Why They Don’t Return

As a framework for continuing the present discussion, we can consider a person’s religious opinions as though they had a numerical probability. Of course, as was said earlier, probability is a formalization of degrees of belief, and as a formalization, it can only be an approximate representation of people’s real behavior. Evidently people are not in fact typically assigning such numbers. Nonetheless, the very “rigidity” of such numerical assignments can help us to understand the present issue.

In some cases, then, a child will effectively take the probability of his religious opinions to be 100%. As said in the linked post, the meaning of this is that, to the degree that 100% is the correct approximation, it is approximately impossible for him to change his mind, or even to become less sure of himself. P. Edmund Waldstein might be understood as claiming to be such a person, although in practice this may be more a matter of a mistaken epistemology which is corrigible, and consequently the approximation fails to this extent.

In the previous post, one of my conditions on the process was “given that he is capable of looking at the world honestly.” This condition basically does not apply to the person assigning the probability of 100%. In effect, he is unable to see any evidence against his position.

But suppose our approximate probability is very high, but not 100%, as for example 99.99%. This is not a balanced assessment of the real probability of any set of religious claims, but is likely a good approximation of the assessment made by a child raised very devoutly in a religion. So if the person correctly assesses the evidence that arrives throughout his life, that probability must diminish, as described in the previous post. There will of course be individual cases where a person does not have the 100% assignment, but cannot or will not correctly assess the evidence that arrives, and will either continually increase his assignment, or leave it unchanged throughout his life. The constant increase is more likely in the case of converts, as in the linked post, but this also implies that one did not start with such a high assignment. The person who permanently leaves it unchanged might be more correctly described as not paying attention or not being interested in the evidence one way or another, rather than as assessing that evidence.

But let us consider persons in whom that probability diminishes, as in the cases of Shulem Deen and of St. Therese discussed in the previous post. Of course, since evidence is not one sided, the probability will not only diminish, but also occasionally increase. But as long as the person has an unbalanced assessment of the evidence, or at least as long as it seems to them unbalanced compared to the evidence that they see, the general tendency will be in one direction. It can be argued that this should never happen with any opinion; thus Robin Hanson says here, “Rational learning of any expected value via a stream of info should produce a random walk in those expectations, not a steady trend.” But the idea here is that if you have a probability assignment of 99% and it is starting to decrease, then you should jump to an assignment of 50% or so, or even lower, guessing where the trend will end. And from that point you might well have to go back up, rather than down. But for obvious reasons people’s religious opinions do not in fact change in this way, at least most of the time, regardless of whether it would be reasonable or not, and consequently there are in fact steady trends.

So where does this end? The process causing the assessment to diminish can come to an end in one way if a person simply comes to the assessment that seems to him a balanced assessment of the evidence. At this point, there may be minor fluctuations in both directions, but the person’s assessment will henceforth stay relatively constant. And this actually happens in the case of some people.

In other persons, the process ends for reasons that have nothing to do with assessing evidence. St. Therese is certainly an example of this, insofar as she died at the age of 24. But this does not necessarily mean that her assessment would have continued to diminish if she had continued to live, for two reasons. First, the isolated character of her life, meant that she would receive less relevant evidence in the first place. So it might well be that by the time of her death she had already learned everything she could on the matter. In that sense she would be an example of the above situation where a person’s assessment simply arrives at some balance, and then stays there.

Second, a person can prevent this process from continuing, more or less simply by choosing to do so, and it is likely enough that St. Therese would have done this. Fr. Joseph Bolin seems to advocate this approach here, although perhaps not without reservation. In practice, this means that one who previously was attending to the relevant evidence, chooses to cease paying attention, or at least to cease evaluating the evidence, much like in our description of people whose assessment never changes in the first place.

Finally, there are persons in whom the process continues apparently without any limit. In this case, there are two possibilities. Either the person comes to the conclusion that their religious opinions were not true, as in my own case and as in the case of Shulem Deen, or the person decides that evidence is irrelevant, as in the case of Kurt Wise. The latter choice is effectively to give up on the love of truth, and to seek other things in the place of truth.

As an aside, the fact that this process seems almost inevitably to end either in abandoning religious claims, or in choosing to cease evaluating evidence, and only very rarely in apparently arriving at a balance, is an argument that religious claims are not actually true, although not a conclusive one. We earlier quoted Newman as saying:

I have no intention at all of denying, that truth is the real object of our reason, and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premiss or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution; but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically; and in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run; and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career.

Newman explains this fact by original sin. But a more plausible explanation is that religious claims are simply not true. This is especially the case if one considers this fact in relation to the normal mode of progress in truth in individuals and in societies.

But getting back to the main point, this explains why they “do not return,” as Shulem Deen says. Such a return would not simply require reversing a particular decision or a particular argument. It would require either abandoning the love of truth, like Kurt Wise, or reversing the entire process of considering evidence that went on throughout the whole of one’s life. Suppose we saw off a branch, and then at the last moment break off the last little string of wood. How do we unbreak it? It was just a little piece of wood that broke… but it is not enough to fix that little piece, with glue or whatever. We would have to undo all of the sawing, and that cannot be done.

While there is much in this post and in the last which is interesting in itself, and thus entirely useless, all of this evidently has some bearing on my own case, and I had a personal motive in writing it, namely to explain to various people what expectations they should or should not have.

However, there is another issue that will be raised by all of this in the minds of many people, which is that of moral assessment. Regardless of who found the truth about the world, who did the right thing? Shulem Deen or St. Therese?


Neither Will They Believe if Someone Rises From the Dead

Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

It is ordinarily understood that Abraham is blaming the men for refusing to believe Moses and the prophets, and indeed, for refusing no matter how strong the reasons given for believing them.

While one should refrain from judging people subjectively, it seems reasonable to think that such an absolute refusal is morally blameworthy. In this sense, Hume’s refusal to accept the fact of a miracle on any testimony whatsoever is morally blameworthy. But this is not limited to people’s rejection of religious beliefs or testimony in favor of them. In a similar way, without remarking on his subjective situation, Kurt Wise’s refusal to accept the fact of evolution, no matter how much it is supported by evidence, may be morally blameworthy.

But Abraham’s statement in the parable may be true in a more general way, one which is not relevant to praise or blame. It can be understood as a general statement about the relationship between testimony and external support such as miracles. If someone is a credible witness, a miracle may support his testimony. But if someone is not a credible witness, he will not suddenly become credible because a miracle happens.

In May 1990, Bishop Pavao Zanic published a statement, “The Truth about Medjugorje” (text here, pp. 45-63). This text contains the following:

16. The “seer” Ivan Dragicevic. Regarding the “great sign”, Vicka mentions this 13 times in the diaries, it is mentioned 14 times in the Parish chronicle, 52 times on the cassettes, and on numerous occasions in talks with the bishop. In the spring of 1982, I asked the “seers” to write everything they knew about the sign without making the “secret” public. The way I suggested they do it was to write down information on paper in duplicate. Then this would be sealed in an envelope and one copy would remain with them, and one with the bishop. Then, when the “sign” occurs, we would open the envelopes and see whether or not the “sign” was predicted. Father Tomislav Vlasic, pastor of Medjugorje at the time, told the “seers” to say that Our Lady had told them not to write anything down for anybody, and so they did not. Ivan Dragicevic was in the Franciscan minor seminary at Visoko, Bosnia at that time and he wasn’t informed of this on time. Two members of the first commission, Dr. M. Zovkic and Dr. Z. Puljic (now bishop of Dubrovnik), went to visit Ivan in Visoko. They gave him a sheet of paper which was somewhat greenish in colour with questions typed out on it. Ivan wrote down the content of the “sign”, dated the document and signed it in their presence without a word or any sign of fear. A few years later, Father Laurentin wrote that Ivan told him personally that he wrote absolutely nothing down on that sheet of paper and that he tricked the two members of the commission. On 7 March 1985, three members of the commission went to ask Ivan if what Laurentin writes is true. Ivan said it was true, and that they could freely go ahead and open the envelope in the chancery office because in it they will only find a white sheet of paper. They came back to Mostar where the commission was having a meeting and before all the members, they opened the envelope. In the envelope on a greenish sheet of paper they found written the content of the sign:

Our Lady said that she would leave a sign. The content of this sign I reveal to your trust. The sign is that there will be a great shrine in Medjugorje in honour of my apparitions, a shrine to my image. When will this occur? The sign will occur in June. Dated: 9 May 1982. Seer: Ivan Dragicevic.

