The Virtues of Skepticism: Mitch Stokes on Apologetics

“I think my ultimate goal would be to convert people away from particular religions toward a rationalist skepticism.”  – Richard Dawkins, interview by Larry Taunton

“Their skepticism about values is on the surface:  it is for use on other people’s values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly skeptical enough.  And this phenomenon is very usual.”  – C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

I’d like to ask Dawkins, Why?  What’s the point?  In your worldview, why are you wasting your time on this?  Your life is but a vapor which soon vanishes away and, as you see it, then nothingness.  You should be spending every waking moment grabbing some gusto!  Besides, there is no such thing as rationalist thought in a universe of merely physical cause and effect, in which the next thing you speak or write, Richard, is just a product of brain chemistry.  I have also noticed that Dawkins and his ilk are not into the oh-so-cherished method of today’s evangelicals . . . relational evangelism.  The current crop of evangelistic atheists have no interest in winning over us deplorables, we who embrace Biblical truth, by their winsomeness.  They just shout out what they believe and the world seems to be listening.

The two quotes above are taken from Mitch Stokes’ 2016 book, How to Be an Atheist:  Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough.  Stokes admits that he’s a skeptic by training and temperament, and doesn’t understand how some atheists (I would say ‘all’) are so naive about the pitiful weakness of their position.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Stokes writes that the term freethinker originated during the so-called Enlightenment, to describe people who rebelled against the religious consensus.  In Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, he wrote, “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-imposed tutelage.  Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another . . . ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’ – that is the motto of enlightenment.”

Indeed.  A proper education teaches one to think, to examine even the presuppositions of your teachers, to distinguish between assertion and argument, between bluster and reason, to understand that facts must be interpreted within a worldview.

The author cites the perspective of Alexander Rosenberg, a Duke University professor, who began his career in physics, but couldn’t get any answers about meaning until he read David Hume (18th century Scottish philosopher), provoking him to switch to philosophy.  But his study of philosophy just turned him back to science, as it seemed that the agenda of the great philosophers of history was often constrained by advances in physics, chemistry, and biology.  Rosenberg:  “The mistake, as Hume showed so powerfully, was to think that there is any more to reality than the laws of nature that science discovers.”  When he concluded that science tells us all there is, he locked into an atheistic worldview.

In Rosenberg’s 2011 book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, he asks himself some questions:

Is there a God?  No.

What is the nature of reality?  What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe?  There is none.

What is the meaning of life?  Ditto.

Why am I here?  Just dumb luck . . .

Is there free will?  Not a chance.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?  There is no moral difference between them.

Why should I be moral?  Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or something obligatory?  Anything goes.

Whew.  At least he’s an honest atheist.  But no one lives that way, do they?  Almost every atheist I’ve talked with, including two this week, profess that matter is everything and so morality, which cannot be found in the periodic table, is meaningless, yet readily confess that murder, rape, molesting children, and even lying are wrong . . . not just uncomfortable, but wrong.  Furthermore, what’s the point of Rosenberg’s book?  Since he has no free will, it’s just the product of brain chemistry and so why should I take notice, unless it’s my brain chemistry that forces me to.  But then who is “Rosenberg” and who am “I”?  Just clumps of molecules?  If so, there is no “you.”  There is no “I.”  Come on, Alex!  Get a little skeptical about what “you” are saying!

Is this "you"?

Is this “you”?

Stokes discusses Hume’s skepticism about inductive reasoning.  We use induction all the time.  I know that if I let go of my keys, they will fall to the floor.  I don’t ‘know’ because I solve Einstein’s gravitational field equations, but because of vast experience in dropping things.  Why do we believe the sun will rise tomorrow?  Because in the past, looking forward, our expectation of the sun rising tomorrow has always been met.  And so I expect the sun to rise tomorrow, yet again.  My use of induction to predict tomorrow’s sunrise is based on my use of induction in the past.  Induction relies on induction and so Hume declares this is circular reasoning, and induction, therefore, should not be trusted.

Yet it works much of the time.  By experience we know it works.  Hume says we should be skeptics about induction, but we just can’t help ourselves.  Now, I don’t see this as circular reasoning, but as helical reasoning.  As time goes on and experience grows, the reasoning does not reside as if on a circle in a plane, but as a rising helix.  The more experience we have (lots of sunrises), the more confidence we have in induction for a particular case.

