I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be a Fan of Circular Reasoning

Frank Turek, professional Christian apologist, founder of the Cross Examined website, and co-author of the book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, recently paid a visit to the University at Albany to give a talk to the Impact Christian Fellowship on the evidence for the existence of the Christian god. I learned about his talk from a student on our local atheist meetup’s mailing list. Having read Frank’s book a while back, I figured it would be worth checking out.

Me and Frank Turek

That’s me in the middle (in case you were confused) and Frank on the left, with his dour-seeming partner Phil Weingart completing the trio. I engaged the two of them (and a few eager audience members) in a brief debate on the subject of absolute vs. objective morality; it was… revealing.

Several others have already thoroughly critiqued Frank’s apologetics, but in all the discussions I’ve seen, there’s a major element that seems to have been overlooked. I’ll briefly go over what he said in his talk, then give my new insights.

As you can tell from the outline of his talk, Dr. Turek’s arguments build upon each other:

  1. There is such a thing as objective truth, and it is possible for humans to know what it is.
  2. Scientific (the big bang, complexity, design, etc.) and philosophical (cosmological, moral) arguments provide good support for the existence of god.
  3. The existence of god makes it possible for real miracles to happen.
  4. The possibility of miracles makes the New Testament story more likely to be true.

These arguments, with little variation, tend to be the focus of all of Frank’s talks, from the college-level presentation to his debates with Christopher Hitchens. In the details, there are a lot of things to object to. (I might cover those in a separate post.) But it seems to me that Frank appears to overwhelm with details as a way of waving away the majorly flawed reasoning upon which his entire argument stands.

Step 1 of the argument I have relatively little disagreement with. I’m not necessarily sure we can know objective truths with absolute certainty, but I’ll allow it for the sake of argument because such certainty tends to be a red herring.

The problem enters in step 2. We’re supposed to be providing evidence for the existence of a god. But all of Frank’s arguments promote a very specific concept of god – that is, the God of Christianity, complete with all the attributes generally conferred upon him: personal, self-existent, outside of space and time, intelligent, the source of absolute morality, and so on.

Steps 3 and 4 are built on the premise that step 2 has shown that God exists. The problem is simple: He’s just attempted to define God into existence. We’re given absolutely no justification to think that, if a god exists, it has the aforementioned attributes. They’re just taken as a given. Essentially, Frank has said:

Suppose there is a god with attributes A, B, C, … X, Y, and Z. We have holes in our explanations of the universe which can be explained by a being with these attributes. Therefore, the best explanation is, in fact, this god. Thus, this god exists.

But this gets us nowhere. A being which does not exist cannot have any attributes. For us to know that these attributes apply to an actual existing deity, we first have to know the deity exists. Frank claims that this is not an argument from ignorance, a charge he refutes with a lot of hand-waving about how the complexity of life and the universe requires such a being – which really just boils down to “we don’t know, therefore I know.”

So from where does Frank derive the idea that an existing God would have these attributes? Why… from the Bible, of course. The talk is given with the assumption that most of the audience will be Christian, so that they’ll share a god-concept. That way, when Dr. Turek flat-out asserts that the deity would have a specific set of attributes, most people will overlook that it is an assertion.

But wait a minute… for the Bible to be true and thus useful as a source of information about who and what God is, miracles need to be possible. And for miracles to be possible, God has to exist. So steps two through four are entirely circular.

Dr. Turek’s initial discussion argues for God on the basis that we know what God’s attributes are. He talks about how the universe shows the signs of an intelligent, personal creator existing outside of space and time. But the only way that these are arguments for a god is if we know that these are the attributes an existing god would have. We have no such knowledge apart from the claimed revelation of the Bible. But Frank argues that the Bible is true based on the assumption that this specific God exists!