“There will be a great shrine” is intended to mean that one will be miraculously created, without being built by human beings. And although in principle it is possible to take “the sign will occur in June” ambiguously, namely that it will occur in June of an unknown year, it is plain enough that Ivan was writing about June 1982.

Needless to say, this did not happen. And the consequence is that Ivan Dragicevic is not a trustworthy witness to the truth. He is not trustworthy because of the false claim that there would be such a sign, and he is not trustworthy because of the false claim that he wrote nothing on the paper.

And the fact that he is not trustworthy will not be changed simply by external support. His testimony is not credible. And it remains that way even if rosaries turn to gold, and would remain that way even if someone were to rise from the dead.


Flood Geology

Much as John Woodmorappe interprets the tree ring evidence, young earth creationists attempt to understand geology in a similar way. Thus for example Andrew Snelling discusses the fossil record:

For many people, the fossil record is still believed to be “exhibit A” for evolution. Why? Because most geologists insist the sedimentary rock layers were deposited gradually over vast eons of time during which animals lived, died, and then were occasionally buried and fossilized. So when these fossilized animals (and plants) are found in the earth’s rock sequences in a particular order of first appearance, such as animals without backbones (invertebrates) in lower layers followed progressively upward by fish, then amphibians, reptiles, birds, and finally mammals (e.g., in the Colorado Plateau region of the United States), it is concluded, and thus almost universally taught, that this must have been the order in which these animals evolved during those vast eons of time.

However, in reality, it can only be dogmatically asserted that the fossil record is the record of the order in which animals and plants were buried and fossilized. Furthermore, the vast eons of time are unproven and unproveable, being based on assumptions about how quickly sedimentary rock layers were deposited in the unobserved past. Instead, there is overwhelming evidence that most of the sedimentary rock layers were deposited rapidly. Indeed, the impeccable state of preservation of most fossils requires the animals and plants to have been very rapidly buried, virtually alive, by vast amounts of sediments before decay could destroy delicate details of their appearance and anatomy. Thus, if most sedimentary rock layers were deposited rapidly over a radically short period of time, say in a catastrophic global flood, then the animals and plants buried and fossilized in those rock layers may well have all lived at about the same time and then have been rapidly buried progressively and sequentially.

Insofar as one understands geological strata in the manner of James Hutton, the evidence cited is good evidence for evolution. Snelling, however, says that this is a misinterpretation of geology. According to him, “the vast eons of time are unproven and proveable, being based on assumptions about how quickly sedimentary rock layers were deposited in the unobserved past.” The idea is that since no one can go back and look at the past, it is unobserved and unobservable. Consequently nothing can be proven about it. This is a mistake, for the same reasons that Hume is mistaken in supposing that we cannot have probable knowledge about the future.

In any case, Snelling contradicts himself in the next sentence, saying, “Instead, there is overwhelming evidence that most of the sedimentary rock layers were deposited rapidly.” If claims about the past are unproven and unproveable and must be based on assumptions, this will apply equally to the claim that the sedimentary rock layers were deposited rapidly. If overwhelming evidence for this is possible, then it is also possible to have overwhelming evidence that they were deposited slowly.

Apart from the fact that it is not true that most fossils are in an “impeccable state of preservation,” and not true that they typically preserve “delicate details of their appearance and anatomy,” Snelling’s implication that evidence regarding the rate of deposition is possible after all, is fatal to his account, because the overwhelming evidence is precisely on the opposite side. His account may sound plausible on its face, but this plausibility depends on speaking in generalities and refusing to apply the account to the actual details found in the rocks.

For example, Gregg Davidson, responding to this kind of thinking, says:

There are many places around the earth with layers of salt, some thousands of feet in thickness. Just off the southern coast of the United States in the Gulf of Mexico, thick salt deposits sit beneath thousands of feet of sediment. These deposits lie within the layers that are said to have been deposited by the Flood.

We understand how salt beds form. At locations such as the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, or at the Dead Sea at the border of Israel and Jordan, salt is actively forming. Salt beds form when water is evaporated. During evaporation, the concentration of dissolved ions increases until the water cannot hold the salt in solution anymore and mineral salt begins to form. If a presently unknown or poorly understood process could produce salt without evaporation, as argued by young-earth advocates, it would quickly dissolve as soon as it came into contact with flood water, just as the salt from your saltshaker rapidly dissolves when added to water or moist food.

One might argue that the waters from the Flood could have evaporated to leave behind the salt deposits we see today, but there is a serious problem. The thousands of feet of sediment on top of the salt is also said to be from the Flood, meaning the flood waters cannot have evaporated to produce the salt and still be present and violent enough to transport thousands of feet of sediment to the same location. In other words, a single flood cannot be called upon to explain both the salt and the overlying sediment. For those who wish to argue that natural processes could have been vastly different during the Flood, there are at least two replies. First, under such a scenario, there is no point in Flood Geology studies any more than in normal studies, for nothing could be gained by the study of unknowable processes. A more important question, however, would be to ask why God would alter natural processes just to make Flood sediments look like they are not flood sediments. What would the purpose be? (We will revisit this thought later.)

Note that the formation of salt beds requires repeated evaporation, and consequently it will take an extremely long time to form a layer thousands of feet thick.

Davidson goes on to discuss numerous other details that cannot be explained by a process of rapid deposition:

The Grand Canyon is made up of a sequence of layers that defies any reasonable attempt to explain by a single flood. The alternating layers of limestone, sandstone and shale each form in unique environments. If these deposits were formed at different times under various sea-level stages, it is quite simple to explain the different grain sizes and rock types as a function of depth and distance from the shore line. If explained with a single catastrophic flood that abided by God’s natural laws of physics and chemistry, logic must be stretched beyond the breaking point.

As a very simple observation, consider instructions given in virtually every gardening book. A good soil will have a mix of sand, silt and clay. To determine the quality of your soil, you take a handful or two, put it in a clear container, add water and shake it up. When you stop shaking, the coarse grained material will settle out first resulting in a sequence of layers: sand on the bottom, then silt, then clay. You can readily see how much of each you have by the thickness of each layer.

This is informative of what we see in flood deposits. As moving flood waters slow down, finer and finer grained sediment settles out resulting in a “fining upward” sequence. If most of the Grand Canyon layers were laid down by the Flood, then we should see the same thing – a “fining upward” sequence. Instead, we see a series of alternating layers of fine and coarse grained material, with smaller-scale alternating layers within the larger ones. Increasing the violence of a flood does nothing to negate the standard order of deposition. Repeated surging of flood waters across the surface likewise offers little explanatory power; in this case we might expect successive layers, each with their own “fining upward” sequence, but such is not what is observed. Further, the Grand Canyon includes multiple layers of limestone, which are never found in flood deposits of any magnitude. Even in floods as massive as one thought to have catastrophically deluged the once dry Mediterranean Sea basin with thousands of feet of water – limestone beds are conspicuously absent.

