Sunday, September 25, 2022

Why Do Apologists Raise the Problem of Induction in Debate?

A visitor to my blog posting under the moniker Rageforthemachine (hereafter just Rage) recently left the following comment on my entry Same Old Song and Dance: Anderson on Induction… again:
I've never understood what presupps think they have over everyone else when it comes it inductive justification. Are they saying "because I have seen a thousand white swans I know all swans are white" which is false; or are they saying "because I have seen a thousand white swans I know the next one might be white or it might not" which of course renders inductive knowledge just as insure as they claim everyone else's is.
It's a good question, and I think that however it can be answered ties in closely with what motivates apologists who raise certain topics as a focal point for debate. Discerning other people’s motives often involves speculation and conjecture, but if we’re careful, we might just find a certain pattern of tells which suggest and confirm certain desired end goals. The key part of Rage’s question is stated upfront: apologists do in fact seem to think they have something “over everyone else when it comes to inductive justification,” otherwise I doubt they’d be so eager to raise such questions in the first place. Curiously, however, I’ve never found any evidence of such advantage on behalf of Christianity in the pages of the bible.

To be sure, neither option which Rage proposes on behalf of presuppositionalists is very impressive. Indeed, if they’re going to raise the example of swans in the first place, where exactly do they stand on the matter? And how does their stand on the matter bode for confidence in induction?

But I don’t think presuppositionalists who raise the problem of induction are intent on making either case. The white swans example is offered simply to illustrate the problem; apologists themselves, for reasons which Rage’s comment indicates, probably don’t want the example itself to take a starring role in the discussion. There are stronger examples that come to mind – e.g., the freezing temperature of water, dropping uncooked eggs on a hard surface, or my favorite, touching a hot stove, ones which do not have the reputation of infamously calling historic generalizations into question. So perhaps the choice of the white swan example is no accident, but I don’t think pursuing this particular example is going to help the apologists’ own purposes.

Rather, from what I have observed, I think they see the problem of induction as an opportunity to corner non-Christians into a kind of dead-end pickle by exploiting an area which thinkers typically take for granted, this being a recurring theme in James Anderson’s book Why Should I Believe Christianity? (Even many of those who do explore the problem of induction, as we have seen, tend to come up empty or even worse off than when they started.) Very simply, presuppositionalists raise the problem of induction in an effort to put non-believers on the defensive, especially with the intent to elicit a confession of “I have no answer” on a matter which, again, we all tend to take completely for granted. As a means of causing one to stop and doubt his own mental efficacy, this can be quite powerful. I can only suppose that many apologists actually believe that their theism gives them some upper hand on the topic. Delusions do run deep, I have found!

What’s ironic is that presuppositionalists themselves will have a hard time affirming any generality consistently since their own worldview cannot prop up the very solution which they claim non-Christian worldviews cannot supply. And that solution is the uniformity of nature. If anything, the reality which the Christian religion depicts hardly exhibits a nature which is uniform. On their own theistic presuppositions, their god could create counter-examples overturning any generalization they might make. Drawing reliable generalizations requires assembling samples which are reliably representative. But how can one suppose that any samples which he has assembled are at all reliably representative if at the same time he assumes there’s a supernatural consciousness which can create samples to the contrary that fall outside those which he has gathered?

If the presuppositionalist agrees that dogs are mammals, is he not thereby implying that his god cannot create dogs which are reptilian or avian? This is not a matter of mere definition or classification, but of actual differences in natures. On a this-worldly understanding of nature, we know dogs to be a mammalian species, but that’s because all the samples of dogs which we have curated into formulating such a classification have consistently exhibited those characteristics, in alignment with their causal nature, which inform said classification and no samples call this classification into question. This is not a probabilistic classification – e.g., “I’ve observed a thousand dogs and they were all mammals, so the next dog I observe will likely be a mammal also,” but an absolute, exceptionless categorization.

However, if there’s a supernatural being which can create entire planets, set the stars in the heavens, raise people from the dead and direct the entire course of human history (right down to how many nooks and crannies populate the surface of the English muffin you had for breakfast this morning), who’s to say that this supernatural being cannot create – and indeed has not already created – dogs which lack some or all characteristics of mammals? We don’t have to “know” what that would look like because a genuine, bona fide supernatural being would not be constrained by what we do or do not know (or think we know). If the presuppositionalist dismisses such hypotheticals as self-contradictory, perhaps he’s on his way to understanding one of many reasons why I reject theism.