It’s a bit like coming home to find your house burning down, then insisting it must’ve been caused by a dragon because the definition of ‘dragon’ you use implies ‘a giant lizard that sets houses on fire.’ Sure, it’s a clever fit for the problem. But why should we believe dragons exist in the first place? And if we don’t even know that, how can we claim to know that they set houses on fire? You’re still rooted back at square one: proving that dragons exist at all. And you can’t do that by inventing a definition and claiming that the definition proves you right.

So, ultimately, that’s where Frank Turek’s arguments fall apart. They not only assume the existence of the generic sort of thing he wants to prove; they assume that his specific version of that thing is the kind that must exist, and therefore he can use it as a basis for further discussion. Sorry, Frank… you’re a nice enough guy, and you’re definitely sincere, but I just don’t have enough faith to accept such bald assertions.

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8 thoughts on “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be a Fan of Circular Reasoning

  1. Daniel Cox

    The talk was a philosophical and logical nightmare from step one. His first axiom in his argument for God/god/gods/goddesses/omniscient space aliens named Ziltoid seemed to be "Truth about reality is knowable," which he went on to argue (in his book, not so heavily in his SUNY talk) was "absolute" and "transcultural." A friend of mine I had roped into attending this "lecture" with me actually left in disgust after Dr. Turek's opening statement (the sales pitch) and his infantile treatment of the nature of truth (TELLING IT LIKE IT IS! I see the light now!).

    From there, his assumption that his proof was concrete was almost laughable. No, wait, it was – I laughed. He quote mined his way through the lecture, putting words in the mouths of – well, specifically, Richard Dawkins, who he seemed to be hoisting up and beating like a pinata during the whole sermon… and if the basis of your argument is incomplete scientific research based on personal correspondence with a single scientist, and you and your partner have degrees in business, theology, and public administration, then your arguments don't hold! Skeptic, critical reasoning dictates that we must:

    a) Examine the validity of evidence

    b) Examine the source of said evidence

    Since the Cosmological (I got giddy when he had the William Lane Craig-like balls to drop Kalam on us and keep running as though nothing had happened), Teleological and Moral Law arguments are NOT proof of the necessity of God, we can ignore these claims entirely, based on a.

    And since Dr. Turek and Whatshisname aren't experts in the fields from which their evidence comes (Dr. Turek's example of "If you don't understand a murder note written in French, you don't ignore it, you go find someone who speaks French!" is a poor analogy here – really, he should have said something that implies personal research and not just a one-off conversation), we can eliminate any weight to the arguments based on b.

    I intend to hit up the four-part, complete lecture next semester (as a non-student, unfortunately, time to get repaying those loans!), better prepared for the talk than I was for this first, two-part introduction.

    Reply
  2. Fred Woodbridge

    Hello:

    Interesting post. However, you're committing a Straw Man: you don't tackle any of the arguments he's presented for the existence of God instead you assert yourself that he's getting and/or setting those Godly attributes from the Bible.

    Reply
    1. MikeTheInfidel

      Hi Fred!

      Maybe it's my lack of imagination, but I fail to see where else he could be getting them from. These aren't attributes that he's discovered by examining a demonstrable god, and he's arguing in favor of the god of the Bible.

      His arguments for the existence of god are all predicated upon an assumption that if a god exists, it has the attributes he claims it does. They're not really arguments for the existence of god; they're attempts to craft a definition that fills the gaps in what we don't know. He's claiming knowledge of the attributes of God before showing that God exists; how does that work, exactly?

      That's the point of the dragon comparison. If the being doesn't exist, it doesn't have any attributes. You can't claim that it has specific attributes, then create arguments that fit those attributes. That's just silly. I could say that an extraspacial, extratemporal, self-existent, personal god in the shape of a potato is supported by the same arguments he presented; that doesn't prove it exists, just that the arguments are crafted around the super-potato.

