Still a Believer: James F. Sennett Responds to Questions About His Faith

I've written about my friend Dr. Sennett's struggles of faith in my book and also here, where in the comments section he replied. The rumor has it that "he's really struggling with his faith." Sennett is the author of a book on Alvin Plantinga, and along with Douglas Groothuis edited the book, In Defense of Natural Theology: A Post-humean Assessment. You can find his books on Amazon.com.

Here is his unedited response to this rumor:
I'm really not sure how to respond. John Loftus and I have been friends for many years, ever since we were in seminary together in the 1970s. I respect his work and his particular brand of atheism. I think his book is an important contribution to the current intellectual defense of unbelief and appreciate it for the seriousness with which it takes faith and the intellectual case to be made for it. Also, as one who comes from a ministerial background and has suffered at the hands of the church in many of the same ways John has, I have a great deal of sympathy for the non-cognitive dimensions of his journey to unbelief that lie barely concealed between the lines and behind the pages of his book.

I have doubts. I think I know too much for it to be otherwise. And I think I'm far too honest with myself about the best that unbelief has to offer. I have not mastered the blissful ignorance or self-deception that so many conservative or evangelical Christians manage to shelter themselves with. I don't mean that to sound perjorative, but the fact of the matter is that I find it very difficult to convince very many "Bible believing" Christians that the case for unbelief has a single shred of intellectual strength, and that really bothers me.

Nonetheless, I do not consider myself to be on a road to unbelief, or in danger of "abandoning the faith" anytime soon -- or ever, for that matter. I decided a long time ago that the issue really comes down to which set of bothersome, unanswerable questions you're more at peace with -- those you're left with when you believe, or those you're left with when you don't. (One of my gripes about unbelievers is that they so often give the impression that the choice is between belief and lots of stubborn, unanswerable questions, or unbelief and full intellectual satisfaction.) Always I have been of the opinion that the unanswered questions of belief are much easier to live with than those of unbelief. For example (and this is a huge one for me), if I choose naturalism (which I see to be the only real alternative to theism), then I must accept that somewhere, at some time, something came into existence out of absolutely nothing. (For all the efforts of contemporary atheists to escape what Frank Hoyle saw clearly as the implications of big bang cosmology, this consequence still stands undefeated.) And this is a claim I don't even know how to begin to get my mind around. The perplexities (and they are many) of the problem of evil pale into nothing by comparison. Which is harder to conceive, that one powerful enough to create a universe might have plans too complex for us to fathom that somehow make some kind of sense out of the state we find the world in, or that everything from quarks to DNA to dwarf stars to the whole of the cosmos came out of absolutely, positively, indefinable emptiness??? Sometimes, when my doubts are raging, this is the only place my faith has to stand. But, even at those times, it is enough.

I do have to say that my faith has evolved in recent years to something that most conservatives or evangelicals might not consider "true Christianity." That's okay, though. I long ago stopped worrying about what anybody else thinks of my faith. I have withdrawn from most forms of church leadership -- I am honestly tired of the hassle, tired of the crap, and just plain tired. Furthermore, I find it harder and harder to sanction the bigotry and hard-heartedness that so often goes under the guise of redemptive behavior. Also, I'm much more inclined to a broadly inclusivistic respect for and even openness to other religious traditions, to the point that I am not ready to express anything like the quasi-exclusivistic "There is no other name" xenophobia that most conservative Christians insist on as a sine qua non of the faith.

When you add all of this together with the fact that several years ago I was divorced and remarried, I do tend to fall well outside most circles that many Christians are comfortable with. But, like I said, I long ago stopped worrying what anybody else thinks of me. It's a very serene way to live. I'm very happy, I'm very much at peace. Like Tillich, I meditate; unlike Tillich, I also pray. I've learned a great deal lately from the Pali Canon and the Tao te Ching. I've also gotten to know Jesus perhaps better than ever. I still know that the intellectual case for faith is good, but not overwhelming. But I'm becoming more and more convinced that the existential case for faith can be -- for those who seek it -- downright irresistible.

James F. Sennett

53 comments:

The Romantic Mystic said...

Good for James Sennett.

Corn said...

Dr. Sennett says: "For example (and this is a huge one for me), if I choose naturalism (which I see to be the only real alternative to theism), then I must accept that somewhere, at some time, something came into existence out of absolutely nothing."

This claim never ceases to boggle my mind. To many Christians it's simply unfathomable to suggest that the universe came into existence ex nihilo but it's perfectly reasonable that God came into existence ex nihilo.

"Ah, but you see," they say, "we don't believe God came into existence - we believe God has existed always outside of temporality." Countered with the parallel argument, that the universe has existed always and originated ex materia, again that's unthinkable. Not to mention that they focus exclusively on the "big bang" conception of the origin of the observable universe while not understanding how that hypothesis relates to others (for example, brane cosmology).

It seems perfectly clear to me that Christians, no matter how intelligent, simply can't reason themselves out of the mental shackles their faith has placed them in. They can't even recognize when they are being logically inconsistent. As such, one shouldn't expect to be able to persuade them to examine their faith through reason.

