Sunday, November 24, 2013

Murky Apologetics

Presuppositional apologetics is fun because it’s just so weird. Recently, Russell Glasser did a post-mortem on one of his recent Atheist Experience shows to review his performance against a presupp caller, because he felt he hadn’t gotten his point across effectively. He had, of course, done just fine, but the presuppositional script drives even experienced counter-apologists to distraction. To quote AXP commenter somnus:

“I half suspect that people have such a hard time responding to it the first time they hear it because they’re flabbergasted by the breathtaking nerve it takes to assert it.“

As Russell said when summarizing his debate with Pastor Stephen Feinstein , it’s “impenetrable quasi-philosophical wankery”. Nonetheless, it has entertainment value.

Another candidate for the looney tunes hall of fame is Deacon Duncan’s occasional foil “murk” at Alethian Worldview. Starting with DD's blog post “The subjective choices of religion“ we’re treated to some industrial-grade presuppositional babble. Almost immediately murk imparts this little pearl of wisdom:

“science is good i agree – but it cannot function apart from comprehensive universal metaphysical commitments:
which science itself cannot demonstrate – it rests on them – if they were not science would be impossible... “

...followed by a laundry list of topics that we are supposed to assume are killer problems for non-Christians - but for which he provides no good reason to take seriously. Since we’re fun-loving sorts, let’s try to unknot some of this.

Specific claim #1:

“(Science) cannot function apart from comprehensive universal metaphysical commitments such as uniformity of nature“

As a software developer, I may not be the best choice to address what appear to be philosophical issues, but this is worth taking a poke at. First, a definition: “uniformity of nature is the principle that the course of nature continues uniformly the same”

An example of what murk probably means is given by this snippet on uniformitarianism in Wikipedia:

“The assumption of spatial and temporal invariance of natural laws is by no means unique to geology since it amounts to a warrant for inductive inference which, as Bacon showed nearly four hundred years ago, is the basic mode of reasoning in empirical science. Without assuming this spatial and temporal invariance, we have no basis for extrapolating from the known to the unknown and, therefore, no way of reaching general conclusions from a finite number of observations. (Since the assumption is itself vindicated by induction, it can in no way "prove" the validity of induction - an endeavor virtually abandoned after Hume demonstrated its futility two centuries ago).“

The implication being that Hume’s formulation of the problem of induction

“calls into question all empirical claims made in everyday life or through the scientific method “

In the same article, Karl Popper:

“argued that science does not use induction, and induction is in fact a myth. Instead, knowledge is created by conjecture and criticism. The main role of observations and experiments in science, he argued, is in attempts to criticize and refute existing theories.“

We laypeople can simplify this to "science attempts to falsify hypotheses". Those hypotheses that withstand attempts to be falsified are more likely to be an accurate model of reality, thus more likely to be true.

Given that induction is not universally accepted as the path to knowledge, murk's first claim about science resting on induction does nothing to undermine our confidence the knowledge can be obtained.

What does this mean to the casual observer? I’d “concluded” decades ago that absolute knowledge was not obtainable, and the best that we could hope for was to be more confident that what we think we know is in fact probably true. Nowadays, I think of personal knowledge in terms of the Sunrise Problem when attempting an off-the-cuff explanation of my certainty about a topic. (Trust me - I’m RARELY prompted to do this in practice). So ... does the problem of induction cause me to worry? No. I am, and probably have been for most of my adult life, more empiricist than anything, so arriving at knowledge purely by means of thinking about it wouldn’t be my preferred approach, given that resources were available to test it out.

My conclusion: murk uses the phrase “uniformity of nature” as a buzzword meant to impress the uninformed and divert the informed from the real issue being discussed: the existence of God. If he could produce a compelling argument for God, he wouldn’t need to blow smoke about vaguely tangential topics.

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