Thursday, December 16, 2010

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

I received an email from a visitor to my website recently. The young man informed me that he had actually taken the opposite journey that I have in my life. He had been raised in a fairly non-religious home, but in his adult life had come to embrace Calvinism as the truth about God. We agreed to have a back and forth discussion, debate if you will, over this issue. Perhaps we could learn something from each other.

I sent my initial communication and, in due time, he responded with a lengthy discussion about his position. I was immediately struck by some of the language and tone of his thoughts and comments. That familiar flavor of profound distaste, visceral hatred for the "evil" elements in the world peppered his conversation. It demonstrated once again that to define the line between my father's natural inclination toward cruelty and hatred and the support for that way of thinking that comes from Calvinism, is no small challenge.

When I finished reading his material for the first time, I had the thought that I should write back to him and change the direction of our discussion immediately or we would devolve into an ineffective dialog pretty quickly. but then I went back and started reading it again. Soon I was immersed in challenging various arguments and assumptions. Hours later I sent him an extensive response. But there was a niggling doubt tucked in the back of my mind. It wasn't long before he wrote back, irritated that several of my early comments didn't seem to address the specific point he had raised. Fair enough.

I went back and reread his thoughts and my responses again. Soon it occurred to me that I should have acted on my initial instinct to begin with. So I wrote him back and apologized. Well, I'll just let you read my response to him, because it really gets to the point I wanted to make. I have made some changes to the actual content to protect his privacy and clarify my position better:

"...I was thinking about the comments you made in your last email. That several of my responses didn't make sense in context. I apologize. Let me try to explain so we have a better chance going forward.

As I was reading your initial arguments I found myself, again and again, thinking that your position only made sense if certain assumptions were made. From there I narrowed it down to realizing that I couldn't really accept the lions share of your position simply because it was based on the foundational assumption that the Bible is what it claims to be...the inerrant word of the Christian God. Many of the challenges I made encompass that issue. It would probably have been a much better idea for us to address the underlying assumptions first before we got into one interpretation of the Bible versus another.

I know that topic was addressed to some degree in your first salvo, but not nearly to the extent that it needs to be if we're to ever discover a common ground to debate. If you're interested, I would suggest that we address that question first. What evidence do you have that the Bible is the word of God, other then the Bible. Why should we base our notion of eternal consequences on this book?

Let me throw one more thought in here to give you more insight into my position. We hold certain beliefs within us about all sorts of things. The evidence for those beliefs are stronger in some cases and weaker in others. As well, in the context of our lives, the nature of the various beliefs are more important in some instances then others. We will never arrive at absolute certainty about all these various beliefs we hold, but I hold that the more important the belief ie, the more significance that belief has in the choices and actions we make in life, the closer we must come to having empirical justification for holding it. For example, if I believe that aliens are here on earth but don't really change the way I think or live to accommodate that belief, then it's really not that important that I pursue the "truth" of that belief to far. If I believe Bigfoot is possible, whether I can demonstrate it isn't too important since my belief doesn't extend beyond the thoughts in my head.

On the other hand, if I believe that aliens are here and they have certain plans that threaten my life, it is incumbent on me to pursue and settle the objective truth of that belief before I uproot my family and move to a cave in Montana. I'm sure you understand my argument.

Applying that idea to the question of God and theology, I can't make sense of accepting the "truth" of the Bible without overwhelming empirical evidence. After all, these issues tend to color every single aspect of our lives, both temporal and eternal. Especially in the case of my family, and the particular theology that they embrace. The same theology that you embrace.

This quote by Carl Sagen speaks to the heart of this issue: "What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we would like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

The prevailing evidence for God, any God, doesn't even try to reach that threshold. It's not enough to say that certain things can't be known except by faith. It isn't sufficient to raise the Jobian argument that the pot can't question the potter. Especially in light of the fact that so much of the evidence in support of God DOES try to conform to reason and logic. Paul was one of the greatest rhetoriticians (if that's even a word) that ever lived. The very fact that every argument for God ultimately ends with an assertion like Martin Luther's, "My dear Erasmus, your thoughts of God are too human" proves that such a position is ultimately untenable. It begs the argument, if I'm incapable of comprehending God, then so are you.

So what we're left with is nothing more then yours or my "moral certainty" that we just know something is true. And that's fine, so long as we don't try to order our lives around such a weakly supported belief.

Suffice it to say that the more I contemplate these issues, the more certain I am that any dogmatic position in life is ultimately untenable and potentially dangerous. Believe what you will, but the more a belief informs your words and deeds, the more it should be held to the rigors of Sagen's tenet: Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.