How Do We Know What Is True?

Sun, 1 Jun 2014 | norman

A while ago I spent some time hanging out on a Christian apologist's website. It is strangely compulsive.

Tom Gilson, the guy whose website it is, is a really nice, and very engaging guy. And he's edited, and contributed towards, a book, True Reason, about the rational shortcomings of "New Atheism", and how Christianity fulfils all demands of reason made of it. Or, at least, that's what he said.

I promised him I'd read it.

And I did. At first I kept notes as I read each chapter. But my notes expressed an escalating sense of frustration, and my progress was too slow. So I abandoned that approach, and just annotated it as I read it on my tablet.

But in the end I am going to refer to neither my notes nor my annotations, because the most important mistakes made in the book can be summarised by two things: Firstly, how we know what is true; and secondly, the circular argument in support of miracles.

How do we know what is true?

Number One: Evidence.

Number Two: Logic.

Number Three? There is no Number Three.1

I want to put that on a mug. And a t-shirt. And skywrite it. And tattoo it. It should be in every primary school syllabus in the world.

I am choosing to use the word "logic" instead of "reason" because Tom Gilson, and others who agree with him, often choose to include testimony in their definition of "reason", and I want to avoid that ambiguity. But my definition of "logic" here includes not just logical abstractions like boolean algebra and Venn diagrams but mathematics in general.

Tom might be asking, at this point, "What about witness testimony? Almost everything you know is because someone told you. It is completely unreasonable to prove everything yourself."

Good point there, Tom. But although witness testimony adds credibility to a claim ... it isn't proof.2

Some people allege that many people witnessed supernatural miracles surrounding the martyrdom of a monk, Ichadon, accepting them as proof that the heavens wanted Buddhism to be the national religion of Korea. (Not all Buddhists consider this to be literally true.)

Some people allege that multiple witnesses saw the moon split, accepting it as proof that Muhammed was the true prophet of God. (Not all Muslims consider this to be literally true.)

Some people allege that more than 500 people witnessed Jesus alive after He had been put to death, accepting it as proof that He is divine. (Not all Christians consider this to be literally true. "Really?!" you ask. Indeed. I have met some.)

According to ABC News "a growing number" of people believe they have met extra-terrestrial aliens.

But there is no physical evidence that does not have a simpler explanation than any of these claims.

Daniel Dennett summarises Tom's point nicely in his talk at Atheist Alliance International 2007 about belief and trust. (Full talk part 1 and part 2 here.) Where Tom and Dan disagree is that the Bible is trustworthy. It's not. How do I know that? Because it makes preposterous claims that we are to believe are literally true; most importantly that A Dead Person came back to life.

So that brings us to the second big mistake: The circular reasoning in support of miracles.

Naturalists assert that supernatural miracles are extremely unlikely -- so unlikely that anything else is more likely, and should be taken as the better explanation of any miraculous claim. (Although if you define "miracle" in naturalist terms, like, say "coincidence", then they happen all the time.)

"No, no!" apologists like William Lane Craig counter, if God exists, then miracles are not unlikely. Quite the opposite; they would be expected. And because Christians have it on good authority (their mom and dad, and their pastor) that not only is there a god, but specifically there is Yahweh, Father of the divine, resurrected Jesus, Who loves us and plays an active role in our everyday lives, miracles happen all the time. So the logic goes like this:

  1. The resurrection is true because miracles are likely.
  2. Miracles are likely because we know that Yahweh exists.
  3. We know Yahweh exists because the resurrection is true.

Is there any other unambiguous evidence of the existence of the Christian God? Well, as Dennett flippantly puts it in his AAI 2007 talk, the experts agree: It is a mystery. Christian theologians point out that by "mystery" they mean "we are all too dumb to understand it".

That's not what I would conclude. My conclusion is that supernatural miracles are extremely unlikely -- for practical purposes it is not unreasonable to use the word "impossible". Any evidence used to support the existence of the Christian God ("The universe is proof of His creation"; "All living things are proof of His design"; "Jesus' resurrection is proof of His truth"; etc.) has at least one much better (simpler, more likely) explanation. We do not know that the existence of God, or gods, is true. And we can go further than that. We can conclude that it is so extremely unlikely that we can reasonably use the word "impossible".

  1. Actually, it is a little more complicated than that. "Logic" would correspond to a priori knowledge, and "evidence" to a posteriori (empirical) knowledge. Foundationalism might emphasise evidence more, and coherentism might place more importance on logic. It is argued that we have to make some assumptions. I am happy to assume that experienced reality is the only reality we care about, whether it is the ultimate reality or not; to assume that your and my experiences are based on the same reality; and to assume that most of the time I can trust my senses in a waking, sober state, and that this is one of those times. 

  2. Testimony also needs a little elaboration. Nearly all of what we believe is based on things we are told. There are two competing ideas about this; tend towards trust, or tend towards doubt. C. A. J. Coady, in Testimony: A Philosophical Study, proposes that it is reasonable to trust, as long as the trustworthiness of the source of information has not been compromised. But, certainly, the trustworthiness of the Bible has been cast into doubt at the first mention of a supernatural miracle, let alone the myriad seeming contradictions, regardless of whether they are actually contradictions or not. 

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