I could give examples of responses to these kinds of considerations, but it would be a pointless exercise, essentially a repeating of the previous post. The reason that James Hutton and geologists like him came to the conclusion of “indefinite” time periods was that this is simply what is indicated by the rocks, and the misinterpretations of flood geology and the like are simply postulates made for the sake of a personal decision for personal motives, like that of Kurt Wise, with very little relationship with actual evidence.

Fr. Brian Harrison’s Bomb Shelter

Fr. Brian Harrison complains about “Bomb-Shelter Theology”:

Those who anxiously whittle down and attenuate the traditional Catholic faith to the point where it includes no affirmations whatever about physical, material realities (such as conception, virginity, crucified corpses, the earth, sun, stars, etc.), on the grounds that such matters fall within the competence of “science,” do a very good job of what they set out to do: their theological bomb-shelter is indeed impregnable against any possible bomb which might be launched by physicists, geologists, historians, etc. No such missile could ever damage that kind of “faith,” any more than a cloud can be damaged by firing a shot-gun at it: there is nothing solid there with which the shot might possibly collide. Nevertheless, if the Catholic Church ever came to adopt, or even officially permit, this scientifically-ever-so-respectable theology, her rational credibility would suffer death by the “asphyxiation” of self-contradiction. Let us see why this is the case.

The Roman Catholic Church’s basic stance toward religious truth is not that of a plodding investigator. Rather, it is that of a faithful witness. Unlike scientists who search for truth in nature, or Protestants who search for it in the Bible, the original Church dating back to Christ Himself claims to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years, handing it on faithfully and continuously from generation to generation, like a flaming Olympic torch which is scrupulously kept alight as it is passed from runner to runner. This is why her theologians can never simply imitate the methodology of other disciplines, in which the mark of intellectual integrity is open-mindedness, and a modest willingness to acknowledge and correct past mistakes. That kind of “modesty” is a luxury which the Catholic Church simply cannot afford; or at least, she can afford it only to a limited and circumscribed extent: that is, in regard to past teachings or theological positions to which she has never committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way.

For the credibility of an investigator and that of a witness have to be judged according to very different criteria. An investigator only need avoid self-contradiction in what he says at any given time. Provided he does that, he may – and indeed, should – contradict what he said only yesterday, if he happens to have found new evidence overnight that his previous view was mistaken. But a witness in a court of law is subject to more exacting requirements. Unlike the investigator, he is asking us to believe certain things on the strength of his word, not on the basis of publicly available data which the rest of us can inspect and evaluate for ourselves. He is asking us to trust him as a reliable source of information which is otherwise inaccessible to the rest of us. This means that in order for him to be credible in the claims he makes, he must avoid not only contradicting himself while under cross-examination today; he must also avoid contradicting today what he said yesterday -or the day before. Once he gives his clear, emphatic, sworn testimony to something, he must forever stick by it, and be able to defend it, on pain of destroying his whole credibility. Now, things like creeds and dogmas and solemn papal or conciliar definitions are the emphatic “sworn testimony” of the Catholic Church in bearing witness to the truth of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ and in the natural moral law. So are those doctrines which, even though not defined in such specific documents, have been taught by a solid consensus of Popes and Catholic Bishops round the world as being “definitively to be held.”

This analogy should help us to see the folly of those modern theologians and exegetes who think it admissible to indulge in “bomb-shelter” theology to the extent of discarding or “re-interpreting” those definitively taught doctrines from our Catholic heritage which they feel are – or even might be in future – vulnerable to scientific bombardment. Because they are imitating the investigative mentality of the merely human disciplines (“let’s be humbly willing to correct our mistakes”), they can enjoy a superficial aura of intellectual sophistication and respectability, especially if (as usually happens) these scholars work in a university environment. What they fail to realize is that, precisely from the standpoint of intellectual credibility, this “pick-and-choose Catholicism,” which clings to scientifically “untouchable” doctrines while surrendering the scientifically “vulnerable” ones, is simply laughable. If the Church were an unreliable witness on any one definitive doctrine – a “sworn statement” – then there would be no justification for continuing to believe any of the rest. If it were true that science could demonstrate the falsity of one or more such doctrines, the intelligent response would not be to “correct,” “reinterpret,” or otherwise patch up those particular doctrines, while continuing to preach and teach the rest as though nothing had happened. The intelligent response would be that which has in fact been chosen by such ex-theologians as Charles Davis and Anthony Kenny (but not, for instance, by Hans Küng): complete abandonment of the Catholic Church. Outright apostasy can at times have a certain amount of intellectual integrity and coherence about it; mere heresy is always intellectually bankrupt.

Fr. Harrison seems to be saying something like this: Catholics only believe in Catholic doctrine because they believe that the Church is trustworthy. If the Church ever “committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way” to something, and that thing turned out to be false, then the Church would not be trustworthy. Therefore there would be no reason for anyone to believe any of its doctrines.

Fr. Harrison continues:

There are many theologians today who speak as though revelation deals only with transcendent mysteries that are quite beyond the reach of human science or reason. But in fact the Church’s two-thousand-year witness includes “sworn testimony” not only to `intangible´ mysteries such as the Trinity, the Real Presence, Grace, the Redemptive value of Christ’s death, life after death, and so on, but also to “solid” truths in a more or less literal sense: those involving physical matter existing on this earth in time and space. The Church has insistently proclaimed as revealed truth, for instance, that Jesus was conceived in His Mother’s womb while she was yet a virgin, and that His mortal remains were raised to life in His resurrection. As both Vatican Councils affirm, revelation includes not only the completely transcendent truths, but also others “which in themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason” but which for many people would in fact be difficult to ascertain by their own unaided reason. Thanks to their inclusion in revelation, however, such truths “can, in the present condition of the human race, be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty, and without the contamination of error.”

In his work, The Science of Historical Theology,  Msgr. John F. McCarthy has emphasized the importance of these revealed truths which are also accessible to reason – or at least, to some people’s reason -and in particular those such as we have already mentioned, which belong to the field of history. As he says, they can be described as “revealed history,” or “past revealed reality.” The virginal conception of Our Lord, for instance, is a historical fact which is accessible to most of us only through revelation. (Indeed, it was accessible to the natural reason of only one person, Our Lady herself. Mary knew, without any help from revelation, that she had never had intercourse with any man and yet was pregnant. St. Joseph and all the rest of us needed a revelation from on high to guarantee such an extraordinary fact.)

Today’s fashionable bomb-shelter theology, however, in what might be called an overreaction to the Galileo case, refuses to accept the idea of “revealed history.” One such theologian of my acquaintance scoffed at such a concept as an oxymoron – a contradiction in terms. According to him, if a truth is revealed, then by definition it cannot be historical, and vice versa. And he appealed to Vatican II’s teaching on the “rightful autonomy of science” (which here means “science” in a broad sense to cover history as well as the physical sciences) in order to justify his position. He pointed out that in this passage the Council rebukes those Christians who neglect this autonomy. Such believers, it says, “have occasioned conflict and controversy and have misled many into opposing faith and science.”