And then the charge is that John left the fold not for valid, logical reasons but because of some emotional distress. As if Christians adopted their faith through a rational examination of extant theologies and naturalism to come to their beliefs rather than through accidents of birth or in response to emotional trauma. While it's true that many ex-Christians become so due to some emotional event, for many it is precisely that type of event that is necessary to break free of the straightjacket in which their thinking has been confined.

Chris W said...

The "existential case for faith," which might be a mix of Jesus, Tillich, Tao te Ching and a "broadly inclusivistic respect for and even openness to other religious traditions" does seem, at times, to be "downright irresistible."

Yet when I come back to the bible, I remember why this Christianity, or other types of liberal Christianities, don't fly. I cannot find meditative peace among the hellfire preaching Jesus. I cannot reconcile tolerance with the sexist, exclusivist Pauline epistles. And any stable existenial happiness is surely disturbed by brutal, disgusting future described book of Revelation.

When I consider that Christianity may be true, I do not experience the satisfaction Dr. Sennett descirbes. Far from it.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Excellent stuff from Sennett.

He is clearly right that naturalist and theist each has problems, and one major deciding factor is which set of problems someone is more comfortable with.

However, I would quibble with his particular choice of example of problem for the naturalist (i.e., we aren't forced to accept everything comes from nothing--there are a range of options such as the multiverse hypothesis).

That said, he could have picked the existence of consciousness, mathematics, or morality. Hence, while his example is weak, his general point is sound.

The big problem, other than evil (which is big) for theism, is the lack of evidence for supernatural beings. Naturalists, have plenty of evidence that nature exists.

Blue Devil Knight said...

This book may be an even better introduction to the multiverse hypothesis.

unBeguiled said...

Like Corn above, my mind boggles.

So Sennett finds it counter-intuitively absurd to accept as a brute fact that something exists rather than nothing.

But is that brute fact more absurd than the brute fact of an eternally existing mind with various omni-attributes?

Also, our inter-subjective experience of the last 300 years teaches us that minds are something that come late in the universe.

So the notion that there is some supernatural overlording mind lurking behind everything goes against what we have learned about minds.

We all must live with unanswerable questions.

But the theistic answer to the question of why there is not only nothing is just plain silly. Besides, it just pushes the question back one step: Why is there God rather than nothing?

Get out your razor.

Anthony said...

Thanks for the book recommendation Blue Devil Knight. One thing is for sure and that is I wish more evangelicals were like Sennett in their approach to faith.

Dave said...

>Which is harder to conceive, that one powerful enough to create a universe might have plans too complex for us to fathom that somehow make some kind of sense out of the state we find the world in, or that everything from quarks to DNA to dwarf stars to the whole of the cosmos came out of absolutely, positively, indefinable emptiness???<

There is universal claim by atheists, including scientists, that everything came out of nothing. It's certainly no more difficult to conceive of that, though, than it is of someone, or something, creating everything.

And in particular, it's impossible to rationally swallow the concept of the gods portrayed in various religions.

Yet, while Sennett himself believes we're in a universe too complex to understand, he insists he understands it well enough to know who/what created it.

AndreLinoge said...

I appreciate Mr. Sennett's honesty and candor. I've been thinking after reading this post; why do people who have such doubts still cling to Xianity? I wonder if it is a combination of fear and seeing genuinely good things in Xianity like love and grace. Could this be the same psychological dynamic you find in the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, that is kindness and hope given after a foundation of terror? I find myself often pulled back towards Xianity, but I realize that at the bottom that pull is based in fear.

The Jesting Fool said...

Very interesting thoughts from Dr. Sennett. I am glad he has found happiness and serenity.

That being said, I am curious about some of the responses I find here. I do not agree with Sennett’s idea that discarding theism requires accepting that something came into existence from nothing, but I also don’t really understand the accusations leveled against him for being logically inconsistent. Corn’s use of terms such as ‘mental shackles’ and ‘straightjacket’ doesn’t seem to define Dr. Sennett’s intellectual capabilities. He said it himself—he’s making an existential case for his faith. Unless I am mistaken, existentialist thought usually makes some sort of logic-defying ‘leap’ in order to find peace in the face of life’s great questions.

FYI, I am an apostate of the Christian faith. I came to my current position by means of a combination of reason and experience, and I am doing my best to be intellectually open and honest. I want to reasonably consider everything that will help me gain as much truth and knowledge as possible. But I feel like regardless of whether I choose to believe in some ‘God’ person/force/transcendence, or in a Big Bang cosmology, either way I have existence ex nihilo, and it feels absurd. Occam’s razor may need to be sharpened a little—but logic isn’t always going to heal doubts.

I would enjoy discussing this further with anyone who is interested, or maybe just wants to point out flaws in my thought process.

AndreLinoge, the attraction to Christianity could very well be founded in a combination of fear and the observation of love, but I wonder if there aren’t many people who cling to it solely because of the love and grace?

Thanks for the post, John.

unBeguiled said...

Jesting Fool,

I'll discuss this with you.

"either way I have existence ex nihilo, and it feels absurd"

Not really. Your statement implies that you think nothingness is somehow what we would expect, yet we have somethingness, which needs explaining.

I think that is fundamentally wrong. I discuss this in detail in this blog post.

I would be interested in any feedback.

Seek4Truth said...

