February 21, 2009

Victor Reppert and Methodological Naturalism

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, The Bible, Worldview tagged , , , , , at 3:36 pm by Andrew

One of my favorite Christian bloggers, Victor Reppert, has responded to one of my comments on his blog. He has a longer post up that’s definitely worth reading. His argument is that the Christian apologist who has a preexisting commitment to Biblical inerrancy is morally equivalent to the atheist debater with a preexisting commitment to methodological naturalism. I think he’s wrong, and here’s why:

First, I think the attempt at equivalence fails at the conceptual level. As I draw out in my previous conversation with Philip, the precepts of methodological naturalism — that empirical claims require empirical evidence — are accepted by both the Christian and the atheist as a precondition of rational discussion and debate. Victor Reppert wouldn’t be persuaded if I responded to his argument with, “He’s wrong, because the demon Zorbleen has told me so,” and for good reason.

On virtually every claim, both the Christian and the atheist come to the dialogue with methodological naturalism (MN) in the background; it’s just the Christian who deviates from it from time to time.

Reppert argues:

If a naturalistically inclined biblical scholar finds it difficult to account for the founding events of Christianity, well, by golly, my hallucination/legend/whatever-else theory may not fit all the facts as we know them, but at least it’s better than admitting a miracle. We can’t let a divine foot in the door, now can we?

I think this assumption builds considerably more into the MN framework than MN requires. Indeed, because we’re talking about methodological naturalism, we’re talking about the way in which knowledge is acquired rather than the conclusions one reaches (by definition). Thus, it is conceivable to reach a supernatural conclusion given MN.

For example, consider the Zener card/Stanford ESP experiments linked above, or medical studies regarding the efficacy of prayer. So long as those experiments are conducted without employing supernatural methods, they comply with MN — and could, theoretically, provide a supernatural inference, if they yielded positive, non-faked results. The bottom line is that as long as you play by the rules, you can indeed let the “divine foot in the door.”

Now certainly there are some atheists — Richard Carrier comes immediately to mind — who advocate for hardcore materialism and who would deny that the Stanford ESP experiments are science in the first place. I’ll let Carrier speak for himself, but I (and many other atheists) disagree with him on that score.

The “special pleading” charge, as in the case of Russell’s analysis of Aquinas, carries with it an implicit classical foundationalism that has been rejected in numerous areas of inquiry. We don’t come to the data as a blank slate to be written on, nor should we. We are humans, not Vulcans. And pretending to be a Vulcan when you aren’t one is just one more way of being irrational.

I think this supports my argument, not Reppert’s. We all do come to the data as humans, and one of the foundational aspects of human reason is our inherent skepticism, our requirement that empirical assertions (“I can shoot lasers from my eyes!”) be met with empirical evidence (“Really? Why don’t you show me?”), and not hearsay.

Finally, Reppert concludes with:

Now, a methodological naturalist could treat MN as a defeasible working hypothesis, but an inerrantist could do the same.

Absolutely wrong. William Lane Craig, for example, teaches at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, and as a condition of his employment, he is required to affirm the following statement:

“The Bible, consisting of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, a supernaturally given revelation from God Himself, concerning Himself, His being, nature, character, will and purposes; and concerning man, his nature, need and duty and destiny. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind.
(emphasis added)

That is not a rebuttable presumption (or defeasible hypothesis); that is an absolute precondition that cannot be shaken by the evidence. How can one argue with that?


  1. The fact that abandonment of a belief might result in one’s being expelled from one’s institution of education doesn’t mean that the position is indefeasible. Someone who starts doubting aspects of Darwinian biology might have similar fears about their status at their own institutions of learning. I don’t want to uphold the whole “Expelled” claim, but I think there is considerable pressure within many academic biology departments not to stray from Darwinism. Further, people in places like Talbot got positions at places like Talbot because their thinking led them to think that inerrancy was true to begin with. There have been people who have left their Christian academic institutions because they had doubts about the doctrinal commitments of the institution. And sometimes these institutional statements are given fairly liberal interpretations. If you apply at Calvin College the official statements affirm the Canons of Dordt, but I know that some people who teach there are not five-pointers (Plantinga, who taught classes there while at Notre Dame, openly said that the Canons of Dordt may not have gotten things right.)

    Further, exactly what is built into inerrancy is a little complicated, and what it takes to be guilty of “denying the Bible” may have more to it than just rejecting some popular hyper-literal interpretation of Genesis. The medievals said “Authority has a nose of wax” and that is, I think, true of inerrancy, although there are occasions where you get explusions, or attempted explusions, from groups like the ETS. However, the attempt to get Open Theists out of the ETS failed a couple of years back. I take it you have read the Chicago Statement and know what the doctrine is actually thought to mean by its contemporary advocates.

    There are stronger and weaker versions of MN, just as there are stronger and weaker versions of the commitment to inerrancy. It is a framework believe that the advocate will call into question only in the face of considerable evidential pressure.

    One of the things I tried to explain in my long exchanges with the Calvinists was that someone might in fact believe that inerrancy is true, but at the same time hold, based on their moral understanding, that the Calvinistic conception of a reprobating God was morally unacceptable. They might think that the biblical evidence supported anti-Calvinism rather than Calvinism, and therefore accept both inerrancy and anti-Calvinism. However, if presented with sufficient evidence (based on Calvinist exegetical arguments) that inerrancy and anti-Calvinism could not be held simultaneously, they might choose, in the hypothetical situation, to give up inerrancy. It wouldn’t follow from that never really believed in inerrancy in the first place.

  2. […] debate, inerrancy, methodological naturalism, Victor Reppert at 11:00 am by Andrew Victor Reppert responds to my argument that the atheist historian’s application of methodological naturalism is not […]

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