they can be heard in the testimonies of these people.

You say you are willing to take the evidence of people's lives and words at face value, so why not believe the consistent message of people who tell you that there is a spiritual reality which we can know and experience?

In passing, I would like to point out that the common "I don't believe in God because I have never met Him" is not a rational argument. You have never experienced a black hole, but I imagine you believe in them because you trust others who tell you that they have experienced things which lead them to believe that black holes exist.

To respond to a few more of the points you make...

"IF RELIGIONS WERE UNIVERSALLY TRUE, THEN WE SHOULD ALL HAVE THE SAME RELIGION. BUT RELIGIONS VARY WIDELY IN CONTENT AND ARE FREQUENTLY AT WAR WITH EACH OTHER. THIS IS UNLIKE THE LAWS OF NATURE, WHICH ARE UNIVERSALLY TRUE. NO ONE IS FIGHTING OVER THE LAWS OF NATURE."

I would love to know - what leads you to believe this? Quite honestly, what you are saying seems to be to be so obviously false or nonsensical, it is hard to know where to begin.

"EACH RELIGION HAS ITS ADHERENTS WHO DEFEND THEIR RESPECTIVE RELIGION WITH GREAT FERVOR, BUT WITHOUT OBJECTIVE PROOF. THEREFORE, TO AN OUTSIDER, THEIR CLAIMS CANNOT BE PROVEN OR DISPROVEN AND THUS HAVE AN ESSENTIALLY EQUAL EPISTEMOLOGICAL STATUS. "

Again, you are talking about 'proof'. I have already told you I cannot offer proof.

I have also pointed out that scientists cannot offer proof of their theories. You may wish to disagree with Karl Popper. That is fine - I don't entirely agree with him myself. But if you want to discuss the philosophy of science, it would really help if you knew something of what the main thinkers in that field have already said. Popper may not be the last word, but I think he is a good place to start reading.

I cannot provide proof, but I can provide evidence: evidence in the form of historic records and personal testimony. This sort of evidence is tested in the law court, not in the scientific laboratory. The same principles which work in the courts also work when assessing religious claims. It is entirely feasible to examine the truth claims of the major world religions, and when I did this, I (and many other people) found that the evidence for the Christian faith is significantly different from the evidence for all other 'competing' religions.

My basic question to you is: are you interested in examining the evidence, or will you continue to avoid the evidence because (if I understand you correctly!) absolute proof is impossible, and you have decided that you will settle for nothing less?

To suggest that no religion can be proven, therefore they are all the same ('have an essentially equal epistemological status') seem to me quite breathtaking - although, to be fair to you, I have heard many others say essentially the same thing. I don't know of any other area of human activity in which people would make such an incredible proposition.

"WHY WOULD A JUST GOD ALLOW ONE'S BELIEFS TO DEPEND ON AN ACCIDENT OF BIRTH (THE CULTURE ONE IS BORN INTO), IF THE ONLY WAY TO SALVATION IS THROUGH ONLY ONE OF THEM (I.E. CHRISTIANITY)? "

You are getting into deep theological waters here! If by 'salvation' you mean 'ending up in Heaven', then if you had read enough of my writings, you would know that I argue the true Christian understanding is almost precisely the opposite of what you describe. I have never claimed that the only way to Heaven is by being born into a Christian culture or by explicitly choosing the Christian faith.

And, to turn this point around: there must be precisely one correct (corresponding to reality) set of religious beliefs. For example, there is either some form of continued existence after death, or there is not. Either there is no God, or at least one God. If there is a God, then surely it is at least possible that this God gives people freedom to choose whether or not to believe and follow him / her / it. In which case, you would expect that there would be evidence that is clear enough to follow, to guide the person seeking spiritual truth, but not evidence that is so clear as to remove any other possibility. Which is, I would argue, precisely what we observe.

In other words, what you see as an intellectual obstacle to religious belief (the existence of different religions), I see as being entirely consistent with the truth of the Christian faith.

Finally, and much less importantly... if I understand your argument for why levitation should be considered a supernatural event, then it would follow that 200 years ago, the construction of an internal combustion engine would have to be considered a supernatural event. You seem to be operating with a 'God of the gaps' theology which I do not share. You are also working with a definition of science that I do not share: it is trivially easy to describe physical observations that would lead one to conclude that levitation is taking place. To me, that places the question fairly and squarely within the realm of science.

All the best,

Paul.

The Response

Thanks for your response. I'll try to be brief...

"If you are born in Iran, you are overwhelming likely to be a Shiite Muslim, etc. So it appears the religious persuasion of an individual is largely a cultural inheritance rather than a universal force or truth."

