Which is more wildly improbable: Christianity being true or Loftus coming up with a good argument?

Posted on 09/15/12 32 Comments

Last year I wrote a critique of John Loftus’ essay “Christianity is Wildly Improbable” from the book The End of Christianity. In the essay John focuses on “ten creedal affirmations” that many (evangelical) Christians accept. He purports to show that it is exceedingly unlikely that all these claims would be true from which it presumably follows that Christianity is likely false.

Summarizing my initial critique

On the first page of the essay John observes: “Evangelical Christian beliefs are so wildly improbable to me that they are ridiculous, preposterous, absurd and bizarre.” (76, emphasis added) It is a revealing statement. Essentially John’s essay never moves beyond a presentation of his own personal incredulity at how implausible Christian beliefs appear to him to be. But of course this personal incredulity is absolutely and utterly irrelevant for a Christian who already accepts that the beliefs in question are true. For this reason John’s essay is an unmitigated disaster as an example of anti-Christian atheological apologetics.

To try and illustrate how serious a misfire John’s argument is, consider the case of Dave. Dave has lived all his life in Anchorage Alaska and he truly loves the city. He loves the cold, the snow, the rain and overcast skies, the snowcapped peaks and the wildness of the land. But now Dave’s friend Mark is trying to persuade him to move with him to Waco, Texas. “Come on Dave,” Mark says, “You’ll love it!” “Oh really?” Dave retorts, “Well then convince me.” “Okay,” says Mark. “It’s blisteringly hot in Waco for much of the year. And it’s flat and sunny all the time, and you’re far from the ocean. But Anchorage is cold and snowy, rainy and overcast with snowcapped peaks and a wild land. So come on Dave, let’s move to Waco!”

Poor Mark. His apologetic works great for himself because he already prefers the heat to the cold, the plains to the mountains, the sun to the clouds. But his apologetic is utterly ineffectual for Dave since Dave prefers the exact opposites.

That is precisely John’s problem. He writes an essay purporting to offer an apologetic reason for Christians to give up their Christian beliefs. And instead all he did was write an essay expressing his personal incredulity toward Christian beliefs. But this is utterly irrelevant to those who already believe those claims are true just like Mark’s plea for Waco is irrelevant to those who prefer the cold, the mountains and the clouds.

This point can be summarized with the principle I stated, viz. that actuality trumps probability. In other words, if you already believe something is true then the fact that somebody believes it is unlikely to occur is not a reason to reject it.

Next, I pointed out that John never considers the enormous improbability of a set of claims for an atheistic worldview, including claims such as these:

1) The universe came into existence uncaused out of nothing.

2) The information in the DNA double helix was generated through undirected, non-intelligent processes.

3) Consciousness is supervenient on the brain and as a result our minds are not causually effectual in the world.

4) Morality is a social construction.

5) There is no meaning to life even if people can identify meanings in life.

At least I recognize that you don’t offer a critique of atheistic naturalism simply by claiming that it is enormously improbable that this set of claims would happen to be true. Instead, you critique it by providing reasons to think that each of these claims is in fact false. And that’s exactly what John should have done as well. Rather than make blustery statements about the wild improbability of Christian claims based on his own personal incredulity, he should have presented the positive case to believe that each of these claims is in fact false.

Critically engaging John’s rejoinder

Now, after much prodding and thirteen months of time passed, John has finally offered a response to my critique which is not-so-creatively titled “Responding to Rauser On the Wildly Improbable Christian Faith.”

This is how John opens his essay: “Dr. Rauser fancies himself as a Christian intellectual who seeks to straighten the rest of us crooked people out. We’re bent out of shape, you see. He’s gonna fix us. ‘Cause we need fixed.” Sigh. This stuff reads like dialogue straight from the cheezy 1979 cult hit film “The Warriors.” And believe me, that isn’t a compliment.

Do things get any better in John’s rebuttal? You be the judge. He responds to my point that actuality trumps probability as follows:

“When it comes to extraordinary events like miracles, Rauser claim that “actuality trumps probability.” In this context such a claim is, well, stupid (sorry). “

He then goes on to explain:

“Yes, if Jesus healed a man born from birth then it doesn’t matter what the odds were, he did. For every event there is, after all, a non-zero probability that it could happen. So if these things really happened then they beat the odds, the incredible nearly unassailable odds.

“So? How do we know they happened? How does Rauser know?”

