Friday, December 27, 2019

WSIBC: Divine Voices and Failed Arguments

I am continuing to work through James Anderson’s book Why Should I Believe Christianity (WSIBC) and now have well over a hundred pages of handwritten notes that I’ll need to edit and transcribe at some point, so that I can share the results of my examination with you, my readers. I expect that before my next installment in this series, after this present one, I’ll have over two hundred pages of notes! There’s so much to interact with and so many opportunities for interaction that I suspect this project might occupy me for some time. This undertaking is deliciously rewarding for me, and I hope that readers get at least some value from what I produce here on this.

In the present entry, I want to revisit an issue which came up in my previous entry, namely Anderson’s stipulations about how we do not gain awareness of the Christian god. This is a critical matter since the question of how one has awareness of the object of his worship strikes me as having central importance, both philosophically as well as devotionally, especially if one is attempting to attract newcomers to Christianity as a worldview which is supposed to be true and also solve philosophical problems better than other worldviews. And yet this area seems to get little direct attention. All too often, for instance, we’re told – as Anderson himself tells us – how one does not have awareness of the Christian god, leaving insufficiently unattended the question of how one does have awareness of the Christian god. When the latter is discussed, as we shall find, it is often layered in metaphor, which is hardly conducive to investigation and confidence and suggestive of speculation and concealment.

Fundamental questions for apologists to provide more forthcoming answers on would include:
Do you have direct awareness of your god, or do you have to infer its existence from things of which you have direct awareness?  
If the former is the case, can you identify this means of direct awareness and explain how one can reliably distinguish it from your imagination?  
If the latter is the case, what are the steps of that inference, and what premises guide that inference?  
If neither direct awareness nor inference is involved, what is the alternative and how does it work?  
Or, more broadly, if the believer claims that he has awareness of his god (one can ask: What’s it doing right now?), does he acquire this awareness by looking outward or by looking inward?
As we saw in my previous entry, Anderson tells us in his book Why Should I Believe Christianity that “we can’t ‘detect’ God in the way that we detect things within the universe” and that “God cannot be directly perceived like the ordinary things within the universe” (p. 96). The first thing to note is that these statements are essentially negative in nature: they indicate how we cannot (and therefore how we do not) “’detect’ God” or have awareness of it, not how we can “’detect’ God” and have awareness of it, if at all we can. Presumably the believer thinks human beings can acquire and have awareness of the Christian god somehow, but like other apologists before him, Anderson is sure to tell us how we do not do this. Given the unqualified generality of his statements, Anderson may be saying more than he intends, for we can “detect things within the universe” in a variety of ways, and Anderson is saying that his god cannot be detected using any of those ways. This includes rational inference from facts which we do find and observe in the universe.

Consider astronomers who discover the existence of a planet outside our solar system (called exoplanets) by observing the radial velocity of a star. Astronomers cannot observe the planet directly, but they can infer its existence by variations in the host star’s movement and speed, which they can observe and measure. Generally, we observe one thing directly and infer from certain behavioral characteristics of the thing observed that something else related to it must exist, even though we don’t directly observe that other thing. Similarly, if I notice that the basil plants I have growing in my garden have ragged holes in their leaves and also silvery trails of dried slime leading to and from the plants, I infer that slugs have been dining on what I’m planning to use in my dinner! Just as astronomers do not directly observe the exoplanets they discover, I do not directly observe the slugs that are feasting on my basil, but I know they’ve been there!

Slugs and planets certainly are “ordinary things within the universe,” but Anderson is saying that we do not detect his god in the ways we detect these ordinary things. In other words, we don’t perceive his god directly, nor can we infer its existence from clues which we do perceive directly. Both direct perceptual awareness and inference based on perceptual awareness are not candidates for how one might “detect God.” Essentially, Anderson ends up shutting off his theism from any hope of being verified by any process of knowledge that involves looking outward at reality, which only suggests that there’s no objective basis for the theism he seeks to defend. If we could “’detect’ God” by perceiving it directly, he would not state outright that “God cannot be directly perceived like the ordinary things within the universe,” which is relatively specific. Moreover, if we could infer its existence by observing things which we can perceive within the universe, we would not expect him to say that “we can’t ‘detect’ God in the way we detect things within the universe,” which is far broader.

