In the discussion thread to my post “Atheism is an Assumption, not a Reasonable Conclusion from the Evidence,” commenter Taggard offered a lengthy criticism of my position. Since my response to his response is also lengthy, I offer it here.
In this writing, Taggard reiterates what I described as the basic error of the atheist: sticking with an initial negative assumption in the face of positive evidence.
I reproduce here the full text of Taggard’s comment. My responses are in bold:
I would like to reply to this article point by point, for the most part, but before I do, I need to lay down some definitions, a basic assumption, and a few statements:
Definitions: Atheist – one who lacks belief in all gods. [AR: This is too thin a definition. The existence of God is too important for a man simply to “lack belief.” For example, if someone told you that there was a bomb, or a check for a million dollars, in your car, you would not be content just to “lack belief.” You would want to have good reasons for acting in whatever way you choose to act. Atheists act as if they are confident that there is no God.] Agnostic – one who does not know for sure if gods exist. Evolution – the process by which living organisms have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth. [AR: As defined by the scientific establishment, “evolution” means that the process was entirely naturalistic.] Abiogenesis – the origin of life.
Assumption: you are looking for a real dialog with an honest, intelligent, truth seeking atheist/skeptic with an open mind and a true willingness to be brought to Jesus/God.
Statement: I am such an atheist.
Statement: Every self-described atheist I have ever met, read or listened to (including Richard Dawkins) allow that God is possible. They also allow that unicorns, dragons, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus are possible. I too allow that God is possible, but I see no compelling evidence to believe that it exists. [AR: Unicorns, dragons, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus are not necessary to explain any phenomena. Money under the pillow and presents under the tree can easily be explained without resort to fairies or portly men in red suits. Unicorns and dragons are extrapolations of creatures that do exist. God is not like either of these phenomena because, for example, the origin of consciousness cannot easily be explained on purely material grounds, and God is not like anything with which we have ordinary experience. Likening belief in God to belief in these other things is fundamentally invalid.
To the article:
Part I: The Origin of the Universe
Summary: You present the Kalam Cosmological Argument, with all of its flaws.
There is overwhelming scientific and philosophical evidence that the physical cosmos (hereafter “cosmos”) has not existed eternally. Therefore there was a time (or perhaps we should speak more generally and say “a domain”) in which there was no cosmos: no matter, energy, space or even time.
Saying there is “overwhelming” evidence does not make it so. See B-theory of time (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B-theory_of_time). It is quite possible the cosmos has always been here.
[AR: The article you reference has to do with the philosophical understanding of time, not with material reality as science studies it. In effect, the B-theory of time defines out of existence the distinction between past, present and future, but defining does not make it so. On any ordinary interpretation of “time,” scientific evidence goes against any steady-state theory, and in favor of the cosmos having a finite age.]
Since the cosmos obviously does exist now, it seems obvious that some entity other than the cosmos must have caused it to come into existence. The only alternative is that sheer nothingness somehow “caused” the cosmos, an obvious impossibility.
Whenever you use the word “obvious” it makes me ask “obvious to whom?”. If we take for granted that we do exist, it certainly doesn’t seem obvious to me that “some entity” caused it to come into existence. And I can think of a number of alternatives to your “sheer nothingness”, but none of them matter, for there is no evidence to suggest them, so they are just as logical as saying God did it. And since it is possible that the cosmos has always existed, it doesn’t need an alternative.
[AR: You cling to the bare possibility of no beginning of the cosmos, or of there being no cause. In some sense, yes, these bare possibilities exist. But they go against all common sense and against all concrete knowledge gained by science.]
The typical atheist responds to all this by asserting that we do not know what caused the cosmos, therefore atheism (or at least agnosticism) is the preferred position.
