snubnosed in alpha

Christian reflections on the way the world is and ways the world might be

Friday, December 08, 2006

there's just more to it than that...

“As one with a long experience of the difficulties of logic and of the deceptiveness of theories which seem irrefutable, I find myself unable to be sure of the rightness of a theory, merely on the ground that I cannot see any point on which it is wrong.”

-Bertrand Russell, in the introduction to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, xxv

Let’s say that I had an argument for the truth of Christianity to which there was no obvious objection. The argument looks logically valid and all of its premises seem unassailable. Now let’s say I present this argument to a fairly sophisticated non-believer (N). Would this argument’s coming to N’s attention necessarily warrant N’s immediate acquiescence to the demands of the gospel?
I doubt it. If you study philosophy for any length of time, you’ll be sure to find that arguments and theories that look bullet-proof aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Sometimes you’ll meet up with an argument with a conclusion that just seems utterly and obviously wrong, but you can’t for the life of you see anything wrong with the premises or the logic of the argument. So, for instance, Zeno of Elea (ca. 490 BCE) argued from a number of paradoxes (about 40 in all) that motion was impossible. One of his paradoxes, the Runner, goes like this: say a runner (R) attempts to run from point A to point B, a distance of 1 mile. But before he gets from A to B, R must get to the half-way mark, C. But before R can get to C, he must get to the half-way mark between A and C, D. But before reaching D, he’ll have to get to the half-way mark between A and D, E and so on. In order to get anywhere at all, R will have to traverse an infinite number of distances, for any distance is infinitely divisible. But traversing an infinite number of distances is impossible. Therefore, R can’t move anywhere, much less from A to B. Of course, one could reject the premise that any distance is infinitely divisible, thus defanging this paradox. But it seems intuitively correct that any distance can be infinitely divided, and even if one were to go against intuition and reject the premise, that just leads one into another, equally nettlesome paradox: the Stadium. Taken together, Zeno’s paradoxes provide an infuriating reductio ad absurdum for the concept of motion. I say infuriating because it is patently obvious that we can and do move.
Now, some dandy (and not so dandy) responses to Zeno have been offered over the millennia. But overturning Zeno is not so easy as one might think. In fact, Zeno’s paradoxes had to await certain 19th century developments in calculus in order to be resolved.[1] There’s no need to bore anyone with the details of that here. My point is that really viable refutations to Zeno’s argument against motion were simply unknown for more than two thousand years.
But, of course, someone presented with Zeno’s paradoxes in, say, 264 CE would have been quite irrational to abandon her belief in motion upon hearing Zeno’s arguments. Even if she has no good objection to Zeno’s argument, it would seem that she has not done anything irrational in rejecting the argument simply on the grounds that the conclusion seems unpersuasive (to say the least) to her.
Consider also a situation in which there is insufficient evidence to decide between two mutually exclusive, but equally plausible theories. This phenomena is called “undetermination of theory by evidence.” For example, currently the Copenhagen and Bohm schools of quantum mechanics are on equally good footing as far as their simplicity and ability to account for the evidence goes. But the two schools are mutually exclusive, thus forcing a decision between the two (for anyone who cares about quantum mechanics). Again, we are faced with two theories to which there are no obvious objections, but, nevertheless, we must reject at least one of them.[2]
Thus, lightly armed with a few examples, let us return to our initial question: faced with our seemingly watertight argument for Christianity, must N acquiesce to the force of the argument and accept the truth of the faith? Not really. For all N knows, our argument may, like Zeno’s paradoxes, contain faulty assumptions or premises which we do not currently have the necessary conceptual tools to dismantle. Or perhaps, the tools have been developed, but N is unaware of them, or is aware of them but just hasn’t yet seen how to apply them to the argument at hand. Or perhaps, from N’s vantage point, there are other theories on offer which seem to account for the data equally well, theories incompatible with Christianity.
What I’m trying to do is just raise awareness that slam-jam arguments are insufficient for doing successful Christian evangelism/apologetics. There’s just more to it than that. I say this because I so often read or hear both lay and professional Christian apologists talking as though anyone who doesn’t accept Christianity after hearing their arguments is just being intellectually dishonest or some such thing. I would say that someone who does not believe in God is intellectually dishonest, but not because they are not fully persuaded by some argument or other. Such folks are dishonest because by virtue of being created in God’s image they have a sense of the divine within them and they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. But they are not necessarily dishonest because they look askance at the cosmological, transcendental or ontological arguments or what have you.
The moral of the story is: even if we had an unassailable argument for Christianity (I’m not sure that we do, either), that’s not necessarily sufficient to require immediate assent from a given non-believer. There’s more to it than that. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but argumentation will necessarily and always in and of itself be insufficient for changing the minds and hearts of those outside of Christ. We cannot simply marshal our arguments and think our work is done, for arguments alone, however good they are, are insufficient. Clever syllogisms can only supplement and never replace prayer, consistent, unflinching displays of sincere Christian love and the work of the Holy Spirit when sharing Christ with others.

