I was intrigued by your recently posted piece entitled, "Interaction and questions with someone else on a Rocky Road...". I find myself in a similar situation but am coming from "the other side of the fence." More specifically, I find myself, an atheist, often looking rather wistfully at Christianity and wishing I could believe it or something like it, but finding that the more deeply I investigate it, the more clear it becomes to me that it simply isn't true.
I've always been interested in religion. I was raised in a traditional, but somewhat non-vibrant denomination and was exposed to evangelicalism via friends during my teenage years and throughout my undergraduate years. During my freshman year in college, an evangelical living on my apartment complex lent me two introductory apologetics books (by YYY and ZZZ). I read them, thought they made sense, and decided that that meant I was obligated to be a Christian.
I have not read YYY's work, but I do remember reading ZZZ's some 30 years ago…but I don’t have a copy nor do I remember what/how he argued…I will ASSUME for the sake of this discussion, though, that he made the ‘conventional’ level-1, level-2 apologetic arguments we can find in introductory-level popular pieces in the field…If his arguments were NOT this way, please let me know—since my discussion will assume he in fact DID make the 'standard' kinds of apologetic arguments for the truthfulness of evangelical, semi-conservative Christianity…I should also point out that I am not very well read in ‘standard’ apologetic reading, as I have sometimes been disappointed by the caliber of some of the work (when I personally needed something better)…For many folks these works are not doubt fine; it's ME that is the "mutant" I realize (smile)…if I had found decent and in-depth answers easily, I could have avoided the untold hours and expenses required to research and write all the Tank articles—up around 3,500 pages of small-font print today ]
A couple of years later, but still during my undergraduate years, I was having a conversation with a classmate on a somewhat unrelated topic, and I had this sudden flash of insight into where my acceptance of the arguments presented in those books was logically flawed. In essence, I had bought the premise, "Hey, here are these facts. We offer an explanation of them. Can you explain them? If not, then you have to accept our explanation as true." I realized that just because I couldn't explain something didn't mean that no other explanation was possible.
I analogized it to someone three thousand years ago trying to understand planetary motion. It was strange and incomprehensible. The person's culture would explain it in terms of activities of the gods. If the person was sensible enough to realize that that couldn't possibly be right, the response would be, "Well, then, how do YOU explain the movement of the stars and sparkling things? If you can't provide any better explanation, you'll just have to concede that I'm right." And the "skeptic" would in fact have been the one who was right; explanations in a scientific sense were millennia away, but that person had enough sense to see that the culture's explanation was all wet. This realization led me to a dramatic conversion to atheism.
Although your account here is necessarily brief, there are a number of issues in this story that need discussion/comment:
First a very minor point: there is no necessary logical connection between your (possibly) flawed reason to originally accept those arguments and the actual logical correctness of those arguments. In other words, given the fact that YOU believe that you accepted the arguments uncritically or for the wrong reason (let’s say), it would be a logical fallacy to move from that fact to a conclusion that ‘those arguments were bogus’. You might have been either justified OR unjustified, in BOTH/EITHER the believing and abandoning them, WITHOUT affecting the actual ‘force’ of their arguments per se. Just a minor point.
Secondly, and of much more importance, is the reality that their argument form/style (apparently in this case ‘inference to the best explanation’) is OVERWHELMINGLY the style/approach of modern science and modern history. Competing hypotheses, each attempting to provide “wider and better” explanations for the same scientific or historical data, argue in exactly the same way—with one important difference: the ‘conclusiveness’ of the ‘conclusion’.
Such arguments—as cases of induction—“only” come up with ‘probabilities’. Instead of these apologists (or any scientist or historian, for that matter) saying “then you have to accept our explanation as TRUE”, they can (along with scientists and historians) only say “then you SHOULD accept our explanation as (a) the MOST plausible and likely of the alternatives; and therefore (b) most deserving of assent.
In modern science this approach can span MASSIVE leaps of ‘unseen faith’—without at all being considered illegitimate. Examples most fresh on my mind come from astrophysics and consciousness studies.
From astrophysics: “Dark matter” (i.e., completely unseen and undetected by anything!) is said to constitute 80% of all the matter in the universe (an ‘assumption’ made to explain why the universe was ‘flat’ in an Einsteinian sense). We have NO idea of what this is, and astronomers speak of our ‘remarkable range of ignorance’. Dark matter is a ‘you come up with a BETTER explanation’ kind of conclusion, needed to explain why the galaxies do not collapse.
