How Wide the Gap?

Borit Lake Bridge

In my last post “Listening to Atheism” I ended my thoughts with some claims about what the real crux of the debate between atheists and Christians with this:

And there we have the crux of the debate when Atheists and Christians sit down and talk–how big a chasm is there between a scientific mind and faith in Christ. Believers think that chasm is not so great–that one does not have to commit intellectual suicide in order to “get with program” to use Rosenhouse’s phrase. Atheists, think that gap is a gaping chasm and on the other side is a kind of passivity about some of the most important questions in the universe and likely a smug, condescending sympathy for the poor benighted folk  who refuse to give up their intellectual freedom and integrity. The real debate between Atheists and Christians is how wide is that gap?

Not to belabor the gap metaphor but the heart of this disagreement is about the price of belief. The picture above is a good metaphor for what I’m thinking about. This is the Borit Bridge in Pakistan. Flimsy doesn’t even describe it. Everyday people walk across this bridge made of discarded pieces of wood in order to cross the Borit Lake. Now suppose you had to cross it. What criteria would you use to decide if its safe? How about trying to convince someone else that its safe?

As I think about this debate, that’s the metaphor I keep coming back to along with those two questions. One thing I reject is the idea that this is a choice between faith and reason. There is a gap between Christian belief and Atheist belief. But there is also a gap that everyone must cross if one is to declare allegiance to either world view. In other words, one does have to reject certain reasons in order to accept other reasons. This implies also that one has to accept certain definitions of evidence and reject others.

But given those caveats, the Borit bridge is a nice metaphor. Is it safe? Imagine a devoted Christian talking to someone like Rosenhouse on one side of the bridge. You can imagine them arguing about whether anyone who goes over this bridge is sane or not. The Christian says, yes it is reasonable to use this bridge. There are connected boards. It has stood for a long time. Lots of people use the bridge and even though the wood is old, the gaps in the bridge are not so large as to make believing you can’t jump them. The Atheist however, sees the flimsiest of reasons and the numerous gaps. You can understand why Jason Rosenhouse is perplexed by those who willingly and joyfully trust this ancient bridge. You can understand why he might ask:

As you can imagine, it is a source of frustration to me that most of my fellow Americans see things differently. . . I wonder what religious folks know that I do not. Do they have some insight that I lack?

But that’s only one way of crossing the gap. The atheist suggests an alternative. Not a smooth road but one that doesn’t rely on rickety reasons to support the weight of one’s belief. Trouble is that the Christian looks at this alternative and sees something like this:

Grand Canyon Leap

As in, sure you don’t have to rely on a bunch of controversial premises and there aren’t a lot of gaps but that sure is a big jump and the fall is about .06 miles. But the atheist objects, its a lot simpler and requires less leaps!

Now when I make this analogy, I have the burden to back up two different claims. The first is that even though the bridge of separated boards is old and has gaps, its still a reasonable alternative to what seems like the simpler leap. Second, I have to show why the leap across the chasm looks so perilous and not more like this:Straddling Crevasse

So let me try to do just that:

First let’s consider the reason the bridge with many small gaps is a reasonable alternative. Note I said a reasonable alternative. I’m not suggesting that either of these is iron-clad or self-evident. I’m suggesting that the connected reasons for Christian belief are reasonable to rely on not that its unreasonable to reject them. First we need to distinguish between reasons for me to believe and reasons I can give others to believe. I think later requires more demonstrable reasons than the former. If I have walked across this bridge several times, I have good reason to think it might hold me up. However, the fact that  I am reasonable in my belief because of my experience shouldn’t be sufficient for others. In other words, my experience of God is a good reason for me to continue to believe and a strong reason for me to reject arguments that say my experience is merely wishful thinking. In fact, one’s experience of the miraculous provides very good reasons to reject negative claims about the miraculous. John C. Wright is a science fiction writer and former ardent atheist who had an experience with God that converted him. When he makes this claim to atheists who then say his belief in the miraculous is irrational, Wright replies:

Obviously, I who have seen miracles ex postiori, cannot adopt the a priori assumption that miracles cannot exist and retain my integrity as a philosopher, or my honor as a man.

