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Are my reflections on the cosmological argument ‘circular logic at its finest’?

August 28, 2014

My post last week on the cosmological argument received a lot of traffic. Someone even shared it on Reddit where I was accused of circular reasoning:

‘So we know the Bible is true because Jesus believed the Bible is true. How do we know Jesus believed the Bible is true? It says so in the Bible.

Awesome. What a riveting original argument.’

Unfortunately this comment misses the point of my post, which a number of other commenters also proceeded to miss:

It’s sad how Christians recycle this debunked argument over and over.

I wasn’t entirely clear how my argument was ‘debunked’ as no reasons were offered. And another commenter:

Ignoring the validity of the premises for a moment, the argument basically boils down to this:

“If we define ‘X’ as ‘something that is able to do anything,’ then we can plug ‘X’ in anytime we don’t understand something.”

Again, this comment misses my point.

My post was not one depending on the perceived circularity of the authority of Scripture nor on plugging X into something we don’t understand, but on ‘revelation’. The basis of my argument is where natural theology fails, revelation succeeds.

My illustration with the silver ball demonstrated this, i.e. we can make speculations about the nature of the origins of the silver ball which point us in the right path, but we can only make a clear choice if a suitable and properly credible person tells us.

Hence my argument wasn’t that we can trust the Bible because the Bible tells us. I could be making that argument if I were simply quoting the Old Testament. My point is more significant. I am saying we can trust the Old Testament (and the claim of a specific creation) because God has visited us and confirmed this claim (and hence we can trust him). Thus the key question in my formulation is, ‘was Jesus god?’

If there are reasonable grounds to believe he is god, then my argument ‘works’. I proposed (albeit briefly) several reasons to believe that Jesus really was god incarnate. Hence if he really is god then he might have something to say about the origin of the universe. My proposal was that Jesus confirms one of the options presented for the origin of the universe, and incidentally the option which seems most reasonable from philosophical and scientific reasoning (I recognise this is disputed, but more on that another time).

It’s true that the claims of Jesus are based on biblical evidence. But a prior question must be, ‘why are the New Testament writings regarded as Scripture in the first place?’ My contention is that something remarkable happened in and through the appearance of Jesus that must have stimulated these writings and also for them to be considered authoritative. The revelation of Jesus was so remarkable that monotheistic Jews ended up with an incarnate Christ! The best explanation for the nature of the writings we have about Jesus (which point to him being God) was that he really was God incarnate.

If there are not reasonable reasons to accept Jesus as God, then my argument fails. Hence my argument is falsifiable. If it can be reasonably demonstrated that Jesus wasn’t God, or that the universe was eternal, ie negating the need for a creator, then my argument would fail. Moreover if it were demonstrated that the universe were eternal, this would also challenge my premise that Jesus was god and knew what he was talking about.

So I dispute that my argument is ‘circular’. I propose that my argument is one of ‘revelation’ which augments and completes scientific and philosophical reasoning.

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From → Jesus, Philosophy, Science

21 Comments
  1. Rob, the key flaws here stem from an error in logic that you’ve been making ever since I started looking at this blog.
    “…The best explanation for the nature of the writings we have about Jesus (which point to him being God) was that he really was God incarnate…”
    Other readers and I will attest that you firmly believe this. I imagine none of us doubt your personal conviction about it and that you are intellectually satisfied with this as the answer.
    Perhaps it is the tone in which you make this assertion so persistently from one week to the next that makes it appear so naive and credulous and one-dimensional.
    The arguments against this assertion (the best explanation…) have been made in previous comments here countless times in the past. However, I don’t think I’ve never seen any response from you that indicates your willingness to take any of the counter-arguments seriously.
    There are numerous parsimonius and ‘human’ explanations for the various pillars of evidence for the resurrection, but you choose to dismiss these and accept instead the claim that Jesus is God.
    It’s your privilege to do this. However, to extend the claim to state that it is the best explanation just isn’t true. You state it as if it was knowledge hardly in dispute, and yet it’s simply your belief.
    It is statement of faith.
    It is not a position of fact.

    If you can suspend your credulity for just a moment and step through this carefully, I hope you’ll see what I saying and that you can agree with me. I’m not even going to try and tell you that you’re wrong about Jesus. I’ll even say that you might be right – but the specifics of that are for another debate. I just want to see you acknowledge that your belief is faith-driven rather than evidence-driven.

    If we make it to this point, then it’s not big leap to see the flaw in your next piece of logic:
    “If there are not reasonable reasons to accept Jesus as God, then my argument fails. Hence my argument is falsifiable….”
    No. When you argue from a position of faith in this way, the argument is not falsifiable. The “reasonable reasons” you refer to are entirely subjective. If we had repeatable and predictable visitations from the resurrected Jesus, then we’d be moving towards a position of falsifiability.
    But at the moment, you’re about 13.7B light years away from a falsifiable claim about God.

