Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
Does God exist? Part 3

Continued from part 2 « Click here for Angels Depart’s third statement; below is my response— Erratum; August 2, 2007: thank you Jim for pointing out that I incorrectly cited the covenant conditions relating to Judges 1. These are not from Leviticus 7, but Deuteronomy 7. As with my previous statement, Angels, I am going […]

Continued from part 2 «

Click here for Angels Depart’s third statement; below is my response—


Erratum; August 2, 2007: thank you Jim for pointing out that I incorrectly cited the covenant conditions relating to Judges 1. These are not from Leviticus 7, but Deuteronomy 7.

As with my previous statement, Angels, I am going to respond only to some of the items you address. Again, this is not with the intent to avoid other important issues, but rather to focus on those which seem most central to the moot of the debate.

Firstly, thank you for clarifying your position regarding the burden of proof, and the claims of your own worldview. Your posts as I have read them seem to evidence a decidedly atheistic bent—and, given that the moot itself places you in the negative position regarding Does God exist? I inferred you to be taking a genuinely atheistic, rather than agnostic stance. If you are affirming agnosticism, at least in principle, a better moot would seem to be Can we know God exists? Nonetheless, since by answering that question in the affirmative I will also affirm this debate’s moot, I am happy to continue.

Secondly, I will briefly engage with the alleged contradictions you cite. Now, I said I would engage with just two, for the sake of brevity, and you have cited four (the negative positions of which are alleged to be Judges 1:19, Mark 6:5, Hebrews 6:18, and 1 Peter 5:8). I will engage with the first, and the third, so as to demonstrate the manner in which a lack of understanding severely cripples one’s ability to say anything about Scripture. This should provide adequate precedent to allow the second example of Mark 6:5 to be given the benefit of the doubt and thus suspended. Your fourth example (1 Pet 5:8) indicates no apparent contradiction at all, since 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, which you list in contradiction to it, do not state which angels were imprisoned; Satan’s particular status could easily set him apart from them by mere implication anyway; and certainly we see Jesus casting out many unclean spirits during his ministry, so obviously they were not all imprisoned. There is good reason to think that the verses you cite are referring to an extra-biblical tradition about the Nephilim of Genesis 6, but even if not, no contradiction exists. So—

1. Is God all powerful?

Yes he is—but we must clarify what this means. For God to be all-powerful does not imply that he can do the logically impossible. For example, a popular question posed to Christians is, can God create a rock so heavy that he could not lift it? Or some iteration on that theme. Of course, the question is a contradiction in terms. It presupposes a being who can lift anything, and then asks about something he cannot lift. But if he can lift anything then obviously the question is incoherent. Though grammatically we can parse it, and semantically it seems to make sense, when broken into its logical components it is actually meaningless. It cannot be answered any more than the question can God create an uncreated being? By definition, an uncreated being cannot be created.

So omnipotence does not imply the ability to do logically absurd things, like creating uncreated beings, or imagining square circles. These things are meaningless in the most literal sense. Reason and logic are intrinsic elements of God’s nature—and he cannot be who he is not. It is not an imperfection on his part that he cannot be imperfect.

Similarly, to say that God cannot be all-powerful because it is impossible for him to lie (Heb 6:18) is to make an absurd statement. Since God is truth (John 14:6; 1 John 5:6), and he cannot contravene his own nature (otherwise he could not be God), it is absurd to suppose that he can lie. If he could lie, he would not be God. It does not make him less than omnipotent, unless you misunderstand what omnipotence means. This is why I said that contradictions appear to arise when one has insufficient knowledge to be evaluating Scripture.

The same is true of Judges 1:19. All emphases in the passages below are mine.

And the LORD was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.

Notice that it does not say that God could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain; it says Judah could not. The sentence is comprised of two parts: first, “the LORD was with Judah, and he [Judah] took possession of the hill country”; second, “but he [Judah] could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.” Is the LORD with Judah in the second part of the sentence? Obviously not; certainly Scripture details any number of other occasions where God causes his people to prevail in battle against apparently insurmountable odds—including the previous half of this very sentence—so it is hardly sensible to suppose that he could not do the same here. Rather, God was not with Judah in the battle against the inhabitants of the plain. If, instead of reading a single verse and taking it at a dubious “face value”, you continued on so as to understand the context of the passage, you could discover that an explanation is forthcoming at the very beginning of the very next chapter—

Now the angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” (Judges 2:1-3).

