An Email Discussion With Dr. Dan Lambert

Dan and I are friends and he's using my book WIBA in his college classes. We carry on a discussion from time to time and with his permission this is one of them I thought was interesting.

I'll begin with this comment from Dan:
I am rather dismayed by the quality of thinking in the writing on both sides of the “debate.” If anything, I become more and more convinced that agnosticism is the only honest and inevitable outcome of pure intellectual inquiry into the existence of God. Humans are so much more than our intellect, however.. Our choice to believe or not believe in God comes from those other domains (emotional, social, cultural, experiential, vocational).

It sounds like you could write a ground breaking book on this topic from an evangelical stand point. You would have to denigrate reason in favor of personal (mystical? pentecostal? properly basic?) experience, and then come out of that experience with some doctrinal content when all is said and done.

Not denigrate at all. What I’m saying is that human decision making is not all intellectual about anything. It is but one aspect of the decision making process. Very few Christians, however, give any effort to the intellectual aspect of Christianity. That’s the whole thing, John, we do not make any decisions about anything in life based on 100% intellectual information only.. Every decision is informed by our other domains.

In science, relatively few theories eventually become totally accepted facts or laws. All scientific discovery begins as a question and eventually a hypothesis. I think Stenger is totally wrong about the existence of God being testable. It’s too easy theologically to explain why he will never find empirical evidence for God. And it’s not because is hiding or doesn’t want to be found. It’s because God doesn’t live in a test tube, a lab or controlled experiment.

I totally agree with you on the lack of intellectual reasons for accepting things. We humans are woefully inadequate at this. That's why in my debate with Dinesh I said we should demand hard evidence for what we'll accept. I'm becoming more and more like W. Clifford, a hard rationalist, because of this. That's interesting to me. While this makes me demand "hard" evidence before I'll accept anything, it makes you demand, well, less?, or what?

I actually think the cumulative case method is best for deciding anything. That combines all domains of the human experience and requires that we put effort into our decision making. Is that too much to ask?

A hard rationalist, really John? You have to realize how totally impractical that is. How much intellectual evidence is “enough” to make every single decision? Or is this just relative to the existence of God? If so, hard rationalism seems to hide from truth because there’s always the possibility of more information being out there somewhere. Always gathering data and never making a decision. With your philosophy education I’m sure you know the weakness of that standard so you don’t need me to remind you.

I am glad that you’re still searching for an appropriate paradigm to filter the world through. It’s not an easy or clean process. Every possible lens seems to lead to some untenable conclusions. That’s probably too nihilistic.

Yes, cumulative case. We agree on that. It's the best we have. No, I'm not quite a hard rationalist, just closer to that camp than before. Being "closer" doesn't force me into any contradictions.

But just think of all the claims being made, from psychics to alien abductions, to resurrections to well, you name it. Cumulative case approaches can still be used but a greater weight placed on hard empirical evidence. Without demanding that kind of evidence how else can we decide about these types of claims?

Coin flip maybe? Actually I think this has to do with how we teach people to make decisions. I think about it like the Myth Busters TV show. They use science to try and determine if a myth is confirmed, plausible, busted or unconfirmed. They realize that science will only take us so far for some questions and that the truth of some claims can’t be scientifically confirmed or busted.. Sometimes a degree of likelihood can be estimated, though. Science is imperfect and incomplete. Philosophy is imperfect and incomplete. History is imperfect and incomplete. Human experience is imperfect and incomplete. Logic and reasoning is imperfect and incomplete.

I just don’t see why hard rationalism answers some questions better than “soft” rationalism (by that I mean using the cumulative case method and putting the emphasis on whichever domain seems to have the most/best to say about the given question). If a personal God exists, science, philosophy, history, and experience all have something to say about that God, but which one will give the most conclusive evidence? I think if it’s a personal God, then the most important factor is personal experience.

I know I’ve suggested this before, but let’s take your wife’s love for you as another case. (Gwen if I remember correctly, but I may not.) How have you determined if her love for you really exists? It’s not tangible or empirically measurable or testable, so science can’t say for sure. Philosophy has many pithy sayings about love that may give some guidance, but it won’t bring you to a conclusion. History? Not very helpful. What’s left? Your personal experience with her. Even in those occasions when you argue with each other and say things you would like to take back (which, to an outside observer would be evidence of a lack of love), her love for you is never in doubt because of your experience with her.

You know what I’m getting at.

And therein lies the rub:

I think if it’s a personal God, then the most important factor is personal experience.

But you know I can criticize personal experience as wish fulfillment, so now what? Surely there is evidence for Gwen and my love, if love is caring for each other. There is evidence we do, you see.

