Friday, April 17, 2015

A Typically Bad Presuppositional Screed

A fellow by the name of Mike Robinson has written what could be titled “A How-To on how not to refute a claim that you disagree with”, in a screed that’s actually titled “Bill Nye's Naturalistic Evolution is Absurd: Contesting 'Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation' - Bill Nye's Atheistic Evolution Is Preposterous”.

That’s really the title.

He wants to make sure you know he’s talking about Bill Nye.

I skimmed the post first, and determined that Mike more or less employs a presuppositional apologetics script in this lively polemic, so be forewarned. This stuff is tedious, predictable and smug. It’s impenetrable quasi-philosophical wankery.

My first impression is that Mike’s no dummy - he carries out the presuppositional procedure well enough. It’s the premises and reasoning that are defective, and presuppositionalism is not known for equipping people to detect their own bad reasoning. So this could be painful.

First off, a polemic on Bill Nye seems unwarranted and obsessive. Why is “Bill Nye’s Atheistic Evolution” the focus here? Why not someone's else's atheistic evolution? Why not evolution itself? Why the inclusion of Nye? Did he hurt someone’s feelings? Is he scary? Did he date your fiance in high school, and you’re still afraid she wants him? Did he write a book that might inspire your children to ignore your authoritarian babble and think for themselves, and possibly - gasp - learn? What on Earth is the motivation here?

As it turns out, it’s the book. Drat. I was hoping it was the fiance.

An attack on evolution carries with it a clear presumption that the polemicist has a differing viewpoint on how Earth’s life forms came to be the way they are. I will presume that Mike is either creationist or an Intelligent Design proponent - or both. Allow me to delve deeper.

The first paragraph below Mike’s byline is “The idea behind Undeniable Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye is absurd”. Yep, a third mention of Bill Nye. Okay, we get it.Bill Nye - The Science Guy Mike’s complaint is about Nye’s book “Undeniable - Evolution and the Science of Creation”. We’re on a roll.

It turns out that Jeffrey Jay Lowder at Secular Outpost (@secularoutpost on Twitter) already handled this last year, so it would be redundant of me to critique it in the same way. But there’s something else to examine here - several things, in fact. Something Else #1 is the general idea that “evolution is false”. Something Else #2 features the foundations of presuppositionalism. Something Else #3 is regarding the misuse of argumentation and logic.

Something Else #1: Evolution is False

There are some big unanswered questions out there, all of which provide an occasion for the thoughtful apologist to develop an argument that God is the best explanation for that specific question. Obviously, the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe that allows life, the origin of life, the origin of consciousness, the origin of logic and mathematics, the fact that the universe is intelligible, the existence of objective moral values, these are all “Big Questions” that open the door for arguments that God is the best explanation for (whichever Big Question). And these are just the ones that I can list while using a stylus in my left hand on an iPad, while petting my fat hairy cat with my normal writing hand! Evolution, as an explanation for speciation and diversity of lifeforms, doesn’t seem to fit the mold of “Big Question” any more, since it has been widely accepted for about 150 years. So you have to wonder why apologists pick this topic out for a lusty rogering, especially since it is the least mysterious. It turns out that unguided processes bug the shit out of them. That unguidedness indicates that God is not in control here, and that implies that he could conceivably not even be there at all. And that would be unthinkable. So we see Mike take on evolution as if he’s engaged in a holy war against hordes of infidels. It’s quite a spectacle.

Needless to say, many of Mike’s claims about evolution being false, or having been falsified, are utterly vacuous. Take for instance the premise that there are no transitional fossils. Here’s the rub: Biologists have more than enough to establish evolutionary descent from previous life forms. Is there enough? There’s enough to establish evolution as the leading explanation. If there were a competing explanation, we would have seen scads of research papers hit the universities, but we haven’t, not in the last century. Could there be more transitional forms? Of course! Biologists would love to have them all, but at what price? You can play the “there are no transitional forms” game indefinitely, however, because it represents an opportunity for almost infinite regress. A fantastic stalling and diversionary tactic. Taken to a preposterous extreme, you could claim that I am the product of divine intervention just because you can’t find the transitional fossils between my grandfather and I. (Sorry for calling you fossils, Mom and Dad!) It still remains true that evolution has no serious competitors. Mike just repeated stock sound bites.

