If You Have Only a Hammer – Andy Bannister on Apologetics

“Hey, Dave, what do you think of my new toolbox?”
My neighbor, Bert, invited me into his garage. His new toy was large, red, shiny, and clearly cost him a good deal. “Impressive,” I assured him. “Have you filled it up yet?”
“Oh, definitely, completely, in fact! I’ve got the best, top-of-the-line tool ever made!”
“Tool . . . singular?” Seeing my confusion, Bert opened the largest drawer to reveal . . . a hammer.
“It’s a beauty, isn’t it?” exuded Bert. “Big enough to drive any nail out there, perfectly balanced, tempered alloy steel, a sweet contoured grip . . . boy oh boy, you can’t find a better hammer than this!”
“Uh . . . but if that’s your only tool, what if you have a job that requires more than driving nails?”
“Come on, Dave, don’t be silly. If you can’t use a hammer, that so-called ‘job’ doesn’t exist.”

Nobody could be that stupid, that blind, that ignorant, could he? Unless, perhaps, he has a Ph.D. and teaches evolutionary biology, geology, or astronomy at a major university.

I recently enjoyed reading perhaps the most entertaining apologetics book on the market, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist, by Andy Bannister (AB). The author is part of the Ravi Zacharias team, holds a doctorate in Islamic studies (which has nothing to do with this particular book), and speaks worldwide on issues of faith, philosophy, skepticism, etc.

The meat of the book is indicated by its subtitle, “Or: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments,” unpacked by 11 humorous and insightful chapters. In this blog I’ll comment on two of them: Chapter 7, ‘The Lunatic in the Louvre,’ and Chapter 10, ‘The Panini Poisoner of Pimlico.’

Andy’s ‘Lunatic in the Louvre’ is a fictional friend (Claude) who entices him into a nocturnal raid of the museum. Claude is a scientist, desperate to solve the mystery of the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. Andy is horrified to discover that Claude intends to remove some paint samples and a bit of the wood panel base of the painting. I’ll give you a bit of the dialogue, so you can appreciate the author’s style:

“Why can’t you just Google the answer, like a normal person?”
“I’m a scientist!” exclaimed Claude. “If I wanted simply to slavishly copy the opinions of others, I’d have become a journalist. No, once I have a little paint, I can run a spectrographic analysis, and once I have a sample of the wood, I can do a little dendrochronology.”
“Isn’t he the actor who starred in Safe House?”
“That’s Denzel Washington. Dendrochronology is the study of tree-ring dating. You can use it to date a piece of wood.”
“Don’t you think that somebody is going to notice the Mona Lisa has holes in it?”
“Nobody noticed when I borrowed one of the Venus di Milo’s arms using an angle grinder. Now, pass me that handsaw . . .”

The point of Bannister’s parable is that a question of art history simply cannot be answered by chemical analysis of the paint or by dating the wood frame. (Nor can laboratory procedures prove that the painting came into existence without a painter.) No matter how many billions of dollars you spend or how many Ph.D. scientists you employ, such ‘hammers’ cannot unscrew that mystery. Just as Bert (not my actual neighbor) will not find his tool useful if he has to rewire a thermostat . . . or write a love letter to his wife.

In opposition to this view AB quotes Harry Kroto, a Nobel-Prize-winning chemist, “a man who is no dribbling village idiot,” (the author assures us):

”Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.” Kroto’s position is termed scientism, the idea that science can answer ALL questions, that it embraces ALL of reality, from galactic structure to cellular meiosis to rhyming poetry.

Indeed, the celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking, writes:

”Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

AB argues that scientism is “completely, entirely, Hindenburgesquely wrong.” Consider such questions as, ‘What is the value of a human life?’ Any rational fellow can see that the question is connected to issues of ethics, law, and justice, not to mention the existence of God and whether we are made in His image. How would the (atheist) physicist or chemist attack the problem? Simply tally up a body’s chemicals and list them on eBay? AB suggests that an economist might open his toolbox and calculate your annual net contribution to the economy. A kidnapper could sequester you and see how much your friends and family would cough up for your release. A sociologist might count the number of Facebook friends you have.

Yet most of us would say that we each have intrinsic value, that tools of science might evaluate what you’re made of, but it can’t determine what you are. “This book, for instance, is made of paper and ink; the Mona Lisa is made of wood and pigment; a human being is made of atoms. But that’s not what a book, a painting, or a person is.”

When atheists rage against people who believe in God, who believe that life is something more than molecules bumping around, they simply rage against fellow sacks of chemicals – in their view! And who are they to rage? Is not their rage merely brain chemistry, a clod of molecules configured differently from those ‘clods of faith’? Yet atheists act as if they are rational individuals in conflict with other persons, individuals who can ostensibly choose a philosophical position not wholly constrained by chemical interactions.

Frankly, it’s foolish for scientists to disdain philosophy, to assert that science supersedes all other disciplines, including philosophy. Science is built on philosophy, on such principles that we humans are rational thinkers, not mere chemical automatons, that knowledge of our environment can be acquired and is correlated with reality, that inductive and deductive logic – immaterial concepts – enable construction of hypotheses and theories, that language connects with thoughts that can be communicated with other rational folks, and even that the acquisition of knowledge is desirable in some intrinsic sense – yet more immaterial concepts.