Here, the angel of the LORD is referring back to the covenant conditions of Leviticus Deuteronomy 7:1-2,12,16:

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than yourselves, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.

And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the LORD your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers […] And you shall consume all the peoples that the LORD your God will give over to you. Your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.

But what do the Israelites, and specifically the people of Judah, do in Judges 1?

And the descendants of the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up with the people of Judah from the city of palms into the wilderness of Judah, which lies in the Negeb near Arad, and they went and settled with the people […] Judah also captured Gaza with its territory, and Ashkelon with its territory, and Ekron with its territory (Judges 1:16,18).

Do the people of Judah devote their enemies to complete destruction? No! Judges 1 makes a point of mentioning this. They settle with them, and capture them, keeping them alive and even mingling among them, in total contravention to God’s command. God’s previous promise that they would have success was conditional upon them obeying his commandments; and so when they start to disobey, he revokes the promise. And, in order to make this as obvious as possible, the failure of the people of Judah to take the plains is directly preceded by their disobedience—in the very verse before!

Your assumption of a contradiction here is caused by a failure to understand the overall context of the story, which results in a failure to correctly identify the causality of the people’s defeat. God generally uses normal means to accomplish his purposes—in this case, he prevented the people of Judah from taking the plains by means of the iron chariots of its inhabitants. Would they have prevailed against the chariots if they had obeyed God? Of course they would have. God, being all-powerful, was in absolute control of the situation and could direct it as he pleased.

Rather than give the text the benefit of the doubt, as an impartial scholar would; and rather than investigate the story further for explanations, as an impartial scholar would; and rather than ensure that you understand the covenantal context within which the story is placed, as an impartial scholar would—you instead assume that you know more about what is going on than the author, read a few verses, focus on a single one which appears to you (in your complete ignorance of what is going on, and without even a critical consideration of the structure of the sentence), to be contradictory to the attributes of God, and then declare that the Bible contains contradictions. I hope I have made it evident how ridiculous this is.

Now, thirdly, some cites on the accuracy of oral tradition, and the dating of the original New Testament documents (even Wikipedia agrees, with the possible exception of James). However, as I mentioned before, I am making most of my comments regarding canon based on the highly regarded book, The Canon of Scripture, written by F F Bruce. Bruce is a noted and respected historian; which, I would caution you, cannot be said of people like Acharya S and Elaine Pagels, whose works, though publicly prejudiced, speculative, and well-refuted, you nonetheless seem to be referencing.

Fourthly, I would like to briefly dispense with the argument from atrocities. For the record, I am assuming the definition of atrocity as an atrocious act; one which is “extremely […] brutal or cruel; appalling, horrifying; utterly revolting” (Merriam-Webster Online, atrocious). This definition appeals to the visceral response which most people would have. I use this definition so as to avoid the difficulties inherent to ethical judgments, so as to ensure that we have a common ground from which to work. From an ethical standpoint it should go without saying that I deny that the Bible approves atrocities whatsoever.

Now, I have already stated that the Bible contains no examples, out of the above-defined sorts of atrocities, which can be extrapolated from specific, historical events into general principles for all time; but rather that it mandates, in the absence of such general commands, the principle: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44).

You cite Numbers 31:16-18 in support of your case that the Bible approves atrocities in general—but the events therein are in fact an example of specific, historical commands. They, like all other examples in Scripture, give us no leave to treat them as if they contain a general principle to be applied outside of the direct circumstances in which they occurred. Furthermore, even if they did give us such leave, and even if other scriptural teaching such as Matthew 5 did not militate against, you would still need to demonstrate that the generalization does not commit the fallacy of induction.

That said, your argument from atrocity does not rest upon the soundness of these generalizations. Rather, it seems to be agnostic to the general application of biblical teaching by Christians, and is directed instead toward the examples in Scripture itself. You succinctly state that, “if the god of the Bible is real and did allow these atrocities then he is not worthy of being served”—which, you say, would be in direct contradiction to the biblical teaching that he is worthy, and thus prove the falsehood of Scripture. Let me agree with you that a single contradiction in Scripture is sufficient to prove Christianity false; and let me also do you the service of justifying your assertion that the Bible teaches that God is worthy of our service. This is a fact upon which the entire law, and thus the entire gospel, rests—see Exodus 20, and also Revelation 4:11.