A second example from astrophysics is the existence of the ‘repulsive force’ in empty space (sometimes associated with the lambda or Einstein’s notorious ‘cosmological constant’). Even with all that dark matter, there is still not enough matter/energy to adjust to what is called ‘expansion’—about 70% of the necessary matter and energy [to explain universal expansion] are still ‘missing’. So, scientists invent the concept of a negative force/pressure that exists in ‘empty space’. In their examples, empty spaces between cosmic object exerts ‘pressure’ on the two objects to push them even further apart. Of course, these forces are not in any way detectable—but they are ‘hypothetical’ and ‘useful’ for the explaining of other phenomena. These are ‘forces of the gaps’ (to borrow the ‘god of the gaps’ image), but they are not rejected out of hand for that reason—they are ‘inference to the best explanation’ kinds of arguments.
More strikingly, at least to me, comes up in the field of Consciousness Studies. Physics has been telling us for decades that “space and time aren't what they used to be” and indeed that they might not even be basic or foundations or non-derivables in our universe. But in CS, the calls by many scientists in this field for “wholly new” concepts of space and time, and for minds actually dwelling in hyper-dimensional spaces—from which ‘this 4D one is generated’ as a subset(!)--is very striking. In other words, to explain the phenomena of BOTH space-time AND consciousness (semi-transcending spacetime), requires an explanation that transcends our existing view of the ‘physical’ universe.
My point is that the FORM of ‘best explanation’ is how ‘inductive’ science works most of the time. And, somewhat oblique to the point here, I might add that the number of ‘unseen’ entities that are ‘accepted’ as a basis for action and further investigation are QUITE LARGE. Examples could be multiplied: ‘innate grammar’ in kids, ‘unconscious mentation’ used in psychotherapy, “semantics” in genetics…
One is reminded of Max Planck’s statement here: “Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.”
So, it cannot be the FORM of the argument that is wrong per se…
Thirdly, your principle of “just because I couldn't explain something didn't mean that no other explanation was possible”, is certainly not universally applicable to real life (especially in modern times) , and might not have been applicable to that specific situation. [We will look at your usage of the ‘gods pushing the planets around’ case in a few minutes.] This has several aspects to it worth noting:
First of all, although at first glance it seems reasonable on the surface, we can advance situations in which it clearly does not apply. It certainly doesn’t apply in legal contexts (e.g., trying to prove someone is innocent or guilty on the basis of evidence). When all possible reasons are given as to why there was a smoking gun in guilty John’s hand and the dead body in front of him (plus all amounts of other incriminating evidence), the defense cannot do a plea of “just because we can’t think of another possibility doesn’t mean there ISN’T one…”
Or take that time you mentioned about walking in on your daughter and her boyfriend doing drugs in the garage apartment--it simply wouldn't have sufficed for her to have appealed to “But, Mom, there MIGHT be a much better explanation for this, and just because I cannot come up with it right this minute, doesn’t allow you to conclude that I cannot do so…”
Similarly, some/many logical and/or ‘finite choice’ scenarios would preclude this. If –2 and +2 are the only solutions for x in x**2 = 4, then its obviously very odd to argue that ‘just because we can't think of any others, doesn’t mean there aren’t any”…or even odder to argue that just because we cannot think of a river in Africa longer than the Nile, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one…So, there ARE situations in which this argument is inappropriate.
Secondly, this argument would have allowed you—AT MOST--to suspend judgment on those specific arguments; NOT to reject their conclusions completely. Just as your principle of “I can't think of another possibility, but there MIGHT BE one” might be true in some cases, it is not at all logically justifiable to strengthen it to “I can’t think of another possibility, but there MUST BE one” (or “I can safely/justifiably believe there’s one”), and, outright rejection of their arguments means you went EVEN FURTHER to “I can't think of another possibility, but I can safely/justifiably believe there IS one, and I can safely/justifiably believe that this possibility is not only possible=>plausible=>probable=>ACTUAL, but I can safely/justifiably believe that it is even MORE LIKELY TO BE A BETTER EXPLANATION than their conclusion (even though I cannot even begin to guess what this alternative might be)”. Theoretically, you might be right that other explanations are indeed possible, but these other possible explanations might also be less-likely to have been true like the other rejects--you simply have no warrant to move from 'possible' to 'actual, and then on to 'probably BETTER'…
Now, depending on the content and/or flimsiness of their argument—of course—this could be QUITE a leap of faith to make, and one that would normally/often require some good evidence or logic on your part to be taken seriously by others. (We will look at some situations where it is entirely reasonable to do so in a moment.)