Now, in spite of the fact that one of Anderson’s own tests for the truth of a worldview is what he calls “the consistency test” (cf. pp. 41-42), it might surprise his readers that Anderson is not entirely consistent with his own words. The fifth chapter of Anderson’ book is called “God is Not Silent,” and in this chapter Anderson “contends that if a personal creator God exists then he would speak to us, and that God has in fact spoken to us through the prophetic scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” (per his own description here). Near the beginning of this chapter he describes a scenario in which a person calls him on the phone and says “Hey, it’s me,” and by the sound of the familiar voice, he immediately recognizes who’s calling. “I’d wager,” writes Anderson, “that when a person calls you and says, ‘It’s me’, 99 per cent of the time you’d know immediately who it is” (WSIBC, p. 140). And why this is the case is twofold:
One reason is that only certain people would identify themselves to you in that way. Another reason is that you would immediately recognize their voice. (Ibid.)
Anderson assures us that we don’t have to “go through some process of reasoning to figure out who it is” (Ibid.) that is saying “it’s me” on the other end of the line; we do not need to assemble some elaborate proof here. “Rather,” says Anderson, “I know immediately and intuitively” (p. 141) who it is (he has in mind that it’s his wife calling). What is actually happening is that Anderson directly perceives a set of sounds which he hears through the speaker of his phone and realizes, thanks to an automatized inference (meaning: he does not need to consciously repeat the steps he has in fact already performed many times before), that the person generating the voice he hears is his wife. We can say that he is “detecting” his wife in a way that he might detect other things which exist within the universe. For instance, I can infer from the sound of a certain low rumble that my wife has pulled into the driveway, even though I’m on the other side of the house and cannot see her or her car. Or, I can infer from a certain rustling sound outside my window that the wind is picking up, since that’s the sound that the leaves on the tree outside my window makes when the wind is blowing.

However, even though this process of identifying the source of a sound and identifying the voice one hears is a means by which we detect “ordinary things within the universe,” Anderson tells us that it is analogous to how we acquire awareness of the Christian god when reading the bible. He writes:
In a similar fashion, Christians don’t typically deduce that God is the ultimate author of the Bible via some elaborate process of reasoning. Instead, they directly perceive that God is speaking to them through the Bible. They read the Bible, or they hear it read to them, and they recognize the voice of God. (Ibid., emphasis original)
So while earlier we were told that “God cannot be directly perceived like the ordinary things within the universe” (p. 96), we are now being told that we – or at any rate Christians – dodirectly perceive” (p. 141) their god, just as we directly perceive a person when we hear their voice on a phone call. I confess that I find it very difficult to square both Anderson’s earlier statement negating observation and inference based thereon as means by which we can “’detect’ God,” with his later claim that believers do in fact “directly perceive” it. This difficulty is further intensified by Anderson’s own efforts to distinguish his god from things “skeptics” often lump into the same category as the Christian god, such as “Santa Claus, the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster and invisible fairies at the end of your garden” (p. 94). Anderson insists that his god is “fundamentally and radically different” from any of these things, explaining for instance that “even if the Yeti wasn’t directly observed, it could well leave indirect physical evidence: giant footprints in the snow, for instance” (p. 95). So “indirect physical evidence” is not something that we could go by to “’detect’ God.” Yet if a voice is not at least a species of “indirect physical evidence” of the person speaking with that voice, what is it?

The problem here is further compounded by the notion that the Christian god has a “voice” to begin with. Voices are sounds, and sounds are vibrations which travel through a physical medium and thus are themselves physical in nature. Moreover, they are not physically causeless. Presuppositionalists like Anderson often talk about the “necessary preconditions” of things (cf. Anderson’s own writings here, here, here and here). So let us ask: what are the “necessary preconditions” for a voice, for vocalization as such?

At the very least, some physical structure of a biological nature is required, including lungs, a larynx, a diaphragm, etc. And of course certain conditions are needed, such as the presence of air (I’m reminded of the chilling tagline for the movie Alien: “In space no one can hear you scream”). And for the voice to be something more than just grunting and groaning, there would need to be a brain, a mouth consisting of a tongue, a palate, teeth, cheeks, lips, glands, a jaw, not to mention an entire nervous system coordinating all these and more, and even then some sufficient practice in order to produce even somewhat articulate speech (mind you, it doesn’t need to be on the level of a Peter Thomas). In short, a biological organism with the structural features which make vocalization possible would be the necessary precondition for coherent speech. Without this, how can a voice be possible, and how can coherent speech be possible?