Sorry, but I really don't understand the point you are trying to make here. Do you consider it an argument against the truth of religion in general, or of some religion in particular, when you note that people brought up in a particular religious culture will generally share that religious culture? I don't know what you mean by this "universal force or truth" which you seem keen to attack or deny. Many universal truths have not been universally believed: I don't see what difference that makes.

THE POINT I'M TRYING TO MAKE IS THAT CULTURE USUALLY DETERMINES WHICH RELIGION ONE HAS. THEREFORE, ONE'S RELIGION IS NORMALLY A RESULT OF CULTURE, NOT AN INEVITABLE THING WHICH IS UNIVERSALLY TRUE (LIKE THE LAWS OF NATURE). IF RELIGIONS WERE UNIVERSALLY TRUE, THEN WE SHOULD ALL HAVE THE SAME RELIGION. BUT RELIGIONS VARY WIDELY IN CONTENT AND ARE FREQUENTLY AT WAR WITH EACH OTHER. THIS IS UNLIKE THE LAWS OF NATURE, WHICH ARE UNIVERSALLY TRUE. NO ONE IS FIGHTING OVER THE LAWS OF NATURE. THE VERY PLURALITY OF RELIGIONS IS A TESTAMENT TO THIS. EACH RELIGION HAS ITS ADHERENTS WHO DEFEND THEIR RESPECTIVE RELIGION WITH GREAT FERVOR, BUT WITHOUT OBJECTIVE PROOF. THEREFORE, TO AN OUTSIDER, THEIR CLAIMS CANNOT BE PROVEN OR DISPROVEN AND THUS HAVE AN ESSENTIALLY EQUAL EPISTEMOLOGICAL STATUS.

WHY WOULD A JUST GOD ALLOW ONE'S BELIEFS TO DEPEND ON AN ACCIDENT OF BIRTH (THE CULTURE ONE IS BORN INTO), IF THE ONLY WAY TO SALVATION IS THROUGH ONLY ONE OF THEM (I.E. CHRISTIANITY)? THAT SEEM STRANGE AND UNFAIR. THIS BEING THE CASE, WOULDN'T GOD INSURE THAT CHRISTIAN RELIGIOUS INFORMATION IS RELIABLY AND UNIFORMLY DISTRIBUTED (BOTH IN TIME AND GEOGRAPHY), INDEPENDENT OF CULTURE? BUT IN FACT, WHAT WE SEE IS A VARIETY OF CULTURES, ALL EVOLVING INDEPENDENTLY ACCORDING TO THEIR HISTORIC ANTECEDENTS. THE INDIVIDUAL BORN INTO A CULTURE SIMPLY INHERITS THE RELIGION OF THAT CULTURE. INDEED THOUSANDS OF YEARS PASSED BEFORE CHRISTIANITY AROSE. AND HUGE POPULATION EXISTED, AND PRESENTLY EXIST, WHERE CHRISTIANITY IS UNKOWN OR VIRTUALLY UNKNOWN.

On point 4... You said that supernatural events cannot be tested or replicated. I said that no natural event can be tested or replicated either. It seems straightforward to me. You cannot test an event in the past, and you cannot replicate any event because every event is unique. Apart from anything else, each event takes place at a unique point in the space-time continuum. If I clap my hands twice, I am not repeating one event - there are two events. They may be similar, but similarity is not identity.

I DON'T KNOW OF ANYONE WHO CLAIMS (OR EVER CLAIMED) THAT REPITITION (IN THE SENSE OF IDENTITY YOU REFER TO) IS WHAT IS MEANT BY REPLICATION OF AN EVENT. WHAT IS ALWAYS MEANT IS THAT THE ANTECEDENT CONDITIONS ARE SUFFICIENTLY SIMILAR (TO PREVIOUS EVENTS) THAT WE CAN GENERALIZE ABOUT THE OUTCOME OF AN EXPERIMENT WHENEVER THOSE SUFFICIENTLY SIMILAR CONDITIONS PREVAIL. FOR EXAMPLE, SUPPOSE I CLAIM A PARTICULAR RIFLE AND BULLET COMBINATION CAN (OR CAN'T) PENETRATE A SPECIFIED SHEET OF STEEL. THE CLAIM IS A PREDICTION. BUT THE CLAIM MAY OR MAY NOT BE TRUE. A CONFIRMATION OF THAT CLAIM IS NECESSARY TO ESTABLISH THE TRUTH OF THE CLAIM. THAT CLAIM CAN BE RELIABLY TESTED, EVEN THOUGH NO TWO TEST EVENTS exactly REPEAT. BUT, THE INITIAL CONDITIONS CAN BE MADE SIMILAR ENOUGH THAT A GENERALIZATION CAN BE CONCLUDED THAT THE SPECIFIED BULLETS WILL (OR WON'T ) PENETRATE THE SPECIFIED STEEL. (OR WILL PENETRATE WITH A CERTAIN PROBABLITY) IF THIS SORT OF GENERALIZATION WERE NOT POSSIBLE, THEN THE WHOLE OF EXPERIMENTAL SCIENCE COULD NOT EXIST. BUT OBVIOUSLY IT DOES AND HAS BEEN VERY SUCCESSFUL. THAT'S THE WAY EXPERIMENTAL SCIENCE WORKS AND HAS ALWAYS WORKED.