This theologian’s thinking went more or less as follows: “We churchmen burnt our fingers badly over the Galileo case. We went right out on a limb by making statements that were open to scrutiny from the human sciences: statements about concrete, empirically observable things and facts in time and space. And what happened? The limb was rudely chopped off! We were shot down in flames! Then we were almost shot down again when some of us tried to argue with what turned out to be the scientific fact of evolution. Now at last, with Vatican II, we’ve learned our lesson. From now on, theology cannot afford to present as revealed truth any kinds of propositions which, now or in future, might come up for scrutiny by the human sciences – history, biology, astronomy, geology, or whatever. All such propositions come under the jurisdiction of these sciences, and belong to their area of “rightful autonomy.” The Church must stick to ethical statements, and truths which are completely supernatural: the kind which no human science could even investigate. That which science cannot in principle even touch, it can certainly never disprove!”

In other words – according to this approach – the task of showing the harmony between faith and reason should now be carried out by sorting through our inherited doctrinal baggage and classifying its contents according to subject-matter. Those which make statements (especially controversial ones) involving historical and physical realities (e.g. dead bodies or the conception of babies) can now be discarded as excess baggage. We are to leave them lying above ground, as it were, where they will be exposed to possible bombing-raids on the part of the historical or physical sciences. If they never actually get hit, well and good. But if they do, it doesn’t matter. They are expendable, negotiable. Meanwhile, we will gather up the remaining doctrines – the purely transcendent or supernatural ones we have received from our Catholic heritage – and scurry off with this “survival kit” to an underground bunker with a sign on the door saying “revealed truth.” Here, in our theological bomb-shelter, our faith will be utterly impregnable from all possible scientific explosions.

But this line of defence against the accusation that faith is unreasonable will not work at all. In the first place, it is clear that Vatican II cannot mean by the “rightful autonomy of science” the idea that revelation, by definition, can never include any statements of a “scientific” (i.e. physical/historical) nature. That would make the Council contradict itself. Gaudium et Spes cannot be read as contradicting Dei Verbum, which, as we have seen, repeats the teaching of Vatican I that some revealed truths are also truths in principle accessible to unaided reason. (In fact, the Council even gave a specific example of such truth: the textual history of the first sentence in Dei Verbum, §19, shows that it was carefully drafted so as to maintain that the historicity of the Gospels is a truth which is both revealed and accessible to unaided reason.) In rebuking Christians who do not respect the “rightful autonomy” of science, Vatican II did not mean there cannot in principle be any such thing as a revealed physical/historical fact; rather, it means that we must make very sure (by means of a careful exegesis of Scripture and careful survey of what has been said by the Church Fathers and Magisterium) that a given historical/physical proposition really is revealed, before we go asserting it as such to all the world. The Council had in mind here the Galileo case specifically. But even assuming that Galileo’s inquisitors were scientifically wrong (and there are now – since the 1970s – some Catholic and Protestant scholars with PhD’s in physics and astronomy who maintain that they were scientifically right, i.e., that geocentrism is the truth) their error was not in supposing that if the Bible makes assertions about physical reality, these must be accepted as revealed truth (a supposition which they did indeed make – and very rightly). Rather, their error lay in faulty exegesis: in supposing that the Bible does in fact assert a particular physical proposition (geocentrism) which it does not really assert. We have to say that that was the error which led them to trespass unwittingly into the autonomous domain of science.

After some additional discussion, he concludes the section:

It should be clear by now why this kind of dogged persistence in sticking by what we have said for two millennia is not “triumphalism,” pride, obscurantism, or mere “fear of change.” It does not harm the Church’s rational credibility at the bar of reason, as bomb-shelter theologians imagine, but is essential precisely in order to save it from the manifest irrationality of their own “solution.” A witness, in contrast to an investigator, cannot afford to “correct” serious mistakes, because he cannot afford to admit ever having made them! Imagine a witness in a court of law who finds himself embarrassed by the contrary evidence of a certain Miss A., or by that of several other witnesses in regard to his activities on a certain date at Village X. And imagine the response if the witness tries to get out of his difficulty by asking the court to continue believing only certain areas or sections of what he had previously sworn emphatically under oath: “Yes, well, what I said about Miss A. wasn’t really too accurate, I guess. But I assure you that what I said about Mr. B and Mrs. C is God’s truth! And as regards what I said about what happened at Village X on April 15, you’d best forget that. But you can take my word for it – scout’s honor! – that on April 16 I spent the whole day at Village Y, just as I said before!”

Nobody in the courtroom, of course, will henceforth take this witness’s word for anything. He has destroyed himself. And neither will any intelligent agnostic (the type of “modern man” for whom an attenuated, “demythologized,” bomb-shelter theology hopes to make the faith more credible) take the Church’s word for anything, if she retracts her previous emphatic “sworn testimony” on even one important point. If the Church could be wrong in proclaiming for two thousand years (in the teeth of rationalistic opposition, ancient and modern) that Jesus’ dead body was raised to life on the third day, why should anyone in his right senses regard her as trustworthy when she keeps on proclaiming that there are three Persons in one God, or that we are destined for heavenly glory after death?

Here, then, we see the basic error of bomb-shelter theology. It is so intent on guarding the faith from all possible attacks from the “bombs” of the secular scholarly disciplines that it unwittingly prods the Church toward a suicidal self-contradiction. In its excessive preoccupation with appearing “respectable” in the sight of the physical and historical sciences, it unconsciously flouts the first principle of the even more fundamental science of logic.

Bomb-shelter theology, as defined by Fr. Harrison, would attempt to make only statements which cannot ever have any empirical consequences. This is in fact absurd, although not exactly for the reasons that he gives. The main problem is that if it has no empirical consequences at all, it cannot have any evidence in favor of it. But any statement that people make has evidence in favor of it, and therefore it cannot avoid having some empirical implications.

However, one can make sure that those implications do not vary much from the implications of opposing theories, and this is more precisely what people actually do when they engage in this project. This has problems as well, although it is not absurd, as it is to say that one’s statements have no empirical implications at all. The main problem here is that to the extent that you make the implications match the implications of opposing theories, you reduce the amount of evidence which is left in favor of your theory. In the end, the probability of your theory will be close to its prior probability according to your implied prior probability distribution. But for many or most religious claims, this prior probability cannot be very high, and so, at least in many cases, there will be little reason to think that the claim is true.

Nonetheless, there are serious problems with Fr. Harrison’s response to this idea. Fr. Harrison claims that after a person has perjured himself, “nobody in the courtroom, of course, will henceforth take this witness’s word for anything.” This is not true even in real courtrooms, where for example people are sometimes believed about various things even after they have falsely accused other people, or falsely confessed to a crime themselves.

But it were true in real courtrooms, this would be because the person has been proved to be a liar. If it were simply proved that a person had made a mistake, that would not mean that no one would trust him about anything else. If 90% of the things a person says are true, and 10% are false, then if you take one at random, there is a 90% chance it is true, even after you notice that 10% of the things that he says are false.

Let’s look again at one of his opening paragraphs:

The Roman Catholic Church’s basic stance toward religious truth is not that of a plodding investigator. Rather, it is that of a faithful witness. Unlike scientists who search for truth in nature, or Protestants who search for it in the Bible, the original Church dating back to Christ Himself claims to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years, handing it on faithfully and continuously from generation to generation, like a flaming Olympic torch which is scrupulously kept alight as it is passed from runner to runner. This is why her theologians can never simply imitate the methodology of other disciplines, in which the mark of intellectual integrity is open-mindedness, and a modest willingness to acknowledge and correct past mistakes. That kind of “modesty” is a luxury which the Catholic Church simply cannot afford; or at least, she can afford it only to a limited and circumscribed extent: that is, in regard to past teachings or theological positions to which she has never committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way.

