Tuesday, August 14, 2012

RE: Scott's Argument from Nonbelief

    Hovering over Youtube proved to be worthwhile a few days ago. I try to keep up to speed with the New Atheism and what sort of things they are saying. Occasionally I run into very good thinkers who offer reasonable challenges to my faith. One such user, TheoreticalBulls**t, aka as Scott Clifton, came up with with what he calls the argument from nonbelief. I'm not sure whether this is originally his argument, but it certainly has the same flavor as the problem of the hiddenness of God and the problem of predestined unbelievers. He certainly isn't like most Youtube atheists who merely recite soundbytes in the hopes of having good dialogue with Christians. Although at times Scott can be foul, and at times exhibits hasty arguments, he is still a very impressive thinker who deserves respect. The depth of his videos and his 'humoresque' eloquence makes him a formidable challenge to Christian thought.

     The argument from nonbelief isn't too strong syllogistically. Scott even admits this in a follow-up discussion when he mentions that the Christian only has to show a possible reason why God would allow so many nonbelievers to perish when they might have otherwise believed; in this case, the argument loses force. However, existentially the argument is powerful, especially if you're an atheist who knows how sincerely you've tried to find God. The argument can be summed up as follows: If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and wholly good, then He knows what it takes for the unbeliever to convert. If an unbeliever is sincerely searching, then why doesn't God reveal himself in a way that is clear such that the unbeliever would become convinced? Why does God remain hidden for those who are looking? According to this argument, there are many unbelievers that are in Hell right now that would have believed if God revealed himself in a convincing way. So essentially the argument is saying that the very fact that there are so many non-Christians is a problem for Christianity especially when the Bible says that God "desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim. 2:4)

     Scott is generous enough to reduce his argument into a syllogism:


1.) If God exists, He desires for us to know X.
2.) If God exists then He has the power to make us believe X.
3.) If God exists we should know X (given 1 & 2)
4.) We do not know X
5.) Therefore, God does not exist (given 3 & 4)

Let X equal  the basic facts about Christianity such that one can make an existential decision whether they accept the salvation offered by Jesus Christ.


     Premise (1) is true insofar as it serves as a means to an end. Knowledge itself is not enough to get saved, although it is a necessary precondition for saving faith. The basic facts about Christianity, or what X entails, are the following: (a) The recognition that one is a sinner and that this sin causes a separation with God, and (b) The only way out of this predicament is to have faith in Jesus Christ and trust that His work on the cross has justified you before God. This is essentially the 'formula' for conversion, which ought to yield repentance. Unlike the majority of religions and worldviews, Christianity emphasizes a relationship that is sustained through faith. However, there cannot be any existential decision if X is not known. As Romans 10:14 says, "how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?"

    Premise (2) is where I take issue with the argument. 'Power' here ought to be understood in the proper usage of omnipotence. Traditionally, God's omnipotence has been understood to mean that God has logical limitations. However, a logical limitation isn't really a limitation, for to go outside the bounds of the logical is to dwell in the illogical. God, being perfect, cannot be illogical. Something is illogical if it violates a law of logic, and actualizing a contradiction is one example of something illogical. I argue that God cannot make one believe X if that person possesses free will, for to do so would be a contradiction.

    Scott's defense against the free will objection is that beliefs cannot be resisted. Instead, according to Scott, free will only deals with the actions concerning what to do about the beliefs we acquire. At minute 17 and 30 seconds (video: Nonbelief Revisited), Scott says the following: "Belief is an involuntary reaction." This is actually the cornerstone of his defense against the free will objection, for as long as our beliefs cannot be helped, then one loses the responsibility for what they believe, and consequently God is held responsible for the unbelief of a person. However, this proposition is simply false. I believe Scott is confusing the immediate experience of something, which supplies the content of belief, with the belief itself.

     As I sit in front of my laptop, I am currently being appeared to in a laptop-like way, such that I can believe in the proposition, "There is a laptop in front of me." The experience of the appearance is not identical with the belief formed from the experience; there exists a gap between them. To prove my point, that believing is an action, I'll demonstrate that it's possible to be appeared to in a positive way, yet believe in a negative way. For example, if you stand above water and place a stick a few inches into the water, you'll notice that the stick appears bent. At that moment one is being appeared to in a 'bent stick' way. However, one can believe (upon reflection, past experience) that the stick is not actually bent. Therefore, one is being appeared to in a positive way (bent stick), yet believes in a negative way (i.e. the stick is not bent). Although the gap between the experience and the belief is small, almost to appear instantaneous and automatic, there is a choice about what to believe.

