By Mathew Goldstein
Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity. The Centre for Public Christianity is an Australian not-for-profit media company, established in 2007, that supplies mainstream media (such as The Age, an Australian newspaper) and the general public with material about the relevance of Christianity in the 21st century. It seeks to represent historic Christianity as defined by the Nicene Creed. This is a response to his recent article Faith is key to our lives, even for atheists.
However obvious this may be, the following observation still needs to be reiterated because many defenders of religion lean heavily on this fact in their arguments, as illustrated by the aforementioned article: We are not all present and all knowing and therefore our ability to utilize empirical evidence to reliably identify what is true about the universe functions is not, and cannot be, 100% complete, accurate, guaranteed, instantaneous, certain, etc. What is maybe a little less obvious, but nevertheless equally important, is despite all of empiricism’s imperfections and limitations, it does not follow that we know nothing at all or that there are alternative, equally valid, or better, ways of obtaining such knowledge. Therefore, while we are all frequently making decisions on incomplete information, citing this fact to argue that we all are reliant on faith is not a good argument against our responsibilities to seek the relevant empirical evidence and try to reach our conclusions regarding how the universe operates on a best fit with the available empirical evidence basis.
The following statement from this article is one good example of this tactic of over-leveraging the imperfections of empiricism to defend religious belief: “we only know something as simple as how old we are or our birthday because our parents told us (or the Registry of Births). That this is accurate we take on faith.” No, there is more than faith behind confidence in birthdays. First of all, we have good reason to think our birth certificates are accurate because there is generally no motive for the direct eyewitness mother and hospital, or for the government, to falsify the birth date. Furthermore, we have first hand knowledge about how people change over time and that the changes proceed more quickly when we young. So we have ongoing empirical evidence from our self-experienced childhood, along with the childhood of others, to determine if the birth certificate birth date is at least reasonable. Our date of birth could not have been a decade or more earlier or later and still match our self-experience of our life. Plus there are other supporting documentation regarding vaccinations, baby food purchases, school attendance, other eyewitnesses to your early childhood, and the like.
Another example from this article: “The same principle applies to the highest reaches of scientific endeavour. Scientists rely on the testimony of other scientists because it is generally either a waste of time or impossible to replicate their research. And by and large this works, even when sometimes it later emerges that research went astray.“ This is mistaken. It is generally not “a waste of time or impossible” to replicate research. On the contrary, replication with the same result strengthens our confidence in that result while replication that fails to confirm the result weakens or undermines our confidence in that result. Replication requires effort, time, and money, all of which tend to be in short supply, which imposes practical constraints, but that is generally true to varying degrees for all research regardless of whether or not that research is a replication of earlier research.
Another example from this article: “History, psychology and all manner of disciplines rely on other people’s testimony, acceptance of which is largely a matter of faith. I cannot know by experience or perception that Napoleon lived, or any other historical figure whose existence it makes no sense to doubt.“ OK, and why does it “make no sense to doubt” various “historical figures” such as Napoleon? Although this question is of central relevance for this topic Mr. Zwartz ignores it, probably because the answer is incompatible with his goal of arguing for religious belief by arguing against empiricism. The answer is that we have a good amount and variety of good quality empirical evidence from multiple independent sources for some historical figures, particularly those historical figures who are more recent and whose actions impacted many other people and events. Empirical evidence, despite its imperfections, can be powerful, so powerful that it becomes unreasonable to reject conclusions that the available empirical evidence favors even when the evidence consists entirely of artifacts from the past.
Mr. Zwartz then identifies one of the conclusions he is pursuing: “we are wrong to exclude testimony from knowledge in any ordinary, useful sense. In other words, faith.“ This is a mistaken over-generalization. We absolutely should be skeptical of the integrity of testimony that is in conflict with our empirically based knowledge of how the universe operates. Let’s say someone gives testimony that they (singular “they” for gender neutrality) eye-witnessed a donkey or a snake briefly talking to them in the same language that they speak, providing them with an instruction to not strike the donkey or not eat tree fruit. Is Mr. Zwartz claiming that such testimony qualifies as knowledge in “any ordinary, useful, sense”?
He then anticipates the above objection and responds as follows: “many religious truth claims are in a different and more complex category: they can seem contrary to reason and experience. But equal questions apply for those who believe nothing exists other than what science can measure, for they cannot even explain human consciousness, let alone spiritual experience.“ Not explaining consciousness is different from denying it. Our modern knowledge indicates that our day to day reasoning and experiences are too limited to be a proper basis for understanding how the universe at large operates and our intuitions, rooted in on our limited experiences, tend to conflict with how the universe at large operates. This is one of the reasons it can become necessary to seek out and follow the empirical evidence in a rigorous way. If human consciousness will be explained in the future (and all we can do is wait, however long it takes, for explanations that we currently lack) then the probability is high that the explanation will be obtained the way all of the other explanations from biology humanity has obtained: Measures of biological activity by scientists with the assistance of human engineered instruments. Consciousness is manifested strictly as a first person self-experience which makes it difficult to explain, but even without explanation its likely presence or absence can be inferred from observable behaviors. Human created religions fail to provide a reliable way to conclude anything about how the universe operates, let alone overcome this first person difficulty with regard to explaining consciousness. Furthermore, the Nicene Creed is not explaining consciousness and therefore is not properly justified as being true on the grounds that it provides an explanation for consciousness.
Lastly, Mr. Zwartz asserts: “there is no doubt that the eyewitnesses to the resurrection believed it, because many of them later died for that belief.“ Before such an argument can be taken seriously we need to establish that there were such eyewitnesses and that we have such eyewitness testimony. Despite innumerable efforts and assertions otherwise no one has ever succeeded in establishing that there were any resurrection eyewitnesses because the need for empirical evidence imposes constraints that the most sophisticated cleverness cannot defeat. The best candidate for the eyewitness role is Paul. It can be determined from his writings that Paul is a poor quality eyewitness. He talked about much more than he eyewitnessed. Paul comes across as a confused and distraught person who self-promoted his poorly anchored fictional thoughts, imaginations, and dreams to the status of facts. Paul is an archetype of a person who is unable and/or unwilling to reach conclusions about how the universe operates on a best fit with empirical evidence basis. The resurrection of Jesus story lacks the solid supporting evidence that we have for the historical reality of Napoleon or of Paul. The far too many people who claim otherwise are arguing against the evidence despite their self-assertions otherwise.