There is an error here very similar to the error of Kurt Wise. If the Church ever commits herself to something in a “thoroughgoing or definitive way,” and then admits that it was wrong about that thing, he says, then we will know that the Church was wrong in its claim “to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years.”

Just as Wise was implicitly assuming that he was personally absolutely certain that Scripture is inconsistent with evolution, Fr. Harrison is implicitly assuming personal certainty about something here.

In the first place, what does it mean to say that the Church committed itself to something in a “thoroughgoing or definitive way”? Does it mean the Church said, “This doctrine is true, and if it turns out to be false, then all of the teachings of the Church are false?” It is doubtful the Church has ever said such a thing, or ever would say such a thing. And even if it did, Harrison’s argument would not follow, since if the Church could be wrong about the doctrine, it could also be wrong in claiming that all of its other teachings would be false.

More likely he means to say that the Church teaches something in a definitive way if it claims as much certainty as the Church can have. “This doctrine is true, and there are no doctrines about which the Church is more certain.” Again, Fr. Harrison’s argument would not follow. If the Church can be mistaken in its most certain doctrines, that does not necessarily mean that all of them are false, just as said above about someone who is right 90% of the time. It simply means that the Church does not possess absolute certainty.

It could mean, however, that the Church is making that very claim: “There is a 100% chance that this doctrine is true and no possibility of it being in error.” Again, however, Fr. Harrison’s argument would not follow. If the Church made such a claim and turned out to be wrong, this would simply mean that the Church was wrong not only about the doctrine, but also about its ability to have absolute certainty about it. It would not follow that it possessed no truth at all.

Basically Fr. Harrison is assuming in advance that he knows that either the Church can have and does have absolute certainty about various things, or that there is no truth in the Church at all. But there is nothing necessary about this in principle.

In a second part of the essay, he sets out a syllogism with which he says that certain theologians conclude that the opening chapters of Genesis are not historical in genre:

  • Major – All Scripture (including Genesis 1-3) is inspired by God, and is therefore without error in all that the writers intended to assert.
  • Minor – Science has demonstrated that Genesis 1-3, understood as a factual, historical account of how the world and man began, would be in error.
  • Concl. – Therefore the author(s) of Genesis 1-3 did not intend to assert in these chapters a factual, historical account of how the world and man began.

He then criticizes this using a parable:

Consider this little parable. In a certain far-off land the dominant religion includes the dogma that on the dark side of the moon there are large craters full of salt water. Comes the twentieth century and space-travel. Rocket-ships finally get to photograph all angles of the moon, including the dark side. The believers are cast into deep anguish and a crisis of faith by the terrible news that, while the new photographs indeed show plenty of craters, all of them are bone-dry! At first there is a reaction of rejection. The hierarchy assures the faithful that the photographs are all faked, as part of a Satanic plot. As time goes on, however, this becomes hard to sustain, since some astronauts of hitherto unquestioned orthodoxy themselves take part in a space-flight to the moon and see for themselves the faith-shattering emptiness of those great craters, reporting this sad news to their brethren on return.

Many of the faithful leave the Church in disillusionment; but for others, faith does not remain shattered for very long. The more learned theologians soon come up with a “bomb-shelter” solution which satisfies well-educated, sophisticated believers. It can be set out in another syllogism.

  • Major – It is revealed truth that there are salt-water craters on the dark side of the moon.
  • Minor – Science has demonstrated that no water of any sort is observed in the craters on the dark side of the moon.
  • Concl. – Therefore there is invisible salt-water in the craters on the dark side of the moon.

This eminently reasonable solution comes to be accepted by the bulk of the faithful, because after all, it is logical (the conclusion follows ineluctably from the premises); it is orthodox (the traditional dogma is faithfully preserved); and by accepting the minor premise, this revised faith is perfectly in line with the latest developments in science. Armed (and comforted) by this modern development in doctrine, the guardians of the new orthodoxy can afford to shake their heads condescendingly at the tiny minority of fundamentalists, who, in their naive literalism, regard the new theology as nonsense and continue to insist on the hypothesis of hoax and fraud in all the photographs and testimonies regarding the craters. These theological illiterates, locked into their narrow, fortress mentality which leaves no room for growth or flexibility, keep on stubbornly maintaining that if the traditional interpretation of moon-water turns out to be indefensible, the whole religion will be indefensible. The only perplexing thing for the more enlightened believers is that the great bulk of their contemporaries seem to agree with the fundamentalists on this last point. The new theology, designed especially to make faith more credible for modern scientific man, seems to hold little attraction for him. The churches keep on emptying, as a greater consensus grows outside the Church that there is, quite simply, no water of any sort on the dark side of the moon.

What lesson, then, can be learnt from this comparison? Somebody will say that my imaginary syllogism is a mere caricature of the very real and currently respectable one regarding Genesis. And perhaps some non-Catholic reader will say that I seem to be very free in throwing stones for one who himself lives in a glass house: who am I to go laughing at a belief in “invisible water” when I and all orthodox Catholics profess a firm belief in the invisible Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist?

But I am not laughing at a belief in “invisible water” as such. If the conclusion to my second syllogism raised any sort of a smile on your lips, dear reader, then ask yourself why it did so. After all, suppose I had begun my tale by saying, “Once upon a time there was a tribe that venerated water as the source of all life. One of the mysteries handed down from their ancestors was that a certain sacred shrine contained an ancient phial which, as far as human eyes could see, was quite empty, but which in fact contained a sacred, supernatural water – the source and well-spring of all earthly water.” I suspect this would have elicited very few guffaws. You might have thought, “Well, they were pretty superstitious tribesmen. Anyway, what next? If this is a joke, I’m waiting for the punchline.” Whereas when you read the Conclusion to my syllogism about the moon-water, you immediately knew it was the punchline of a joke.

And that is precisely the point. What makes the “invisible water” laughable in the syllogism is the fact that it comes at the end, and not at the beginning. One expects religions to have mysteries, but normally they are traditional mysteries, handed down from what are (or at least, what believers understand to be) the authoritative, foundational sources of the religion itself. (This of course is the case with Catholic belief in the Eucharistic Presence.) But in our parable of the moon-water, its invisibility is a brand-new “mystery,” which no believer (or unbeliever) has ever heard of before! It pops up out of nowhere at the end of a syllogism. And it springs, moreover, not from some kind of organic or logical development based on the religion’s own doctrinal and spiritual patrimony; rather, it is forced abruptly upon the believers by a minor premise coming from an outside source which is coldly indifferent – even irreverent – toward these sacred sources: the merciless glare of empirical observation. The real incongruity in the situation, of course, is that the learned theologians are engaging in sophistry in accepting this new “development,” while the “stupid” fundamentalists (like the faithless bulk of their ordinary fellow-citizens) have enough common-sense to see that the whole thing is completely “phoney,” even if they might not be able to explain in an abstract way where the fallacy lies. As in the old fable, it takes the simplicity of a child to see that the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

It is not in fact as easy as one might think to give an abstract exposition of this common-sense insight; but perhaps the basic grievance of the poor fundamentalist gives us the clue. For the reason we have already given, his major complaint with the new theology of moon-water – and a very reasonable one it is – will not so much be its intrinsic implausibility (his faith may well already include other marvels as wondrous as invisible water), but rather, “Why didn’t we ever hear before now that the moon-water was invisible? And anyway, since when were we supposed to learn our religion from astronauts rather than from the gods?” Reflecting on these naive, but very pertinent questions, we can perhaps formulate the following principle:

If, in a syllogism wherein the truth of at least one premise is not immediately obvious, the Conclusion: (a) is not itself true in any obvious way; (b) is the sort of proposition which, if true, is normally reached by quite different methods of inquiry from those of the syllogism; and (c) has never been, and is not now, supported by any evidence from those methods proper to it, or by any other evidence independent of the Major and Minor of the syllogism; – then in that case it is gratuitous and unscientific to affirm that Conclusion as true. Rather, it should be presumed that one (or perhaps both) of the premises which entail such a groundless assertion must be false.