Take for an example one of the arguments that I would assume the apologist made—the supernatural origin of (some of) scripture on the basis of fulfilled prophecy in history (non-messianic). Their argument would presumably go something like this:
1. Prophets of the Old Testament, claimed that their God revealed cognitively-specific details about future events to them (e.g., Cyrus overthrow of Babylon).
2. These events were both future and outside of their control (and even influence)
3. These events happened in 'adequate' conformity to the predictions.
4. Therefore, their claims should be accepted as evidence for the supernatural character of their writings/speeches (and consequently, as evidence for the existence of God and the supernatural).
A ‘good’ intermediate-level apologetics work would (IMO) try to deal with all the obvious defeaters of this argument:
1. That the prophecies were in fact uttered/created/written-in AFTER the event
2. That the participants involved READ the prophecies and DELIBERATELY created the events in conformity to the predictions.
3. That the language of the prediction or fulfillment was ‘too vague’ to be considered a ‘real fulfillment’
4. That it was “coincidence” or a “lucky guess” (perhaps by showing that other prophecies were either contradictory to this one, or were unfulfilled and therefore statistically indicative of ‘a lucky guess’)
Now, let’s suppose for the sake of analyzing YOUR argument back then, that the apologist can give adequate evidence that these objections should not be accepted as true (note that the apologist does not actually have to show them to be definitely false, but only that there are not adequate grounds to accept them as true—given our current knowledge of history, psychology, etc) and that consequently we are left with the obvious truth of statements 1-3 of the argument. How ‘reasonable’ might it be to NOT grant the conclusion in statement 4? What EVIDENCE could be adduced against it (once objections 1-4 had been hypothetically laid to rest)? What justification would one have for ‘suspending judgment’ on it? Or of outright rejecting it altogether?
It should be obvious that the mere THEORETICAL (but not demonstrated that it IS conceivable or possible, btw) POSSIBILITY of an alternate and UNKNOWN explanation, of UNKNOWN likelihood of being a ‘better’ explanation than the one in the argument CANNOT COUNT as evidence in itself…much less count as adequate evidence to defeat the argument!
In fact, this entire prophecy process/argument looks like it was set up in the Old Testament specifically to help us accept this…in this case, the BEST explanation is given UP FRONT (i.e., the argument is woven into the evidence itself…). Oddly enough, we could actually doubt the prophet’s self-understanding (of being in touch with God) and we could STILL have evidence of some “non-natural” phenomenon (i.e. precise prediction of a detailed configuration of some future event), arguing at a minimum for a revision of our notions of time, space(?), consciousness, etc…
And, since the evidence is specifically advanced as evidence for the existence/intervention of the supernatural, it is irrelevant (or nonsensical at worse) to argue that it cannot so act as evidence—on the basis of one’s prior lack of OTHER evidence for the supernatural.
We need to be clear on this last point. If one doesn’t have any prior evidence for the existence of the ‘supernatural’, one cannot use that prior lack as an argument against any future evidence. This is the simple reality of discovery processes. If science doesn’t have any current evidence for the existence of dark matter (although they almost HAVE TO “have faith that” it exists, simply to make sense of the universe), this should not stop them at all in accepting evidence for its existence—when this evidence finally ‘comes in’. And the old argument that supernatural evidence cannot exist at all—on the basis of its ‘disagreement’ with all/most of our personal experience—would be laughed out of the halls of modern science, since scientists have to discard previous notions of ‘nature’ and have to accept reality-revisions almost quarterly nowadays. The adoption of general relativity—and its contradictory worldview of quantum physics at the same time (!)—by the scientific community shows that our little grasp of “real reality” should be held with much more humility and openness to change—even BIG changes. Stominger’s quotation about string theory is an admirable admission: “It [string theory] shows how little we actually know about the universe around us just beyond the limits of what we have actually measured.”