This brings to the fore the deeper irony for presuppositionalists, namely that the very issue on which they suppose induction generally hinges, the uniformity of nature, is incompatible with supernaturalism. A nature which is both the product of wishing and conjuring as well as subject to revision by the same intentional forces would have no stable uniformity whatsoever, and this is because it would have no inherent identity; any identity it would be said to have would only be that identity which a supernatural being chose to bestow upon it, and only for as long as it chose it to have that identity. Certainly none that one can simply take for granted. In supernaturalism, wishing really does make it so. Indeed, if the realm of the knowable can be manipulated by unknowable deities, devils and demons, then the realm of the knowable is falsely so-called – it’s not really knowable at all, and any claim to knowledge is a pretense. If a supernatural being encasing itself in human form can simply wish water into wine, as we read in the Gospel According to John, how can one ever be confident that the bottles he bought from the grocery store marked ‘water’ don’t actually contain zinfandel or merlot? The retort “God would never do that” rings utterly hollow given the story we read in John, and it also misses a broader point: even if the believer’s god itself has not deigned to turn the water in those bottles into wine, an angel or demon could, on the believer’s own worldview premises.

If I suggest that there are such things as flowers which recite Chinese poetry, and the apologist, intent on contradicting anything and everything I affirm (cf. “Existence doesn’t exist”), protests “Flowers can’t recite Chinese poetry!” I should ask: Why not? More specifically, on what basis could the apologist affirm that there are no flowers which can recite poetry, Chinese or otherwise? Wouldn’t this amount to saying that his god cannot create flowers which recite Chinese poetry? Or, is it the case that the apologist has so quickly lost sight of what his own professed worldview entails? Does he not truly believe the Christian teachings which he champions?

I would think that, if the Christian apologist truly believed what his religion espouses, the conversation might go more like this:
Me: Hi Bill. How’re you doing today? 
Bill: Hi Dawson! The Lord has been good! Today I am very blessed! 
Me: Hey, that’s good to hear! Tell me more. 
Bill: Well, my carnations are finally starting to bloom! And my what a beautiful sight they are! 
Me: Oh that’s great, Bill. I know you put a lot of work into them. 
Bill: I sure did! And the Lord brought forth wondrous fruits to my efforts! 
Me: That’s interesting because, you know, just yesterday I saw a group of beautiful flowers at the park. I don’t know what kind they were, but here’s the funny thing – they were reciting Chinese poetry together! 
Bill: Yep, well the Lord does do some powerful things, y’know. Do you know if it was poetry from the Tang period by any chance? 
Me: No idea. But I coulda swore it sounded like something from Li Dongyang. 
Bill: That’s Ming Dynasty. Well, the Lord sure knows how to impress! What will He do next, God only knows!
Here Bill’s statements are consistent with the supernaturalism of his espoused worldview, not batting an eye at the outlandish report of flowers reciting poetry in a human language. Bill recognized that the deity which he believes created the universe can also make flowers recite human literature. Plus, he knew his stuff when it came to Chinese poetry! What an awesome neighbor Bill makes. Oddly enough, this is not the kind of behavior we find in believers, especially apologists. Believers I’ve encountered seem to display their religious confession only so far as it bolsters their entitled sense of self-righteousness, unaware that their pronouncements are in fact not aligned with the supernaturalism which they say characterizes “ultimate reality.” 

It's worth considering how probing this internal tension might play out. If apologists affirm that “flowers cannot recite Chinese poetry,” we should ask: Why not? Are they saying that their god cannot create flowers which recite Chinese poetry? “Well, of course,” they’d likely say, “God could do that, but…” and proceed to speak on behalf of their god (e.g., “God wouldn’t because [reasons]”). How they could know why the Almighty Creator would or would not do is never explained. After all, how could they know that their god hasn’t already created flowers some place which are reciting Chinese poems right now? Wouldn’t they have to be their own god in order to know this? That’s what apologists tell us all the time – that we would have to be gods to know that there is no god.