The believer might object here that there’s nothing impossible about a non-physical being producing vocalized speech. This would mean we’d have to throw out everything we do know about vocalization. Why do that? What would warrant the deliberate discarding of facts we have already secured relevant to the matter? I don’t expect an explanation on this, nor would I expect the believer to explain how vocalized speech can be produced in the absence of the necessary preconditions listed above. Very often, defenses of theism require us to throw out what we do know in preference for something we can only imagine. If the believer has no explanation supporting his preferred alternative, then it seems that he would have a very difficult time passing the third of Anderson’s four tests for the truth of a worldview, namely “the explanation test” (pp. 43-45). Here it seems that the believer has no recourse but to expose his worldview’s roots in the imaginary: we can imagine non-physical beings, and we can pretend that the non-physical beings we imagine can produce audible speech (indeed, they just happen to speak the language we understand best!). An example of just this can be found in Mark 1:11: “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’" (NIV). But here we would be indulging in fantasy, which is no substitute for a rational worldview, nor does fantasy provide an objective basis for a rational worldview.

Now Anderson might interject that all this is too literal, that when the believer claims to “recognize the voice of God” and believes that “God is speaking to me” when he reads the bible (p. 141), this is all actually metaphorical: they aren’t really directly perceiving the Christian god, it just seems like they are. This is suggested by Anderson’s own words:
The ability to recognize the voice of God speaking in the Bible is a supernatural one. This is what Christian theologians have called ‘the internal witness of the Holy Spirit’. Just as the Holy Spirit supernaturally inspired the writers of the Bible, so He also supernaturally illuminates the readers of the Bible. The first time this happens to a person it’s as though ‘the lights go on’ as they see the Bible for what it really is. Or to shift the metaphor to another sense-organ: God gives them ears to hear His voice speaking to them in the Bible. (Ibid.)
It almost appears that Anderson is really just describing an emotional psychological process without calling it such, and trying to make it all seem more objective than it really is. So is there an audible voice speaking coherent speech that the believer actually hears when he’s reading the bible, or not? One can put this to the test, of course. When I pick up my bible and start reading (I just read from Matthew chapter V), I hear no actual voice unless of course I read out loud. To make sure, I called my wife and daughter into my study and asked them to be as attentive as possible while I quietly read the Matthean passage to myself, to confirm whether or not they heard a voice while I read, even though I did not. I could tell by the look on their faces (which screamed “Are you some kind of idiot?”) that they too were not hearing a voice as I read.

I doubt that’s what Anderson means by “His voice speaking… in the Bible,” but I confess it’s hard to know what he does mean.

While I cannot speak for Anderson here (he’s free to provide his own explanation in the comments below if he likes), I suspect that what may be happening here is that some of this has to do with the phenomenon known as subvocalization, which is defined (see here) as “the act or process of inaudibly articulating speech with the speech organs.” This is a very common habit while reading (some argue that overcoming this habit is a key to speed reading) which often goes undetected by the reader himself, and is often experienced as though there were this internal voice mouthing the words the reader reads. As many habits go, subvocalization is psychoneurological in character, and I suspect that the ancients were not very aware of it themselves, just as many people today are not aware of it. And while one can suppose it’s the voice of someone else speaking (many schizophrenics claim to hear voices, and many murderers have claimed to have heard voices commanding them to kill), that would be confusion. To the degree that this is what happens when believers read biblical passages, it would confirm my suspicion that believers at some point will confuse their own thoughts and desires for those which they attribute to their god.

But let’s suppose for argument’s sake that I really do hear someone else’s voice when I read a passage from the bible, or anything else for that matter, and it’s not an instance of subvocalization. There’s now the problem of identifying who it is that is speaking. What does the voice even sound like? I mean, it would make a bit of a difference, or so I’d think, if the voice I heard sounded like Steve McQueen’s as opposed to, say, that of Charles Nelson Reilly. If the Christian god’s voice sounds like Rick Moranis, that might explain a lot! But going back to Anderson’s own analogy, the only reason why he recognized the voice on the phone as belonging to his wife is because he was already familiar with his wife’s voice. So identification can be traced back to an initial instance. But we don’t have anything like that here. Rather, we have: “You read the bible, and the 'voice' you 'hear' in your head – that’s God’s!” For James Anderson tells us so.