In the case of our parable, the Conclusion fulfilled condition (a), because the assertion that invisible water exists is by no means obviously true. It fulfilled condition (b), because it is the kind of proposition which, if true, would normally have to be proposed as a supernatural mystery, backed up by some pretty convincing and well-attested miracles on the part of the one proposing it. This is not, however, the way in which the sect’s theologians arrived at their “new mystery.” And it fulfills condition (c), because the founding fathers or prophets of the religion never so much as hinted that the moon-water might turn out to be invisible. Nor has any new prophet appeared declaring that the invisible water is indeed there, and backing up his claim with some astounding prodigies. And finally, there is not a shred of evidence from any other independent source for the truth of the conclusion.

(There could conceivably be such evidence, of course. We can imagine a scenario in which, with the further advance of technology, space-ships can not only photograph, but also visit, the craters. But as the first landing-craft approaches the crater-floor, disaster strikes! As it descends past the rim of the crater, still 400 feet above ground-level, the craft is rocked by a resounding SPLASH! The crew feel first their boots, then their trousers and other clothes, soaked by a rising inundation of … water no human eye can see! With the whole of planet earth watching in horror on television, the craft takes its passengers to an invisible watery grave; but the last words transmitted to earth by the doomed radio-man before his equipment sputters out remain forever engraved on the memory of the human race: “The water! It’s (gulp) – it’s (glug) – SALTY!!” For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat: the naked Emperor turns out to be clothed in splendor and majesty after all. The only moon-water believers who seem slightly embarrassed in the midst of this spectacular triumph are the more radically progressive bomb-shelter theologians, who have for years been teaching the new generation of clergy not to be so naive as to anticipate this kind of outcome from the long-awaited crater-landing. It had become axiomatic in such sophisticated circles that moon-water is to be understood as not only invisible, but also intangible.)

Once again, certain readers may object that while some people might find this all very diverting, there is no serious point to it all. After all, am I not just caricaturing responsible modern theology by my syllogism about the moon-water? Well, only in that its Major premise is clearly a lot more implausible than that of the first syllogism (i.e., the divine inspiration of the Bible), so as to make the point more clearly. But I am seriously maintaining that the reasoning process which leads today’s respectable Christian theologians to postulate a “non-literal,” or “non-factual,” literary genre for the Genesis creation accounts is every bit as invalid and unscientific as that which led our “moonies” to revise their theology in such a startling way. They produced a brand-new mystery unsupported by any appropriate evidence: invisible water. And our learned men since the middle of the last century have also produced a brand-new mystery, unsupported by any appropriate evidence: an invisible literary genre.

However, our real-life situation regarding Genesis seems to me more desperate. A century and a half after the existence of a “non-historical” literary genre for Genesis 1-3 was suddenly “deduced” from the studies (not in Hebrew literature, mind you, but in geology and biology) of scholars such as Lyell and Darwin, our exegetes are still looking for it. One recalls here the status of the planet Pluto in the late 1920s: astronomers had deduced that it “must” be out there before they actually spotted it with telescopes. Since their deduction was based on methods proper to the discovery of heavenly bodies, it is not too surprising that they found what they were looking for in short order (in 1930, to be precise). And since our deduction about the existence of a “non-factual” literary genre in Genesis 1-3 was not based on methods even remotely connected with literary criticism, it is also unsurprising that we have not found what we are looking for, even after more than a century of searching. Unsurprising – and also unreassuring as regards any reasonable prospect that the search might one day be successful. Since all appropriate literary methods have so far failed to identify the creation accounts as belonging to any known “non-historical” genre (such as poetry, drama, apocalypse, fiction, midrash, allegory, parable, etc.), and since the field of literature (unlike that of nature) now contains very little unexplored territory, then it might be time to recognize honestly that this genre which just “has to” be there is one which is permanently undiscoverable by any method at all which human ingenuity can devise! In terms of the parable, our “water” has failed not only the visibility test, but also the tangibility test. For us, not only the crater photographs, but also the crater landing-craft, have failed to discover that “water” which we believe “must” be there. This is why I say that our fantasy syllogism about the moon-water, far from caricaturing the real-life syllogism about science and Genesis, is actually too gentle with it! Today’s new “orthodoxy” regarding the literary genre of Genesis 1-3 is in fact more ridiculous than the “new interpretation” of moon-water produced in the moonies’ hour of crisis. They felt obliged to postulate the reality of invisible water; our most respected Catholic theologians have for decade after decade felt obliged to postulate an invisible and intangible literary genre for the Genesis creation accounts.

Fr. Harrison’s “principle” that “If, in a syllogism wherein the truth of at least one premise is not immediately obvious etc” is false. This should be obvious from the ad hoc method with which he came up with it in order to refute the syllogism concerning Genesis. But in any case, it would be easy enough to give examples where he would not deny that the conclusion is true, despite matching his principle. For example, using the methods of Gödel’s theorems, one can construct an equation which has no solution in the integers, and which cannot be proven by the methods of arithmetic to have no solution. One proves that it has no solution with a quite different method. It can easily be seen that this will violate his principle, unless we groundlessly assert that it has solutions nonetheless.

However, he is correctly recognizing that a syllogism “goes both ways” in terms of evidence. If the premises would ensure that the conclusion is true, then the improbability of the conclusion is evidence against the truth of the premises. The claim about the invisible moon water does indeed seem improbable, and this argues that for the likelihood that one or both of the premises is false. And the same thing is true about the argument about Genesis. To the degree that you think it unlikely that Genesis could have such a genre, you should think that it is likely that one or both of the premises in that syllogism are false.

And this is the real issue for Fr. Harrison. The conclusion of the Genesis syllogism seems improbable to him. And to the extent that this is true, this means that one of the premises is probably false. But we wouldn’t form the syllogism in the first place unless we thought that science has shown something about the origins of man and the world. This suggests that the false premise is the major premise. And Fr. Harrison doesn’t like this conclusion. Consequently he would prefer to think that science has not shown anything about the origins of man and the world.

As we have seen, religious views often have semi-political motivations. We can see this in Fr. Harrison’s parable: “For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat: the naked Emperor turns out to be clothed in splendor and majesty after all.” The terminology of victory and defeat indicates this kind of motivation. Someone who wanted to know the truth would not be defeated if his error was corrected, but he would be attaining the truth, which was after all his goal. Thus Socrates says in the Gorgias, “And what is my sort? you will ask. I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute any one else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute; for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another.” We can see the same thing in the questions, “Why didn’t we ever hear before now that the moon-water was invisible? And anyway, since when were we supposed to learn our religion from astronauts rather than from the gods?” To the degree that someone is interested in the truth, learning something new is not an issue, nor does it matter from whom it comes.