As I said before, science is not about testing or replicating events - it is about predicting.

BUT IT'S MEANINGLESS TO TALK ABOUT PREDICTION WITHOUT CONFIRMATION OF THE PREDICTION. AND CONFIRMATION REQUIRES REPLICATION. HOW COULD A PREDICTION HAVE ANY VALUE OR MEANING IF IT ISN'T CONFIRMED? BUT TO CONFIRM IT, A REPEATABLE EXPERIMENT IS REQUIRED. AND OF COURSE, I MEAN REPEATABLE IN THE USUAL SENSE USED IN ALL EXPERIMENTAL SCIENCE , OF SUFFICIENTLY SIMILAR CONDITIONS, NOT IN THE SPURIOUS SENSE OF IDENTITY.

To be precise, it is about predicting on the basis of observation. You don't test events, you test hypotheses.

YOU CANNOT TEST A HYPOTHESIS WITHOUT TESTING EVENTS, AGAIN TESTING IN THE SENSE DESCRIBED ABOVE.

If you go along with Karl Popper, you actually seek to falsify hypotheses, and, when you fail in that attempt, you give them the status of provisional truth. It's a good model, even if it doesn't describe what scientists actually do most of the time.

HOW CAN YOU "FALSIFY" A HYPOTHESIS WITHOUT TESTING EVENTS? OF COURSE, THERE ARE CASES OF LOGICAL IMPOSSIBLITY (OR CERTAINTY). A MATHEMATICAL PROOF WOULD BE OF THIS CHARACTER. BUT WE ARE NOT TALKING ABOUT THOSE CASES. WE ARE TALKING SITUATIONS WHERE EXPERIMENTAL CONFIRMATION ( OR FALSIFICATION) IS REQUIRED. IN THIS SETTING, IT'S MEANINGLESS TO SPEAK OF "FALSIFICATION" WITHOUT EXPERIMENTAL EVENTS TESTING. POPPER CERTAINLY USED "FALSIFICATION" IN THE CONTEXT OF REPEATABLE EXPERIMENT TO DISPROVE A HYPOTHESIS. IN OTHER WORDS, FOR A HYPOTHESEIS TO HAVE VALUE, REQUIRES THE POSSIBLITY OF FALSIFICATION (PROVING IT FALSE).

"A supernatural claim, say , claiming I can levitate, calls for verification"

In what sense is levitation a 'supernatural' claim? Even if the claim is that I can levitate through the power of my mind, I see nothing supernatural in this. The claim is about physical objects, and falls completely within the realm of science. You seem to be using the term 'supernatural' in a way that I don't understand, and, hence, cannot adequately reply to.

"Supernatural claims, by their nature, are not repeatable at will. (If they were, they would not be called 'supernatural')"

Is this an attempt to define the term 'supernatural'? I could be pedantic, and point out that many religious people seem capable of repeating many supernatural claims at will, so does that make them science? And is a hole-in-one on the golf course a supernatural event because it cannot be repeated at will?

A HOLE IN ONE IS A WELL UNDERSTOOD EVENT, NOT REQUIRING UNKNOWN PRINCIPLES FOR EXPANATION, NOR VIOLATING KNOWN PRINCIPLES. A HOLE IN ONE IS SIMPLY A LOW PROBABILITY EVENT OPERATING UNDER WELL ESTABLISHED PRINCIPLES. LEVITATION ON THE OTHER HAND, VIOLATES KNOWN PRINCIPLES, AND INVOKES PRINCIPLES NOT IN EVIDENCE, ALL WITHOUT REPEATABLILTY. WE MIGHT BE OPEN MINDED AND ALLOW FOR A FUTURE UNDERSTANDING OR POSSIBILITY OF LEVITATION. BUT THAT STILL (AT PRESENT) LEAVES LEVITATION AT A LOWER EPISTEMOLOGICAL STATUS THAN THE HOLE IN ONE. SO, THE TERM "SUPERNATURAL" WELL APPLIES TO LEVITATION. THAT'S BECAUSE IT LIES OUTSIDE NATURAL EXPLANATION, FOR REASONS OF BOTH PRINCIPLE AND REPEATABLITY. (SO DOES RISING FROM THE DEAD, FOR THE SAME REASONS).