     I think Scott draws his conclusion from what one might call 'uncontested beliefs'. An uncontested belief is a belief that is adopted without much consideration of its truth value. This type of gullibility isn't necessarily a bad thing, for it is indeed practical to go about life without questioning every single appearance and checking the truth value of every single belief. To be so meticulous would drive one mad, and would probably do more harm than good (solipsists come to mind). But despite these uncontested beliefs, there still exists the ability to choose what to believe and what not to believe. Scott goes further to add that one cannot force oneself to 'believe' or become convinced that Santa Claus exists, you simply know that you don't believe in Santa Claus. Quite true. However, all this would show is that the atheist, however desperate he wants to believe in God, couldn't do so. The feeling of epistemic 'rightness' would fail to hold here. But this certainly doesn't show that beliefs are automatic or involuntary. In fact, to be convinced is the same as believing something; it is a mere switching of beliefs ( from a negative to a positive, or vice versa). But then wouldn't this prove my point that 'to believe' is an action that can be under the jurisdiction of one's will?

     The expectation that God would know what state of affairs would cause belief in the unbeliever is misplaced. I'm sure God would know what would need to come about in order to make you arrive at belief, but the issue is with whether the conditions for belief are feasible for God without violating logic. But since God cannot interfere with one's will, then the situation becomes a co-op, and the person has some responsibility over how they react to what they're presented. This makes it all the more likely that there are people who, until they remove their biases, simply will never come to belief due to the willful action of clinging to certain propositions that prevent faith. Someone struggling with math can receive all the help in the world, but until they piece together the puzzle in their head, they will never have knowledge. Perhaps a serious deconstruction of oneself is necessary in order for X (see above) to be known.

     But as I hinted above, 'apparentness' and 'to be convinced' are subjective terms. This is why this argument ought to be applied on an individual basis, and so long as it attempts to make universal claims then I think the force of the argument is weakened. For example, there may very well be people that are sincerely searching for God, but this mental property of 'earnestness' is invisible to others. This is why it would be odd for a Christian to lessen his or her faith simply based on an atheist's testimony about not being able to believe. I'm sure Scott would acknowledge that there are those who 'say' they are searching with all of their hearts, but prefer to play Batman on the Xbox for hours straight. The fact that one can be sincerely wrong about being sincere also weakens the force of the argument. And the situation remains, for both Christians and atheists, that it's impossible to prove one's intent or sincerity.

     I mentioned earlier that the immediate experience, the phenomenon, provides content to one's belief. Obviously it makes no sense to have a belief about daisies if one has had no experience of daisies. Scott could easily escape all I have said by claiming that God has not appeared to him in a positive way such that he can believe in a positive or negative way. Scott could argue that my bent stick example argued from a positive experience to a negative belief, but that the reverse couldn't happen. I agree. There can be no  experience of nondaisey and then a positive belief of a daisy. This is what his Santa Claus analogy was getting at. Making a leap from nonbeing to being violates the feeling of epistemic 'rightness' akin to a feeling of guilt from a moral violation. The only possible way to escape this epistemic 'rightness' is to base your beliefs on pleasures, not truth. But Scott has to admit that it's possible to be appeared to positively yet fail to notice the appearance. Even with our natural senses we can fail to notice that which was in front of our eyes the entire time; same for when the consciousness can separate background noise into something specific, a specificity that was always there.

     Failing to notice something is either the subject's fault, or the object's obscurity in relation to the subject's range of sensation. Obviously a person cannot be held responsible for failing to notice a ninja in the shadows, but the question becomes whether God is like a ninja in the shadows. If so, then it really isn't our fault for not believing. But this conclusion is a bit too presumptuous without looking at the subject's responsibility first. One can fail to notice something either because of a distraction or one's worldview (especially the deep presuppositions in it) filters out that which is necessary to 'see' the thing in question. If one was brainwashed in a cave to believe that every single human being outside of the cave is really a sophisticated android, then they will obviously fail to see the 'others' as objects of sympathy should they exhibit mournful behavior. Now imagine further that a man in the cave ventures out into the world and meets someone who he thinks is an android. Imagine that they strike up a conversation such that the alleged android tries to convince the man from the cave that he is indeed a real person. The man in the cave replies, "I'm sorry my friend, I'm taking everything you say very seriously and earnestly trying to seek the truth here, but I am not convinced that you are like me." Both parties were active in persuasion, case and rebuttal,  but although the man in the cave was earnest in his investigation, he was still earnestly searching from inside a box. No matter how persuasive the alleged android was, if the man in the cave didn't 'see' the falsehood of his cave worldview, then he would never become persuaded.