Thanks for posting this statement by James Sennett! If I were to maintain Christian faith I would align very closely with Sennett's approach to faith. However, I find his core over ex nihilo puzzling because it's equally a difficult concept to grasp from both the Atheist and Christian views. I think the only reason for me to maintain Christian faith is based on poor reasons such as fear of being wrong and missing the idea that a supposedly loving, personal God exists. Given this, I'm closest to the Atheist worldview, but remain sympathetic to Christianity. This might change over time, but my this is where my intellectual journey is currently at.

Lvka said...

Corn,

from what we know about matter, as well as anything else in this physical world, the idea that something (from this physical and material world) just pops itself into existance is for obvious reasons untennable. So the fact that the Big Bang actually took place would naturally draw us to seriously consider an exterior cause for the Universe's existence.

The Jesting Fool said...

unBeguiled:

I read the blog post you linked, and I think I understand where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure. Maybe you can correct me if I’m misunderstanding you. You seem to be saying that ‘somethingness’; i.e. what we know as real, deserves primacy as far as our life questions go—that trying to go beyond it by listening to our intuition is absurd. ‘Nothingness’ cannot be grasped, so we’ll just operate on what our reason tells us about reality.

If this is what you mean, I don’t fully agree. While I am definintely NOT trying to defend Christianity or religion, I am willing to grant it as an acceptable position to men like Dr. Sennett, who exhibit a practical faith which does not try to wound or kill detractors. While I want to remain rationally sound, I also think it unwise to ignore the intuitive ideas that are basic to the human psyche. I’m not trying to ask ‘Why do we have something rather than nothing?’; I’m asking ‘What is this something that we do have?’ Yes, we should give weight to what we know, but we should also give fair consideration to our intuitions.

I hope I’m being clear, and I do hope I haven’t completely missed your point. If I have, please correct me; I’d love to hear your thoughts. If it helps you understand me a little more, I am very much influenced by existential philosophy, and especially by writers like Walker Percy who have investigated the relationship between consciousness and language. I am not so much interested in ‘nothingness’ as in what seems to be the absurdity of this ‘somethingness’.

Thanks for taking the time to discuss these things with me. I appreciate your input.

David B. Ellis said...


It seems perfectly clear to me that Christians, no matter how intelligent, simply can't reason themselves out of the mental shackles their faith has placed them in. They can't even recognize when they are being logically inconsistent.


Some can. They're the ones who decovert.



That said, he could have picked the existence of consciousness, mathematics, or morality. Hence, while his example is weak, his general point is sound.


Also bad examples.

Morality?

I have no problem as a naturalist explaining my approach to values.

Consciousness?

Why should that be a problem for me as a naturalist? Naturalists don't have to be reductive materialists.

And math? That's even less of a problem. Again, you seem to be equating naturalism with the most extreme version of materialism. Otherwise I can't imagine why you would even bring this one up.

I have yet to encounter any fact about the world which even appears inconsistent with my naturalism. None of the examples stated so far fit the bill.

Lee said...

What boggles my mind is that they claim that God created the Universe "ex nihlo". They get around Gods existence by the "beyond space and time" stuff but they claim that God created man and the universe out of absolutely nothing at all!

I think Monist or pantheists clearly stand on more rational ground here. The only stuff the contigent being had to create with was himself and we are all God or God stuff and we are all playing a little game or cherades or hide and seek but we are really all one. This is of course heritical to the Christian bodering Satanic.

I don't know that I buy that. But its more reasonable that their contingent creator God creating everything out of nothing. I'm quite certain that there is no such thing as nothing.

unBeguiled said...

Jesting Fool,

You wrote:

"I’m not trying to ask ‘Why do we have something rather than nothing?’; I’m asking ‘What is this something that we do have?’ Yes, we should give weight to what we know, but we should also give fair consideration to our intuitions."

So the universe exists, and it exists with certain properties. Is your question why does it not exist with some other properties? Cosmologists are working on that. I think they are more likely to give a coherent answer than are gurus or divines.

Also, why should we give much credence to our intuition? If science has done anything, it has taught us that our intuitions are almost always dead wrong.

Kenn said...

He wrote,

"Also, as one who comes from a ministerial background and has suffered at the hands of the church in many of the same ways John has . . ."

That seems to be a frequent cue among believers that somethis is amiss.

Nothing argues against theism more effectively that theists behaving badly.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Thank you James Sennett,

I also read eastern mystics and Christian ones who helped make my own Christianity more inclusive.

On the origin of the cosmos, I have no idea, but neither do I think it highly improbable than an evolving cosmos with one tiny planet in it that contains living species, most of which have gone extinct, and all of which die, is necessarily a miracle that proves the existence of a supernatural designer. Who knows, is all I can honestly say.

I don't begrudge people their beliefs, just as I hope they don't begrudge me the questions that I can't help but ask. At present I simply have more questions than answers and it would not be honest of me to say I believe in Christianity.

I also expect that not everyone is going to die holding the same beliefs, no matter how much they read or ponder such questions.

I also believe that any divine being will take into account all of the ignorance, miscommunication, hormonal ups and downs, emotional weaknesses, nutritional weaknesses, educational weaknesses, fears, insecurities, sorrows, sufferings of life on this tiny planet. Life is short, time for study is also short for most of us, knowledge is limited. Given all that, I tend to doubt that "eternal hell" is where any of us belong.

stevec said...