In truth, the most important aspects of life, as I persistently point out to atheists I encounter on the street, are immaterial . . . truth, love, justice, integrity, hope, meaning, beauty, purpose, hope . . . go ahead, add another 5 or 10 off the top of your head. Life is clearly more than quarks and leptons. Everybody knows this, including ‘skeptics’ who write books containing allegedly rational thoughts, as if their opinions should matter to anyone.

Regarding my parable that opens this blog, I’ll note that AB also appreciates the restricted utility of hammers: “A hammer is a marvelously handy thing for whacking in nails once you have them; it’s a hopeless tool when it comes to explaining why nails exist in the first place.” Indeed. I myself like a hammer when a nail needs to be driven. I love science and have employed its methods to build a career. But why questions and issues of origins and purpose and destiny? Neither hammers nor methods of quantum mechanics can help.

Sam Harris

The laws of physical mechanics and chemical combustion explain the operation of your car . . . but not its origin. The origin of a car (and the factory it came from) is not explained by the laws of physics, but rather by intelligent design, involving rational, willful engineers, logisticians, and accountants. Similarly, the metabolism of an automotive engineer is explained by chemistry, but not the origin of his mind and will . . . or the very universe within which the laws operate to enable our inhabitable world and life itself. A LOT of different universes could exist with the same physical laws. Yet ours is arranged neatly with stars and planets in regular orbits, fit into galactic structures. (In math and physics such patterns are called initial conditions and boundary conditions.) The Creator invoked physical laws PLUS matter PLUS its arrangement into patterns that allow functionality. Just so with an automobile. (See my two tracts on Astronomy in my Tracts essay.)

Chapter 10 of Bannister’s book is entitled, “The Panini Poisoner of Pimlico.” In the opening parable, Andy runs into an old acquaintance, Alex, who is horrified to see Andy about to take a bite out of a chicken and bacon panini. Alex snatches the panini away, warning his buddy about the Panini Poisoner of Pimlico, “who is randomly poisoning paninis in this part of London. Nobody’s safe!”

Andy replies, “Just paninis? That seems a bit particular. Does he harbour some kind of vendetta against Italian breadmakers?”
“He’s also poisoning pasta, pancakes, pizza, potato bread . . .”
“What about non-alliterative food stuffs?” Andy replies.

Alex’s fear is that no one can prove that every panini is safe. Andy quickly determines that Alex has been consuming almost nothing for several weeks, on the premise that no one can 100 per cent prove that anything hasn’t been contaminated. He asks Alex, “What about drinking?” Alex replies, “There’s the Coffee Contaminator of Chelsea.” And further, the Villainous Vitamin Venomizer of Victoria. Eventually, Alex hops on his bike and cycles away, to which Andy mutters, “Lucky I didn’t mention the Bicycle-Brake Breaker of Bermondsey.”

The point of the parable? It’s a commentary on the annoying skeptic’s claim that all beliefs and decisions must rely solely on evidence, “and that there is no place for faith in a civilized society.” The ignoramuses who represent the most public face of atheism today, thereby equate Christian faith to blind faith. For example, Sam Harris writes in his book, The End of Faith . . .

”Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse – constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility and candor.” Richard Dawkins calls faith “evil,” since in his view it can be based only on indoctrination or brainwashing.

I would ask Sam Harris, Where in the periodic table of the elements do we find reasonableness and coherence? Where in the laws of gravitation and quantum electrodynamics do we find civility and candor? Since matter and the physics of forces constitute everything, what is rationality? It’s ironic indeed that atheists love the term freethinkers, considering how thought in their view is just brain chemistry. AB points out that ‘like-minded freethinker’ probably has to be an oxymoron.

The author interjects a parable about ‘Sidney’ who attends a freethinker rally, but is suddenly troubled by the worrying thought, “How do I know that these thousands of other atheists really exist?” After all, his philosophy professor had told him that the so-called “problem of other minds” is one of the most intractable problems of (secular) philosophy – there is no way to prove that anyone else actually has a mind. You could just be a brain in a jar, or perhaps plugged into The Matrix, with electrodes providing you a virtual environment.

How do you know that anything at all is real? AB writes, “It’s theoretically possible that my wife is only pretending to love me, but is secretly in league with the Panini Poisoner of Pimlico, waiting for the first opportunity to smuggle strychnine into my sandwiches so she can cash in the life insurance policy and move to Marbella.”

The answer to all this, of course, is that you and I live on the basis of reasonable faith. I believe that my wife loves me because of thousands of pieces of evidence I have from her, smiles, affections, meals cooked, sorrows shared, patience exercised, and quite apparently sincere professions. Because my faith, my trust in her has been validated countless times, I exercise faith in her that she will be there for me tomorrow, that she will be faithful to me when we are apart, and that she will cook with non-lethal ingredients. My faith in my wife is not blind at all.