For example, Ron Rhodes, in his Strategies for Dialoguing with Atheists, reasons as follows:
Some atheists categorically state that there is no God, and all atheists, by definition, believe it. And yet, this assertion is logically indefensible. A person would have to be omniscient and omnipresent to be able to say from his own pool of knowledge that there is no God. Only someone who is capable of being in all places at the same time - with a perfect knowledge of all that is in the universe - can make such a statement based on the facts. To put it another way, a person would have to be God in order to say there is no God.
I guess by the same token, one would have to be omniscient to know that square circles do not exist. However, this same “strategy” can be used against the theist, as I show above, as a means of exposing his own worldview’s epistemological bankruptcy. Once you assume the existence of a supernatural consciousness, there’s no reliable way to draw generalizations because there’s no way to assemble a sample that can be confidently deemed representative. No matter the size of your sample set, you would always have to allow for the possibility that counter-examples could very well exist – and maybe in fact do exist. Consequently, induction as anything more than an expression of self-puffery is out the door entirely once you let theism in. You can’t have both theism and induction because on theism’s metaphysics, reality would be a complete wildcard – i.e., no presumption of uniformity could be consistently sustainable.

So what motivates apologists to raise the problem of induction as a debating point in the first place? Again, I suspect that for many of them, they expect doing so will put non-believers on the defensive. Certainly I do not think it is so that they wander unawares into a trap of their own making which, if handled correctly, can be shown to be exactly what they’ve set themselves up for. Many apologists are well aware that some of the more traditional theistic defenses – e.g., the design argument, the cosmological argument, arguments from miracles or biblical prophecy, etc. – probably don’t offer much promise since more and more atheists, having consumed a vast and growing literature devoted to debunking such arguments, have ready answers for them. So a more esoteric approach may be sought out. Thus, a new market for alternative theistic defenses has emerged, and the problem of induction fits nicely in the paradigm of a ‘transcendental’ approach which seeks to validate god-belief by construing the “preconditions of intelligibility” as incontrovertibly requiring the existence of a god.

For some it may also be an opportunity to impress onlookers as they ply the chops they’ve learned in an Intro to Philosophy course they’ve taken. This just feeds the apologist’s own sense of vanity which comes along with the territory of supposing he’s been chosen by a supernatural being to be its earthly representative of the moment. All the better if the non-believer has nothing of value to say on the nature of induction, and sadly that’s not unlikely since many atheists have to one degree or another inherited the crass skepticism of the Humean outlook. With its rejection of absolutes elevated to the status of a virtue, its “loose and separate” treatment of causation, and an irresistible cowardice before the supposed gulf between is and ought, the Humean view of the world is right at home with those who have adopted a na├»ve nihilism about human efficacy and value. Apologists who brandish the problem of induction may be viewed as a cultural byproduct of this symptomology, for it’s really an instance of one set of contradictions battling it out against its own mirror image; for the same skepticism which drove apologists into theistic religion is the same skepticism that has driven many atheists into a secular alternative. Both variants are variants of the same mind-negating impetus which will naturally foster a hunger for some kind of authority to supply fundamental “truths.” For religionists this authority of course is a supernatural deity while for atheists caught in these snares it is the state. This can only be expected since a mind which has renounced its own efficacy is eventually going to seek out some other mind as one having all the answers. Hume’s philosophy plays right into the presuppositionalists’ waiting hands, even though they don’t realize that their own predicament is choking from the same fallacies.