Agnosticism (as defined above as simply not knowing anything for certain) is the default position of humanity. We can never know anything for sure. [AR: Saying “we can never know anything for sure” is an evasion. For one thing, it is literally false, because the statement falsifies itself. More to the point, there is a true state of affairs, and clues and evidence that point to it, and the wise man draws the conclusion to which the evidence points rather than retreating into dogmatic ignorance.] Atheism is the default position for belief when it comes to gods. The default position is not believing and a skeptic takes the default position on all questions of belief. If you ask me if there is life on Mars, I would have to take the default position, which is to doubt the existence of everything until there is sufficient evidence to believe in it. I don’t just assume there is no life on Mars, I assume there is no life anywhere except the places for which I have sufficient evidence to believe it exists. In fact, I assume that nothing exists, and only believe in anything when there is sufficient evidence. This is the essence of skepticism.
[In the case of Martian life we have reasons for not believing: A hostile environment, the lack of evidence from many space probes sent to Mars, etc. Furthermore, Martian life is not necessary in order to explain any important features of reality. The existence of God is dissimilar, for there is evidence that He exists and his existence is necessary to account for some of the features of reality, such as the existence of moral, logical and mathematical laws rather than chaos, and the origin of life when purely physical processes never generate the order and information that is necessary for life.]
Here’s the basic problem with that: If someone really doesn’t know what caused the cosmos, then the cause could be anything. That’s what “I don’t know” means. Therefore if the skeptic is serious in his claim, he cannot rule out the possibility of God. If the cause is unknown, it could have been God. After all, the cause would have to exist outside of matter, energy, space and time, and would have be unimaginably powerful if not omnipotent, and either unimaginably lucky or else unimaginably wise. It would have to have these attributes. And these are some of the primary attributes of the God of the Bible, the one true and living God.
I have never met an atheist who ruled out the possibility of God. I have heard they exist, but, by and large, they are a straw man created by Christian apologists to talk about in articles such as this. I am not sure why “the cause” (if indeed one was needed) would have to be unimaginably powerful (the final straw isn’t particularly heavy, but it breaks the camel’s back), nor do I see why it would need to be either lucky or wise (and the God of the Bible seems to be neither of those, creating a people he needed to wipe out, and then sacrifice himself to himself in order to forgive). [AR: Dogmatic atheists effectively rule God out by requiring an impossibly high standard of proof.]
Therefore the honest skeptic would have to say, “Yes, it could be God, but I prefer not to believe that.”
This is close. The honest skeptic says, “Yes, it could be God, but there is no evidence to suggest it was.” The burden of proof is on you to prove it was God. Until you do, it makes no sense for me to believe it was. It could have been God, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the final straw, or nothing at all. I lack belief in all of it until there is evidence.
[AR: Whether there is “evidence for God” depends on your standard of evidence. By a sufficiently high standard, there is no evidence for anything. Simply claiming that there is no evidence is a hollow claim. You must identify your standard, and give some indication of why it is a good standard.]
Part II: Evolution
Summary: You confuse Evolution with Abiogenesis, and make some logically questionable statements.
Atheistic scientists and their fans claim that Darwinian, fully atheistic evolution (or, as they call it, “evolution”) is an established fact. But they also admit that science has not established the exact processes and sequence of events by which this atheistic evolution occurred.
Evolution is established fact. DNA, fossils, and experimental science have proven conclusively that life evolved. The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is the best (and only) peer-reviewed scientific theory to explain just how (and why) life has evolved the way it has. What science has not established is how life began from non-living material.
[AR: You seem not to be aware that “evolution” could mean either that life changed, with no specification of how that change occurred, or else that the changes were entirely naturalistic, that is, caused by non-intelligent factors. (Making, of course, an exception for the small number of changes made in recent millennia by humans breeding animals.) To claim that evolution in the second sense is an established fact is question-begging.]
[The word “evolution” has a wide range of meanings. We focus on the meaning used by apologists for atheism: That life developed by completely naturalistic processes.]
I have never heard any apologist for atheism use this definition of evolution. What you have defined, I suppose, is the atheist’s (or just plain scientist’s) Theory of Abiogenesis. Darwin certainly has nothing to do with the origins of life.
[AR: It is strange that you should say this, because the apologists for evolution (in the mainstream sense) all say that any sort of divine or supernatural intervention is automatically outside the pale, regardless of any apparent evidence to support it.]