"I decided a long time ago that the issue really comes down to which set of bothersome, unanswerable questions you're more at peace with -- those you're left with when you believe, or those you're left with when you don't. "

Well, "which unanswerable questions you're most at peace with" is no honest way to figure anything out. It's a fucking admission of idiocy, is what it is.

Victor Reppert said...

Andrew: Nietzsche I know, and Dawkins...but who is Sennet that we should be mindful of him?

VR: Dawkins is one of those people who needs to be absolutely sure that he is right and that everyone on the other side is ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked. Kind of like a Christian fundamentalist. Sennett is not.

This is not Sennett's full-dress defense of his beliefs. But he is someone who is sensitive to the reasons that can be given on both sides of the issue.

Those people who accept either Christian theism or philosophical naturalism without any doubt arising in their minds are people who puzzle me beyond belief.

The Jesting Fool said...

unBeguiled,

My question is not ‘Why does the universe not exist with other properties?’ I’m really only trying to define what we do observe and experience. I admire the advances of science and will happily submit to its discoveries. The point at which I take issue is the idea that science’s achievements up to the present time can offer meaningful explanations for the entire realm of human experience. I don’t believe science can completely explain religious states and experiences. My position is nothing new (I’m sure you have heard of the psychologist William James, for example).

I want to be careful to explain myself—yes, our intuitions are often dead wrong. No debate there! However, one thing my intuition makes me aware of is an emptiness that needs to be filled. I don’t think this desire for meaning is misleading at all. I can’t really trust science to help me find meaning in life. Yes, it can certainly explain life, but that is not always practical to a person who wants meaning and happiness. I realize that not everybody experiences the same things, and that is why I reject the idea that any one religion can claim ultimate authority. That is why I rejected Christianity. That is why I now hold to no religion, but find myself in a state of searching, I guess.

So, in answer to your question, “Why should we give much credence to our intuition?”—Because intuition, and not reason, is the source of a very real, very urgent sense of despair that demands my attention. Could there, perhaps, be no catharsis to this sensation? Maybe. I certainly don’t have the answer. But scientific explanations of neurology aren’t going to teach anything to a person who struggles with despair.

I hope this makes some sense to you. I appreciate the interaction very much!

(VR, excellent point)

unBeguiled said...

Jesting Fool,

OK I finally see where you are coming from. I think we were using the word 'intuition' in rather different ways.

As far as finding meaningfulness in life, I think Carl Sagan said it best: Do something meaningful.

I have never really struggled with nihilistic angst myself, although that might be because I have been an Atheist since about age 8 or 9.

Poke around on naturalism.org. These issues are explored there in depth.

The Jesting Fool said...

unBeguiled,

I'll check out that site. Thanks again for the feedback.

Al Moritz said...

Corn said:

Dr. Sennett says: "For example (and this is a huge one for me), if I choose naturalism (which I see to be the only real alternative to theism), then I must accept that somewhere, at some time, something came into existence out of absolutely nothing."

This claim never ceases to boggle my mind. To many Christians it's simply unfathomable to suggest that the universe came into existence ex nihilo but it's perfectly reasonable that God came into existence ex nihilo.

"Ah, but you see," they say, "we don't believe God came into existence - we believe God has existed always outside of temporality." Countered with the parallel argument, that the universe has existed always and originated ex materia, again that's unthinkable. Not to mention that they focus exclusively on the "big bang" conception of the origin of the observable universe while not understanding how that hypothesis relates to others (for example, brane cosmology).

It seems perfectly clear to me that Christians, no matter how intelligent, simply can't reason themselves out of the mental shackles their faith has placed them in. They can't even recognize when they are being logically inconsistent. As such, one shouldn't expect to be able to persuade them to examine their faith through reason.


That something can come out of nothing is nonsense. However, I do not think that atheists need to believe that either, and yes, I think that Sennett is wrong here. As you said, the (greater) universe may have existed always. Yet here are some thoughts that I had posted already before, on the recent thread "Why I left Christianity":

The worldview of atheism, featuring the absence of belief in God(s), automatically entails a positive belief in a naturalistic origin (what else, if there is no God?) of the universe, of everything that we see around us. Now please where are the scientific DATA that support such a notion? On the contrary, in order to be able to believe in a naturalistic origin of the universe, the atheist must NEGATE DATA on what science tells us about actual matter, energy and fields, and instead believe in miraculous properties of such entities that science has not shown to exist.

An atheist has to accept either eternal matter or eternal fields as an alternative to an eternal God when it comes to creating the universe. A naturalistic creation out of nothing is absurd: true nothing has no properties whatsoever (Victor Stenger’s pseudo-philosophical and pseudo-scientific drivel notwithstanding) and thus cannot produce anything.

Eternal matter

An essential demand on eternal matter would have to be that it does not have to obey the second law of thermodynamics (by the way, this demand also holds for the "re-set" of a potential cyclic universe upon each bounce). Otherwise, what use would be eternal matter if it had all run down into an undifferentiated mush that would not have the thermal/motional energy anymore to produce universes? In the ekpyrotic model (or one may think of equivalent other options if string theory, upon which it is based, will be refuted), for example, we have the birth of our universe from a collision of membranes (branes) in multi-dimensional space.