     When setting out for a journey, or even better yet, a hunt, one must equip himself with the necessary tools for the job. Some game require patience as you hide in the bushes for several hours or days, while some game require you to move quickly before the ecological conditions change around you. My point is that God has listed what is necessary to find him. First, and most obvious, one must seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matt 6:33). This means that one must have this before his mind's eye at all times. Second, "blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (Matt 5:8). This isn't necessarily a moral purity because the words 'holy' or 'pure in soul' could have been used. I think this is referring to pure and honest intent, that is, seeking God for His own sake, not for human approval, immediate benefits of some kind, etc. The task of the religious person is to be aware of their intent at all times, because as I will soon explain, the final requirement of God could be confused with wishful thinking or psychological comforts. Another factor that people often fail to take into consideration is patience. In several places in the Bible long periods of waiting had to occur before the presence of God was felt. Most people in America consider waiting for an hour to be unbearable, what would most do if they had to wait 7 days for an answer or sign? But what's the point in talking about these criteria? I don't know Scott, but has he evaluated himself to the point that his worldview went through a deconstruction? Has he looked for the presuppositions in his worldview which would prevent him from seeking God? Is he seeking God with a pure heart, that is, with pure intent for true belief? If yes to the first two, has he actively waited for God with open ears for hours, days or weeks, or has he asked God to reveal Himself, but after 10 minutes preoccupied himself with something else (effectively to end the search)? His answers to these questions will only be useful for himself, for no matter how earnest his tone is in response, his intentions are invisible to me. I ask these first before moving on to the last requirement.

     So let's say there is an atheist who, wanting to be intellectually honest, cannot believe in God without a positive experience of God. Furthermore, he has deconstructed his worldview to the point that he is aware of his presuppositions that may interfere with actively seeking God properly. Moreover, he is motivated by the truth such that no matter how pleasurable or unpleasurable the truth may be, he finds it virtuous to look at reality for what it is. One who has a pure heart will not pretend to have experienced God, even if a crowd of atheists all suddenly praised God around him; the one with pure intent would not stand with them if he has not felt God. Finally, this atheist has waited for many days for a sign from God that would hit him immediately as a sign. However, despite all this, he has not 'felt' that experience that so many Christians claim to have. What is lacking? Faith. But isn't this to argue in a circle? Isn't faith the end goal of this entire deliberation, not the means? How can one have faith in that which he doesn't believe in?

     Let's identify what I don't mean by 'faith' here. I don't mean, for example, the misplaced idea that faith is mere trust in something. Some pastors wrongfully apply the word faith to atheists when they say something along the lines like, "Atheists have faith that the building they are in now was built soundly." In this case I'd say the atheist has a subconscious trust, for there are no immediate signs that the building was poorly made. This attitude is practical, for to verify all facts such that one can say with 99% certainty that the building is made correctly would be time consuming and inefficient. Contrary to this position, I don't mean what converted Christians experience. Post-conversion faith is sustained by the Holy Spirit and is more intense than what I'm referring to here. No, what I'm talking about here is similar to a child on a high platform about to jump into the hands of his father. Two conditions must be fulfilled here, doubt and then faith. Doubt forces the situation on the person, makes the decision an active endeavor unlike the subconscious, practical, assumption in the 'sound building' example. The child, before jumping, has doubts, has 'what-ifs' run through his mind. "What if my father misses? What if he only 'says' that he'll catch me?" There can be no analyzing here, for the relevant facts to the success of the catch do not rest in you. Nor could the child know the intent or skill of the father. Yet the child jumps regardless. This is the type of faith I'm talking about.

     Although the end goal of X in Scott's argument is to achieve saving faith in Jesus Christ, and due to the fact that beliefs are under the jurisdiction of the will, faith as I described above is needed in order arrive at X. However, unlike the example I used with the father catching the child, God by definition is the proper object of faith. Knowing 'what' God is is obviously necessary to place faith 'in' God. Coming to grips with the general properties of God, as well as revealed information found in the Bible, one knows that with God anything is possible. So as a sincere atheist sits alone in his room and prays that God will reveal Himself, the atheist must do so while 'believing' that it will occur. This same feeling of trust occurs when your most trusted friend makes a promise to you. Although the promise hasn't been fulfilled, you 'believe' that he will do so, and might even plan your life around that promise. The same goes for the atheist. Although the atheist is asking for a sign from God such that he can directly experience Him, he must ask with faith, he must ask while believing it will be so, because God is revealed as perfectly loving and trustworthy.

