Kenneth Howell Responds to Our Comments.

Previously I wrote about Dr. Kenneth Howell's Challenge to Atheists. Here is his response, below. I'll just post it without comment for now. See what you think. He's engaging us in a respectful manner and I think we should return the civility even if we disagree.

Response to Comments:

Thank you to all who offered sincere and intelligent responses to my electron query. I have learned from them. I am new to blogging in general, having had a myriad of other important things to do, but I am committed to honest and truthful dialogue between unbelievers and believers. Before responding to substantive issues, let me just say a word about the tone of some of these entries. After John Loftus debated Dinesh D’Souza, he was vilified by AAF bloggers in such a way that I was left wondering about the goodwill of atheists toward one another. Having read some of the responses to my query with judgmental assumptions about my knowledge level, intelligence, and goodwill, I can say without fear of contradiction that atheists are NEVER going to convince open-minded believers if they do not work hard at maintaining a level of civility that every human being deserves. I can sincerely say thanks to those who used data, good theory, and philosophical nuance to educate me.

First, some clarifications: 1) I was not attempting to argue for God, or the god hypothesis, or any such thing. In fact, I did not offer an argument at all. What I did was to pose a series of questions. Thanks to all who took it that way. My purpose is to understand how atheists think. I have always believed that I ought to listen to people’s thinking before I make judgments about their beliefs. I realize that it will take some time to figure out the AAF worldview(s). I can be patient. 2) Let me name specifically the entries I found illuminating: Ken Pulliam, Stephen, Robert Oerter, and especially Paul Wright. Remember my goal here is to understand the kind of reasoning AAF people use in their positive arguments and negative criticisms.

Now on to more substantial things. Reading some of the entries temporarily confirmed my suspicions that AAF people tend to look at explanations with the assumption that they should be all on one level and as inherently competing with one another. I am open to changing my assessment of this with further explanation but let me put it this way. When an AAF person pits an empirical hypothesis or theory, especially well established ones, against the god hypothesis, this suggests to me that he/she thinks all theories should be confirmed or disconfirmed in the same manner and/or with the same type of evidence. Recall the reference to William Lane Craig saying that nothing should count against belief in God. I would agree with Craig because I think he is just being honest about his deepest beliefs. Both believer and unbeliever can and should be open to changing beliefs about entities in science because that is the very nature of science: hypothesis, confirming/disconfirming, and theoretical revision. But no scientist can say, “I have concluded that belief in the existence of laws of nature is wrong” because to do so would be to undermine the entire enterprise of science. To assume that the laws of nature are really in nature is a foundational belief of science. (note: I understand instrumentalism in its limited and extreme forms but no need to go into that right now). No scientist should give up that foundational belief even though it cannot be proved. BTW, it is exasperating when people of all stripes say that because science “works” (i.e. makes the right predictions), it is proof that its theories are right or true or some such claim. Because science “works” does not mean that it is true. Anyway, the point is that belief in a Christian-type God is NOT on the same plane as belief in the correctness of empirical theories. It is more akin to the foundational belief in the laws of nature. It does not have to be judged by the same standards of rationality. This is why it is wrong-headed for those who want to disabuse believers of their faith to claim science “disproves” God or religion etc. It is neither effective rhetoric nor logically coherent because empirical theories and belief in God (somewhat like the belief in laws of nature) are beliefs on different levels.

This last point should not surprise us. Different realms of human knowledge have different standards. Proving the Pythagorean theorem, or for that matter any theorem in mathematics, employs no empirical evidence. Most of you are well enough educated in mathematics and science to recognize this immediately. So mathematical proofs use different standards from evolutionary theories. Why should metaphysics submit to the same standards of empirical adjudication as, say, mechanics? When a person tries to challenge a believer by pitting an empirical theory against “the god hypothesis,” I can assure that it falls on deaf ears. And not because of any deficiency in the believer, at least, not believers like me, or William Craig, or Alvin Plantinga. Such a strategy of argumentation will only be effective to a person who already accepts the assumption of reductive explanations (the god of the gaps).

Furthermore, it is fairly clear to me that any rational person must admit to multiple levels of explanation, even within the confines of empirical science. This is especially true of a person who is reasonably skeptical, i.e. who waits for evidence. Consider the laws governing the replication of DNA. These lawlike patterns are not reducible to lower level laws of mechanics in physics, at least not so far. Of course, the history of science is replete with instances of unification of laws, as in the 19th century unification of magnetism and electricity, or in Newton’s law of universal gravitation uniting planetary motion with free fall on the earth. But notice that these instances are all within roughly the same realm. There is nothing to suggest that DNA replication will ever yield to mechanics. If someone claims that in time such reductions are likely or possible to be achieved, another might respond with, “then let’s wait and see but don’t commit without evidence.”

This is all relevant because we must clarify where believers and unbelievers truly differ. So, my questions to AAF people are these:

1) Are reductive explanations a necessary feature of your view of explanations? Or do AAF people differ among themselves on this issue?
2) If Yes to the first question, why is it necessary to believe in reductionism, given that human beings use different standards of adjudication in different realms of knowledge?
3) Are we justified in believing in reductive explanations on more than practical grounds of “it works.”?
4) If a person is committed to reductive explanations i.e. to reducing it all down to one or a few levels, is this belief rationally demonstrable or is it, as I tend to think, a gratuitous assumption of a pre-rational nature?

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