I interpret your argument, in referring to “these atrocities”, as referring not only or necessarily to events such as the Crusades, but also to those described in your selected passage of Numbers 31, and others. Obviously, these events were not merely allowed by God, but commanded by him. Therefore, we can certainly say that the condition upon which your premise rests is amply met: God has allowed, and even at times commanded atrocities.

However, the consequent assertion of your argument is that God is therefore not worthy of being served. This seems to be a confused statement. It is asserted in order to establish a contradiction within Scripture, but is not itself justified from Scripture. That is to say, your argument is couched as an internal critique of the biblical worldview; something like this—

  1. The Bible states that God is worthy of being served (from Ex 20, etc).
  2. If God commands atrocities, then he is not worthy of being served.
  3. God commands atrocities (from Num 31, etc).
  4. Therefore, he is not worthy of being served (from #2).
  5. Therefore, the Bible is false (from #1 and #4).

There is an obvious omission in the logic above: that is, the justification for premise #2. You have not cited any, and there is no scriptural basis for it. After all, these atrocities were commanded by God either to preclude the possibility of the Israelites turning aside and violating the commandment to serve him (in the case of their destroying other peoples), or to punish them when they did (such as in the case of your Numbers 31 passage). We may reasonably infer that a physical destruction is a foreshadowing of the eternal destruction for which all those who do not serve God are devoted, as described frequently throughout the Bible—for example, in the first half of Revelation 21. Since the Bible approves that those who do not serve God be punished with eternal torment, destruction, and death; we can argue a fortiori that it must equally approve a lesser, temporal torment, destruction, and death visited upon the same people.

This is certainly confirmed repeatedly by Scripture. Consider, for example, that God himself, in Exodus 7-12, strikes Egypt with plagues culminating in the death of all its first-born males, as a judgment upon the nation, through Pharaoh (who was hardened by God so that this would happen). Or consider his judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. Or how, in 2 Samuel 24, he incites David to number the people, so as to punish him for doing this—and then how this punishment involves the deaths of 70,000 men. Or simply glance through Deuteronomy to see all the sins which warranted death, so as to purge the evil from Israel.

So it is quite evident that premise #2 of your argument is not a biblical one: God is definitely not unworthy of service though he commands what we have defined as atrocities. Therefore, this premise cannot be used to internally critique the biblical worldview. You have imported it from your own worldview, which has no bearing on Christianity. Now, if your worldview is true, then Christianity is false in any case, so your argument from atrocity is superfluous. But if your worldview is false, then premise #2 is fallacious and your argument fails. Therefore, we should really move directly now to examine your own worldview. So—

If we can prove that something happens again and again over multiple trials then we can make strong assumptions about the possibility that it will continue to happen under those same circumstances.

This is where we will start. I would like to challenge your supposition that proving something again and again over multiple trials gives us any greater ability to make assumptions about the possibility of it happening in future, given the same circumstances. Later on, I would also like to challenge your supposition that you can prove anything at all. I will cover the former item now.

What you seem to be saying, as regards repeated experimentation, is that you are trying ensure that the results are consistent. Where results are similar, I assume you would also average them so as to increase the likelihood of accuracy. Those results which seem too dissimilar, of course, are discarded. This is effectively attempting to minimize the probability of error by increasing the number of instances of confirmation. I presume I am correct in stating your position this way.

The problem you have is that probability is measured by dividing the number of actual situations of something by the number of possible situations. Since it would require universal knowledge to discover the number of possible situations of any given event, the idea of increasing probability in this manner is plainly absurd. The probability is simply unknowable, and always will be. That is, if the numerator is unknown, the probability of accuracy (and thus of error) is unknown, since the equation cannot be completed. (If you assume an infinite number of possible situations, then the probability is a finite number divided by infinity, which is zero—even worse!)

In other words, the accuracy of any scientific experiment is completely unknowable, and thus will never increase even if you were to run experiments until the proverbial cows returned. And if you don’t know, you don’t know, and so whatever theory you may formulate based on your experiment is no better than speculation. Therefore, performing repeated experiments is self-evidently pointless from a logical point of view, since you can have no idea whether this is helpful or not. Yet, you still act as if you can know. Even though this is just an irrational pandering to your intuitive sense of what makes something likely, you do it anyway, don’t you? It has nothing at all to do with actual probability, or with reality as you understand it (it has a lot to do with reality as I understand it), or with rationality. So why do it?