But a nurse at an emergency room cares for patients as well. Everything you can think of that Gwen does for you, you could get a paid professional to do. Where’s the evidence of love? Sure personal evidence could be wish fulfillment, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s no way to know empirically; that’s why it’s not within the realm of science to prove/disprove God (or Gwen’s love for you for that matter, which you choose to believe in despite the lack of hard rationalistic evidence).

Do you really think this? Do you really think neither you nor I can tell when someone loves us? That there is no evidence distinguishing a nurse's actions from my wife's actions? Surely not.

As far as empirical evidence goes for other kinds of supernatural claims check this out

Yes, I am convinced that you and I are convinced that our wives love us due to our experience with them and the feelings they give us (possible wish fulfillment there). What could a scientist possibly observe that could empirically prove that Gwen loves you? It’s the cumulative case method. You consider the things she does for you + how she treats you + what she says to you + the way she makes you feel + her responses to you + how you feel when you’re not with her + a few other factors and determine that she loves you. What is the unique factor there that make Gwen different from all other women in your life? It’s how you feel about her based on experience. That’s not empirical at all.

Thanks for the link you included below. It’s a pretty tired atheist claim that’s sadly misleading. Take this statement: "Faith has a number of features, but principle among them is that it describes cases where we believe that something is true even though the evidence on the whole does not support it. If there were sufficient evidence, after all, there would be no need for faith."

That’s just patently untrue. “Sufficient evidence” involves a lot more than what that author implies, and he’s being dishonest by claiming otherwise. The principle feature of faith is not at all what he claims. Faith takes many different forms and has many different rationales on various maturity levels. I am sure that he would quickly object to any similar absolute statement about atheists or any other subgroup to which he belongs. It’s a straw man at best.

People who see us around as outsiders to our experience all say we love each other. It's obvious to them as outsiders. A social scientist would conclude the same thing if she observed us, as would a psychologist who interviewed us both separately and together.

Could they all be wrong? Yes. Could I be wrong? Yes.

So? We're never looking for certainty.

And this faith thing is troubling me. What is it? In my opinion faith is what fills in the gaps of the probabilities. If, say there is a 70 % probability something is the case then to conclude more than that 70% probability is faith, and I reject faith based reasoning like that. To reject that kind of faith is to live and operate based on the probabilities. If there is a 70 % chance of something then that's all I can conclude and that's all I can use to base my decisions on. And so I could never give my whole life over to a 70% probability. I could only give 70% of my life over to a 70% probability. This is Lessing's ditch when applied to the past, as you know. Kierkegaard responded by acknowledging Lessing's point and therefore decided faith must go beyond what the evidence calls for. And that's what I must reject.

" is what fills in the gaps of the probabilities."

I actually think that’s a great definition and is the clear implication of Hebrews 11:1. So if your standard is 100% probability, what in life or about the world meets that standard? Certainly Gwen’s love for you doesn’t. You may be able to gather opinions from friends and trained professionals, but could they be wrong? Certainly. Why are you certain of her love for you? Not because there’s 100% probability that she loves you. It’s because you’ve gathered evidence using the cumulative case method and reached a perfectly reasonable conclusion based on a high probability. You have faith that she loves you because it’s impossible to get to that 100% plateau. If you really mean what you say in the previous paragraph, then you must reject the proposition that Gwen loves you. Be honest here, John. Your faith that Gwen loves you goes beyond the probability of the evidence (unless you redefine what evidence is, in which case you must apply that same definition of evidence to God as well).

Good point! I do go beyond the evidence sometimes when I am emotionally attached to Gwen's love. yes, you're right. We are not Spockian when it comes to responding to the actual evidence. But we need to be, how's that?

In my book I got burned with love and passion. When Gwen and I first met I was skeptical about her love below what the evidence called for. She had a rough go of proving she loved me. I doubted it at every turn. But she convinced me. And I still can be skeptical so I don't get burned again. Skepticism is still a virtue when it comes to our love.

There are a lot of women whose husbands are cheating on them but they are not skeptical enough. Many of them deny the evidence in front of them preferring bliss instead, until the bombshell explodes. Then they are shocked.

I don't think we need to be Vulcan-like. (I didn't use Spock because he is half human and exhibited emotions on occasion!). At least in matters that are not totally scientific. Even then quantum mechanics is raising a lot of questions about what we think we know. Sometimes I wonder if we can really ever know anything. Now I've taken a complete metaphysical turn.

See, it is possible to have faith and still be skeptical. I totally agree with that. I think we've just solved a lot of issues. :-)