Pushback: Someone might object here, however, that even the “flexible-reality” scientists are only finding impersonal causes/forces/etc, and not spirits and demons and gods and such. They keep finding ‘solid stuff’ and impersonal forces, it might be suggested. But the data—at least that data coming to light in the last half a century--is actually otherwise. A spirit is simply a consciousness without a ‘regular’ spacetime body, with the ability to manipulate already available energy (via “steering” or “assembling” efforts, accomplished with much smaller "rudder" levels of energy) or the ability to generate regular energy in spacetime (perhaps either from some faculty of will, like humans seem to do(?); or by manipulation of the quantum vacuum, perhaps). Modern science has generated the understanding that SOME widespread phenomena are best explained in terms of consciousness, “spirits”, or at least ‘intellectual structures’ (e.g. geometry). For examples: The field of quantum studies has had to include the role of the conscious macro-observer as an influence over quantum events(!); some astrophysicists are starting to assert that reality is perhaps fundamentally only mathematics in essence (not just mathematically described—think about what THAT would imply about a First Geometrist or Prime Counter!) or even only ‘relations’ (e.g. Loop theorists); the field of consciousness studies is trying to find alternate views of spacetime that have consciousness as prior to ‘regular’ physical matter (did I hear someone say ‘unembodied mind’? smile) and top-down causation is very well-documented in the empirical studies; and psychiatry and cultural anthropology have documented and described so many routine cases of what appears to be ‘spirit possession’ in peoples of ALL cultures (including the modern west). It has taken the West, of course, decades of hard research to even open their eyes to the realities of ‘consciousness’ and ‘spirits’ and non-reductive systems, but the data has finally made its impact…So, the possible ‘but they are not finding spirits’ position is rapidly losing its credibility today, and the earlier Ostrich-approach to this kind of data (“there is no problematic datum that cannot be successfully countered with more sand…”) is being abandoned by the scientists, but still embraced as ‘the only rational approach’ by various anachronistic popular groups.
So, we need to have somewhat more open minds today about possible deliberate interventions by God in history. And this is where you really need to be careful friend…the biblical God is VERY careful, deliberate, circumspect, and sparing in the use of ‘supernatural experiences’ in human history—for good reasons we discuss below. Be very sure not to use this ‘benevolent scarcity’ against yourself. Do not be misled by the uniformity and beautiful predictability of His universe. Avoid the pitfall mentioned by Marcel Proust:
“It has indeed been said that the highest praise of God consists in the denial of him by the atheist, who finds creation so perfect that it can dispense with a creator.”
A third aspect of this principle is that it might be (oddly) more useful to the ‘supernatural’ position than to a naturalistic one. It certainly is not typically of value to the pan-naturalist, since it looks embarrassingly like special pleading. The reason for this is that any possible ‘other explanation’ (in an atheist usage context) would be restricted to using naturalistic ‘factors’. Any possible explanation would have to use known categories of forces, agencies, etc to explain the phenomena. Since the events under discussion (e.g., resurrection of Jesus, fulfilled prophecy, non-violent victory over the Roman empire) occur at the human-event level, macro-level naturalistic forces are all that are actually allowed in the explanation. And, for the naturalist, these are already known and available for usage.
In other words, the atheist cannot justifiably defer to ‘as yet unknown physical laws of nature’, since this (a) violates their already stated – ‘it aint happened to me before, so I cannot allow that it happened here in this case’ principle; and (b) calls for “stalwart faith” in disciplines of science that aren’t even working on finding those types of ‘forces’ anymore! The kinds of “naturalistic forces” that would be in play with predictive prophecy, for example, are either Parapsychological (generally discounted by the skeptic anyway, and generally considered inimical to conventional naturalism) or are not likely to boil down to conventional, Newtonian, deterministic natural energy types of today. (Remember, we cannot even boil human consciousness itself down to this, and all the data we have today and that which is coming in leads us AWAY from ever being able to do this). And the scientists at work today are trying to explain HOW our existing macro-forces are SO PREDICTABLE and grounded (given the semi-chaotic state below them and above them!)—NOT trying to find (or explain) new macro-forces at the human-factors level that are not in play today… They are simply not going to be coming up with new macro-level forces in the future…
Similarly for the confidence that other ‘historical factors’ might be someday found that provide an alternate/better explanation for an empty tomb, or for how the gospels have the particular core-historical “character” they do, or how stubborn first-century Jews became convinced that a crucified fellow Jew was ontologically God in the ‘big’ sense of ‘god’ and the very Lord of history, or how deluded or fraudulent men persuaded the Roman world that Jesus could change lives toward love and truthfulness. All plausible positions were surfaced early—when the battle was raging and when polemics were hot and when arguments pro and con were flying.