    • Thanks for your comments Paul. I always value your comments. Some of these questions are things I’m trying to explore further in this blog and I will attempt to justify my claims in future posts.

      I am disappointed that you don’t think I take counter arguments seriously. I aim to all arguments seriously. The fact that I might not accept counter arguments is not the same as taking them seriously I would have thought. Is it possible to take an argument seriously and still not agree with it? I would certainly want to fairly present and understand counter arguments (hence one of the purposes of responding to and welcoming comments).

      I’m also keen to know which counter argument in particular I’ve not dealt with carefully enough (btw – I am planning a series of posts on the historical nature of the Gospels – i.e. are they trustworthy, which is foundational to some of my thinking)

      Can you specifically expand on how my view is not ‘evidence’ driven? I can’t see how it is a position of ‘faith’ as you’ve described. Assuming we admit the testimony of the early disciples, why is this not ‘evidence’? You have also assumed that the only falsifiable claims are scientific claims – I don’t agree with this. Can you justify that claim? Thanks.

      My concern from people coming from your position at times is God is never even allowed as a viable premise in any argument. That’s not your position though is it? I would certainly hope not.

      I do appreciate robust discussion and my mind has been shaped and altered by comments on this blog and by others engaging with these ideas and I trust and hope that the same happens with those engaging with these ideas!

      Thanks and hope to clarify some of these things soon. Rob

      • “Is it possible to take an argument seriously and still not agree with it?”
        Yes it is, and perhaps a better way of saying what I meant is that I’ve not seen you deal with counter arguments with any kind of rigour.

        “Can you specifically expand on how my view is not ‘evidence’ driven?…”
        One of the main frustrations I find with your posts, and based on other comments clearly I’m not the only one, is that you seem to approach the subject matter with an air of scholarly data and reasoning, using material that you claim to be ‘evidence’ and assert it to be so, as if it were the equivalent of evidence that one might get from a scientific experiment, or even an archaeological dig.

        Scientific, evidence-based theories arise from a hypothesis, testing with evidence, then concluding with theory or modifying the hypotheses to achieve scholarly consensus.
        Religious beliefs come from a position of faith, and appeals to evidence are then retro-fitted to the belief after the fact. The pattern of thinking is fundamentally different.

        One cannot take a scholarly position on the claim of the resurrection of Jesus, using the gospels as the only real ‘evidence’ (there is no independent account of the resurrection, unless you’ve just unearthed something remarkable), and conclude that a divine miracle is “the best explanation”.

        One similar example that you’ve had presented to you several times is the rise of Mormonism. Joseph Smith claimed to have revelations that included native Americans being descendants of migrating Hebrews, using disappearing golden plates read using seer stones with his face in a hat. In less than 200 years, the LDS movement has attained 15 million devotees worldwide. This a more dramatic escalation than early Christianity.
        If we apply your line of thinking to these types of phenomena, then we get the following logic:
        “Based on evidence, the best explanation for the success of the Mormon golden plates story is that Joseph Smith’s account of it was true.”

        What you can do is take a take a scholarly position on the resurrection and report on the sociological phenomenon that is Christianity. You can even have Christian beliefs and do this.
        Or, you can take a position of personal faith and assert that it is true, because you choose to dismiss alternative explanations that could give rise to the myth. But that is a personal belief, not a scholarly report.

        “Assuming we admit the testimony of the early disciples, why is this not ‘evidence’?”
        Because that’s not what evidence is, in the scholarly sense of the word! It is hearsay. Like Joey Smith’s claims are hearsay.
        It doesn’t get to have scholarly gravitas in the same way that an archaelogical artifact does, or even multiple independent accounts do.

        “My concern from people coming from your position at times is God is never even allowed as a viable premise in any argument. That’s not your position though is it? I would certainly hope not.”
        This statement indicates a basic misunderstanding of scepticism. Unless you have scholarly evidence of the existence of God, there is no point structuring arguments of this kind to be debated in this way. Yes, you can have a God as a viable premise in an argument. But without testable evidence, that argument can only ever be a philosophical one to be worth entertaining. For example, the cosmological argument (that concludes God is the cause of everything) is entirely philosophical, because embedded in its premises are thoroughly unfalsifiable assertions.
        Without evidence – and I mean real, testable, scholarly evidence – you don’t have falsifiable claims, and reaching a conclusion of “the best explanation” is just a statement of faith.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        ‘ Assuming we admit the testimony of the early disciples, why is this not ‘evidence’? ‘

        We don’t have one word written by early disciples, with the possible exception of 1 Peter – which claimed Jesus was put to death in the flesh and rose ‘in the spirit’

    • John permalink

      “Religious beliefs come from a position of faith, and appeals to evidence are then retro-fitted to the belief after the fact. The pattern of thinking is fundamentally different.”