Unfortunately John’s blather here is completely irrelevant. I illustrated the point with a very concrete example which John conveniently ignores. In the example I pointed out that it is enormously unlikely that Charles’s new neighbor will be a Swedish transsexual named Mario. So let’s say that Charles’ other neighbor Fred informs him that his new neighbor is a Swedish transsexual named Mario. If Charles were following John’s logic he would have a defeater to Fred’s claim given the enormous improbability of his new neighbor being Swedish, a transsexual, and having the name Mario. But of course this is absurd. If Charles has no reason to doubt Fred’s testimony (e.g. evidence that Fred lies or is putting him on) then he can believe it, even though it is prima facie exceedingly unlikely that any neighbor should meet that exact description.

Likewise, a Christian is a person who currently believes a set of claims about God and our relation to him. If John wants to provide a defeater to those claims he can’t do so simply by intoning that it is enormously improbable that all these claims should be true. Rather, he has to provide a direct defeater to their truth. John seems to think that simply informing Christians that he, an atheist, thinks their beliefs are improbable should be sufficient to cause Christians to rethink their beliefs. That’s laughable. And it’s also equivalent to Mark thinking that simply because he prefers the Texas topography and climate that Dave should as well.

Next, John turns to explain why the five claims of atheistic naturalism that I summarize are not equally improbable. He writes:

“Whew! That’s a lot to answer for, isn’t it? These are legitimate objections that demand detailed answers. They are the type of objections that keep believers of all stripes and colors into their respective religious faiths and cultures. I cannot hope to disabuse believers of these objections here, although I face them head on in my writings and refer to others who have written on these subjects.”

Isn’t it interesting how John has nothing of substance to defend the “prior probability” of his own claims? Really John, what is the chance that DNA arose through undirected processes? Any guess?

John then reveals why he doesn’t really believe the five claims of atheistic naturalism are wildly improbable. It is because of his faith in science to explain them some day in accord with his worldview. He writes:

“One of the reasons I trust science to give us the answers is because religious believers cannot settle their own disputes. They have no agreed upon method. They have faith.”

So John “trusts” science, but he certainly doesn’t have “faith” in science. Of course this is merely a silly semantic game. John has faith that some day  science will vindicate all the wildly improbable things he believes. And so his bold essay aiming to show that Christianity is wildly improbable really amounts to little more than John pleading to the Christian to abandon one faith for another.

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  • christthetao

    Both of you are abusing the term “wildly improbable.” It should be reserved for such statements as:

    (1) A full-grown hippopatumus with a party hat on its head will appear in my living room at 9:16 tonight by means of random quantum fluctuations alone, and sing “Old Lang Syne” in 9th Century Gaelic.
    (2) The Seattle Mariners will win the World Series some time before the sun cools.
    But seriously, to my ears the most improbable Gnu claim, on a par with the party hippo, is that every single account of a miracle given by those who claim to have experienced them, is false.

    • Crude

      At a glance, I think David’s on to something.

      To give one example, Randal, #1 on your list isn’t ‘improbable’. It’s absurd. Maybe even incoherent to reason. Now 2, I think, could be considered wildly improbable in one sense, incoherent in another sense (accounting for ‘information’ on materialism, as anything more than a subjective fiction, is difficult to say the least.)

      If something is improbable, that usually implies that it’s possible if you give it enough tries. “It’s possible for random distribution of black and white on a snow-filled TV screen may form a B&W image of the mona lisa, but it’s wildly improbable.” But it’s not improbable that, say… 2 + 2 = 0. Add it up an infinite amount of times – it will not be zero. It’s simply absurd.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Evans/100000619020207 David Evans

        Re #1, presumably you think that a particle appearing out of empty space, with no assignable cause, is also “absurd. Maybe even incoherent to reason.”. Unfortunately for that view it seems to happen routinely in quantum mechanics.

        As to #2, it seems not at all improbable that a molecule of RNA can form by chance from molecules we know to exist in interstellar clouds and comets. Or that a self-replicating system can arise from such RNA. Given that, mutation and selection account for the rest of evolution.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          A vacuum — the background in which virtual particles appear — is not nothing. If you’re suggesting that this phenomenon makes plausible the notion that the entire universe sprung into existence out of nothing uncaused then you merely show your willingingness to swallow a camel. No problem, so long as you don’t follow John’s lead in straining the gnats of other belief systems.

          “As to #2, it seems not at all improbable that a molecule of RNA can form by chance from molecules we know to exist in interstellar clouds and comets.”

          Sorry David, this reads like somebody who has not seriously engaged with the abiogenetic theories on offer.

        • Crude

          Randal’s response here mirrors what I’d say, so there’s no point repeating this. I’d also add that the problem you’re referring to with quantum physics is in reference to (among other things) “physical” causes. Luckily, we’re not limited to “physical” causes as explanations.