Similarly, why should we trust reason?  Any argument for or against rationality must be based on reasons.  Yet we do.  Especially as Christians, we believe that reality is more than physics and chemistry, that mind (and soul and spirit) are given by a rational God.  In atheism, though, reason has no foundation.  Everyone takes reason by faith.  But ours is a reasoned faith.  As we climb the helix, our reasoned Biblical faith grows, in part as we see that it is consistent with what we observe in the physical creation, and also in the realms of morality and relationships.  As Stokes puts it, “epistemology is our friend.”

Materialists simply don’t like to talk about the question of cognitive reliability.  Why not?  Stokes:  “I would have thought that hard-nosed skeptics would be itching to follow reason – along any path.”  But this path shuts them up.  Why should we listen?  He’s just a clod of molecules making noise.

My personal favorite area to promote skepticism is evolution.  I have written much on the subject for this web site and have designed many tracts (see my Tracts essay to download the pdfs), with the objective to get those deluded by evolutionary fantasy to think!  Come on, college students, apply your anti-establishment snarky attitude to the subject of evolution.  Demand that your profs show you the biochemistry – in detail – for the alleged origin of life.  Demand to see the fossils that are missing from all the paleontological ‘trees of life’ that are populated with nothing but dashed lines where all the evolution was supposed to happen.  Demand to see the genetics for how information-destroying mutations somehow create new proteins, new processes, new organs, and new kinds of plants and animals.  Get a little skeptical about all those fairy tales and make some demands!

Stokes cites philosopher Thomas Nagel, who has been branded a heretic by his fellow atheists for daring to express some skepticism about Darwinian fables.  For example:

“It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.  We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical / chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples.  What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true.”  – from Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos

 He’s too kind, in my view, but does use the word story appropriately.  He goes on to point out that it’s not just about the astonishing physical features of animals like eyes and circulatory systems, but evolution must also account for “consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value.”  Such are the issues of daily life . . . life so vast in comparison with the myopic worldview of the materialist.

Our lives are filled with beliefs and a strong desire to have true beliefs.  Whether we get it right or not, we value getting it right.  It’s embarrassing to find out our beliefs are wrong.  That’s one reason why so few repent and trust Christ.  It’s not so bad to repent from stupid, sinful, destructive behavior.  But to repent by admitting that you’ve been wrong . . . that’s hard!

Evolution has nothing to say about our overwhelming desire to interact with true beliefs about our environment.  Stokes:  “Viruses and bacteria are remarkably successful at survival, with nary a belief to be found . . . They merely need sensors, detectors, or indicators.”  True beliefs are irrelevant.

Hume understood that what serve as scientific explanations have serious limits.  Newton’s law of gravity, for example, describes what happens when massive bodies interact.  But, like all other physical laws, whether in mechanics or electromagnetics or quantum theory, these mathematical laws say nothing about what causes the force.  Why does the particle move like that?  We just see the result and systematize our observations by mathematics.  We have nothing to say about why or even how.  Galileo and Newton and scientists of the succeeding centuries basically gave up on real explanations.  Concerning gravity’s cause, Newton famously said (paraphrasing), “I’m not even going to pretend to explain it.”  That’s Stokes admittedly loose translation of “hypotheses non fingo.”  Yet Galileo and Newton (and many to follow) were so good at doing the math, which leads to extremely helpful engineering and technology, that science gets all the respect, so much that it is politically incorrect to ask why questions.

Are the magnetic field lines "really there"?

Are the magnetic field lines “really there”?

Hume admitted, “When we talk of gravity, we mean certain effects, without comprehending that active power.”  Newton’s approach in his time provoked some criticism that it made gravity an “occult power.”  More recently, philosopher Eric Schliesser sees the laws of physics “as a way to keep track of the appearances.”  As a physicist myself, I was trained to see ‘action at a distance’ in terms of field theories.  A particle ‘exudes’ a gravitational or electrical field and it’s that field suffusing space that interacts with another particle.  When you’re trained long enough in this mode of thinking, you tend to see the ‘fields’ as real entities themselves.  But fields are unobservable.  All we ever see are effects.