Where does the energy of collision come from if the second law of thermodynamics holds in an eternal universe? It could never self-renew, and if it cannot, it would eventually run down into thermal randomness, and one would be forced to ask the question: where did it come from in its original "fresh" state?

If the postulated eternal matter once had to be in an original "fresh" state, it cannot be self-sufficient and eternal after all, certainly not in a state that eternally can produce universes. Thus it would beg the question for an originator of this matter anyway.

Of course, energy is equivalent to matter, but analysis shows that this does not solve the "moving" problem: the universe becomes less and less capable of converting matter to energy (one can see this by analyzing the issue of star formation and star burning).

Certainly, one may believe in the magic of a wider universe where the second law of thermodynamics does not hold, but I find this unlikely (we know how matter behaves *)) and we probably can never observe this, given the absolute observational limits in cosmology (the visible horizon and, even more problematically, the particle horizon). Here, blind faith needs to replace observational evidence.

*) Yes, we know that all matter moves at all times on the microscopic particle level, but this is different from eternal movement with always fresh kinetic energy on the macroscopic level. And a universe (a large closed system of spacetime and matter) for which the second law of thermodynamics holds will become cooler and cooler over time, restricting also microscopic movement more and more.

Eternal field

An alternative to eternal matter would be an eternal field. Think of the quantum vacuum.

We know that quantum vacua can produce virtual particles and anti-particles that, however, eliminate each other in the tiniest fractions of milliseconds. Some extrapolate that the universe could have arisen in a similar manner from a quantum vacuum, from almost nothing. However, we do not have any theoretical, and even less experimental, evidence that would make a link between such hugely different events like the humble appearance of a tiny virtual particle and, even if it started on the quantum sub-microscopic level, an event of such unbelievable magnitude of energy as the Big Bang (the universe was 10E32 Kelvin hot a miniscule fraction of a second – Planck time of 10E-43 seconds – after its the beginning, that is "1 with 32 zeros behind it" Kelvin, or billions of billions of billions and more Kelvin). It is pure, wild speculation that has little to do with evidence-based science -- and all with fantasy run amok.

If this kind of events could happen "just like that", why haven't we observed the birth of another universe within the 15 billion years time that ours exist? (Yeah, it is argued that it creates its own spacetime and thus vanishes into other dimensions, but it is hard to believe that the event would leave no trace.) Certainly, there will be those that say that in eternal fields anything can happen at some point, unlikely as it may seem, but this is the ultimate "just-so" story that you can tell a senile grandma but not me. Embarrassingly, atheists seem to seriously consider such "just-so" stories.

Eternal matter that does not obey the second law of thermodynamics, and eternal fields that can produce sudden high-energy events from "nowhere"? All those "scientific" scenarios are not scientific at all, they are modern fairytales dressed up in the language of science. Atheists, however, would never concede that they believe in fairytales, they just accuse believers of doing so.

Atheists may of course believe whatever they want. But where is the scientific evidence – the experimental or observational evidence? (Purely theoretical mathematical models don’t count.)

*****

In light of the above, the claim by atheists to only follow the evidence" is a false, unjustified claim. Naturalism is not a lack of faith. It is an active faith that nature somehow brought about our universe. Thus, it is a faith just like faith in God, the label "skepticism" notwithstanding. In fact, it is more of a blind faith than theism. Theists can claim divine revelation as evidence -- even though, of course, atheists do not accept this evidence. Atheists, on the other hand, cannot claim any evidence at all. Based on the same standard that atheists apply to any rigorous evidence -- only scientific evidence counts -- any pre-Big Bang theoretical mathematical models (the only "evidence" available) fail. After all, they do not pass the test of true science -- confirmation by observation and/or experiment (for the Big Bang proper, evidence of this kind is rock-solid). The mere fact that they are proposed by brilliant scientists does not make them science either. Critical thinking is necessary to distinguish between actual science and metaphysics dressed up in the language of science (my own background as a practicing scientist has helped me to be acutely aware of this distinction).

Certainly, divine revelation is not scientific evidence either. But no theist in their right mind would claim that it is. By definition divine revelation stands outside the realm of science (yet, if true, it is not a fallible human endeavour like pre-Big Bang theoretical mathematical models, which try to explore ultimate origins by pure reason alone). However, theists are not the ones that claim that "only scientific evidence counts".

Al Moritz said...

Here is a presentation by the eminent cosmologist George Ellis on the multiverse and how it relates to real science:

http://snipurl.com/euo8w

John W. Loftus said...

Just prior to Victor Reppert's comment Andrew had said: "Nietzsche I know, and Dawkins...but who is Sennet that we should be mindful of him?"

Andrew is banned for repeated abusive behavior and his comments get deleted. So I'm writing this belatedly to help explain why Reppert's commented as he did.

Former_Fundy said...

I found Sennett's comments to be refreshing. I agree also with Reppert's comment: "Those people who accept either Christian theism or philosophical naturalism without any doubt arising in their minds are people who puzzle me beyond belief."

I think all sides in this debate ought to be more humble and acknowledge that none of us have all the answers. Hence, I remain an agnostic.