      He's claiming to know what a god would be like if it existed by making arguments based on its imagined attributes. I could similarly argue: "The universe is largely empty space; God is a being who favors the existence of empty space over everything else, and science can't tell us why there's so much empty space, so therefore God exists." I have absolutely no evidence whatsoever that a) God exists and b) God favors the existence of empty space over everything else. All I have is an argument based on the unstated major premise that these attributes are known, not just asserted.

      In his talk, he made absolutely no attempt to show that these attributes of God are known. The attributes he described, however, come directly from Christian theology and the Bible. Considering that he's a Christian apologist, I think it's a safe assumption to say that that's where he got the ideas from.

      In other words… basically, the reason I don't tackle his arguments is that the initial premises are all based on the claim that we know God's attributes. Unless we assume what we're trying to prove, the arguments hold no water; we're just discussing a concept of a god that might work, rather than showing that it exists.

      Reply
  3. Fred Woodbridge

    I won't purport to speak directly for Frank. I'm sure he can do a much better job than I may ever be able to!

    However: since YOU know he's arguing for the existence of a theistic, Christian God, you've made the mistake therefore of conflating his arguments with the Bible's pronouncements about God's nature. This is a mistake because your pressupositions about the Christian God have smudged any ability you may have had to analyze his arguments dispassionately.

    Working from the scientific knowledge about the Big Bang and the creation of the Universe, it is a deductively straight path from that to a conceptual analysis that IF there's "something" that caused the Big Bang, that "something" would necessarily have certain attributes.

    These kinds of conceptual analysis is done all the time. In fact, Science itself would be impossible without a wholehearted reliance on it.

    Reply
    1. MikeTheInfidel Post author

      The problem is that he throws fallacy after fallacy into his arguments in an attempt to reshape the reality of what we know about the universe to fit the attributes described in the Bible. The actual attributes of the thing that caused our universe may well be far different from what he claims they are. He presents horribly oversimplified versions of the actual scientific understanding of things, then argues from a lack of understanding of how things actually function to claim that this fictional version of science supports the attributes of the Christian god.

      Yes, the cause of the Big Bang would have to have certain attributes. For example, it would have to exist outside of the spatial and temporal dimensions we're familiar with. But this isn't a qualifier Frank makes; he says it has to exist outside of space and time, and is therefore supernatural. Considering that some current models of the universe include up to eleven dimensions, his assumption of the supernatural simply isn't justified. Similarly, his entire premise that it had to be a conscious mind falls flat under scrutiny, he explains the Big Bang in a manner that was superseded by later models over 30 years ago, since the original didn't factor in quantum physics. Yet he argues that the Big Bang had to be the act of a personal being, because only a personal mind could choose to create the universe. Talk about a non-sequitur, combined with the unstated major premise that a mind can exist without a body in the first place!

      Frank never explained why these attributes should be expected; he just asserted them. It felt a bit like hand-waving; i.e., "don't worry about why these attributes logically follow – just believe me, they do." He said things that were simply demonstrably false about our current scientific understanding, then used these as support for his claims. At times it almost felt like he was trying to move things along quickly so we wouldn't have time to figure out where he contradicted himself. For example, he bangs on about the Big Bang, but then claims that it supports the Biblical God. The Biblical creation myth doesn't say the universe was created from nothing (i.e., in the beginning, the earth was without form and void – but for it to be the earth at all, it couldn't be 'nothing'), and it doesn't say God is outside of space and time (i.e., the spirit of god was moving on the face of the waters – in the universe).

      The difference between what he did and a scientific analysis is that we can confirm the attributes of the scientific models we're testing. No such confirmation is possible with a god. In science, it's never enough to say "this concept fits what we see, therefore it's true." But that's just what Frank's arguments do. They're completely unfalsifiable. If we prove part of them wrong, he can just craft them to fit his desired conclusion. Science begins with the evidence and constructs models to explain it; Dr. Turek begins with the conclusion and molds the evidence to it.

      Reply
  4. Fred Woodbridge

    I assume your assertion that your reference to the "current models" of the Universe include "up to eleven dimensions" is backed by evidence and not simply conjecture? Otherwise you're also guilty of the same thing of which you accuse Turek.