However, I do believe that other evidence exists other than reports of unverifiable, subjective experience. Think of the gospel account of the Resurrection as the planks on the Borit bridge. True, they are old. They do not look as secure as what we are used to when we walk on roads. They do require that one trust in one plank to get you to the next plank until the sum total of reliance on one step leads to another and another until one is safely across. I believe beyond a reasonable doubt that a man named Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived a remarkable life, made remarkable claims like he was the Son of God and that he would raise Himself from the dead, and then he was crucified and he was buried and three days later he really did walk around breathing. I believe there is more than enough evidence to prevent one from committing intellectual suicide or surrender my understanding of scientific experiments and their value in order to believe that. Of course, I also believe there is not so much evidence that one couldn’t reasonably reject these claims either. At the end of the day, the bridge does still require faith and a faith that God gives. The best our Christian can do is offer reasons that anyone who steps out on to the bridge isn’t insane.

Now for the second burden, I need to show why the Christian might think the leap over the gap is perilous rather than trivial. In this case, what I have to do is argue that atheism may not rest on a bunch of arguments but that it can’t explain certain phenomena that fill this gap between doubts about materialism and security in atheism. Consider the claims of one person who responded to my last post about listening to Atheism:

What it comes down to for me, is that the premise of atheism / materialism, does a better job of predicting the reality we see around us. If we are all products of natural selection and our consciousness just comes from our brain chemistry, then it would make sense that humanity would turn out the way it has. Not only evil and suffering, which are the obvious problems, but also weird and arbitrary quirks in our anatomy that do not seem like the result of good design. We get kidney stones. Growing teeth is very painful for infants. Then they fall out when you turn six and you get your actual teeth! Until you’re 20 and your wisdom teeth start hurting. The appendix.

If I understand this statement, then it seems that the gap between doubt and materialism is small because atheism has more explanatory power. It can make more sense of evil and suffering. If atheism is true, there is no problem of evil. What Rosenhouse calls “rottenness” is either natural (tornadoes, cancer)  and humans just have to live with them or they are the result of evolutionary traits gone a muck. We have an evolved drive for sex, security, and territory and its up to us to punish or treat those who can’t control those drives. See how neat that is? Two options that don’t involve the tension between a God who is at the same time, eternal and active in time, all knowing but allowing free will, and all good but allowing evil. To quote, Rosenhouse from my last post

. . . Invoking God to explain the universe seems like an instance of the cure being worse than the disease, of of filling one hole by digging others.

Well, it depends on the hole. I have very real doubts about the non-problem of evil for atheists, though I admit the problem of evil is the biggest problem for Christian theism. But for me and and an increasing number of non-Christians including scientists, the “hole” that represents suffering is easier to live with than the hole about the origins of life. Consider Thomas Nagel’s concerns about the Materialist picture in his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.

Here’s an excerpt from the book description:

Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. . . In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility.

Rosenhouse the atheist is puzzled by minds without brains: ” ‘Mind without brain’ , for example, could well be a contradiction in terms for all the experience we have of actual minds.”  However, it seems Nagel (who is not only a non-Christian but someone who publically said he earnestly desires that religion not be true) is puzzled with the idea of “brains without a mind”

Speaking of consciousness, we can add another agnostic to the growing list of biologists, physicists, and astronomers who sees cracks and big holes in the materialist alternative. Colin McGinn, a philosopher has argued that consciousness will remain outside of the realm of science to explain because our minds/brains just aren’t equipped to solve this problem:

From the book description:

In recent years the nature of consciousness—our immediately known experiences—has taken its place as the most profound problem that science faces. Now in this brilliant and thoroughly accessible new book Colin McGinn takes a provocative position on this perplexing problem. Arguing that we can never truly “know” consciousness—that the human intellect is simply not equipped to unravel this mystery—he demonstrates that accepting this limitation in fact opens up a whole new field of investigation. In elegant prose, McGinn explores the implications of this Mysterian position—such as the new value it gives to the power of dreams and introspection—and challenges the reader with intriguing questions about the very nature of our minds and brains.

I agree that crossing Christian bridge is something that requires faith–faith in a history and a person–but I can also say that say that the Atheist leap onto the rock of materialism involves perhaps less steps but it requires one to ignore some pretty big holes to simply reject the probability that there is something other than forces and sub-atomic particles that can explain our experience. And did I mention that its a long way down if we misjudge the distance?

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