Moreover, if your experiment yields a certain result, but then whenever it is conducted in the future it yields a different result, you discard the initial result as an error. Indeed, any outlying results are ignored, and only “consistent” ones are collected and averaged. This is supposed to increase certainty and accuracy, as discussed above. But how do you determine when a result is aberrant and when it is not? Since any repetition of the same experiment will yield different results each time, if only because your own observation is limited to a certain margin of error, you can never obtain a perfect result. In fact, you don’t even know that there is such thing as a “perfect” result. All results are in error to some degree. How you determine the degree of error which is acceptable is really quite arbitrary. You may think that it’s reasonable to discard results which show a discrepancy larger than the margin of error you have calculated for your equipment; but then you are still accepting that there is error present, so any theory you derive from the results does not reflect reality as it actually is.

In fact, your theory is a result of a mathematical set of averages. For example, if you are determining the speed of sound at sea level, you may measure four times (I will say four for the sake of simplicity, but really it would be more than that), and get the results 340.33, 340.28, 340.27, and 340.28 again. However, you will not take any of these measurements to be the speed of sound—instead, you will average them by determining their mean, and get 340.29 meters per second. Now, this result never appeared in your observations at all, and yet you would claim that it is the speed of sound instead of one of the results you did obtain? Furthermore, if you are going to average your results, why not choose the mode, 340.28, instead of the mean—at least that way you would be using an actual experimentally observed number!

Using this very simple example, we can see that scientific “facts” are not actually data imposed upon the scientist by reality, but rather mathematical models imposed upon reality by the scientist. The decision to average the results was not arrived at empirically. It was not dictated or even suggested by the empirical measurements taken. On the contrary, rather than being a finding at all, it is a formulation, ultimately determined by aesthetic philosophical notions, rather than empirical observation. In this sense, science is actually not empirical at all, and never could be.

A good example which may help to clarify this issue is the equation used to describe the motion of a pendulum, which says that the period of its swing is proportional to the square root of its length. Now, this equation assumes that the pendulum’s weight is a point (ie, infinitely small); that its string is tensionless; and that there is no friction on its axis. Such a pendulum never existed, and never could exist. Therefore, this law is not empirical, for it does not describe actual things—rather, it describes some imaginary “perfect” pendulum which has been invented as a non-empirical, non-physical philosophical idea. Physical pendulums, bizarre as it may seem, do not actually obey the laws of physics.

There is more to be said, though. When you perform your experiments so as to get results which you will average into a non-empirical, mathematical model which you call a “law” (which the universe nonetheless doesn’t actually follow), you face an even bigger problem. Consider that, on top of averaging the results, you also choose which ones you will average at all. How do you decide? Well, you assume that consistent results are to be expected! After all, it’s not reasonable for you to ignore results which are outside your arbitrary margin of error if you don’t presuppose that your results will be consistent in the first place. That is, you assume that if you had perfect observational abilities, you would always get precisely the same result.

But what justification do you have to assume that it is the aberrant results which are in error? What if all the other experiments were in error instead? Certainly it seems unlikely; your assumption seems reasonable; but I have already shown that intuition is totally useless for determining things like what is probable and rational, given a (so-called) empirical worldview. Indeed, how would probability even be determined in this instance without making a whole host of other unjustified, non-empirical assumptions? For example, why do you assume that only one of the results can be correct? Why do you not instead assume that, at that one particular point in time, the experiment yielded a different result, making the whole question of probability moot?

This gets down to probably the most fundamental principle in science: that of the uniformity of nature. You assume that the future will resemble the past, and that an experiment conducted in one location will yield the same result when conducted in another. Again, to prove the irrationality of science which you hold in such high regard, I need only ask: why? Uniformity must be true if any scientific theory is to be even considered plausible, because it is implicitly assumed by the scientific method upon which all theories are based; and yet it commits a basic logical fallacy. There is simply no reason, no justification, for the assumption of the uniformity of nature within your own worldview (when we look at the vastness of the universe, and its supposed age, really it doesn’t even make any kind of necessary intuitive sense). It is also obviously another non-empirical assumption.

Now, you may say that we can expect the future to resemble the past because that is what we have always observed to date. You may agree that it’s hypothetically possible that the future could suddenly be different—realistically, as far as you know, the laws of nature might radically alter at any instant, since there is no consistent and orderly God upholding them from one moment to the next. But, I imagine you would argue that this is very unlikely, because it has never happened before. You seem to have implied as much in your last statement.