          And a correction:

          Re #1, presumably you think that a particle appearing out of empty space, with no assignable cause,

          ‘No assignable cause’? If that means “we don’t know the cause”, then why in the world would I think this was absurd or incoherent to reason? That’s silly of you. Our merely being ignorant of a cause isn’t the problem here. It’s when we ditch empiricism, first principles and the foundations of science itself where the problems come in. And when people pretend that they’re engaging in science, rather than philosophy or metaphysics or even religion, when they start hypothesizing things coming into existence out of absolute nothing with no cause?

          Well, that’s just perverse. ;)

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Evans/100000619020207 David Evans

            “It’s when we ditch empiricism, first principles and the foundations of science itself where the problems come in.”

            The empirical fact is that particles can and do emerge out of empty space with, as far as we can see, no cause. If you postulate a cause you are going beyond empiricism. And first principles and the foundations of science do change – for Newton they included absolute space and absolute time.

            • Crude

              The empirical fact is that particles can and do emerge out of empty space with, as far as we can see, no cause.

              “Empty space” isn’t empty space, as Randal said.

              If you postulate a cause you are going beyond empiricism.

              Sure you are, and I didn’t say otherwise.
              Here’s the problem: if you postulate it had no cause, you’re also going beyond empiricism. You’re also going against the foundations of science in a more fundamental way than any talk of absolute space or absolute time, since you’re up against rules of reason then and there.
              Science gets you as far as “we are unable to account for a physical cause in this case”. Speculate about non-physical causes if you wish (indeed, apparently this is exactly the evidence so many people have been claiming to want – evidence of something that occurs, which cannot be explained by a physical cause.) Speculate about the utterly uncaused if you also wish. In both cases, you’re setting aside science. In the latter case, you’re also blowing up the foundations of science altogether.
              But hey, maybe science and our reliance on it should be torpedoed in your view. Nothing wrong with a bit of skepticism here and there.

    • http://twitter.com/AtheistMission TheAtheistMissionary

      ” every single account of a miracle given by those who claim to have experienced them, is false”
      No, just every single non-Christian miracle claim is false. Right?

  • AdamHazzard

    I just want to add (slightly off-topic, as an aside) that your “set of claims for an atheistic worldview” is terribly misleading.

    Point (1) misrepresents atheism; it could be better restated as “The origin of the universe is not yet understood, but there appears to be no reason to attribute it to conscious agency.”

    Point (2) merely restates the consensus of modern biology.

    Point (3) conflates two different ideas (a mind may be supervenient on the brain and yet causally effectual), does not proceed necessarily from atheism, and says nothing about the existence of a god.

    Point (4) is a simplistic summary of one of many possible non-theistic interpretations of human morality, does not proceed necessarily from atheism, and says nothing about the existence of a god.

    Point (5) does not proceed necessarily from atheism, and says nothing about the existence of a god.

    To portray these as atheistic “creedal statements” analogous to the Apostles’ Creed — as statements which atheists must espouse in order to be called atheists — is to create a groaningly obvious strawman.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      “To portray these as atheistic “creedal statements” analogous to the Apostles’ Creed….”

      In Loftus’ essay he doesn’t focus on the Apostles’ Creed. Rather, he focuses on a set of beliefs that are held by a signiicant number of evangelicals and fundamentalists. (In this respect, John seems to be using the word “Creed” in a way that deviates from standard definition.)

      Consequently, I chose a set of beliefs that are widely held by atheists without ever making any claim that these beliefs are held by all or even most atheists.

      (All this is explained in my original critique.)

      As for your specific claim that I conflated views in point three, that’s simply incorrect. All I did was point out the belief that supervenience leads to epiphenomenalism. Read David Chalmers.

      • AdamHazzard

        The problem is, points 2 – 4 could equally be held by a theist. (Point 1, properly rephrased, merely defines atheism, and point 5 is so vague as to be incoherent.)

        Re. point 3, it’s far from obvious that supervenience precludes a causal influence; read Douglas Hofstadter.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          That’s beside the point. John Loftus wanted to argue that the beliefs of Christians are wildly improbable by listing five beliefs held by many Christians. Similarly, I return volley by pointing out that five beliefs held by many atheists are also real whoppers. Whether those beliefs are also held by some — or even all! — Christians is quite irrelevant to the point I was making.

          • AdamHazzard

            John attempted to argue that many specifically Christian beliefs (even if not held by all Christians) are improbable, and you responded by presenting as “real whoppers” some beliefs that are not specifically atheistic, not necessarily lies (which is what “whopper” implies) and not self-evidently improbable.