    I find it interesting that you reference and base your assertions on science. Surely you must realize that IF such a being (God, for sake of argument) existed, that being by definition could not be subject to or discoverable by the Scientific Method?

    As an aside, do you find any other well-known Christian apologist's argument better than Turek's?

    Reply
    1. MikeTheInfidel Post author

      On your first point – I'm referring to some of the models used in (the poorly-named) string theory. While it is largely speculative, the models do fit the observed phenomena, so the possibility that they're more accurate makes it a hasty assumption to say that there aren't more dimensions than the three physical and one temporal we observe.

      On the second point – that's just the thing – it's only by definition. Our definitions of things are descriptive, not proscriptive. To say that God isn't subject to or discoverable by science by definition would be to say that we know a god exists and that this is an accurate description of it. Definitions can be wrong, and when we're talking about a being whose attributes are supposedly immune to observation, we can't really assert knowledge about its attributes! It's a self-defeating argument. If science can't observe or discover God, we can't verify anything about him except through personal experience, and even then we're left trying to show that such a personal experience is a reflection of something in reality rather than in our minds.

      Finally, I don't know if I find any apologetics particularly compelling. When I was still a Christian, I studied the arguments made by nonbelievers and believers alike to try to best learn how to defend my faith as rational. Consistently, however, I found the arguments lacking in many ways. They all seemed to be based on the presupposition of what they were trying to prove – that is, they beg the question. Some arguments I do find more interesting than others – the transcendental argument for God, for example. The thing is, these arguments are never the reason people become Christians. 200 years ago, when we knew nothing about the Big Bang, Frank wouldn't have been using that as evidence for God, and yet people still believed in his God for over 2000 years before that. I can understand becoming a deist because you're convinced by apologetics that a god must exist, but the specific Christian god doesn't logically follow without a willful suspension of disbelief.

      Reply
  5. Tim Fake

    The following is directed to Fred,

    One flaw in Franks' Cosmological Argument.

    (1) Frank accepts that time came into existence at the big bang.

    (2) Cause and effect are temporal relationships. One, the cause, must come before the effect.

    (3) Temporal relationships cannot exist without time.

    (4) Temporal relationships could not exist before the big bang. (see (1) – (3))

    (5) Saying that something caused the big bang implies that the big bang was an effect that required a preceding cause.

    (6) (5) implies the existence of a temporal relationship.

    (7) From (1) – (6) we get the following: to say that the big bang had a cause is nonsensical because there was no time prior to the big bang, therefore there could be no temporal relationships, therefore no cause and effect relationships.

    And as for the naturalistic explanations for the beginnings (or maybe lack there-of), the moment a naturalistic argument is brought forth that is plausible and logical it automatically becomes superior to any supernatural cause. For example, you are alone in a dark house late at night. Something goes bump. You walk up stairs to find a baseball, that you had laid on a table, has rolled off. Which is more likely, a leprechaun, ghost, or other hobgoblin made the ball fall off; or, the house or table was at a slight tilt causing the ball to roll off. The same holds for the universe coming into existence (or always in existence.) A naturalist explanation is always superior to a supernatural one.

    There are many arguments against the Cosmological Argument. It has been beaten to death and its sad to see that so many people still buy into it.

    On to the Telelogical Argument,

    This is another argument that has been beaten to death. Frank trots out two familiars here, Fine Tuning and Intelligent Design.

    First, Fine Tuning.

    This argument says that there are certain constants in the universe that, even if they were slightly different, we wouldn't be here. Promoters of this type of argument always hold all other constants the same and only manipulate one constant. They don't seem to either talk about or realize that it could be the case that if all of these constants are tweaked in the right proportions that we or other living beings might have evolved. There is nothing forbidding this in science. If this were the case then there could be an infinite number of combinations that could result in living beings. This takes the punch out of this type of argument because there wouldn't be anything more special about the constants as they stand as any other combination of constants. "But," retorts the christian, "just because something is possible doesn't make it the case, where is your evidence?" Whether or not we can point to evidence at the moment doesn't matter. We are talking about plausibility. It is far more plausible that there is a naturalistic explanation for our existence than some supernatural one.