     The atheist, however, can take a few measures to escape this or call it into doubt. First, he can offer the problem that there are many religions in the world, all of which can be believed through faith. But the problem with this objection is that it's ultimately irrelevant to Christianity. Obviously the mere fact that other religions claim to be true and that its followers believe it on faith doesn't call into doubt the validity of Christianity or the faith of its followers. Each individual has his or her own reasons for believing; some believe things because of cultural familiarity, cultural expectation, emotional comforts, etc. In short, faith's nemesis is wishful thinking, and since one's intent is invisible, focusing on what other religions say about their motivations doesn't say much against Christianity. Moreover, Christianity emphasizes the importance of faith and gives it a context in its narrative, while other religions treat it differently (more like the building example above). Second, the atheist can maintain that there is no difference between wishful thinking and faith. But there seems to me a big difference between saying, "I want P to be true, therefore I will believe P" and "I know or have heard that person S is reliable, therefore I anticipate/believe that P." It's the mood that's important for the atheist at this point.

     Regardless of the niceties, there is a greater point to be made about faith, and it's directly related to the problem of the hiddenness of God. I argue that since Christianity is concerned with faith, especially in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, that God would remain hidden. This requirement isn't beyond our abilities, because faith as I described above is common in human experience. Just as I don't have faith that my table exists, God being apparent as the stars in the sky or the water in the ocean would yield the exact opposite of faith. Remember, faith is the one attitude of the mind that is opposite of relying on oneself, and in a creature/Creator relationship, this is fitting, especially in our sinful state. It certainly seems the case that before the Fall Adam and Eve experienced God in a more obvious way, but after the Fall our "sensus divinitatus", or God-sense, was damaged. Either way, faith fits perfectly in the salvation narrative, for the solution rests outside of ourselves and our abilities. I think many apologists miss this point and only emphasize that God wants a relationship with the individual, when in reality faith is the foundation and means for such a relationship to begin with. A mere relationship can occur with a physical appearance, but faith must be launched from doubt. Doubt must be experienced in order for faith to be an act, an event, not a subconscious acceptance or an assumption.

    To conclude, I want to pull all the points I've made and forge a recap to send my audience off to their books. Premise (1) of Scott's argument is only true insofar as X serves as a means to an end. The problem with syllogistic thinking is that is often fails to motivate an existential shift of mood. It's easy to accept a truth, yet do so at a distance. Premise (2), I argued, is false due to a logical contradiction caused by God's 'forcing' a free man to believe in X. Moreover, Scott's objection against the apologist's free will defense, that beliefs are involuntary reactions, is simply asserted as self-evident, when I gave a few reasons to think otherwise. Although the gap between the immediate sensation, which provides the content for beliefs, and the belief formed afterward is small, there still exists this gap such that a belief can be under the jurisdiction of one's will. The fact that one can experience something positive, yet believe negatively disproves Scott's undeveloped assertion. Moreover, Scott's only justification for his 'involuntary belief' idea is that one couldn't force oneself to believe in Santa Claus. However, this actually doesn't show that one's beliefs are involuntary, but that one who is after truth cannot go from a negative experience (nonbeing) to a positive experience (being) without violating the epistemic conscience. The only way one could go from a negative experience to a positive is if one is motivated by pleasure, such that the violation of epistemic responsibility is masked with a certain pleasure. Furthermore, I revealed that the argument is only effective on an individual basis, since 'earnestness' and 'sincerity' are subjective terms. The fact that one can be sincerely wrong about being sincere weakens the force behind this argument. A person's intent and sincerity are invisible to the Christian and so cannot be used offensively against the Christian; therefore argument is only effective existentially for the atheist. Furthermore, one's worldview by definition filters how one sees the world, and until the atheist reflects honestly on how their worldview could potentially effect knowing X, then X, despite all sincerity, will pass by. Finally, I argued that faith explains the hiddenness of God. Doubt must be present initially before faith so that faith becomes an act and an event, not an assumption in the subconscious. Therefore, when the atheist asks God to reveal Himself, then he should 'believe' that God will do so provided they are patient. Until Scott revises his argument, or can successfully bypass my criticisms, I think I left his argument bleeding.

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