[1] See Wesley C. Salmon, “A Contemporary Look at Zeno’s Paradoxes,” from Space, Time and Motion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980)
[2] See Alister McGrath’s discussion in A Scientific Theology: Theory, volume III (Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdman's, 2003) pp. 229-31


Blogger Michaela said...

Hmm. Where to start...

1) I find it generally pretty hard to find Christians who can and do still argue the irrefutablity of the faith. There are some, but I think we're moving away from that, as those of us who have grown up entirely in a postmodern era are less concerned with logic and "facts". Those who do still argue from logic , it seems, have often grown up in an environment (church, Christian family) that has not really allowed for questioning or mystery. Even at that, most of them will still admit there are still things we do not know. And of those, most with such "irrefutable arguements" are usually those so wrapped up in academia and the Ivory Tower that they are often seem to simply be making a business of arguement.

2) I totally agree with your premise: "There's more to it than that"...namely, the Holy Spirit...

3) Thankfully, I think the issue of argumentative/"fact-based" apologetics is going by the wayside due to postmodernism. We can use our arguements, but they can almost be termed as "philosophically outdated", as the general public is much more influenced by community, emotion, mystery and spirituality. Thankfully, Christ has these things pretty much down, and we still have a lot to chose from in our discussions with non-Christians.

(I hope that made sense...)

1:06 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Well, Michaela
1) I've found a number of such folks here at WTS. Van Tilian presuppositionalism (of the Bahnsen, Oliphint, Tipton, Van Til variety rather than the softer Frame variety) is very much wrapped up in the notion of the irrefutability of the faith. As Bahnsen used to constantly trumpet, "I can prove that Christianity is true by the impossibility of the contrary!" I've also run into a number of Sproul/Gerstner/Geisler classical apologists who are also of the opinion that the faith can be demonstrated according to the most rigorous standards of proof. So, in my experience, that mode of thinking is alive, although, in my estimation, not entirely well.

2) amen

3) I don't know that I would be entirely thrilled about argumentative/"fact-based" apologetics going by the wayside. The tenable forms of postmodern thought are very much rooted in argumentation and observable facts. While appreciation of community, emotion, mystery and spirituality is vital and necessary to the Christian life and while we may be thankful that the winter of crass secularism and modernist rationalism seems to be passing and sunnier days when spirituality, emotion and mystery are gaining public respectability are either here or just ahead, I would still say that facts and logic are still vital parts of good thinking, good living and good gospel proclamation. I've argued (or at least intransigently declared) elsewhere that good arguments don’t go bad with age.
I'm not so sure that it's altogether fair to say that argumentation and facts are relegated to Ivory Tower Academia either. Western society is requiring more and more for individuals to go to the Ivory Towers (ie. University) for at least four years in order to survive in the job market. While at University our minds may generally be elsewhere, but the arguments and such that the dusty old academicians present to their students do have a pretty large effect, especially when taken cumulatively.
Also, our increasingly technological society has a correspondingly high regard for science and the methods thereof. So, again, I think we're pretty much stuck with argumentation and facts as pretty vital elements in telling (of) the Truth. I only wish to say that argumentation is not all. It can't be all.
It is good to know that at the end of the day, when Christ puts our hands to the task of witnessing to Him, it's not ultimately in our hands.