Question: If you don’t know how it occurred, how do you know that it occurred? The obvious answer: You don’t.
Really? I honestly think if you re-read this and think about it for a bit you will realize that this just doesn’t make any sense. If leave my house and find a piece of paper on my doorstep, I may not know how it got there, but I know it got there. You, yourself, use this logic in Part I of your article. The cosmos exists, therefore, you say, it must have come to exist. You don’t know how that happened, but you know it happened.
[AR: I Thought that my meaning was clear: If you do not know how it happened entirely by material, non-intelligent forces, how do you know that it was entirely a material and non-intelligent process? Since scientists did not observe the origin of life, nor most of its development, they can only assume that it occurred by a non-intelligent and non-supernatural way.]
Much like the origins of the cosmos, the origins of life are still a mystery. Yet, there is still no evidence of anything outside of nature causing either. Until there is some evidence that God (or FSM or Santa) did it, a skeptic will not believe it. [AR: No evidence on your definition of “evidence.” But your definition is faulty.]
The atheistic scientists and their fans are assuming (not proving) that God could not have had anything to do with the development of life. This being so, something like atheistic Darwinian evolution is the only possibility: With no God to intervene, the only possible scenario is a vast series of tiny random changes leading, luckily, to ourselves.
Here you demonstrate a basic misunderstanding of both atheism and science. Scientists don’t just assume that God could not have anything to do with evolution, they assume that EVERYTHING could not have anything to do with evolution. They assume that Natural Selection could not have anything to do with evolution and proceed to develop experiments to provide evidence that it does. When they find a repeatable experiment that provides evidence, they share that experiment and results with other scientists and others perform the same experiments and share the results. When enough scientists agree that the evidence produced is conclusive, a model (or theory) is developed and then, and only then, do people stop assuming. God (and FSM and Santa) are just part of the things that are assumed to have no effect on anything. If you want skeptics to believe that they did, you will need to do some peer-reviewed science. [AR: I do know something of science, having earned a degree in one of the physical sciences from a major university. My point is that if the God of the Bible does exist, then science cannot have confidence that its explanation is the only possible one.]
Therefore the concept of Darwinian atheistic evolution has literally zero force as evidence against God. It is nothing more than the only possibility that survives the assumption of no God.
Darwinian atheistic evolution, and every peer-reviewed scientific theory, has literally zero force as evidence against God. Science is not interested in evidence against the existence of anything. You can’t (with science) prove something doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t try. I am not sure where you got the idea that Darwin (or any evolutionary biologist) wanted to disprove God.
[AR: Many anti-theists offer Darwinian evolution as evidence against God. And since Darwinian evolutionary theory says that the Bible is wrong about the origin of man, evolution in the mainstream sense is against Christianity.]
What more can you have than the only possibility that survives the default position (which is the assumption of no God, no FSM, no Natural Selection, no Santa, no anything)? Science is what is left after you have proven things exist when you start off assuming they don’t.
Part III: Evidence about the Life of Christ
Summary: You shift the burden of evidence.
The Bible, and a few other ancient books, gives testimony about Jesus. Atheists respond that these are just stories invented by the authors in order to spread a doctrine. Christians respond by pointing out various ways to argue that the biblical testimony is trustworthy.
I am not a historicity of Jesus expert, but I have read a number of webpages. What I have found is that there is exactly one historically trustworthy non-scripture mention of Jesus, in Josephus, and it is this: “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”. That’s it. And even this was written 30 years after the supposed crucifixion.
Nothing about riding into Jerusalem, nothing about the crucifixion and resurrection. Nothing.
[AR: This relative lack proves nothing. Non-Christians would probably have regarded Jesus as of little importance, not meriting any mention. And there is the fact that most ancient documents have been lost.]
Question: How do the atheists know that the biblical accounts are not accurate? Do they have independent evidence from the First Century which proves that Jesus of Nazareth was just a man, or even nonexistent? No, they do not. There are a few ancient sources claiming that Jesus was just a man, but these are hardly decisive.