When you get on a commercial airline flight, you don’t exercise blind faith, despite the obvious potential for deadly disaster. You have at least a general knowledge of the track records of successful airlines, you know that pilots are trained in their craft and restricted from using narcotics before entering the cockpit, and you know that competent engineers and mechanics are required to keep an airline in business. All this, even though you’re not likely to meet the air crew at all. Your faith is reasonable, indeed.

Atheism, however, is built on a truly blind faith in evolution. Blind? Absolutely. As I’ve written about extensively, evolution is pure fantasy . . . it is based on no evidence or even any theoretical construct. There is no evidence (or even a speculative hypothesis) for the naturalistic formation of proteins or DNA, or for the alleged primordial first single-celled creature. Or for the multiplication of genes and biochemical networks necessary for multi-celled creatures. Or for the spectacular transitions between invertebrates and fish, between fish and amphibians, between amphibians and reptiles and birds and mammals. At every stage of the fantasy, there is no evidence AND no mathematical or chemical or genetic hypothesis to make the story even plausible.

Beyond faith and trust lies commitment, as AB affirms. The author imagines that while out hiking he slips over the edge of a cliff. As he falls he notices a small tree jutting out of the rocks. If he thinks fast, he might be able to identify the species and, if his botanical knowledge warrants, calculate how deep the roots might go, following up with a mechanical analysis involving his present speed, weight, muscular strength, etc. But at some point, especially as a branch comes within reach, he will commit to that tree.

Life is thousands of decisions. We buy food from grocery stores on the basis of reasonable faith in labeling and the integrity of the chain’s buyers and supply chain. We drive our cars, turn on our gas stoves, and cross on green, all on the basis of reasonable faith. Atheists live this way, too.

So in the most vital realm of all, that of the eternal, the spiritual, is it not prudent to construct a reasonable faith? Most of the atheists I meet have spent far more effort in research to determine which automobile to buy than whether God exists . . . along with a personal accountability. Far more time is invested in sitcoms or social media than in investigating whether life has a point. Vast sums of money are tossed into lotteries, rather than in acquiring books to evaluate the overwhelming evidence of God’s hand in creation, or in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Bannister writes, “It’s not my faith as faith that matters, as much as whom my faith is placed in. A Christian is not somebody who keeps a tea chest full of doctrines in their mental attic, each one filed alphabetically and regularly polished; rather, a Christian is somebody whose life has been shaped by how they have acted on those beliefs. ‘Here are reasons why God is trustworthy,’ says the Bible, ‘from His character to how He has acted in history, especially in Jesus. Now, on that basis, on that evidence, will you trust Him?’”

An aside . . . I despise the monikers ‘people of faith’ and ‘person of faith’. Such expressions magnify self and imply equivalence among all conceivable ‘faiths.’ The issue is the object of faith, the object of trust, and the basis for that continued trust – and commitment – which in the case of the born again Christian has mountains of evidence integrated with scintillating reason.

Phillip Johnson

I particularly despise the term “faith-based organization,” which distinguishes charities and other groups from . . . what? “Secular-humanism-based organizations” or “Grounded-in-empiriral-science-only-based organizations”?
The implication of “faith-based organization” is that it has some kind of mystical unreality as its foundation. No! If a charity or a para-church ministry is based on Biblical Christianity, then call it a “reality-based organization” or a “truth-based organization” or a “life-affirming organization.” Don’t just give up and cede this ground to atheistic philosophy (admittedly a contradiction in terms). I suspect that the anti-God culture sneers at “faith-based” groups at least in part because of the implication that “faith-based” really means “blind-faith-based.”

Atheists I meet are usually unable to defend their worldview past the soundbite. Years ago after a presentation on campus by Intelligent Design advocate Phillip Johnson, we walked up to a student who had challenged Johnson with a question that indicated the young man was a rabid evolutionist. I asked him if he could offer me any solid evidence for any aspect of evolution. He replied that the evidence is awesome and overwhelming in scope. So I asked him if he could give me five specific evidences out of that awesome list. He seemed confused, reasserting that vast scientific evidence is available. I kept insisting, though, asking him to just start with one piece then. He finally realized he couldn’t give me one.

It wasn’t that he was a mere student that caused the silence. I’ve discussed the issue with professors of biology and chemistry and experience the same void. On occasion someone offers something about the fossil record or homologous structures, but there is nothing behind the assertion, as they have admitted after a minute or two. Now I know that there are virulent atheists who will not admit defeat under any circumstances, who will persist in asserting their position. Just so . . . blind faith, uneducable. Why? Ultimately, they don’t dis-believe in God; rather, they hate Him and His laws and those who acknowledge their Creator and Savior. That’s clear from the tone and tactics of the fellows who promote their books. They make money off their cliches; substance is irrelevant.

Don’t ever be intimidated by the skeptical ignoramus. He’s lost and blind, deluded by the world and its god. Go on offense, challenging the one-layer-deep unbeliever to defend his worldview. Then tell him some Truth. Give him a chance.

– drdave@truthreallymatters.com

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