Steven said...

On the contrary, in order to be able to believe in a naturalistic origin of the universe, the atheist must NEGATE DATA on what science tells us about actual matter,...

Or we can say that we simply don't know everything, which is, in fact, true. However, to posit the existence of a deity requires more than this.

Al, all you are really doing here is attempting to shift the burden of proof. The problem though, is that we're not making positive claims about the existence of something that we can't show to exist. The question of how the universe got to be in the state that it is in is irrelevant to the question of the existence of gods. We are here, and we know we are here even if we don't know the why's and hows of it all. You are just playing at nothing more than the old god of the gaps argument: Since science can't explain xyz, there must be a god. It's a non sequitur.

unBeguiled said...

The question of how the universe got to be in the state that it is in is irrelevant to the question of the existence of gods.

Hush! Bill Craig needs to feed his kids.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Lee Ellis says he has no problems at all fitting morality, consciousness, and mathematics into his naturalistic worldview.

Must be nice. I'd like to see the theory of consciousness worked out, as Lee will get a Nobel Prize within a year if he pulls it off.

Al Moritz said...

Steven:

The problem though, is that we're not making positive claims about the existence of something that we can't show to exist.

Oh yes, you do. You still don't understand, do you? Let me repeat from above, this time with emphasis added:

"In light of the above, the claim by atheists to only "follow the evidence" is a false, unjustified claim. Naturalism is not a lack of faith. It is an active faith that nature somehow brought about our universe. "

It entails is a positive claim about the existence of something that you can't show to exist.

(Only agnosticism is faith-less.)

unBeguiled said...

So far, science relentlessly discovers natural causes for what was once explained as supernatural. Disease is caused by germs, not demon possession. The moon orbits the earth because of gravity and inertia, it is not being pulled by a god in a chariot.

This story has been repeated a thousand times.

Therefore, by induction, I conclude that there is probably nothing supernatural. This conclusion is provisional, and might change in light of new evidence.

So Al, what part of that do you call faith?

Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said...

"(Only agnosticism is faith-less.)"

The definition of agnosticism claims that not only does one lack enough knowledge to make a decision about God, but that one can NEVER know the answer for sure.

That is the sort of staunch, absolutist claim that most people who claim to be "agnostic" are attempting to avoid. This is why I no longer call myself "agnostic".

That one would make such an dogmatic statement about what knowledge man may attain in the future, 10, 100, 1000, 1million years from now is nothing short of putridly moronic.

Atheists are as open to evidence as anyone if not more. We are as open to the evidence for God as you are for faries. You do not believe in faries but in the face of very solid evidence you would change your mind no? There is no differance here in terms of the atheist and "God" (whatever that incoherant, ill-defined concept even means, but that is another issue).

It is a simple concept that theists just cannot seem to grasp.

No atheist who values evidence would ignore good evidence for the Christian God.

Thats the point now isn't it? The evidence for the Christian sky-daddy is very, very, very poor and the cumulative evidence against is overwhelming. This is why those of us who were once believers LEFT the fold despite our utmost feveret, deep desires, which greatly biased towards Christianity to start with. Many of us now are disbelievers despite what we so greatly desired to be true. And it broke our hearts.

YOU are the one who just does not get it.

Steven said...

Naturalism is not a lack of faith. It is an active faith that nature somehow brought about our universe.

Al, you're putting words into people's mouths. "Naturalists" don't claim this. As a scientist, I can look at the evidence, and I can see that something like the big bang theory is a reasonably probable explanation for the origin of the universe for as far as it goes (and it's more probable and a more powerful explanation than the goddidit faith based explanation), but even the big bang theory breaks down once you get within a planck time or two within the origin of the universe, and at that point all bets are off. Now, it is certainly the case that people do speculate about what happens beyond the point that current theory can be used reliably. But that is exactly how scientific progress occurs, by carefully speculating about what might come next, but that isn't faith, at least not by any definition that I'm aware of.

Now please explain to me how this is a statement of faith. I'm not taking any of this on faith, I'm looking at the evidence and taking it as far as it goes, beyond that point, I really don't have anything to say.

Steven Carr said...

Why is Sennett really struggling with his faith when believers have all these religious experiences?

Can he not hear any voices in his head telling him there is a God, or can only certain people hear them?

Why do genuine searchers for God like Sennett not get these convincing religious experiences that we are constantly told genuine searchers for God will get if they genuinely search for God?

Steven Carr said...

VICTOR
VR: Dawkins is one of those people who needs to be absolutely sure that he is right and that everyone on the other side is ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked.

CARR
Dawkins regards many creationists as ignorant.

As indeed they are.

It is only polymaths like Victor who are ignorant of nothing.

Everybody else in the world is an ignoramus about many, many things.

And many Christians are ignorant about the evidence for common descent of species.

Dawkins regards the cure for ignorance as education.

But then Dawkins has blind faith. It is a failing of many humanists that they think that education is a cure for society's faults.

Corn said...

This seems to be a rehashing of a tired argument based on a false premise and therefore useless. It usually goes along the lines "If there is no natural explanation for everything then the Christian God must exist. We can't explain the origin of the universe. Therefore, the Christian God exists." Put another way:

Atheist: The Judeo-Christian god is a myth.
Theist: Well how do you explain {insert currently unexplained phenomena}?
Atheist: We don't have a natural explanation for that, yet.
Theist: Exactly. God did it, so He can't be a myth.