    On to Intelligent Design.

    Its hard to believe that Paley's Watch is still cropping into these debates. This is such a bad analogy. It's surprising how so few people understand the simplicity of evolution. Evolution requires inheritable traits and selective pressures. Consider this example: gazelles have a gene sequence that codes for speed. In the population, there are a wide range of speeds; ranging from slow to fast. The slow gazelles are eaten by the lions, this is the selective pressure. The faster gazelles will survive long enough to procreate whereas the slower gazelles will be eaten. The selective pressures aren't limited to lions or other predators either. They can come in the form of each other, the climate, isolation, or anything else that kills off one portion of the population and allows another portion to survive. If the species migrate new selective pressures will effect who lives and who dies. Eventually a new species will form. This usually happens over millions of years and this is why Paley's Watch is such a bad analogy. If bits of metal get jostled about in every conceivable combination over millions of years then at some point they will probably come together in some form that we might find useful; in fact, they might form a sun dial. After all, all that is needed for a sun dial is some flat surface on which a shadow can be cast and a piece that sticks up so that it casts that shadow. The assumption that makes Paley's Watch seem powerful is that the watch is so complex that it could not have come together by accident (over a short period of time). Frank makes this flaw even more clear by using an alphabet serial analogy. He says that if we find alphabet serial on a table spelling out, "Take out the trash" we wouldn't think that it came about randomly but rather we would think that there was some intelligence behind the creation of the message. To emphasize this flaw consider the following: someone dumps the alphabet cereal into a hat and and shakes it several hundred times and then we dump it out. The person doing this speaks Spanish, French, English, and Latin. Without doing the calculations, after a certain number of dumps, words and sentences from those languages will start to form. Three points come out of this example, (1) no reasonable person would say that there was an intelligence guiding the alphabet cereal being dumped out, (2) complexity can arise out of randomness, and (3) we provide meaning to the strings of letters that come out after each dump. To bring this back to the flaw, in Franks alphabet cereal scenario, there was, presumably, only one dump and the sentence was spelled out. In our example, there were multiple shakes and multiple dumps that occur over a longer period of time. In evolution there is an even longer period of time where amino acids form a huge number of different combinations. The selective pressures of lions, climate, disease, isolation, etc. play the part of the multilingual person. All of these things occurring over a vast period of time leads to complexity.

    Finally, on to the moral argument.

    Franks moral argument seems to hinge on a concern for moral relativism. He seems to think that without a god, there must be moral relativism. There can't be any moral absolutes without a deity giving those moral absolutes. First, Frank's God does not provide moral absolutes. Frank says that whatever God says is moral because God is morality. This makes morality the result of a whim of a deity. If there are no standards for which God makes his moral edicts, if there were then he must be getting them from somewhere external to himself which would make him subject to some sort of morality that is above him, then he can make whatever he wants into morality. He could say tomorrow that stoning disobedient children to death is moral and then the next day he can say that this is wrong if it suits his bigger purpose.

    Second, Frank makes the claim that moral standards could not come about as a result of evolution. This is nonsense. Altruistic behaviour has benefits to species. Not having to worry about other members of the species killing you has great advantages. Not raping and pillaging also has its advantages. Frank even admits that there are other forms of morality, such as utilitarianism. Presumably he believes that even these forms come about as a result of God. This doesn't make any sense either because these forms of morality have good arguments to back them up.

    Finally, it scares me to think that somebody needs the threat of being kicked out of Gods little country club in the sky in order to be moral. A morality based on a deity is empty, void of any intellectual growth and people who hold such views scare me.

    Reply

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