4:24 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Thanks for the comments by the way. Now I have to get back to studying...

4:25 PM  
Blogger Michaela said...

Hm. I think we agree on the general idea. I wasn't meaning to argue that facts or logic don't matter, but that it indeed is not all that matters (as you say). I just added the idea that I'm not sure factual arguements are "the norm" so much anymore among the average young layperson.("Young" and "lay" may be the keywords here, as those apologists you mention are largely neither lay nor young!)

I still think that your views of how prevalent such ideas are are possibly clouded by being constantly surrounded by the academic environment at WTS (and previous institutions), which isn't a condemnation, but more of an observation. I'll grant you the statement about the larger numbers of university graduates, but I'd say their worldview is going to be at fairly different depending on what they spend their time studying (for example, someone with an art degree is going to come out very different than someone with a medical degree).

I still think if we're speaking in the most general of terms,in Western society at large, when it comes to faith and religion factual apologetics don't get us that far. Even among those who may value facts, logic and science, I find they often relegate religion, faith and absolute truth to a category outside facts, logic and science (read: "What is true for you may not neccessarily be true for me.").

4:57 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

I'll have to think about your last post a bit more.
I can definitely see how my educational background might distort my perceptions of the society at large. Since I majored in Philosophy and Religion in college and am now here at WTS, I suppose I've been working amongst communities with perhaps an unusually heavy emphasis on the sorts of arguments that are apologetics' bread and butter. And I definitely do see significant differences between the worldviews of folks working in different disciplines.
But, nevertheless, I still think that many American evangelicals lean pretty heavily on the Josh McDowells and Lee Strobels of the world. I find a lot of folks feel free to engage in Christian spirituality and community without much individual emphasis on argumentative/fact-based apologetics precisely because they've assumed that the Geislers, Van Tils and Strobels have pretty much got that base covered. I find the same sort of thing happening whenever I come home and all of a sudden, because I've spent some time in seminary, I've become the apologetics-answer-man for family and friends, believers and non-believers alike. I find that a lot of people, when they perceive an oppurtunity to get some answers, are eager to ask all of their niggling questions about the Gospel of Judas, The DaVinci Code, evolution (ooh, scary!), suffering and the like. Usually those sorts of questions and issues have to be left on the shelf so that people can get on with their lives. But when those things are sources of doubt (and they often are), I find people tend to want to get them of the shelf and taken care if possible.

I've also definitely run into some hot-headed and vociferous young lay apologists who are chasing after the Cartesian carrot of indubitably certain Christianity. But that might just be due to the admittedly limited circles I've been running in these past few years.
What I'm describing may also be a distinctly American-evangelical phenomenon as well. Not sure. I don't remember many folks being that way when I lived in England. So maybe it is just an American thing.


11:00 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

"taken care of, if possible"

11:01 PM  
Blogger rebecca said...

wow, thanks for that, david. this was actually quite helpful and encouraging, as we have our apologetics final coming up and i find myself increasingly frustrated with the material. while i understand that memorization serves its purpose, i do not feel that it is exceptionally helpful in the actual apologetic field. it's not like i'm going to be able to stop and flip through my apologetics mental notes in the midst of a conversation--and were i to then present the material we discuss in class, the person would probably be turned off and stop being my friend. i think an ideal apologetics question for the final would be: "given situation X, how would you apply the theories (i.e. presuppositionalism) we discussed in class? construct a dialogue."

but i can second your response about the education you've received thus far, and this further complicating the situation. i minored in religion (granted, william and mary is as secular as they come), but i was still exposed to a great deal of academic argumentation and it is really hard to not slip into that frame of mind. one can only hope that, having graduated from WTS and moved out into the world, our perspectives will broaden and we will be better equipped for these real-life encounters.

11:51 AM  
Blogger LoftGirl said...

