Critiquing "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" (Ch.1, p.40-49)
Ha! It's still Wednesday! This post's on-time! He slides into home!
Ere we return to the contents of I_ Don't Have Enough Faith..._ scheduled for today, I wish to regale you with a joke - one made by my father's side of the family whenever the occasion is suitable.
Imagine, if you will, that the entire family is about to sit down to a meal. Prior to seating herself, one of the cooks - likely my grandmother - notices the oven has been left on, even though its contents have long since been removed to the table.
She immediately demands: "Who left the oven on?!"
Whereupon one of us replies: "Well... I guess we all did."
Cue much laughter and mirth. Or groans and denunciations. Whichever happens to suit your temperament. You get it though, right?
Sure you do. But wait! There's more. Please imagine that after the joke is acknowledged, my grandmother once again asks: "Seriously, though! Who left the oven on?!"
Oops - turns out she really is a little upset about this. We probably shouldn't have joked about it. The atmosphere grows a little uncomfortable.
But not as uncomfortable as when two voices pipe up from the end of the table: "We just told you."
The voices belong to two men named Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. They were in town for the holiday, so my family invited them over. My father's a fan of Geisler's work. He bought me a copy of The Big Book of Bible Contradictions for Christmas one year.
"Excuse me?" my grandmother might reply (might, because we are of course firmly in the territory of fiction now).
"We all left the oven on," Geisler and Turek say again.
"Yes, but who forgot to turn it off?" my grandmother asks.
"Everybody!" Geisler and Turek respond. They are smirking to each as they say this, clearly congratulating each other on their brilliance. Everyone else, meanwhile, is exchanging nervous glances. On the one hand, they're guests in our home and we must treat them well. On the other hand, they're being jerks, and they don't even seem to realize it; it's as if they really, truly believe they've addressed the question. Something should be done.
So, as is the way with anecdotes, especially fictional ones, I become the hero of the story by saying: "OK. Who removed the turkey from the oven and did not proceed to then twist the knob to the 'off' position?"
At this point, the culprit sheepishly owns up. My grandmother gives him an appropriately withering look. Luckily, however, her glare transmits far less ire than it might have otherwise. By now, most of her anger has been diverted and firmly fixed toward toward our guests.
OK. That's my tale. Please keep it in mind as we return to today's pages of I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist.
When last we left our heroes (I mean authors Geisler and Turek, not Joe and me... lest there be any confusion), we had just been introduced to their patented Road Runner Tactic.
Just to review: the Road Runner Tactic is "the process of turning a self-defeating statement on itself" (39), so named because:
it reminds us of the cartoon characters Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote... Just when the Coyote is gaining ground, the Road Runner stops short at the cliff's edge leaving the Coyote momentarily suspended in midair, supported by nothing. As soon as the Coyote realizes he has no ground to stand on, he plummets to the valley floor and crashes in a heap.
Well, that's exactly what the Road Runner tactic can do to the relativists and postmodernists of our day. It helps them realize that their own arguments can't sustain their own weight.
The authors primarily intend to utilize this tactic to defeat claims that all truths are relative, or that all truths might as well be relative since it's impossible to know anything for certain - claims they have labeled ornery agnosticism. The reason they seek to invalidate ornery agnosticism, of course, is because it provides a convenient excuse for people not to believe evidence for their Christian claims.
So they list multiple examples of how one might become an "absolutely fearless defender of truth" (p.39 - no, really) by deploying the Road Runner Tactic against
self-defeating postmodern assertions such as: "All truth is relative" (Is that a relative truth?); "There are no absolutes" (Are you absolutely sure?); "True for you but not for me" (Is that statement just true for you, or is it true for everyone?).
You see their point - and presumably, also the point of my story.
Yes, the Road Runner Tactic allows for some fun "Gotcha!" moments, but it doesn't remotely address the actual argument of the ornery agnostic, does it? It's just a quibbling over semantics - a diversion from the real issue.
Let's Tarantino back real quick to my grandmother, who is an excellent example of an ornery agnostic because she's demented and has Alzheimer's. Her five senses and memory are constantly misinforming her. Let's say she has what alcoholics call "a moment of clarity" - she becomes briefly, terrifyingly aware of her mental illness - and looks over to Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, who happen to be standing by her at the time.
"Help!" she says. "I can't tell what's real! I can't know anything for sure!"
"Oh?" one of them replies, unable to keep a smile from creeping onto his face. He knows he's about to look like a super genius. "Do you know that for sure...?"
In this scenario, hopefully my grandmother maintains her sanity long enough to kick one or both of them in their groins. But perhaps she doesn't, because before things go any farther someone nearby might roll their eyes and say to the apologists: "OK, I'll answer. No, she doesn't know that for sure. Maybe her brain is telling her truth, but she can't tell. Duh!"
Similarly, if any ornery agnostic says: "Since our brains are capable of misinforming us, we can never be completely certain of our findings."
And Messrs. Geisler & Turek respond: "Are you certain of that?"
The ornery agnostic is quite within his or her rights to answer: "No. Maybe my brain always tells the truth, but I can't be sure. That's the point."
QED. So much for the Road Runner Tactic's disproving of the ornery agnostic's position - which doesn't mean it's useless, only misapplied in this case. Thumbing through the second chapter, I see other points at which Geisler and Turek deploy the R.T.T. quite effectively. Here are a few other paraphrased examples of theirs, both hits and misses:
- "I don't believe in the Law of Causality." "What caused you to come to that conclusion?" (Thumbs up.)
- Page 40: "All truth is relative!" "Is that a relative truth?" ("Nope, you're right. It's not. So we've identified one truth that is. Yay." Bad usage.)
- Page 43: "I'm skeptical about everything." "Oh? Are you skeptical about skepticism?" (What is that even supposed to mean? Oy vey.)
- Page 59: Off-hand, the doctors' attack on Hume's principle of empirical verifiability looks solid, but then I'm not really schooled in Hume. In regards to Kant, I think they make the same error I've been trying to illustrate for these last two posts. Kant's point is clear to those willing to honestly wrestle it.
CHECKING ARGUMENTS AGAINST REALITY
Here's another, more simple way of putting all of the above:
When Geisler and Turek say that truth is knowable, it's implicit that they mean: "People can accurately observe Reality."
We know for a fact, however, that many people like my grandmother cannot accurately observe Reality.
We also know that people who cannot accurately observe Reality are often incapable of understanding their condition.
So Geisler and Turek are quite simply wrong here, just as biologists were quite simply wrong (and to their credit, understood they were wrong) when they decided it was physically impossible for a bumblebee to fly. They've gotten so hung up on their rhetorical argument that they've failed to notice its departure from their actual experience (an obvious irony when we're discussing ornery agnosticism, but there it is).
That's a mistake with a history, especially in religious apologetics.
NEXT: As we cross over into Chapter 2, we hopefully finish up with I Don't Have Enough Faith's treatment of Agnosticism - and after having spent so much time showing why they're wrong to discount it like they do, nevertheless (reservedly) agree with Messrs. Geisler & Turek that it's not a worthy a world view.