      If you insist on this definition, you’re going to be continuously “talking past” people who have faith. Religious belief is faith. It doesn’t come from faith. Believers don’t have faith based on faith based on faith ad infinitum. Faith is belief without proof (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faith), which is very different to belief without evidence.

      According to the Bible faith is very much based on evidence (1 John 1:1-3). Of course your welcome to reject this definition if you want. But as you do, your subsequent arguments will have zero impact on Christian faith.

      • “…If you insist on this definition, you’re going to be continuously “talking past” people who have
        faith…”

        John, you’re drawing a distinction that is completely irrelevant to, well, anything.
        If you want to say that religious belief is faith, rather than it comes from a position of faith, then that’s fine – I’m happy to agree with that. But to say that my particular use of the English language in this case somehow misses something, frankly, misses something.

        We’ve been down this road before, with folks that insist that faith isn’t the same as belief without evidence. They insist that their definition means some kind of deep trust rather than just blind credulity. Again, this is irrelevant, and the problem with definitions here isn’t mine. The problem is actually yours, when you try and bend the definition of the word evidence to include gospel accounts, hearsay, and bizarre lines of reasoning-from-consequences.
        These things just don’t stack up as collections of evidence, as used in the modern, scientific and objective sense of that word.

  2. Ed Atkinson permalink

    Rob: “If it can be reasonably demonstrated that Jesus wasn’t God, or that the universe was eternal, ie negating the need for a creator, then my argument would fail.”

    Hi Rob, Adding on to what Paul has been saying here, please address the issue of the universe being eternal. Paul says you have not dealt “with counter arguments with any kind of rigour”, and this has been my experience in posing counter arguments to you in this area.

    I have been giving an account of how recent cosmology has been seeking to understand the processes which lay behind the Big Bang. fjanusz2 gave a Scientific American link to this and I gave you a wikipedia link to string theory cosmology. All this shows that “universe was eternal” is a very likely outcome of the research and so the cosmological argument fails. Please deal with this counter argument with rigor.

    [I feel the need here to issue a warning on language – words like ‘eternal’, ‘Universe’, ’cause’ tend to fail us in when discussing processes which lay behind the Big Bang.]

    • Thanks for the note. Yes I will certainly aim to deal with this. I have to do some more reading and thinking on this most important topic. I will use the blog to process my thoughts.

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Good man Rob! Thanks

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        How is it going Rob? You’ve gone quiet for nearly a month! I do hope you’ll be responding. All the best, Ed

      • Ed. Thanks so much for asking. I have been quiet and it has been because my mum died very suddenly 3.5 weeks ago. Been dealing with a number of issues. Have taken a bit of a break from blogging, but will be back soon. Thanks for asking

      • Rob, I am sorry to hear that news. My sympathies to you and your family.

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Yes, my sympathies too. “Been dealing with a number of issues” is an understatement I’d guess. All the best, Ed

  3. The cosmological argument has a big, fat fail in the middle of it.

    The alleged state of affairs when only this hypothetical god is supposed to have existed is a contingent state of affairs, It doesn’t exist now, so it is not a necessary state of affairs.

    But contingent things need a Creator….

    So, according to standard Christian logic, it needed a god to create the contingent state of affairs when only a god is supposed to have existed.

  4. James Garth permalink

    Fascinating discussion! I don’t agree with The Skept’s suggestion above that “the cosmological argument.. is entirely philosophical, because embedded in its premises are thoroughly unfalsifiable assertions”. On the contrary, I think for instance that the second premise of the kalaam cosmological argument, i.e. “the universe began to exist” is indeed falsifiable, and scientific observations can have a very real bearing on this question. Remember, steady-state theories of the universe were once very much in vogue, until they were rejected when strong evidence regarding cosmic microwave background radiation and the location of quasars became available.

    • Ed Atkinson permalink

      I think I see both points of view.

      James – if a model for the generation of Universes was discovered that fitted perfectly with all the observations we have, and so it showed there is something science can show ‘before’ the big bang…. would that falsify “the universe began to exist” ?

    • “…On the contrary, I think for instance that the second premise of the kalaam cosmological argument, i.e. “the universe began to exist” is indeed falsifiable, and scientific observations can have a very real bearing on this question…”

      I’m not so sure this is true (2nd premise being falsifiable) because the frame of reference for beginning to exist in the argument has to include the instant just at, or even just prior to, the beginning of the universe.
      There are some things within the universe that we can test for beginning to exist. The universe itself, however, isn’t one of them. As far as we can tell, time didn’t exist before the universe did, so we have no practical grounding for talking about the universe beginning to exist. Certainly not in the same way as something within the universe beginning to exist.
      This, btw, is one of the (multiple) flaws within the kalam cosmological argument: It equivocates on what beginning to exist really means.