Quote #1:
My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn't exist, and there are some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care. - Blue Like Jazz, 103

Quote #2:
For me, the beginning of sharing my faith with people began by throwing out Christianity and embracing Christian spirituality, a nonpolitical mysterious system that can be experienced but not explained. Christianity, unlike Christian spirituality, was not a term that excited me. I couldn’t share something I wasn’t experiencing. And I wasn’t experiencing Christianity. - Blue Like Jazz, 115

I think to some extent Donald Miller and Michaela are taking about the same thing. Intellectually based arguments are just that – intellectual. I would agree with you both when you say that there’s more to speaking to someone about Christ than a factual or non-factual arguments.

My thought is that there is somewhere in the middle between fact and logic based apologetics and the “Christian spirituality” referred to by Donald Miller. The logical arguments that make up doctrine are like a skeleton – they are the frame work. Christian spirituality, experiencing the Christian life, and that which is perhaps unexplainable / mystery is more of the flesh-and-blood side. You have to have both – picking one leaves you with either a pile of dry bones or mush on the floor.

Dave it sounds like you experience this when you go home and become the “apologetics-answer-man” at home. Your education at Westminster is not wasted (of course) – you can take the things you’ve learned home and minister to friends and family. Your intellectual reasoning becomes relational – “the rubber meets the road” so to speak. In the same way, those friends and family members at home go from a perhaps simpler “spirituality” of sorts to a more intellectually based faith when they’re able to work through some of the deeper questions of their faith. As you said, those questions are there and at least some of them need to be answered and wrestled through.

Basically, I agree with what you’re saying (if I understand you correctly). There MUST be a balance between factual apologetics and emotional spirituality. However, I think Michaela’s comments and the reason Donald Miller strikes such a cord with people is the lack of that relational element within the intellectual community. Perhaps that is what the emerging church (a – not to start another controversy here, b – emerging/emergent; Steven informs me that there is a difference, but I don’t know what it is, so the “good” one as he says) is trying to accomplish. As I understand it, it’s faith based in relationship, focused on Christ, appreciating traditional logic-based doctrine, yet evaluating at it from a fresh perspective before swallowing it whole. If that’s the case, then it sounds as though “they” are coming at these issues from all sides.

And that's my two cents.

3:58 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Rebecca and Loftgirl (is that you, Heather?),
Thanks for the comments. I don't really have anything to add except just to say, I've had the privilege a few times of chatting with someone when s/he had come to that fork in the road that splits into the narrow way and the wide and when the conversation eventually turned to apologetics type questions. One of the things that's been amazing to me is the complex fabrics of events and circumstances that the Lord had orchestrated to get each of these folks to that point. One guy talked to me about how he knew that his mom had been praying for him for years to become a Christian and how much that had always annoyed him because he hadn't really wanted to become a Christian and because he knew that it was happening anyways! Another fellow had a laundry list of folks God had been using in his life to tell him about and show him Jesus. Neither the things that had brought each of these people to that decisive moment nor their hesitations and fears about taking the path of faith could be reduced to the merely intellectual argument. It was a piece, to be sure. One of them asked me about how Christianity can account for evil and suffering, another about the Crusades and the Witch Trials. I gave the text-book answers to the questions and we were on to the next subject within a few minutes. The grand apologetical moment came and went in about the amount of time it takes to have four good sips of coffee. Then we would talk about what following Jesus means and about our pasts and all the other stuff that makes people real people.
I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't had some apologetical reflections ready to hand for those conversations. I suspect the Hound of Heaven would have caught His quarry either way. But I'm always thankful for those moments and for the privilege of playing some little part in the Lord's gathering up His own.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Michaela said...

Yeah...I'm with you, Loftgirl. Well said. :)

David,are you taking a Christmas blog break? ;) (Not that I have room to talk, but my excuse is that I've been moving to another continent!)

10:22 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

My internet capabilities have been pretty severely hindered since being in NC for the break. My folks' computer takes anywhere between 20-35 minutes to get an internet page up and I'm too cheap to pay an internet cafe. But now I'm finally at a cafe with free internet and plan on indulging in a little internet meandering.

3:05 PM  

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