And again here in history we have the trend line problem for the skeptic…each new discovery tends to support the exhaustiveness of the existing options, by its failure to widen the number of options…we are constantly digging and discovering, but each new piece of data that does NOT expand the options, adds additional weight to the inductive conclusion that we will NEVER find any others…the march of time itself counts against finding any ‘other’ historical possibilities…conceivably something new might turn up (like the Dead Sea Scrolls did for OT studies), but we are not warranted (epistemically speaking) in ‘counting on it’…in other words, to believe that we would someday find something to revolutionize the range of options is unjustified, if adequate evidence (which is non-existent today) is not brought forward that would defeat the trend line to the contrary (which IS existent today).
So, the skeptic is left with only the ‘already known’ macro-factors, and unfortunately, this already-discovered collection of natural, human, and historical factors/forces available are generally the exact ones already considered and rejected by the apologist. That is, all the factors already discovered by ‘modern thinking’ have already been discussed and evaluated by the apologist. This, of course, creates an evidence-based trend-line belief that any FUTURE macro-level ‘naturalistic forces’ would also be defeatable by the apologist. This last point creates an epistemic position that one is more justified in believing that the apologist would be able to ‘defeat’ any future, undiscovered, but still naturalistic force as explanation, THAN one would be in believing the opposite. Hence, this means that the general principle is not very useful (if at all) for the atheist position (in this case).
A fourth aspect of this is that a ‘naturalistic’ explanation might not add much to the discussion, actually. Since the biblical witness is that God uses physical processes in the world when need be (e.g., volcanoes, locusts), to say that these physical processes themselves prove that God was not involved misses the point. To argue that John’s brain gave off the signals that created muscle contractions that pulled the trigger of the gun that killed Joan—and that, therefore, we don’t need to believe John himself was actually involved—illustrates that agency is not excluded by the mere identification of the underlying physical processes involved.
For example, to argue that someday we will find a force in the quantum vacuum or some superstring dimension that explains how a dead body can be reconstituted molecule by molecule, and reassembled into a living body (with recognizable features, such as nailprints in the hands), but with more powerful features than the body originally had—including immortality--and that therefore there is a ‘naturalistic’ explanation for the resurrection of Jesus would not solve the problem—it could still have been God that invoked such a process or something, through the simple creation of a virtual particle (those that pop up out of nothing) or something…any discussion of means, therefore, may not have much relevance.
Fourthly, this position does not automatically exempt anyone (in epistemology) from a possible ‘obligation to believe’.
This last point needs elaboration, since the positive disbelief (not suspension of judgment) decision you sorta made back then [about those arguments] is only ‘allowed’ in certain situations (epistemically). For example, in inductive arguments, we evaluate the ‘strength’ of our conclusion on the basis of the characteristics of data we examine: quantity, clarity, variety, context/situational variety, quality, precision, etc. As our justification for accepting a conclusion on the basis of an inductive argument (e.g., all daisies contain some white) increases with the sample size (e.g., 1000 daisies examined versus 100), then our ‘obligation’ to accept that conclusion also increases—even though we might argue that ‘the next 4 million daisies might be all purple’ or argue that ‘even though I cannot imagine how the conclusion might be invalid, that doesn’t mean I need to accept it’…
Modern epistemologists talk about the normative dimension of belief—that in certain situations one is ‘obligated’ or has a moral duty to accept some conclusion. There are different accounts of how this is the case, varying from ‘epistemic deontologism’ of Chisholm to the alternative approaches of Alston and/or virtue epistemology, but in these scenarios one is morally culpable if a strongly supported (more than adequately, but less than conclusively) argument is not accepted. The moral categories used within these systems normally include obligatory, permissible, and forbidden.
What this means in our situation is that some of the arguments by the apologist would have carried with them varying “levels” of obligation to believe or dis-believe—depending on the quality of their evidence. Not all apologist arguments are as persuasive/unpersuasive as others, and the psychological impact called ‘confidence’ or ‘certainty’ often varies by individual and educational background, but any argument that advances evidence, plausible ‘logic’, and covers all the plausible counter-arguments creates some level of obligation upon the hearer to accept it. This obligation, be it great or small, can be ‘overturned’, of course, by the hearer’s awareness of other data (not discussed by the proponent) and logic more compelling (and therefore creating higher ‘obligation’).