If we suppose with Anderson that the Christian god can speak to us in a voice, why not suppose that other supernatural beings can speak to us in a voice? We’ve all heard the excuse “the devil made me do it,” so ascribing vocalization to demons and unclean spirits does not seem to be much of a stretch, assuming theism’s otherworldly premises. So if I heard a voice when I’m reading the bible, how do I know that it’s the Christian god’s voice and not the voice of some demon trying to beguile me? If I accept supernaturalism, I don’t know how I could reliably rule out the notion that a demon could mimic the Christian god’s voice, supposing I knew how it sounded in the first place. I mean, if The Terminator can mimic someone’s voice (as we see in the phone booth scene), why couldn’t a demon mimic a lordly voice in a way that would be deceptively persuasive to the believer? For that matter, if we accept supernaturalism, how can one be certain that the entire gospel story is not some elaborate cosmic deception? That’s just one of many problems we get when we throw open the door to supernaturalism: We get a lot more than what the believer bargained for! And sadly, Anderson and other apologists offer no guidance here, even though the stakes, so we’re told, are eternal.

Now if we’re told that this “voice of God” which the believer claims to “recognize” when he reads the bible is actually just a metaphor, we must ask: Metaphor for what? If it’s the case that when Anderson says that believers “directly perceive that God is speaking to the through the Bible” (p. 141, which on its face goes against his claim that “God cannot be directly perceived” on p. 96), he really has something metaphorical in mind, why doesn’t he pinpoint what he really means for us without figurative noise? I certainly do not claim to have any “supernatural” abilities, though perhaps Anderson does. But does he imagine that his readers actually do have supernatural abilities? If so, why would we need Anderson’s book, or even the bible for that matter? And when he states that “we desperately need to hear our Creator’s voice” (p. 148), does not the concession that this “voice” is really a metaphor for some unspecified something signify that everyone’s in for a major letdown if there’s some expectation to actually hear a voice that they’re said they will be able to “directly perceive” when reading the bible? Desperation is a state of psychological emergency, and as it so often is the case in an emergency, anything goes, which means: the ends justify the means.

Of course, something we can expect, and which Anderson delivers right on schedule, is appeal to some alleged faculty which is accessible only by looking inward, namely “’the internal witness of the Holy Spirit’.” How exactly the believer is to distinguish reliably between this alleged “internal witness” from what he may merely be imagining – something I’d think every believer would want very much to do – is not explained. Again, concern for passing “the explanation test” is nowhere to be found. But if it is possible to mistake one’s own thoughts, beliefs, speculations, desires, preferences, imagination, etc., for what Anderson calls “’the internal witness of the Holy Spirit’,” then identification of cogent principles and guidelines is in order here. Or, is there some implicit claim to infallibility in operation here which would nullify any need for such guidelines and principles?

This notion that the believer hears “God’s voice” when reading the bible must be an important component of Anderson’s overall apologetic, for he appeals to it again later in his book when discussing the resurrection and “why do Christians believe it?” In answer to this, he states:
The short answer is: because the Bible says so. As I explained in chapter 5, Christianity teaches that the Bible is divinely inspired and that the Spirit of God gives people the ability to perceive the voice of God speaking in the words of the Bible. One of the clearest and most central claims of the New Testament is that God raised Jesus from the dead. In a sense, [Scottish philosopher David] Hume was absolutely right. It does take a supernatural work of God for someone to believe what the Bible says about Jesus’ resurrection. (p. 195)
I suspect that if Anderson had something stronger than “because the Bible says so” to warrant the belief in question, he’d point to that instead of what he does provide. Even Cornelius Van Til bristled at such an answer when he wrote “Who wishes to make such an elementary blunder in logic, as to say that we believe something to be true because it is in the Bible? “(A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 12). Apparently Anderson wishes to! But even what the bible does provide here offers no warrant for confidence. I’ve already pointed out, in my blog entry Are the Gospel Crucifixion Scenes Eyewitness Accounts? that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion are far from what we could reasonably expect in terms of eyewitness testimony (and Anderson himself appeals to what we might expect in his book on pages 146-47, where he writes “we should expect God to speak to us” – emphasis original), but are in fact based on a tapestry woven from Old Testament passages (primarily Psalm 22), meaning: we’re not dealing with eyewitness testimony here. This calls into serious doubt the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion, a precondition to the resurrection story. Kick that out, and you don’t have much of anything left going for Christianity as anything more than a belabored delusion.