I am contesting that this is a god of the gaps argument, and nothing more. As others have illustrated, over the millennia we have discovered naturalistic explanations for what were previously considered supernatural phenomena. The primary reason they were considered supernatural was precisely because we had yet to find a naturalistic explanation.

This is, in effect, the result of a cognitive bias of assumption. Lacking a naturalistic explanation, the theist's bias is towards a supernatural explanation. Theists believe they have valid knowledge that provides explanatory power. As science expands in providing explanations for observed phenomena, the theist must retreat to the currently unknown.

Al Moritz said...

Steven:

I'm not taking any of this on faith, I'm looking at the evidence and taking it as far as it goes, beyond that point, I really don't have anything to say.

Yes, you do. You hold on blind faith that everything has a natural explanation –- including nature itself.

Al Moritz said...

O.k. guys, before I continue discussing here, I kindly ask you all (and also all other readers of this thread), to study the presentation by the prominent cosmologist George Ellis, which can be downloaded here:

http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/CIS/Ellis/Ellis_Lecture.ppt

(Explanatory supplement:
Particle horizon –- the maximum distance from which particles (i.e. also particles carrying information) could have traveled to the observer in the age of the universe. It represents the portion of the universe which we could have conceivably observed at the present day.)

This presentation touches on issues like absolute observational limits in science and the borders between science and philosophy. Once you study what Ellis says, it will be clear that these issues have little to do with what unBeguiled said:

So far, science relentlessly discovers natural causes for what was once explained as supernatural. Disease is caused by germs, not demon possession. The moon orbits the earth because of gravity and inertia, it is not being pulled by a god in a chariot.

This story has been repeated a thousand times.

Therefore, by induction, I conclude that there is probably nothing supernatural.

Al Moritz said...

And please, do me a favor, and stop lecturing me about the “God of the Gaps”. I have thoroughly trashed the God of the Gaps with and in my review of the research on the origin of life, published at Talkorigins.org, a leading website on evolution:

www.talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob/originoflife.html

With this article, by the way, I have done more for the public education on science than most atheists, including probably most here.

The God-of-the-Gaps argument traditionally applies to things that science does not know yet, not to things that science cannot know. For things that science cannot know, see for example Ellis’s presentation.

And no, don’t lecture me on what science does not know yet vs. what science cannot know, before you have studied this presentation.

Corn said...

This song is not about you, Al.

Lee said...

"The God-of-the-Gaps argument traditionally applies to things that science does not know yet, not to things that science cannot know."

Where is the distinction?

Who is anyone to say what science, man will or will not be able to know 100, 1000, 1million years from now?

Al Moritz said...

Lee:

Where is the distinction?

Who is anyone to say what science, man will or will not be able to know 100, 1000, 1million years from now?


As I said, please study Ellis's presentation and then we can discuss.

Steven said...

Al, you really seem to be a bit full of yourself with your publishing of an article on t.o. BFD. That doesn't make you beyond criticism. You're really not as unique a person on this forum as you think. Now, I'll grant you that you are not applying the god of the gaps argument with respect to biological evolution, but you clearly are messing around with it cosmologically.

However, this is all a red herring as far as I'm concerned, because you keep hammering this business that naturalism requires faith, and you're just flat out wrong.

The scientific method does not exclude the supernatural. Think about it. The method says:

1) observe a phenomena
2) hypothesize and explanation
3) test the hypothesis
4) revise the hypothesis based on 3)
5) repeat

Supernatural explanations can't get past step 2. This is not statement of faith, this is an empirical fact (and, I might add, a fact that is subject to change, unlikely though it may be). Therefore, supernatural explanations do not provide any useful information about the world around us, unless they can complete the cycle. This has never happened in the history of science. Now, I do not automatically assume that the supernatural cannot exist, however, I can not in good conscience entertain any such ideas because they have yet to yield anything reliably useful. Once again, explain to me how that is a statement of faith.

And Ellis' presentation is irrelevant to this.

Al Moritz said...

Steven:

However, this is all a red herring as far as I'm concerned, because you keep hammering this business that naturalism requires faith, and you're just flat out wrong.

The scientific method does not exclude the supernatural. Think about it. The method says:

1) observe a phenomena
2) hypothesize and explanation
3) test the hypothesis
4) revise the hypothesis based on 3)
5) repeat

Supernatural explanations can't get past step 2. This is not statement of faith, this is an empirical fact (and, I might add, a fact that is subject to change, unlikely though it may be). Therefore, supernatural explanations do not provide any useful information about the world around us, unless they can complete the cycle. This has never happened in the history of science. Now, I do not automatically assume that the supernatural cannot exist, however, I can not in good conscience entertain any such ideas because they have yet to yield anything reliably useful. Once again, explain to me how that is a statement of faith.