The only reason I bring this point up here is that a “I cannot come up with a reason—good or otherwise-- to disbelieve your evidence and argument” does NOT exempt someone from the ‘obligation to believe’, when confronted with an argument that offers suitable and substantial evidence, considers all plausible alternatives, and provides a ‘best explanation’ available.
But let’s explore when your response would be clearly suitable—and then we’ll dive into the planetary motion example:
Well, you would clearly be able to use something like it when the area under discussion was in an area in which you could not ‘protect yourself’ from subject-specific ignorance. For example, if someone came to me with a mathematical proof in the area of some branch of topology, and concluded with “well, if you cannot come up with a reason to dispute my proof, then you have to accept my conclusion” I would be quite justified in responding with “no I don’t—since I don’t understand ANY of your symbolism and proof-steps ANYWAY”…But this is not the same thing, since the argument has no ‘force’ to me, since its in a foreign language…
A better example might be in an area in which knowledge is still in the ‘larval stage’. For example, in genetics, if one argued a few years back that “Junk DNA must only be for spacing, since it cannot be shown to actually DO anything”, it would have been appropriate to respond with “not sure I can agree with you yet—we are just now starting to study/research that…we don’t have enough inductive cases yet to reach your conclusion”…you COULD, btw, have accepted that as a working hypothesis and tried to falsify it through experiments, but a ‘working hypothesis’ may or may not have the character of a ‘belief’ , especially at first.
Another case would be where you suspect that the arguer has ‘oversimplified’ the situation (e.g., by reducing the number of variables that were considered ‘relevant’), and that therefore the possible alternatives discussed are NOT ‘adequately exhaustive’.
[The number of alternatives discussed actually do not have to be exhaustive in a theoretical sense, but only in a practical or plausible sense. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus theoretically could have been holographic projections from the future, by some impish graduate student in “Art Expression 608: Retro-displaying Holograms through SpaceTime” in the year 2525 (“if we’re still alive…”), but since there’s not the slightest evidence or hint of such a thing in our historical sources or scientific worldview, we are not really warranted to admit it as an alternative. Similarly, ‘conspiracy’ theories of events need some kind of evidence in the record, and/or very good logic to provide a better explanation of the data…]
An example of such oversimplification might be some formulations of the “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” trilemma. It is often pointed out that there is another possibility that should be added: (4) “legend”—Jesus didn’t make such self important claims, but they were added by his disciples. To this we should also add a fifth option: (5) “unknown”—He made these claims, but we don’t know anymore what he MEANT by them…The Trilemma is, of course, pretty “good” if you accept that Jesus made the claims and that we know that He meant them in the ‘traditional’ sense. But the force of the argument (although it is actually in a deductive form, instead of inductive, btw) could be reduced since these other options would need to be considered as well. So, if you have reason and/or evidence to suspect that the apologist has over-simplified (as opposed to having simplified fairly), then your response is relevant. But notice that, in this case, you might be able to surface the other possibilities at the time the argument is presented. You wouldn’t have to defer to some ‘future option’.
So, let’s now consider the ‘planetary motion’ case you mention…
My first response to that illustration is that it is ‘too late’ in history/Western culture to be relevant to our discussion. In a case where natural science was not even ‘around’, in a sense relevant to the discussion about the planets, the case would be similar to that of science “in the larval stage” above. And in this case, your response WOULD be legitimate. But in this millennium, I cannot see the relevance of saying “we don’t know enough about macro physical processes to know that predictive prophecy is really miraculous”. Suspension of judgment only works when your knowledge of a subject matter (and relevant context) is inadequate—NOT when you have enough naturalistic science to be able to debunk most of the alternatives!
Take, for example, the prophesy example. A prophet speaks forth to his/her ancient audience a message he claims is given to him by God, and the events come to pass later—without the possibility of deliberate fulfillment. What is different about OUR acceptance of that (as evidence for God’s involvement) than THE ANCIENTS’ acceptance of it is that we now can eliminate all the naturalist alternatives! In other words, our naturalistic science is so developed we can almost PROVE that it could not have happened by naturalistic means…We HAVE the means to eliminate the other possibilities, leaving ONLY a non-naturalistic explanation standing.