But this is just the same fallacy again: probability isn’t measured this way. In fact, it is again unknowable as to whether the future will resemble the past! If the only way for you to justify the assumption of uniformity is to argue for it on the strength of its historically always having been so, then you are sunk, because this reasoning is openly fallacious by merit of its circularity—after all, the inference is only justified if you are already assuming that the future must be like the past!

But to even posit this much, you must first assume that your memory of the past is accurate, which again is an assumption justified only by your presupposition of the fact, and so constitutes (at best) question-begging. So not only can you not know that the future will be like the past; you cannot even know that the past has been like the past! Thus, the presuppositions which you hold as most fundamental to much of your knowledge-acquisition process are not only irrational, but obviously irrational. If you were to pursue the truly rational course, your worldview would immediately devolve into skepticism.

I am going to draw my statement to a close here. I have established a sufficient foundation now to present my final, complete refutation to your worldview in my next statement. I believe that statement 4 will be the last before our conclusions? Please correct me if you would like a different format. I am happy to accommodate you within reason, but I don’t want this debate to become too protracted.

To conclude then, I have so far shown firstly that the contradictions you allege to exist in Scripture are not what you claim, but appear that way only given ignorance of the text and prejudice against the normal method of textual criticism. In showing this, I have also established a precedent wherein to evaluate other supposed contradictions—that is, that any apparent incongruity is more likely to be caused by similar defects in your own analysis than by genuine errors in the text.

Secondly, I have shown that scientific theories do not describe reality as it actually is, and never can; that they are not actually empirical at all; and that they are founded upon assumptions which are rationally unjustified. Attempts to justify them result only in circular reasoning and other logical fallacies. The form of reasoning in the scientific method itself can be essentially represented as follows:

  1. This object is spherical.
  2. Billiard balls are spherical.
  3. Therefore, this object is a billiard ball.

Thus, since the assumptions underlying all scientific reasoning are logically fallacious, it follows that all scientific theories are logically fallacious also.

In my final statement before the conclusion, I will draw out the implications of this as regards your ability to make knowledge-claims of any kind, showing why your worldview is necessarily false. In so doing, I will simultaneously demonstrate why the Christian worldview must be true.

Continued in part 4 »

7 comments

  1. angelsdepart

    Bnonn, I had planned on concluding in my next post. So far I have not necessarily treated this as an actual formal debate. The traps laid in my opening statement were built for Frank not for you. I have felt as if though we were simply discussing these issues. If you feel that we should have another round of comments or that we should post conclusions at the same time I will oblige as my work schedule allows. Otherwise I plan on wrapping this up. Feel free to stop by anytime and comment on my blogs. I am very interested in your point of view.

  2. Bnonn

    Hi Angels. My apologies are probably due, since I didn’t specify originally the exact nature or format of the debate as I would have preferred it. I would ask, if possible, for one further statement before concluding, since I have been structuring my posts so as to culminate in an epistemological argument which I have not yet explicated. If you are happy for me to do this in my conclusion, then perhaps we could make the next posts our last—however, I don’t think that I could effectively handle the argument in 1500 words, and it would be a breach of etiquette for me to present new material in my concluding statement, as this would be unfair on you.

    In my view, it would be valuable for those following this discussion if you were to interact with the points I have made in my statement above, before we move on to conclude, since they highlight several logical flaws in the typical secular/naturalist worldview. A non-theist ought to be able to adequately answer to these flaws if he is not to have his case severely weakened, and made vulnerable to various theistic arguments directed toward them.

    Let me know how you’d like to proceed.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. angelsdepart

    It may take me a few days to get to it, my schedule is hectic. I will keep you updated if it turns out that I might need more than 4 or 5 days.

    Thank you

  4. Bnonn

    Not a problem at all. I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

  5. angelsdepart

    Final response

  6. Chavoux

    Bnonn, one question from my side…. to what extent is your answer above dependent on AngelsD knowing actual scientific procedure? I ask, because I have found that few people (either theists or non-theists) actually knows what science looks like in practice, nevermind the differences between how the scientific method is applied in the different disciplines. I was actually surprised by the level of knowledge you as (apparently from your bio) a non-scientist, showed about the actual scientific process.

  7. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I was recycling a lot of this from Gordon Clark.

    I don’t think an atheist needs to know much about the scientific method to appreciate the problems I raise here. They might come as a surprise, but they’re not intrinsically difficult to understand, I don’t think. But I could be wrong; I’ve rather forgotten what it’s like to be grossly ignorant but smugly certain of everything ;)

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