Objecting to “bomb-shelter theology,” Fr. Harrison is building himself another kind of bomb shelter. If he conceded that the Church was somewhat mistaken about various things it has said in the past, in principle it would still be possible that there is divine truth in the Church, as I said in the first part. But given that situation, Fr. Harrison would feel that it is probable that there is no such truth at all in the Church. And likewise, if Fr. Harrison accepted the minor premise, he would feel that it is likely that the major premise is false. By asserting that science has established nothing about human origins, it seems to him that he is asserting something which is overall more likely to be true. In his parable, he says, “These theological illiterates, locked into their narrow, fortress mentality which leaves no room for growth or flexibility, keep on stubbornly maintaining that if the traditional interpretation of moon-water turns out to be indefensible, the whole religion will be indefensible.” Here his intention is to defend this kind of theology, but it in fact really is a “narrow, fortress mentality.” And not simply because one should allow for the possibility of growth, but also because one should allow for the possibility that one’s whole religion is indeed indefensible.

Apart from all this, Fr. Harrison is making a mistake similar to that of Kurt Wise in a second way. Just as Wise was mistaken about the meaning of Genesis 1, Fr. Harrison is mistaken about it in more or less the same way. We have already seen that Genesis 1 is not about the order of time, but about the order of matter and form. And inasmuch as this interpretation was already suggested by St. Augustine, he is also mistaken in speaking of this as an “invisible genre” which does not previously appear in Christian tradition.

Decisions of Faith

In the implicit discussion between Kurt Wise, Trent Horn, and Gregory Dawes, Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes disagree about the truth of Christianity and Catholicism, while they agree that a person should be willing to decide about the truth or falsehood of religious ideas based on arguments. Kurt Wise, in contrast, claims that there can be no argument or evidence whatsoever, no matter how strong, that could ever bring him to change his mind.

If Wise’s claim is taken in the very strong sense of the claim to possess absolute subjective certainty, namely the kind that implies that he literally cannot be wrong, this has been more or less adequately refuted in the original post on sola meThus for example Wise holds that Scripture is the Word of God in a strong sense, namely one that implies that God actually asserts the things asserted in Scripture. Many Christians do not hold this. Likewise, Wise holds that Scripture asserts that the earth is young, and again, many Christians do not hold this. So Wise has the responsibility of justifying his position, rather than asserting that he has the infallible knowledge that he alone is right and that other Christians are wrong.

The same thing would be true if the issue were his general commitment to Christianity. Here it is a bit more complex because the real question in this case is, “Is it good for me to belong to a Christian community?“, but one can give neither a positive nor a negative answer to this question without asserting various facts about the world, facts that will differ from one individual to another, but facts nonetheless. Once again Wise will have no special claim to possess an ability to discern these facts infallibly.

If Wise is merely claiming to possess objective certainty, perhaps on account of the possession of divine faith which cannot be in error, then he should be open to changing his mind based on arguments, as Horn and Dawes hold, in the same way that a person should be open to acknowledging mistakes in his mathematical arguments, should someone happen to point out such mistakes.

However, our earlier discussions suggest that the real issue is different, that it is not a question of any kind of certainty, whether subjective or objective. We have seen that belief in general is voluntary, and that it involves various motives. We have seen that this applies especially to beliefs remote from the senses, and to God and religion in particular. All of this suggests that something different is at stake in claims such Wise’s. Let’s look again at Wise’s concluding statement:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

He seems to suggest having reasons for holding young earth creationism, namely reasons which would make it likely to be true. In particular, “that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.” But if God says something, this seems to mean it is true. So he appears to be claiming a reason to think that creationism is objectively true. On the other hand, “If all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist,” stands directly in contrast to this. In other words, here he seems to be saying that the kind of reasons that make a thing likely to be true or false do not matter to him.

The truth of the matter is the latter more than the former. In other words, someone who says about a religious issue, “No evidence could ever change my mind about this,” is not saying this because he possesses the kinds of certainty discussed above. Rather, he is suggesting that evidence and his motives for belief are detached from one another to such an extent that differences in evidence will never give him a sufficient motive to change his decision to believe.

We can see this in Wise’s description of his personal decision, found in the same short text from In Six Days.

Eighth grade found me extremely interested in all fields of science. For over a year, while others considered being firemen and astronauts, I was dreaming of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard University and teaching at a big university. I knew this to be an unattainable dream, for I knew it was a dream, but …well, it was still a dream. That year, the last in the series of nine years in our small country school, was terminated by the big science fair. The words struck fear in all, for not only was it important for our marks and necessary for our escape from the elementary sentence for crimes unknown, but it was also a sort of initiation to allow admittance into the big city high school the next year. The 1,200 students of the high school dwarfed the combined populations of three towns I lived closer to than that high school. Just the thought of such hoards of people scared us silly. In any case, the science fair was anticipated years in advance and I started work on mine nearly a year ahead of the fair itself.

I decided to do my science fair project on evolution. I poured myself into its study. I memorized the geologic column. My father and I constructed a set of wooden steps representing geologic time where the run of each step represented the relative length of each period. I bought models and collected fossils. I constructed clay representations of fossils I did not have and sketched out continental/ocean configurations for each period. I completed the colossal project before the day of the fair. Since that day was set aside for last minute corrections and setup, I had nothing to do. So, while the bustle of other students whirred about us, I admitted to my friend Carl (who had joined me in the project in lieu of his own) that I had a problem. When he asked what the problem was I told him that I could not reconcile what I had learned in the project with the claims of the Bible. When Carl asked for clarification, I took out a Bible and read Genesis 1 aloud to him.

At the end, and after I had explained that the millions of years of evolution did not seem to comport well with the six days of creation, Carl agreed that it did seem like a real problem. As I struggled with this, I hit upon what I thought was an ingenious (and original!) solution to the problem. I said to Carl, “What if the days were millions of years long?” After discussing this for some time, Carl seemed to be satisfied. I was not — at least not completely.

What nagged me was that even if the days were long periods of time, the order was still out of whack. After all, science said the sun came before the earth — or at least at the same time — and the Bible said that the earth came three days before the sun. Whereas science said that the sea creatures came before plants and the land creatures came before flying creatures, the Bible indicated that plants preceded sea creatures and flying creatures preceded land creatures. On the other hand, making the days millions of years long seemed to take away most of the conflict. I thus determined to shelve these problems in the back recesses of my mind.

It didn’t work. Over the next couple of years, the conflict of order nagged me. No matter how I tried, I could not keep the matter out of mind. Finally, one day in my sophomore year of high school, when I thought I could stand it no longer, I determined to resolve the issue. After lights were out, under my covers with flashlight in hand I took a newly purchased Bible and a pair of scissors and set to work. Beginning at Genesis 1:1, I determined to cut out every verse in the Bible which would have to be taken out to believe in evolution. Wanting this to be as fair as possible, and giving the benefit of the doubt to evolution, I determined to read all the verses on both sides of a page and cut out every other verse, being careful not to cut the margin of the page, but to poke the page in the midst of the verse and cut the verse out around that.

In this fashion, night after night, for weeks and months, I set about the task of systematically going through the entire Bible from cover to cover. Although the end of the matter seemed obvious pretty early on, I persevered. I continued for two reasons. First, I am obsessive compulsive. Second, I dreaded the impending end. As much as my life was wrapped up in nature at age eight and in science in eighth grade, it was even more wrapped up in science and nature at this point in my life. All that I loved to do was involved with some aspect of science. At the same time, evolution was part of that science and many times was taught as an indispensable part of science. That is exactly what I thought — that science couldn’t be without evolution. For me to reject evolution would be for me to reject all of science and to reject everything I loved and dreamed of doing.

The day came when I took the scissors to the very last verse — nearly the very last verse of the Bible. It was Revelation 22:19: “If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” It was with trembling hands that I cut out this verse, I can assure you! With the task complete, I was now forced to make the decision I had dreaded for so long.