Or the ‘what happened to the body?’ question—we know so much about the historical background, cultural influences, geography, burial practices, psychology of religion, etc that ‘naturalistically’ we know to eliminate the ‘naturalistic’ alternatives…and we are left with only a ‘non-naturalistic’ one, and one that fits all the other literary data surrounding the event (e.g., change in apostles’ behavior, the texture of the gospel accounts).
So, whereas there ARE cases where this approach would apply, those cases are characterized by our IGNORANCE of even the naturalistic possibilities and relevant factors. But in cases which have been “semi-rationally” (smile) discussed for centuries, and in which massive amounts of recent data, argument, perspectives, and plausible scenarios have been surfaced and been sifted carefully, this ‘we might have overlooked something major’ approach simply won’t apply. There may be no consensus on these matters—why would we expect otherwise, about such a life-shaking issue as our eternal existence before God—but there is no ‘rock’ under which modernity has not looked for insights and evidence…
What this means is that your argument form is just a little ‘too late’ to apply (at least to this subject matter).
A second response (classically philosophical in method, obviously) is to flip the thing around…Let’s suppose you came up to me and argued that planetary motion was caused by orbital momentum and gravitational forces. You then pointed out that there were no other/better explanations for this movement, and so I would HAVE to accept your conclusion if I couldn’t come up with a better explanation. If I took the approach under discussion, and responded with “well, I cannot come up with an alternative explanation, but JUST BECAUSE I CANT THINK of one NOW, doesn’t mean there isn't one and a MUCH BETTER one at that…” and then I felt justified to NOT ACCEPT your conclusion, you would think me insane, friend. We no longer live in the world in which that approach would have been justified… It’s just too late…
A quick summary before I comment on your “dramatic conversion to atheism”:
So, I think I would have to argue that your use of the principle in that case was definitely unwarranted. It does show you were thinking, though, and that you had the integrity to act on your convictions (not as common in our world as we would hope) but I wish you had turned that critical thinking faculty back on yourself as well…Its too easy to apply rigorous thinking to others and exempt ourselves. God’s call to honesty requires consistent self-examination and self-criticality. Proverbs 18.17: The first to plead his case seems just, Until another comes and examines him.
And you might have 'over-reacted' to your discovery too. Consider that story other skeptics love--Santa Claus as the paradigm for the Invisible God…Consider the following parable:
Ten-year old Glenn goes out to see what Santa brought him for Christmas. At the foot of his stocking is the chemistry set and microscope set he has asked for in the letter to Santa that his mom had allegedly mailed. He is delighted, but later overhears a classmate explaining to someone that there is no such thing as this Santa Claus dude.
Glenn goes home and confronts his mom with a single question. "Mom, tell me the absolute truth: yes or no--is this red-suited, gift-distributing Santa Claus real or not?". She looks at him sadly and says, "No, he's not--He's just a pretend story"…Glenn blanches, and immediately turns and goes off to his room to ponder this, putting his "Do Not Disturb" sign up, and begins to write up his observations and conclusions about this. He writes in his journal:
"My worldview is completely unraveled. I just found out that there IS no Santa Claus. But that's not the really terrifying part though. It's that the principle of Agent Causation has been violated. Something macro-level happened without an intelligent agent being responsible! I am confronted now with modifying my entire view of physical reality. Somehow--without this Claus guy--the exact presents I asked for materialized in my house, on the exact day I expected them. I am forced to choose, then, between two scenarios:
1. The universe is incredibly absurd, and randomly created these gifts--out of nothing--in my house. There goes the law of conservation of matter and energy. There goes my confidence in the predictability of nature. There goes my confidence in the mathematics that ground statistics--a random event that was that correlated to MY desires is so statistically absurd as to make all the mathematical calculations in the world untrustworthy. All is random…I live in fear for the rest of my life of giant boulders materializing out of thin air over my head on my walk to school--and crushing me; OR
2. the universe is somehow conscious, panpsychic, and clairvoyant. Somehow the universe read my mind as to what I wanted, and materialized the exact gifts--out of nothing--in my house on the expected day. I guess I am a little bothered by the apparent violation of the conservation of matter/energy, but nothing like the terror I now feel that the universe is alive, can read my thoughts, and has the power to materialize solid objects whenever it so chooses! What if it decided to make a giant boulder over my head tomorrow on my walk to school and crush me to death--oh, no--and it just read my mind about it, and knows how scared I am…I had better start finding ways to keep it from hurting me…would a sacrifice pacify you, O Cosmos? Perhaps my best gerbil? (Make a red rock appear if YES, a blue one if NO)…
