Monday, September 19, 2011

Concerning "Axioms and Inferences"

Here's the video I'm referring to:

Axioms and Inferences: A Mathematician Thinks About Faith from The Veritas Forum on Vimeo.

Here are my comments:

On the whole, I'm pretty underwhelmed by John Lennox's argument. Firstly, the vast majority of the argument could be summed up as "anything but atheism," which is hardly an argument for Christianity. I admit that some arguments concerning first principles can be interesting, but when it comes to religion I find them less and less so over time. When your entire argument for Christianity seems to hinge on the meaning of the word "faith" in the English language, there appears to be something missing. True, mathematicians don't primarily deal in empirical matters, but rather in matters of logic. Yet is it too much to ask that a mathematician who identifies as a Christian also be held responsible for the pressing empirical questions on which the whole of Christianity is based?

Second, I find this attack on atheism using "simple logic" very glib, and quite probably uncharitable. Consider the quote from Bertrand Russell near the beginning of the talk: "What science cannot tell us, mankind cannot know." Lennox quickly dismantles this statement by saying, well, this isn't a statement of science, so you cannot know it. Many responses could be given to this refutation, but Lennox passes them over as if basic logic can easily refute atheism.

He is also conflating atheism with scientism, and this leads me to a third point. I find this "two competing worldviews" narrative rather unhelpful and even deceptive (perhaps unintentionally so). If it is true that atheists don't fully appreciate the diversity within Christian thought, it is still more true that Christians apparently don't have a clue when it comes to the diversity of secular thought. I have grown quite tired of Christians trying to claim that atheism is a "worldview" which, like Christianity, must stand on its own. That is false. It is true that atheists must have some sort of worldview, but among the competing possibilities, we find atheist representatives in all of them. Some atheists are collectivists, and others are individualists; some are modernists, and others are postmodernists; some hold to the myth of progress, others are nihilists; some put their faith in science, others put their faith in power, and others put their faith in personal (even mystical) experience. And I really haven't begun to list all the real alternatives. So the idea that there is an "atheist worldview" is nonsense, as most atheists will be quick to tell you. Christians really should be a little less blind to this. If you're merely trying to refute Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, just say so. Don't bring everyone else into the picture without acknowledging how big and complicated the world is.

Let me now make a fourth point on a particular topic mentioned in Lennox's talk. I find this "evolutionary argument against naturalism" thoroughly unconvincing. This could take me down some pretty long rabbit trails into the realm of epistemology, but let me simplify the issue a bit. The argument is essentially that only mind can beget mind--a sort of conservation of reason, if you will. This is certainly the direction Lennox takes it when he describes God as the ultimate Mind governing all of reality. So if you take away this ultimate Mind, then the evolution of our brains has come about through processes which have no reason to produce reliable cognitive faculties.

I don't see why this needs to be true. Much of modern science has been fairly successful in deriving models which describe how a self-organizing system could develop cognitive properties. If you don't deny that these models are plausible, on what basis do you deny the reliability of such self-organizing systems? The real-world example that has shaped my own thinking comes from the field of economics. Go back to Adam Smith, and you learn how a large number of actors, each performing activities which seemingly have nothing to do with any overarching goal, can actually form a complex problem-solving machine (in the case of the global economy, this complex market solves the problem of resource allocation). It is not as far-fetched as some might think to suggest that the brain's cognition is based on similar principles. Given that I think the market actually does well at its function--to allocate resources--what is to prevent me from thinking that the brain as an evolved system could actually be good at its tasks? Again, I have simplified the issue for clarity, but I think my point stands.

Therefore I see no reason a priori to insist that the brain can only be reliable if its evolution was guided by another rational, cognitive being. In fact, this position seems to insist that cognition is a fundamentally inexplicable concept, and therefore it cannot have a scientific explanation. I used to find this position reasonable, but if in fact there are scientific models which can give us an account of cognition, what exactly is the problem? Why is a "bottom-up" account of mind so threatening to Christians? (I ask this question rhetorically, of course; I have a few answers myself.)

I'll also make a theological point here. I've argued in the past that I do not think God should be regarded as "Mind" at all, and here I'll reiterate that point. I often get into trouble in these kinds of discussions because of my relatively unorthodox position on biblical authority. But in this case, Lennox has nothing on me, since there is no biblical description of God as "Mind." It is certainly said at times that God has a mind, but likewise it is also said that he has a heart and a mouth and hands and feet and a face and back. Are we to take only the first literally, and the rest figuratively, merely to fit our presuppositions?

Finally, let me get to the heart of Lennox's argument. I agree with him that faith is a matter of evidence, and not merely a leap in the dark. I agree that ultimately we all stand on faith in something. I agree that Christians should have a place at the table of free discussion. But I also recognize that Christianity demands a rather dramatic risk on the part of believers. Ultimately our faith rests on the claim that Jesus really rose from the dead, and this is just not the sort of thing people normally have faith in.

Where does faith come from? Why do some have faith in science, and others have faith in God, and others have faith in something else? It doesn't all happen the same way. Our modern faith in science comes from repeated testing: it keeps yielding new results, often with new and exciting applications. When someone has gradually become confident in a process because it works, we might call that faith, but it is certainly quite different from Christian faith. Christian faith ultimately cannot be based on repeated testing. The claim of Christ's resurrection cannot be tested scientifically, because it is not the product of a repeatable experiment. It was a unique event in all of history--if it really happened, that is.

Reason alone cannot justify the claim of Christ's resurrection. I think Christians have tried to trivialize this by showing that nothing can be justified on reason alone. But it is wrong to downplay the radical nature of Christian faith. I can give no comfort to Christians who expect to be taken seriously among the intelligentsia. The reality is that they have every reason to be suspicious of us, who are willing to place our hope in that which is not seen. I wish I could flesh this out in more detail, but it would be enough for another post entirely.

The goal of such talks as this one given by John Lennox seems to be building up the confidence of young Christians, whose faith is often under attack in the academy. All I can say is that I don't share this goal. Perhaps I will be poorly understood when I say this, but all the same I really mean it.

If you really want to worship Jesus, then you're worshiping a man who suffered a criminal's death. Do you think Jesus was worried about being accepted by the establishment? But remember that Christ's persecution came first from his fellow Jews. As a Christian graduate student in mathematics, I'm usually more worried what other Christians might think of me than I am about what "the academy" will say about me. I can't say that in my own life I've faced any serious conflict in either realm, but I've observed the conversations and the conflicts that do occur, and I want to offer a different perspective. I hope it is helpful.


  1. Is there a point to "apologetics" at all, do you think, in our current intellectual environment? Who is the intended audience for this sort of thing?

  2. I'm sure there is a lot of good that comes from present-day apologetics, but I tend to see the bad, and I can't help but comment on it. Your second question is ambiguous. If you mean, who is the intended audience for John Lennox, I suspect it's Christians who want to be assured that they're not crazy or stupid for being Christians. If you mean, who is the intended audience for my blog, I really don't have an answer!


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