Rand provides a concise summary of Hume’s philosophy in her title essay of For the New Intellectual, which I think is as powerful as it is accurate:
If it were possible for an animal to describe the content of his consciousness, the result would be a transcript of Hume’s philosophy. Hume’s conclusions would be the conclusions of a consciousness limited to the perceptual level of awareness, passively reacting to the experience of immediate concretes, with no capacity to form abstractions, to integrate perceptions into concepts, waiting in vain for the appearance of an object labeled “causality” (except that such a consciousness would not be able to draw conclusions). (p. 24)
In my view, the pronouncements I see many presuppositionalists making are not-too-distant echoes of just what Rand describes here. At its root, presuppositionalist theory is fundamentally incongruent with the understanding that the human mind forms abstractions – hence their repeated appeals to “a priori knowledge,” “intuitions” and “revelations” as the source and content of what they call “knowledge” as well as a complete aloofness to the epistemological activity which the human mind performs in inductive reasoning, which is at its very base a conceptual process. (In this respect, so-called “Clarkians” – a la Gordon H. Clark – are at least a little more consistent than Vantillians.) A theory which teaches that it’s impossible to form abstractions from empirical input is fundamentally no different from a theory which teaches that it’s impossible to form abstractions from empirical content. The divorce between the perceptual and the conceptual levels of consciousness is enjoined by both parties, the one secular, the other religio-theistic. When taking their shared premises to their logical conclusion, both ultimately have no alternative to treating the human mind as a merely passive receptacle of “impressions” (Hume) or “deliverances” (religion’s “revelations”) on an otherwise unwitting and inert substance (cf. the Apostle Paul’s analogy of the potter’s clay in Romans 9). They just envision themselves standing on one or the other side of the imagined wall of separation: Humean skeptics are stranded in the realm of the senses with no means of forming general truths from what they perceive, while the theists style themselves as possessors of received knowledge which could in no way have been derived from perceptual awareness (cf. “special revelation”).

Rand continues, exposing the hideous implications all this has:
To negate man’s mind, it is the conceptual level of his consciousness that has to be invalidated. Under all the tortuous complexities, contradictions, equivocations, rationalizations of the post-Renaissance philosophy—the one consistent line, the fundamental that explains the rest, is: a concerted attack on man’s conceptual faculty. Most philosophers did not intend to invalidate conceptual knowledge, but its defenders did more to destroy it than did its enemies. They were unable to offer a solution to the “problem of universals,” that is: to define the nature and source of abstractions, to determine the relationship of concepts to perceptual data—and to prove the validity of scientific induction. (Ibid.)
Given this, I would further hazard, and I hope I’m wrong but fear I’m not, that the only interest many presuppositionalists have in induction is merely to score debating points against non-Christians, or worse: to cower non-believers into a corner and lord over them like the deity they worship in an attempt to pulverize their human spirit. This may seem rather pessimistic, but my own firsthand experience with presuppositionalists as well as telltale signs in their literature bear this out. The very fact that presuppositionalists ignore the operation of man’s mind (an epistemological structure) in their treatments of the problem of induction, and that they imply that the supposed quandary rests strictly on justifying the uniformity of nature (a metaphysical structure), and that this is supplied by a supernatural being which magically conjures it into being, is sufficient, in my assessment, to demonstrate that the apologists taking this route really have no genuine interest in the nature of induction as a means of generalizing from systematically curated samples. For if they were, they would no doubt find value in Rand’s theory of concept-formation. But soon as they learn that Rand was an atheist, then nothing she said on any topic could have any positive philosophical value. So the choice to employ the problem of induction can be seen only as an expression of dogmatic prejudice. The apologists’ purpose for introducing the problem of induction in debate is not to increase anyone’s understanding of induction, but to weaponize it in an effort to manipulate other thinkers and reinforce a confessional investment.

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

Thanks for all your insights in yet another impressive takedown of apologetic schemes. The back and forth with "Bill" was spot on and had me cracking up. Good stuff!


Robert Kidd said...


I've noticed that a lot of apologetics are designed specifically to go up against skeptics. I started noticing this with Sye and Matt's slick. I think this is one reason they bring up induction so much.

I notice that in dealing with Christians I get a lot of questions that I can tell they expect me to answer a certain way and when I don't they are completely unprepared.

So, they've identified a number of flaws in skepticism and in modern science and physics, and especially the theory of evolution, and rightly so, that they can cash in on as gotcha questions. The problem is, not all atheists are skeptics. Not all atheists believe that the universe had a beginning and that we can't know anything for certain or that morality comes from evolution and that induction is invalid.

Perhaps my favorite post of yours which I've read dozens of times is the refutation of Sye's argument on his website. It never gets old watching Sye run into the buzzsaw of logic that he ran into in his interaction with you in the comments. Boy, was that a smackdown of epic proportions.

Have you watched any of the interactions of Matt Dillahunty of the atheist experience with either Matt slick or Sye? He did a live debate with Sye. He did OK But if he was an Objectivist along with his talent for debate he'd have ended Sye's career that night. I know that's not really the point of debate but it is wonderful to see those smug, arrogant blankety blanks put in their place.

Robert Kidd