Atheists know that the biblical accounts are contradictory (see http://www.errancy.com/on-how-many-donkeys-did-jesus-ride-into-jerusalem/ and http://i.imgur.com/CBTiKeh.png), so therefore are at least unreliable.
[AR: At the very least, these accounts are not necessarily contradictory. It depends on how you interpret them. A hostile interpretation is not necessarily the correct one. You are also ignoring the strong evidence that the accounts are accurate, for example the presence of “undesigned coincidences” and the accurate depiction of even minute details of First-Century life.]
What kind of evidence would prove that Jesus did not exist? Lack of evidence is the best and only evidence of nonexistence. There are exactly zero contemporary mentions of Jesus. [AR: “Contemporary” meaning between 1 AD and 33 AD?] Not even mentions of him as “just a man”. Nothing. [AR: You ignore the massive written evidence for Christ. For you, this evidence does not count because it was written by Christians. Two can play this game: Your arguments don’t count because you are a non-Christian. Now we’re even.]
All the atheists have is the assumption that Jesus as described in the Bible could never have existed. Under this assumption, they feel justified in rejecting all the arguments supporting the accuracy of the biblical accounts. Assuming atheism at the start, they arrive at the conclusion that the Jesus of Christianity is a myth. But that’s circular reasoning.
A skeptic starts off not believing. You call this lack of belief the “assumption that Jesus as described in the Bible could never have existed”. Again, this assumption is the same assumption that Santa Claus does not exist, the assumption that there is no life on Mars, and the general assumption that things for which there is no evidence of existence do not exist. [AR: This is foolishness of the highest order. There is evidence aplenty, but you attempt to define it out of existence, and continue to make the totally invalid analogy to Santa Claus and life on Mars.]
This is not circular reasoning, it is skepticism. Assume nothing exists. Collect evidence. Assume all things for which there is no evidence of existence do not exist, believe in the things for which there is convincing evidence. [AR: You define evidence to suit your preferred conclusions.]
Part IV: *
Summary: More shifting of the burden of evidence.
If you assume no God, or that knowledge of God is impossible, you get a system in which there is no God. A system in which you can discount all the evidence for Christianity. But it’s all based on a negative assumption. And there is no reason to assume the negative.
The problem with this thesis is that all skeptics would adjust their system to include God if there was evidence for God. [AR: See above. Evidence for Christianity is discounted because it does not meet scientific rigor, not because of some fallacious assumptions. [AR: As you admit, science does not deal with the supernatural. Nor does it deal directly with the historical, which consists of one-time-only events. Therefore “not meeting scientific rigor” is irrelevant.] There is no negative assumption, other than the assumption that things for which there is no evidence of existence do not exist. There is every reason to assume that, as assuming that things exist for which there is no evidence is, at the very least, non-scientific.
Most atheists won’t acknowledge that they are reasoning in a circle. They try to cover it up with various distractions. They will say that they actually do look to the evidence, but find it to be invalid. But they judge it to be invalid because they are assuming that God is impossible, and if he is impossible then any evidence that seems to point to him would have to be invalid.
God is not impossible. I would love for there to be a God. Give me your evidence! Let us put it to peer-review! [AR: There is little point in me showing you more evidence until you change your fundamental way of thinking about reality. At present, your basic beliefs invalidly block any belief in God and Christianity.]
When the sophisticated-sounding excuses are removed, it really is that simple. They choose to begin with unbelief.
Of course they do. What else would make sense? Is the belief in God the only thing they should start with? Should they start with a belief in the FSM, Santa, and life on Mars as well? If God is the only thing, why? [AR: Beginning with unbelief is one thing. Sticking with it in the face of strong evidence to the contrary is entirely different.]
But man is not omniscient. He cannot assume “no” as his answer. He must look to the evidence, not try to deny its fundamental validity.
Man, far from being omniscient, knows nothing for certain. The only thing we can do is assume “no” and then collect the evidence for “yes”. [AR: Is this a general principle of epistemology?] The evidence leads us to what exists. No evidence, no belief.