Another common sound bite that Creationists like to trot out is that Stephen J. Gould “debunked” the idea of gradual evolution (he leaned towards a “punctuated equilibrium” model of evolution), but he wasn’t debunking evolution at all. He was proposing that evolution was not gradual, not that it doesn’t occur at all. So I don’t get it. If you have a better explanation for speciation than evolution, then write it up and submit it for academic review. If it’s better than evolution, the reviewers should be compelled to admit “we got it wrong”. If not, there still might be something about evolution that your research can correct. Otherwise, why keep beating a dead horse? Remember, if you want to claim God exists, this is the single weakest place to start. If unguided processes bug you, get over it. Pick another Big Question.

Something Else #2A: We all have Presuppositions

Mike exposes something that is behind presuppositional apologetics in general. He says:

We’re all limited in our viewpoints by our ultimate commitments—what we’re capable of affirming is limited by our presuppositions. Our ideological passions are skewed by our most basic philosophical assumptions we take for granted—we can’t help think the other side’s evidence is faulty or irreverent if it opposes our basic presuppositions.

Notice that he says “We’re all...”. He’s admitting that he is constrained by his presuppositions, and he’s ascribing the same limitation to everyone. To begin with, that’s plain wrong. It is most decidedly NOT the case that, if you have a defect, that everyone else has that same defect. So he invalidates any subsequent argument just by virtue of admitting the defect, and then accusing everyone else of the same. The plain truth of the matter is that some people will follow the evidence where it leads them, some will not, and there is a spectrum of variation between the two extremes. I think this single presumption of universal and uncompromising commitment to biases is the most damning argument against presuppositional apologetics that exists. It affirms that the person holding an uncompromising commitment to biases is not interested in seeking truth, hence not interested in bringing their mental view of reality into line with observed reality, thus disqualifying them as someone whose opinion would be of value when trying to understand the true nature of our existence. Reasonable people are capable of assent to effective, compelling arguments that oppose their personal viewpoints. Unreasonable people find this difficult. It’s as if he’s declaring “I'm an unreasonable person”.

Something Else #2b: Unwarranted Feelings of Certainty

Russell Glasser once participated in an on-line debate with a presupp that gives an apt example. His opponent’s first two entire posts were vague polysyllabic bombast, without making a single point. It was weird and irritating. Mike displays that same weird certainty that what he says is not only right, but devastating to the opposing viewpoint. Yet he never comes anywhere close to demonstrating that “Bill Nye's Naturalistic Evolution is Absurd”. Or that anyone else’s is, either. There is rehashing of unoriginal material, but little indication that enough original thought went in to this to have considered whether it's even coherent, let alone plausible.

Something Else #3: The misuse of argumentation and logic

Recall the presumption that “we all have presuppositions” - and that we’re not able to see another’s viewpoint because of it. It comes to mind that when Mike says “we can’t help think the other side’s evidence is faulty...”, it sounds like he’s preparing to address how biases color our perceptions, and how he could then conceivably deliver an argument to overcome his opponent’s biases with the strength of its wisdom and perspicacity. But no. He says:

It’s not a matter of dozing intellectually in a truce, but finding which worldview provides the ontological resources to account for research, analysis, deliberation, and knowledge. Strict naturalistic atheism is completely devoid of the necessary ontic endowment to account for such necessities. However, theism doesn’t win merely by default, but by having a foundation with the ontic capacity to account for the necessities of science and knowledge.

Very high-minded sounding, but it’s right out of the presuppositionalist playbook. What he’s really getting at is “Christian Theism provides you with the foundation for knowing stuff, and atheism doesn’t”. So he wins, you lose. Of course, he gives absolutely no evidence or argument that would even hint at why or how what he says is true, but he claims victory anyway. It’s not that your argument that evolution is true is faulty, it’s that you can’t even make a sane argument because you’re an atheist. Make sure you don't rely on an atheist auto mechanic or brain surgeon, you could be in trouble!

Look closely at this. You have to believe in “X” in order to make sense of the world. How does one explain how that works? Here is not the time to go into a discussion of the Supernatural versus the Natural, but the general problem there always remains that 1) we have no good reason to think that there is a Supernatural realm, and 2) if a Supernatural realm could exist, theres no explanation for how actions and causes from the Supernatural operate in the Natural world.

in Closing...

We can now imagine the presuppositionalist roadmap. The foundational principle is that “We all have presuppositions, and ’what we’re capable of affirming is limited’ by them”. Its corollary is “theistic presuppositions are correct, and atheistic presuppositions are not”. I’d love to see an actual argument that asserts that either of these claims are true.

From there, the rest follows:
  1. God exists
  2. God provides the foundation for intelligibility
  3. Atheists don’t believe in God, therefore they aren’t intelligible.
  4. Ignore the bare assertions and special pleading in 1 & 2.
  5. Ignore the non-sequitur in 3.
  6. Theists win.

It’s just that bad.

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