            Whatever you think of John’s argument, that’s not much of a comeback.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              Adam, you missed the heart of my rebuttal which is that pointing out that a set of claims seems improbable has no probative force for those who already accept the claims. If I have reason to believe that my new neighbor is a transsexual Swede named Mario, it makes no sense for you to retort “But what are the chances that a single individual woudl satisfy that description?!”. That would miss the point. Loftus’ argument commits the same indiscretion.

              The subsequent point about the improbability of the cumulative claims of naturalism depends on this first argument. It’s tantamount to delivering the final kick after the opponent has already gone down. So retorting “that ain’t much of a kick” doesn’t mean much since the guy is already flat on the mat.

              • AdamHazzard

                You say, “Adam, you missed the heart of my rebuttal which is that pointing out
                that a set of claims seems improbable has no probative force for those
                who already accept the claims.”

                Quite true, unless the seeming improbability is something the claimant has either ignored or willfully disregarded.

                If you make the claim that “My new neighbor is an unusually intelligent Corgi who owns a chain of delicatessens and recently married Jessica Simpson,” it’s not unreasonable for me to wonder whether any single individual would satisfy that description. Nor would it be unreasonable to suspect that you’re confused, delusional, or the victim of a practical joke. And pointing out that my incredulity has no probative value for you, since you already accept the claim, would simply be obtuse.

                When we do accept what appears to be an unlikely or counterintuitive claim, it’s usually because the evidence has pushed us in that direction. If I tell a physicist that quantum entanglement “seems wildly improbable,” the likely response would be something on the order of, “It sure does! Even Einstein felt that way at first. No one would have guessed anything as weird as entanglement to be possible, until the vast preponderance of evidence led us to that conclusion.”

                Shouldn’t the Christian response be similar? “Yep, we’re asking you to believe some pretty wild things, things that might not seem to make sense at first blush. But here’s how we know they’re true.”

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  “If you make the claim that “My new neighbor is an unusually intelligent Corgi who owns a chain of delicatessens….”

                  Stop right there. If you say that I reject your claim not because it is wildly improbable that a corgi should have such properties. Rather, it is because I have an explicit defeater that a corgi should have such properties.

                  That is precisely what I proposed John needs to do. If he wants to argue against Christian belief he has to present defeaters to that belief. He can’t simply say “That’s wildly improbable.”

                  Similarly, to be a skeptic is not simply to say “That’s wildly improbable”. Rather, it is to present a specific defeater to the claim that corgis could have the properties described.

                  • AdamHazzard

                    Rather, it is because I have an explicit defeater that a corgi should have such properties.

                    And the defeater is our experience that corgis do not have such properties. But it’s possible, if extremely unlikely, that a corgi could be as intelligent as a human being; it’s possible that such a Corgi, perhaps operating through a human intermediary, could acquire property; it’s possible, if extremely unlikely, that some kind of notional if not legal marriage between the Corgi and a human being might have been arranged or at least declared; and it’s possible, if extremely unlikely, that you missed the issue of People announcing the wedding.

                    Or it could have happened miraculously, by divine intervention. That’s possible too — no?

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      “Or it could have happened miraculously, by divine intervention. That’s possible too — no?”

                      Ironically you’re actually working against your own case Adam. You try to argue that theists have some special problem because God could perform a miracle and make a Corgi talk. But then you say that whether or not there is a God we could conceivably meet a Corgi that can talk.

                      That reminds me of the time Michael Shermer said he’d believe in God if someone prayed for an amputated limb to be regrown and it then regrew. A few minutes later he backtracked and concluded that even in that case he’d explain the phenomenon in terms of some heretofore unknown property in the human body to regenerate itself.

                      So I guess anything’s possible if you’re an atheist.

                    • AdamHazzard

                      A talking Corgi, though notionally possible, would require a stunningly unlikely confluence of multiple-point genetic mutations — maybe a molecular biologist could give a rough estimate of the unlikeliness.

                      But with an all-purpose explanation machine like “god,” no such calculation is even theoretically possible. The point is: No, you don’t have an “explicit defeater” for that scenario, as you claimed. And if you accept the idea of divine intervention, you can’t have an “explicit defeater.”

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      “A talking Corgi, though notionally possible, would require a stunningly unlikely confluence of multiple-point genetic mutations….”

                      Don’t tell that to Queen Elizabeth.

                    • AdamHazzard

                      I wouldn’t dream of disillusioning her. (Insert actual non-ironic smiley face here.)