One reason I bring all this up is to encourage you nonscientists out there to be skeptical about the bluster of scientists who, as soon as they opine about ultimate causes, are going way beyond their expertise.  Science, as wonderful as it is (and I do love it), is largely a glorified version of accounting, systematizing stuff that happens in creation.  As I’ve written before, though, no Nobel Prize winning physicist can tell you why the electron moves as it does around the proton in a hydrogen atom, or even where it is at any given time.  (Quantum theory has profound limitations for understanding what happens, not to mention why things happen, at the atomic scale.)  Rosenberg says of Hume:  “For Hume, the aim of science cannot be to reveal the intelligible character of the universe, but simply to catalogue the regularities that causal sequences reflect.”

The blustering materialist who sports a Ph.D. in the sciences is playing bait-and-switch with you.  Because he is so good at cataloguing and accounting, which requires lots of education and a peculiarly wired brain, he claims the office of high priest for philosophical questions of origin and purpose and meaning, for which he has not been trained . . . in fact his training makes him particularly unsuited to understand his own limitations!

Niels Bohr

Niels Bohr

Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, when confronted with the many non-intuitive aspects of the theory, insisted that a good scientific theory need not tell us the truth about the micro-world.  It just needs to be a useful tool for predicting events or for doing engineering.  This attitude is sometimes called instrumentalism or scientific antirealism.  Albert Einstein objected to this vehemently, insisting that the goal of science is to find the truth about reality, not just to build practical tools.  The Christian, in his Biblical worldview, is all about reality, that there is more to reality than matter and forces, that mind (God’s mind) came before matter, not that matter somehow congealed into brains, with chemistry that somehow produces an illusion that personality exists.

It’s Bohr’s view that has prevailed over the last century.  Quantum nonrealism is foundational to the training of every graduate physicist, whether they realize it or not.  Erwin Schrodinger, who invented the form of quantum mechanics used most often, tried (early on) to visualize what his famous equation meant, but he quickly gave up.

This is all so ironic, because it is the scientific antirealists that claim that they somehow know that reality is merely matter and forces, that life is meaningless, and that we should take their pronouncements seriously!

Interestingly, Einstein was an instrumentalist early in his career when he developed the theories of special and general relativity.  In 1916 he wrote that general relativity “takes away from space and time the last remnants of physical objectivity.”  Namely, his theory was instrumentalist in character – neither he nor the physicists who have used it since think of it as expressing any ‘big truth’; rather, it’s a powerful and useful instrument for analyzing neutron stars, black holes, galaxy dynamics, etc.

The entire structure of modern physics, which is foundational for the rest of science, including chemistry and biochemistry, is built on instrumentalist ideas!  Think about that . . . yes, it’s all wonderful for engineering and technology, but with respect to explaining what the truth is concerning reality and the role of humanity, the foundations of science have explicitly put that out of play!

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

John Gribbin, author of In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat:  Quantum Physics and Reality (1984), wrote, “It isn’t just that Bohr’s atom with its electron ‘orbits’ is a false picture; all pictures are false, and there is no physical analogy we can make to understand what goes on inside atoms . . . Nobody understands what ‘really’ goes on in atoms.”  Sir Arthur Eddington put it this way:  “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.”

One more quote to hammer home the point.  Quantum theorist John Bell (of Bell’s theorem fame) wrote:
“Well, it (quantum theory) does not really explain things; in fact the founding fathers of quantum mechanics rather prided themselves on giving up the idea of explanation.  They were very proud that they dealt only with phenomena:  they refused to look behind the phenomena, regarding that as the price one had to pay for coming to terms with nature.  And it is a fact of history that the people who took that agnostic attitude towards the real world on the micro-physical level were very successful.”

Ok, then.  Let’s respect the brilliance of good scientists and pay them according to market value.  But let’s recognize that Truth and Fundamental Causes are not in the realm of science.  You’re just as likely to hear truth or falsehood on origins and purpose from the young gang banger on the streets of Chicago.  In fact, in my own personal experience, I can testify that such tend to be more honest and more in touch with reality than the pedigreed academic.

In the 1920s there sprang up a group of philosophers known as logical positivists.  They followed Hume in asserting that a statement is meaningful only if (1)  it can be empirically checked or verified, or (2) it is a matter of definition.  The first criterion is the foundation of science and the second authorizes math and logic.  Positivism is equivalent to experience or empiricism and logical relates to math and logic.