I believe that if a person believes in Jesus, then that person receives eternal life. I believe that this claim is both supernatural and repeatable, and I can introduce you to many people who can testify to the veracity of that claim. Of course, their testimony does not prove it to be true - but then, it is a claim about a supernatural reality. How on earth could it be proved, in a scientific sense?

I apologise if I'm getting this wrong, but it appears that you are making a common mistake. You are talking as if scientific proof is the only thing that matters. But everybody knows that this is nonsense.

I WOULD NEVER CLAIM SCIENTIFIC PROOF IS THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS. FOR EXAMPLE, MUSICAL ESTHETICS CANNOT BE "PROVEN"., BUT MAY BE HIGHLY IMPORTANT TO AN INDIVIDUAL. YET, IT'S ENTIRELY SUBJECTIVE AND VARIES WIDELY AMONG INDIVIDUALS. SOME LIKE "RAP" MUSIC, OTHERS LIKE CLASSICAL. I CANNOT PROVE MY MUSICAL TASTES ARE "BETTER" THAN SOMEONE ELSE'S. ( EVEN THOUGH I STRONGLY FEEL MINE ARE VASTLY SUPERIOR!). OUR INNER SUBJECTIVE LIFE IS OVERWHELMINGLY IMPORTANT TO US. INDEED, IT IS THE ONLY THING WE ULTIMATELY HAVE. BUT IS SHOULD BE RECOGNIZED OUR INDIVIDUAL SUBJECTIVE LIFE IS NOT "PROVABLE" OR CONSISTENTLY SHARED BY OTHERS. WHEN MAKING STRONG ASSERTIONS, WE SHOULD BE CAREFUL TO CONFINE THOSE ASSERTIONS TO THINGS WHICH ARE OBJECTIVELY PROVABLE, NOT PRIVATE SUBJECTIVE PREFERENCES INHERENTLY INCAPABLE OF PROOF AND NOT UNIFORMLY SHARED.

Assuming you are married, it probably matters to you a great deal whether your wife loves you. You cannot prove this scientifically. It probably matters to you whether the people you know respect and trust you. They may say they do, but they can't prove it scientifically. When you come down to the level of human life, nothing that matters can be proved.

THESE THINGS CAN BE PROVED (OR RENDERED PLAUSIBLE AT LEAST) IN MANY WAYS. IF A WIFE GIVES SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE OF LOVE, THEN ONE MAY REASONABLY ASSUME SHE TRULY DOES. THE EVIDENCE IS FAIRLY OBJECTIVE. THE SIGNALS OF LOVE ARE OBVIOUS AND REPEATABLE . THESE ARE OBJECTIVE THINGS, ROUTINELY ADMISSIBLE IN A COURT OF LAW. HOSTILITY LIKEWISE. WITHOUT GOING INTO A SOLIPSISTIC TYPE ARGUMENT, I TAKE THINGS AT FACE VALUE. IF FRIENDS BEHAVE IN A CERTAIN WAY, I CAN RESONABLY ASSUME THEY HAVE A TRULY FRIENDLY DISPOSITION TOWARD ME. OBJECTIVE EVIDENCE IS OPERATIVE HERE. AGAIN EVIDENCE OF FRIENDSHIP (OR HOSTILITY) IS SUFFICIENTLY OBJECTIVE TO BE ADMISSIBLE IN A COURT OF LAW. OF COURSE WE CAN'T GET INSIDE THE MINDS OTHERS AND DIRECTLY ACCESS THEIR INNER CONSCIOUNESS. BUT I WOULD NEVER CLAIM THAT. BUT THE EVIDENCE OF LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP IS OBJECTIVELY MEASURABLE. AND THAT'S ENOUGH FOR ME AND THE COURTS OF LAW.

So, while facts and evidence matter to me, the core of my faith is bound up in statements like this: God loves you. You don't have to agree with Him, or even believe in Him, He will continue to love you. And He wants to have a personal relationship with you.

No, I can't prove to you that God exists. But you can't prove that I exist, and you are talking to me. Real life does not work on the basis of proof - it operates on the basis of faith. You believe your wife loves you. You believe your friends trust you. The faith is itself based on evidence. There is no proof that God exists, but there is plenty of evidence.

Many people who claim to be operating on a scientific basis tell me that they know there is no God, and therefore they can reject the evidence I offer. As I see it, they are operating on the basis of blind faith, while I have examined the evidence, weighed it, and am trying to live in the light of the facts. All the facts, not just the ones I like or find convenient.

Paul.

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