  • http://profiles.google.com/bradhaggard Brad Haggard

    Randal, I was having a similar discussion on another skeptical blog and I thought to rework the definition of a miracle from focusing on the suspension of natural order and instead focusing on God’s agency. I think this side-steps the problem of analogy that everyone brings up, and allows us to use context in discerning a “miracle”, eg. God’s specific intervention. I liked it, but I wondered what others thought about it.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      C.S. Lewis discusses this in his book “Miracles”. He points out that when he chooses to knock out his pipe he immediately shifts the positions of countless atomic particles: a mind intervening in the nature order of events. And yet it would be absurd to think that this constituted any sort of “violation” of natural law. By the same token, God can intervene in natural events. If God opts to make a person rise from the dead he hasn’t violated any natural law any more than Lewis does by knocking out his pipe.

      • R0c1

        God is not made of stuff. He is not reducible. Likewise for souls.

        I think this is the relevant difference.

        • Crude

          God is not made of stuff.

          Depends on the God. Likewise, physics seems capable of generally countenancing things ‘not made of stuff’.

          He is not reducible.

          Ditto here, along with the issue that non-reductive physicalists abound.

          Likewise for souls.

          Considering the reducibility of the human agent, not to mention the reality of the soul, is still unsettled (and may never be settled), that opens the door to the suggestion that we’ve got access to all manner of miracles historically.

      • http://profiles.google.com/bradhaggard Brad Haggard

        The other side of that is do demonstrate how a mind can affect physical matter. I think that our conscious experience provides at least a glimpse at a model for that.

  • http://wilkinsonweb.com Dan Wilkinson

    I can’t believe you dissed The Warriors…it’s a cinematic masterpiece! BTW, I watched Taking Shelter last night…great movie, thanks for the recommendation. Though I was disappointed in the ending…but I won’t elaborate further out of consideration for those who haven’t seen it. (And nice reply to Loftus…having read both of you guys for years, it seems to me that he doesn’t really want to take any of this stuff seriously and when pushed to do so he simply retreats and starts flinging mud.)

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      The screenplay to “Take Shelter” leaves one with limited options: he’s right, he’s wrong, it’s left ambiguous. I liked the choice of ending but can understand why others would find it disappointing.

      Incidentally, the best scene is in the town meeting when he stands up and with a stentorian voice of prophetic fury declares “There’s a storm a comin’!”

      Zowie! And the dream sequences. Awesome again!

      The film reminds me of “Frailty”, another fantastic diversion for 1 1/2 hours.

  • Eric

    I’m very disappointed with John’s approach to this exchange. I stopped commenting on his blog some time ago when he defended some of his ‘regulars’ who approached what they took to be rational dialogue in a similar manner. It’s too bad — John used to be one of the best informed, most refreshing and certainly most interesting of the New Atheists. I still enjoy reading his posts — he often raises very important points, and he does so in an engaging manner. Alas, the problem starts (at least in the last couple of years) once you attempt to engage with him (and his ‘peeps’), as this series of exchanges clearly demonstrates. Too bad — we don’t need any more Dawkinses or Myers, which is where John seems to be moving, but we could definitely use the old Loftus.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I certainly regret his approach, but to say I’m disappointed by it would suggest I had an expectation, or at least a reasonable hope, that he might behave differently. Based on his past track record such a hope was not reasonable and so I’m not disappointed.

      However, I continue to be depressed with the sheer number of unashamed sycophants who comment at DC with pearls of wisdom like “Theists suck. There [sic] all deluded! Yeah John!”

  • Jeff

    “In the example I pointed out that it is enormously unlikely that
    Charles’s new neighbor will be a Swedish transsexual named Mario.”

    Rather than vague talk about probabilities, it would be more helpful to discuss the principle of historical analogy. Although the prior probabilities are very low that one’s new neighbor will be a Swedish transsexual named Mario, there’s no inherent difficulty with such a scenario, because we all know of Swedes, transsexuals, and folks named Mario.

    By contrast, we don’t have any experience whatsoever with several-days-dead bodies coming back to life. So without some sort of astounding evidence for the physical resurrection on Jesus (and it’s difficult even to imagine what such evidence might consist of), one has no business claiming that the resurrection is the best explanation of the evidence we have. I realize that you’re talking here specifically about defeaters to Christian orthodoxy, and that one might choose to believe the resurrection solely on faith, apart from historical probability. But it seems that so many Christians conflate these issues, so the principle of historical analogy is worth a mention, at least.

    Robert Price has a good discussion of this: http://youtu.be/_hjAxdr9wU8a

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I’m going to blog about this.