As Ken Miller, one of the most prominent defenders of evolution today (he was also one of the star witnesses in the Dover trial against Intelligent Design), writes:
( http://www.templeton.org/belief/essays/miller.pdf )

“The categorical mistake of the atheist is to assume that God is natural, and therefore within the realm of science to investigate and test. By making God an ordinary part of the natural world, and failing to find Him there, they conclude that He does not exist. But God is not and cannot be part of nature. God is the reason for nature, the explanation of why things are. He is the answer to existence, not part of existence itself.”

(This should be self-evident if God created nature -- then He stands outside nature.)

You may believe that a wider nature created nature (our Big Bang, our universe with its own spacetime), I believe that God created *) nature. Both are a faith. The scientific method cannot distinguish between the two. Both options theoretically give the same universe, a few miracles aside when it comes to the theistic option.

And Ellis' presentation is irrelevant to this.

And yes, Ellis's presentation is highly relevant to what I just said. The scientific method cannot distinguish between the two options, since we cannot observe beyond our own spacetime.


*) which He could have done through a wider realm of nature as well

Steven said...

Al,

I am quite familiar with Ken Miller's work, and I completely disagree with him on this point, as should be obvious from my previous post. Ken is making a category error by assuming that the god hypothesis is completely untestable. Worse, this error actually works against Ken's desired conclusion. If god is untestable by any means, then Ken's faith (and yours) can not be substantiated in anyway. You are totally unable to tell the difference between an honest to goodness "spiritual" experience and self delusion. All that is left is useless mysticism.

Faith becomes nothing more than wishful thinking (and the evidence does indeed support that contention). So in that sense, I suppose, Ellis is relevant, but he doesn't really work in your favor. All Ellis does is provide you with a wishy washy means of choosing to believe in something that you are totally unable to make a positive existence claim for. This, coupled with the additional unsupportable baggage that religions tack on, make such beliefs untenable.

unBeguiled said...

Ken Miller has an amazing ability to compartmentalize. Consider this simple substitution:

"The categorical mistake of the skeptic is to assume that Fairies are natural, and therefore within the realm of science to investigate and test. By making Fairies an ordinary part of the natural world, and failing to find them there, they conclude that they do not exist. But Fairies are not and cannot be part of nature."

Now, would Ken Miller take seriously such a claim?

Al Moritz said...

Steven,

If god is untestable by any means, then Ken's faith (and yours) can not be substantiated in anyway.

God is not testable by the scientific method, and neither is wider nature outside of our own spacetime, which could have created our Big Bang, our universe. By your standards, the atheist's faith can not be substantiated in any way either.

Faith becomes nothing more than wishful thinking (and the evidence does indeed support that contention).

Where is the evidence that supports an atheist's contention that the universe was created by wider nature? Theoretical mathematical models like brane or multiverse cosmology that lack, and always will lack (again, we cannot observe beyond our own spacetime) observational, i.e. scientific, evidence? We know from history how well purely theoretical models fare without observational support. Just take the Ptolemaic epicycles that perfectly well explained the movement of the sun and the planets around the Earth, until, low and behold, observational evidence showed that the Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun.

The atheist's faith is evidence-less and blind, whereas the theist can claim divine revelation as evidence (which atheists deny, but theists are not the ones that claim that "only scientific evidence counts").

In terms of philosophical argument, the evidence from science as the apparent fine-tuning of the laws of nature is most common-sensically and straightforwardly explained by supposing a designer. It is certainly much more straightforward than the multiverse of trillions of trillions of trillions of universes which brutally violates Occam's razor:

principle that Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate; “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” The principle is also expressed “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”

See:

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/424706/Ockhams-razor

Certainly, the naturalist will claim that a wider nature is the best extrapolation from nature. This is debatable; in any case it is not a scientific extrapolation, but a philosophical extrapolation from science. As such it carries no inherent advantage over the God hypothesis, which, in the case of the fine-tuning argument, is also a philosophical extrapolation from science (and, being the same kind of extrapolation, not more or less "wishy washy" (your words) than the naturalist argument).

Corn said...

Al,

Are you joking?

I don't think you are.

So why am I laughing?

As I said before, it doesn't matter how intelligent a theist is, they didn't come to their position through reason (though they may protest to the contrary) and it's not likely they will be reasoned out of it.

You can go the epistemological route but I'll see your epistemology and raise you a cognitive psychology. You can't even be certain that your memory is accurate, and yet you're asking us to assign weight to divine revelation? Let me guess, next you will claim that science can't answer the question of whether a "revelation" is a supernatural event or a natural delusion.

Naturalism is not a "faith." It's dishonest of you to claim otherwise. Faith is a belief without, and in many cases in spite of, evidence. Naturalism is a belief based on evidence. It doesn't claim to know everything (or even to be able to know everything) and it's subject to revision as we gain more evidence. Divine revelation isn't subject to evidence and isn't subject to revision. If your god is unknowable and untestable it is therefore irrelevant, just like all of the other gods before it.

Al Moritz said...

Corn:

Naturalism is a belief based on evidence. It doesn't claim to know everything (or even to be able to know everything) and it's subject to revision as we gain more evidence.

Obviously, neither have you followed the discussion carefully nor studied Ellis's presentation.

Steven said...

Ellis's presentation doesn't mean what you think it means Al, and all the equivocation in the world won't change that.

The fact that there are things that are simply unknowable, does not give you carte blanche to make anything up that you want to fill in the blanks.