Glenn then, torn between two equally horrifying alternatives, decides to ask his mom about which one SHE would pick…She reads the journal entry, asks him to explain what 'panpsychic' and 'correlated' meant and what the law of conservation of matter/energy is all about, then quickly stops reading the journal at the last line and blurts out "you didn’t do anything to Mr. Tiggles, did you, glenn?!!!!" (Mr. Tiggles is her pet name for Tiglath Pileser IV, glenn's gerbil…glenn changed his name from 'Horace' to that of a dynasy of fierce, vicious, world-conquering, Assyrian war-lords of the ancient world, in hope that 'labeling theory' was correct and that the gerbil would become more 'assertive'…it worked, and so Mr. Tiggles now has to be kept in his own cage, separated from the others…). Glenn assures her that the gerbil is still intact (but that a giant boulder might materialize over its cage at any minute, so its not really safe--no one is now…). At this point the mom calms down and explains to her little boy (who keeps nervously looking up over his head):
"Those gifts didn’t actually materialize out of thin air. Your dad and I knew what your letter to Santa said, since we helped you write it, and WE bought those presents at Cooper's Five-and-Dime store. We hid them in our closet until after you were sound asleep on Christmas Eve, and then we moved them to the foot of your stockings. Then we went to bed.
Glenn, looking somewhat relieved as this starts to sink in, says:
"You mean to tell me that an intelligent agent DID read my letter, and that intelligent agents DID produce those gifts and that an intelligent agent DID do all the logistics to get them here and place them there that morning?…and that all I actually was incorrect about were the names, methods, and incidentals of these agents?!
Mom cautiously says "yes…", not knowing what to expect next.
Glenn is now ecstatic and waxes on:
"FANTASTIC! So this experience actually CONFIRMS that I was warranted in believing in an 'unseen' agent (in this case you guys), and that, therefore, when such strange, but intelligently correlated events (with symbolic and semantic components such as language in them) occur in the future, I will be warranted to believe in Agents as well--even though I cannot see them initially either. And that perhaps, if those types of events occur in the future, I may be able to find out Who did them without such a traumatic experience…"
"And that the only source of my actual error--irrelevant, actually, to the principle of Intelligent Agent Causation--came from systematic and coordinated deception by my entire world, against a helpless little kid…Good grief, mom--I would have probably guessed it was one of you grown-ups, if ALL of you hadn't ganged up on me!…But overall, I feel FANTASTIC, relieved, and encouraged that my inferences from Patterns-to-Person is still basically correct!…Reason is vindicated…My childlike faith in the high-level intelligibility of my universe is intact…And now, without having to appease the Cosmos, Tig--er, Mr. Tiggles can continue planning for world conquest and domination, with me as his Vice-Regent!…Mom, did I show you the little Napoleon suit I made for him?
The point, of course, is that Glenn's over-reaction to the deception led him to throw out the baby with the bathwater at first. But, after talking with his mom, he re-instated the principle that personal-looking-patterns DO create adequate warrants for believing in person-initiated-patterns.
Now, I want to make just a brief comment about the ‘dramatic conversion to atheism’…I personally am not sure that I would agree with your word choices there, actually. What I see—from your description is:
So, can you see why I have a problem with believing that you “converted” FROM ANYTHING, friend? It looks to me—from your brief description here—that you simply moved from detached ‘non-commitment’ straight into staunch atheism (and on the basis of a questionable argument at that—although at that stage of your life the problems in that approach were probably not apparent). You became an atheist, but you didn’t “convert” to it. I honestly don’t get the impression that you even had a ‘taste’ of the freedom and beauty and peace that is part and parcel of the basic, authentic Christian experience of knowing God…Your descriptions of the horrors of that pre-Atheist worldview, and the freedom you found in atheism, suggest strongly to me that your previous 'experience' of religion was not even close to the 'real stuff'. It doesn’t seem to me like you ever ‘touched down’ in the authentic Christian worldview, for some reason (probably bad or no teaching in your pre-college days)…But, of course, that background does NOT affect our discussion here—since we are trying to work through the more cognitive dimensions of your spiritual journey.