David Hume

David Hume

Despite the fact that logical positivism has been discredited, it still operates enthusiastically within the culture, serving to bolster scientists who espouse atheism, and academia and the media that promote evolution and naturalism.  Discredited?  Of course.  For one thing, there is no empirical difference between our everyday experience and a Matrix-like scenario in which we are brains in vats and all of our sensory experiences are programmed externally.  Thus, to the logical positivist, there is no external world, no reality, it’s just all sensory experience . . . or illusion.  Murder isn’t wrong, it’s just that the thought makes you feel bad.

Most significantly, from a credibility point of view, logical positivism doesn’t meet its own criteria.  It can’t be verified empirically.  How can you verify that a statement is only meaningful if it can be verified empirically?  And how does verification work if you can’t verify rational thought?

Stokes:  “Theory influences observation, which influences theory, which influences observation . . . Seeing is believing, but the converse is true, too.”  Stokes cites a striking example from the history of physics.  Paul Dirac predicted the existence of the positron, the anti-electron, in 1928.  In the years to follow, physicists not only discovered the positron experimentally, but also looked back at cloud chamber experiments performed in the years before Dirac’s prediction.  The positron tracks were there for anyone to see, but nobody saw them.  They were obvious once you looked.  The positively charged particles curve as they move through a magnetic field, but in a direction opposite to that of electrons.  Similarly, today, materialists simply cannot see the information content of DNA, or the always present gaps between kinds in the fossil record, or the spectacular characteristics of the Grand Canyon (and its sedimentary layers) which can only be explained by the Genesis flood.  Believing (or not) is seeing (or not).

So what really counts as an explanation?  That will depend on what satisfies you in a given situation.  For example:

Son:  “Why did you quit cutting the grass so soon?”

Dad:  “It started raining.”

Son:  “Why did it start raining?”

Dad:  “The clouds got full of water, which got too heavy, so the raindrops started falling.”

Son:  “Why do clouds get full of water?”

Dad:  “Well, the wind sweeps over the ocean, the water evaporates, rises, and forms into clouds, a storm can build up, and we get rain.”

Son:  “Why do storms build up?”

Dad:  “Ok, so there’s this butterfly down in Brazil . . .”

Ultimately, all physical events have antecedent causes.  Now, this point is worth a full book covering the philosophical nuances, but what it comes down to is that there must be an uncaused, nonphysical cause for all the physical events in the universe.  Given rational thought, individual personality, moral conscience, and enormous evidence of purposeful design throughout creation, only God as revealed in the Bible fits.  No other idea comes close.

But not many people find God through such a philosophical approach.  In my case I was desperately searching for meaning as a young atheist, having rejected Roman Catholicism some years before.  When I opened my heart to seek truth, God sent me a witness and patiently drew me and opened my understanding over a period of several months.  Stokes quotes Alvin Plantinga:  “Maybe a few people accept religious beliefs strictly on the basis of what they take the evidence to be; perhaps, for example, this was true of Antony Flew.”  (Flew was a famous atheist who became a theist from considering the information content of life, but died without becoming a Christian.  Tragic.)

matrixStokes:  “In fact, it probably goes the other way:  since many people already believe in God, He’s going to be their first-round draft pick for an explanation of the universe.”

Most people I share the Gospel with do believe in God, but have a warped concept of the requirements for Biblical salvation.  With college-aged atheists, it typically takes me two minutes to show them compelling arguments to dismantle their materialistic worldview.  Then they’re open to hear the Gospel.  It’s quite remarkable, actually.  Although indoctrinated by family and media and academia for twenty years, it takes just two minutes to turn their worldview upside down.  (See my essay “How to Witness to an Atheist.”)  That’s how corrupt the foundation is for atheism.  And any Christian can make the simple arguments that I make . . . and these arguments have been available throughout history.

In talking with atheists I find the moral argument is compelling.  If we’re just molecules in motion then what is murder?  What is rape? What is child abuse?  In the materialistic worlview, morally heinous acts are simply clods of molecules in collision.  Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov, observed that if God is dead and the grave is our utterly final destination, then “nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy (cannibalism).”  The famous 20th century existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, agreed:  “Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and man is consequently abandoned.”  Sartre lived accordingly, abusing people close to him and living immorally even by most worldling’s standards.

But when I ask the atheist if murder is wrong, if rape is wrong, if molesting a child is wrong, he agrees.  The moral argument is compelling because it’s written in our hearts.  From there, the door opens to the law.  “Have you ever murdered anyone?”  Using the standards proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount, all have.