Now the notion that “it does take a supernatural work of God for someone to believe what the Bible says about Jesus’ resurrection” strikes me as rather self-serving, insofar as protecting a confessional investment is concerned. Naturally the believer who has invested himself emotionally and psychologically in what a religious view of the world teaches, is going to be predisposed to insulating his devotion and his acceptance of its teachings in as impenetrable a cocoon as possible. What better than to imagine that his beliefs have been supernaturally purposed from the beginning? Then again, we typically don’t find believers offering as their conversion testimony “I believe for no reason other than that a supernatural work crammed these beliefs into my mind; I have no idea where else they may have come from or why I should believe them!” Such an appeal to supernatural forces removes the beliefs in question from the realm of rational inquiry (and thus themselves cannot be rational) and only suggests that the person making such an appeal is incurious about why he believes what he believes (or claims to believe), if not simply grossly mistaken as well as utterly delinquent in governing is mind responsibly. “Some supernatural being caused me to believe X” may calm festering anxieties in the heat of the moment, but they’re certainly no more persuasive to non-believers than “the devil made me do it.”

Indeed, if one’s beliefs are the result of the work of a supernatural being, the believer could have no idea if they’re true any more than he could know that they’re from the Christian god as opposed to some evil demon (for example see here, here, here, and here for more on this topic).

Of course, one can imagine that supernatural forces are behind anything that happens in reality, even in one’s own mind, and mysticism actively encourages this. But if one has the attitude, expressed so clearly by Mike Licona’s confession “I want it to be true,” I don’t see why one would need to posit supernatural forces to explain acceptance of the gospel resurrection story as veridical history. Given such express desire coupled with irreflective blurring of the distinction between reality and imagination and positively reinforced by social-pressure influences such as one finds in sustained church fellowship, it’s actively disbelieving the resurrection that would be unlikely. If something can be explained entirely cogently by pointing to what we find in reality, why posit something “beyond reality” to “account for” it? Blank out.

But Anderson’s statement here puts him in a most unfortunate, if not irrevocably dubious position, for if someone does not “believe what the Bible says about Jesus’ resurrection,” then on Anderson’s own expressed view, it must be that the Christian god has chosen to withhold the alleged “supernatural work” which he says is required for such belief in the first place. Anderson could run through his gamut of arguments until the cows come home, and for three solid weeks beyond that, and it still won’t do any good. All the apologist’s arguments won’t install belief in Jesus’ resurrection as it is hereby conceded that such belief is not intellectual at all; on this view, belief comes about as a result of supernatural violence. Unless its purpose is purely for means of financial gain, Anderson’s book, on his own premises, is just a waste of ink and paper, not to mention the effort and time he spent on writing it and bringing it to market.

As I pointed out in the second post in my series on Anderson’s book, the potential that what’s actually in operation here is the believer’s own imagination, is incalculable:
When reading a story, one’s imagination becomes active typically without the reader realizing it; when this happens, his consciousness is trained on what he is imagining, not on the fact that he is imagining, just as he is focused on what he is reading rather than on the fact that he is reading.
I’d say here we have a case in point: as one steeped in his confessional investment and the hope that his religious beliefs are true, Anderson is so habituated to taking what he imagines for granted that he doesn’t even realize that he’s been imagining all along. I submit that this explains in large part why “the experience” he describes “is difficult to capture in words” (p. 141).

As my junior high algebra teacher would say: Needs work!

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...


You wrote: "There’s so much to interact with and so many opportunities for interaction that I suspect this project might occupy me for some time."

Meaning many more entries to come? Welcomed news to ring in 2020!

I've only just started to dive into your latest.

Thanks again and have a great New Year!


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Ydemoc,

Yes, that's correct - more to come! I can't estimate at this time how many more posts I'll do on Anderson's book, but I expect several just for chapter 4 alone.

Happy New Year, Happy New Decade, Happy Everything!