      However, the second premise isn’t the only reason that the argument is philosophical in nature. It’s important to keep in mind why this piece of pseudo-intellectual bullshit continues to be rolled out by pseudo-intellectual apologists (like William Lane pseudo-intellectual Craig). That is because it’s supposed to be a rock solid argument for the existence of the Christian God.
      We’re all still waiting to see any falsifiable evidence demonstrating the existence of God. Until some appears, we’re simply flailing about within the dark, murky realms of philosophy.

  5. John Hudson permalink

    “We’ve been down this road before, with folks that insist that faith isn’t the same as belief without evidence. They insist that their definition means some kind of deep trust rather than just blind credulity. Again, this is irrelevant, and the problem with definitions here isn’t mine.”

    This is demonstrably false. Not only are you arguing with the oxford dictionary definition of faith, but with the way the people use the word (and all linguists agree that meaning is determined by usage). Every time you sit on a chair you have “faith” that the chair will support you based on evidence. If the evidence suggests otherwise (i.e. if the chair looks unable to support you), you will no longer have faith in its ability to support you, again because of evidence.

    “The problem is actually yours, when you try and bend the definition of the word evidence to include gospel accounts, hearsay, and bizarre lines of reasoning-from-consequences.”

    If you’re going to write off what all historians (regardless of what they believe) consider as historical evidence (the gospel accounts), then you’re only demonstrating the weakness of your position. Historians take bias into account (Christian or otherwise), but the gospel accounts are still considered to be the best historical evidence of Jesus’ life that we have, by every single historian in the world. Insisting that your definition of historical evidence is right, and all historians are wrong about historical evidence, is special pleading by definition. To put it crudely, you’re putting your fingers in your ears and saying “la la la la” in the face of the historical evidence.

  6. John:
    “…Not only are you arguing with the oxford dictionary definition of faith…”
    No, I’m not arguing with it at all. I’ve said it is irrelevant.

    BTW, from the Oxford Dictionary online:
    2. Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof

    “…but with the way the people use the word…”
    And Christians have repeatedly told me that when they use the word “faith”, they intend it to mean something beyond “belief without evidence” – to include a sense of deep personal trust.
    As I’ve stated already, I don’t care how you choose to define it. I’ll work with your definition.

    More importantly:
    “…If you’re going to write off what all historians […] consider as historical evidence (the gospel accounts), then you’re only demonstrating the weakness of your position.”
    How do you leap to the conclusion that I write off what *all* historians consider as historical evidence?
    Furthermore, the gospel accounts are not considered strong historical evidence by *all* historians. I reckon you’re not an academic historian. Otherwise you’d know this.
    And further still, there is *no* historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus *other than* in the gospels. Given that, as you say, they are considered to be the best historical evidence of Jesus we have, even by every single historian in the world, then, as *you* say, you’re only demonstrating the weakness of your position.

    “Insisting that your definition of historical evidence is right, and all historians are wrong about historical evidence, is special pleading by definition.”
    And if I actually did this, you’d be right.

    “…you’re putting your fingers in your ears and saying “la la la la”…”
    Clever.
    Suggestion: Read and understand what someone actually posts before you send in a strong reply. You’ll look like less of a dick that way.

    • John Hudson permalink

      Haha, I agree, we should “read and understand what someone actually posts before you send in a strong reply.” I apologise for any misunderstanding on my part, but I don’t think I’m alone in this.

      Historians consider the gospel accounts to be the best historical evidence that we have for the life of Jesus. However, you said that “the problem is actually yours, when you try and bend the definition of the word evidence to include gospel accounts.” The gospel accounts aren’t scientific evidence, but they are considered to be historical evidence by every single historian in the world. I’m siding with them.

      You make a good point that “there is *no* historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus *other than* in the gospels.” But you have to realise how high a bar this argument sets for the historiography of the resurrection. The only way this argument could not be made, is if there were people who didn’t follow Jesus (and so their writings weren’t included in the Christian writings), and yet they were so convinced of the resurrection that they wrote about it (in a largely illiterate society). If all the people who were convinced of Jesus’ resurrection became Christians, then I don’t think you can expect non-Christians to document the resurrection of Jesus.

      Thanks for being flexible enough to let those who have faith define what they mean by faith. As the Oxford dictionary defines it, it’s belief without proof, but as the Bible understands it, it’s certainly not belief without evidence (1 John 1:1-3). People believe (have faith in) lots of different things without proof, but you would have to be an idiot to believe something without any evidence for it whatsoever.

      • The bar would have to be set very high.

        The only people who believe Sar Baba could levitate were followers of the guru.

        And yet some people doubt…..

        Actually, Christian converts in Corinth must have been scoffing at the very idea of their god raising corpses…… Hence Paul has to write to tell them that Jesus ‘became a life-giving spirit’.

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