Dostoyevsky’s Ivan goes on to insist that “the moral law of nature ought to change immediately into the exact opposite of the former religious law . . .” so that man can declare any act reasonable.  Yet ought is not founded in naturalism.  Life is full of oughts and ought nots, but ought is immaterial, value-based, outside of what science can measure.  Do keep in mind that science is a severely limited discipline that does not touch the vital issues of life . . . love, justice, beauty, integrity, hope, etc.

Serial killer Ted Bundy once said, “Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’?  In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate raping and murdering you.  That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me – after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.”

Still think a public school education, infested with atheistic / humanistic philosophy, is good for your children?  Still think that the emphasis on self-esteem in the schools and in the culture is healthy?  Ted Bundy thought so.  If naturalism is true, there are no morals.  Christians and atheists can agree on this.  But if an objective morality exists, so does God.  Atheists who assert morality makes sense because it makes society work or because it makes people feel better are missing the point.  Ted Bundy felt just fine, thank you.  David Hume ultimately concluded that vice and virtue are equivalent to colors or sounds, just perceptions in the mind.

I would point out that everyone, including Christians in their day-to-day lives, lose perspective in this matter.  “I’m angry at you because . . .”  Fill in the blank with what the object of their anger said or did or whatever.  The sin of anger is justified because of how it makes one feel.  The sin of unforgiveness is justified because the other’s words or acts produced poor feelings.  Hey, Christian, you too can emulate David Hume or Ivan or Ted Bundy.

Stokes analyzes the position of atheist Sam Harris (among others) who asserts that morality can be defined objectively by science, that good is anything that “supports well-being” and bad is that which causes harm.  So who needs the Ten Commandments or any arbitrary measure of right and wrong?  This is an old view, called utilitarianism, made famous by 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, who espoused a “greatest happiness principle” based on actions that tend to promote happiness, and wrong behaviors as those that produce pain or unhappiness.

Who will be in charge of writing the standards and the laws derived from them?  The Pope?  Sam Harris?  Ted Bundy?  You?  Is every pleasure producing act good?  Families broken by adultery or drunkenness or drug abuse might take issue.  What about painful endeavors, like the self-sacrifice of fire fighters or para-rescue troops or childbirth?  What counts as harm?

The ultimate cause?

The ultimate cause?

The older I grow as a Christian the more I see the brilliance of God’s word, His standards, His morals . . . His laws are completely in touch with reality.  Doing the right thing even when it hurts is a Biblical principle, and it tends to produce admiration in the world.  Books and movies are produced regularly about heroes who suffered for doing right.  Harris admits that “the concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health:  it resists precise definition and yet it is indispensable.  In fact, the meanings of both terms seem likely to remain perpetually open to revision as we make progress in science.”  Indeed, Hitler’s Third Reich, the most ‘scientific’ society on Earth at the time, justified genocide on the basis of scientific morality.  Rather, men will only have peace with men if they have peace with God.  Line up with God and everyone will be pointed in the same direction.

Stokes agrees with Harris that values require a mind, a consciousness, to do the valuing.  So we’re back to the brain chemistry argument.  Are you an actual person, more than brain chemistry?  If so, then moral obligation is always tied to relationships among persons.  Ought relates to a person in his relationship with another person.  When you’re by yourself, ought is defined by your relationship with God, who made your person.  Moral conscience is God-given and everyone knows it . . . even atheists after a couple of minutes of discussion.  Isn’t it odd to hear liberals (atheists) in the media say that they are thankful or blessed?  Thankful to whom?  Blessed by whom?

I heartily recommend this book by Mitch Stokes.  There is much content I haven’t touched in this review.  For Christians, even apart from considering your witness to unbelievers, he provokes thought about who we are in relation to God.  Are you thankful today?  Blessed?  Is there an ought that you’re neglecting?  Are you using your God-given discernment to be a blessing to others, including the lost around you?  What’s the point of learning and growing if you can’t help someone else with what God has given you?

You ought to do some good today.  There are two classes of people within your reach.  The lost need either a verbal witness or a Gospel tract from you.  The believers you know need some encouragement.  Really.  Christians in this culture really do need encouragement from each other, not just a handshake and a cheesy smile on Sunday  morning.  So reach out.  You really ought to.


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