With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. However, at that moment I thought back to seven or so years before when a Bible was pushed to a position in front of me and I had come to know Jesus Christ. I had in those years come to know Him. I had become familiar with His love and His concern for me. He had become a real friend to me. He was the reason I was even alive both physically and spiritually. I could not reject Him. Yet, I had come to know Him through His Word. I could not reject that either. It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

This is not a description of discovering that creationism is objectively true and that evolution is objectively false. It is the description of a personal decision, which is framed in terms of being faithful to Christ and rejecting evolution, or accepting evolution and rejecting Christ. Wise chooses to be faithful to Christ. Since this was not a question of weighing evidence for anything in the first place, any evidence that comes up should never affect his motives for his decision. Thus he says that no evidence can ever change his decision.

I would argue that in this way too, Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes are correct, and that Kurt Wise is mistaken. The problem is that people have a hard time understanding their motives for believing things. Most people think without reflection that most of their beliefs are simply motivated by the truth and by the evidence for that truth. So if asked, “Would you change your most important and fundamental beliefs if you are confronted with conclusive evidence against them?”, most people will respond by saying that such evidence cannot and will not come up, since their beliefs are true, rather than saying that they would not change their beliefs in that situation. Kurt Wise, on the other hand, does not deny that the situation could come up, but says that he would not change his mind even in this situation.

The implication of Wise’s claim is that his motives for belief are entirely detached from evidence. This is actually true to a great extent, as can be seen from his description of his decision. However, it is not entirely true. Just as people are mistaken if they suppose that their beliefs are motivated by evidence alone, so Wise is mistaken to suppose that evidence is entirely irrelevant to his decision.

This can be seen most of all from the fact that Wise’s position requires that he make the three claims mentioned in yesterday’s post, namely that God always tells the truth, that Scripture is the Word of God in the sense that what is asserted in Scripture is asserted by God, and that Scripture asserts that the earth is young (or in the context of his decision, that evolution contradicts Scripture; he says that the conclusion that the earth is young was something additional.) If any of these three claims are mistaken, then Wise could decide to be faithful to Christ without rejecting evolution. So the framing of his decision depends on knowing that these three things are true. And precisely because these three claims together imply that evolution is false, evidence for evolution is also evidence that at least one of these three claims is mistaken. And note that in his description of the events that led up to his decision, Wise is in fact mistaken about the meaning of Genesis 1.

Since evidence for evolution is evidence that one of the three claims is mistaken, then if “all the evidence in the universe” were to indicate that evolution is true, all the evidence in the universe would also indicate that Wise has made a mistake in the way he framed his decision. Evidence remains relevant to his decision, therefore, because he may have been mistaken in this way, even if the decision in itself is not about weighing evidence for anything.

Someone could respond that Wise was wrong to frame his decision in this way, or at least to make it absolute in this particular way, but that he would be right to hold absolutely to the decision to be faithful to Christ, and to say that evidence is entirely irrelevant to this decision, as long as he does not bring in evolution, creation, Scripture, and so on.

The problem with this is that even if he frames his decision as “to be faithful or unfaithful to Christ,” the framing of this decision still requires that he assert various facts about the world, just as his actual decision did. For example, if Christ did not exist, as certain people believe, then one cannot be faithful to Christ as to a person, and again he would turn out to have been mistaken in the very way he framed his decision. So his decision requires that he assert that Christ existed, which is a claim about the world. Of course it is not very likely that Christ did not exist, but evidence is relevant to the issue, and this is only one of many possible ways that he could be mistaken. If Christ was not worthy of trust, and Wise knew this, perhaps he would make a different decision.

To put this in an entirely general way, even if your decision seems to involve only motives that seem unrelated to truth and to evidence, “this is a good decision,” is itself a claim about the world. Either this claim is true, or it is false, and evidence is relevant to it. If it is false, you should change your mind about that decision. Consequently you should always be open to evidence and arguments against the truth of your position, or even against the goodness of your decision, just as Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes assert.

There is still another way that Kurt Wise is mistaken. He is mistaken to think that evidence should be irrelevant to his decision. But he is also mistaken to think that evidence is in fact irrelevant to it. He says that he would not change his mind even if all the evidence in the universe stood against him, but this is not the case. He is a human being who possesses human nature, and he is changeable in the same way that other human beings are. It is clear from the above discussion that Wise would be better off if he were more open to reality, but this does not mean that reality does not affect him at all, or that things could not happen which would change his mind, as for example if he had a personal experience of God in which God explained to him that his understanding of Scripture was mistaken.

Sola Me Revisited

Earlier we discussed the idea of sola methe claim of an individual to possess the infallible ability to discern a doctrine to be revealed by God.

Kurt Wise, concluding his contribution to the book In Six Days: Why Fifty Scientists Choose to Believe in Creationprovides an example of someone making such a claim, at least effectively:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

Basically Wise is making three claims:

(1) God always tells the truth.

(2) Scripture is the Word of God.

(3) Scripture says that the earth is young.

It follows from these three claims that the earth is actually young. Insofar as Wise says that he would not change his mind about this no matter how much evidence was found against it, this implies that he is absolutely certain of all three of these claims. Any evidence against a young earth, in fact, is evidence against the conjunction of these three claims, and Wise is saying that he will never give up this conjunction no matter how much evidence is brought against it.

Trent Horn, in a blog post entitled Response to a Mormon Criticprovides an implicit criticism of this kind of idea when he says, “Is there anything that would convince you that Mormonism is false? If not, then why should you expect other people to leave their faiths and become Mormon when you aren’t prepared to do the same?”

Trent Horn is a convert to Catholicism, so his question can be understood as a criticism of people who would be unwilling to change their minds as he himself did, or at least he is saying that someone who is unwilling to change his mind himself, should not criticize others for not changing their minds, even if they disagree with him.

Gregory Dawes, interviewed by Richard Marshall, provides another example of such a criticism:

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig writes somewhere about what he calls the “ministerial” and the “magisterial” use of reason. (It’s a traditional view — he’s merely citing Martin Luther — and one that Craig endorses.) On this view, the task of reason is to find arguments in support of the faith and to counter any arguments against it. Reason is not, however, the basis of the Christian’s faith. The basis of the Christian’s faith is (what she takes to be) the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” in her heart. Nor can rational reflection can be permitted to undermine that faith. The commitment of faith is irrevocable; to fall away from it is sinful, indeed the greatest of sins.

It follows that while the arguments put forward by many Christian philosophers are serious arguments, there is something less than serious about the spirit in which they are being offered. There is a direction in which those arguments will not be permitted to go. Arguments that support the faith will be seriously entertained; those that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost. Philosophy, to use the traditional phrase, is merely a “handmaid” of theology.

There is, to my mind, something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort. My feeling is that if we do philosophy, it ought to be because we take arguments seriously. This means following them wherever they lead. This may sound naïve. There are moral commitments, for instance, that few of us would be prepared to abandon, even if we lacked good arguments in their support. But if the followers of Hume are right, there is a close connection between our moral beliefs and our moral sentiments that would justify this attitude. In any case, even in matters of morality, we should not be maintaining positions that have lots of arguments against them and few in their favour, just because we have made a commitment to do so.

Dawes is a former Catholic, and as in the case of Horn, his statement can be taken as a criticism of people who would be unwilling to change their minds as he himself did. According to him you are not taking arguments seriously if you know in advance, like Kurt Wise, that you will never change your mind about certain things.

I would argue that relative to the question of certainty, both Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes are basically right, in several different ways, and that Kurt Wise is basically wrong in those ways. I will explain this in more detail in another post.