So I was recently reminded of an old interview of Alister McGrath by Richard Dawkins. When I first listened to this, quite some time ago, I recall feeling that McGrath was rather slippery, that I listened for an entire hour and still couldn't really determine what the guy actually believed was true. I listened to it again, over the past couple days, and can see why I had my initial impression.
They start with a discussion about the term faith, and McGrath basically says that
we're dealing with a different situation than, for example, evidence that the moon orbits the earth at a certain distance
there are many possible ways of explaining [the world], and we have to make the very difficult judgement of which is the best of these [explanations]...evidence takes us thus far, but then when it comes to deciding between a number of competing explanations, it is extremely difficult to make an evidence-driven argument
I believe faith is rational, in the sense that it tries to make the best possible sense of things...even though we believe this is the best possible sense of things, we cannot prove this is the case...there is a point where [faith] goes beyond the evidence
So essentially, as I read it, he is talking about probabilistic reasoning, yet if faith is simply probabilistic reasoning then why have another word? Why not talk about evidence, and the weight of probabilities? Historians, for example, don't use the word faith even though they deal with probabilities, some of which are highly uncertain. Scientists all the time deal with probabilities, without invoking the word faith in any paper.
Further, McGrath ignores the fact that there already is a proper and rational method to address the "decision between a number of competing explanations", that doesn't go beyond the evidence, and doesn't claim more knowledge than is justified. What is this method? It's called the mathematics of probability! So, McGrath is claiming there is a problem that faith solves, which is not a problem at all, and he is using the word faith (at the moment) as synonymous with probability.
Why is he doing this? It seems as if it is because McGrath is holding to a double standard, and shifts the definitions of concepts around whenever pressed. He doesn't like the notion of believing strongly without sufficient evidence (which is truly what faith is), so he defines it (at the moment) to be equivalent to probabilities. Of course he doesn't actually admit this, and if pressed he'd say that faith is more than a synonym for probability, but he fails to define it properly.
Inference to the Best Explanation
So McGrath basically then goes on to talk about probabilistic reasoning, and says that with faith one is doing inference to the best explanation, given a number of competing multiple explanations. As I stated earlier, if all he means is that faith is probabilistic reasoning, then we don't have an argument - except in making things clear. I would contend, along with Dawkins, the the vast majority of people do not take it to mean this.
However, I'd like to also challenge his basic premise here: that in dealing with multiple competing explanations that one should try to "infer to the best explanation", and believe strongly in that explanation. A simple example, used in other contexts, suffices to see this. Say we have two explanations of the number of stars, one which says that there is an even number of stars and another that says that there is an odd number of stars. Pretty much we know that, at any given instant, one of these must be true. However strong belief in either one is completely unwarranted - there is simply no way to know. From a probabilistic framework, we express this as
However, it is worse than that. Let's say we had a smidgen of evidence toward the even-star model, such that we had:
Even though there is a best explanation here (even is slightly more probable than odd), and we have the exact probabilities, it is still irrational to hold strong belief in either explanation. One really does have to look where the weight of the probabilities lay. Inference to the best explanation fails as a guiding principle in the face of uncertainty, and is not well defined in all contexts. I don't think McGrath is actually doing proper probabilistic inference at all, but even if he were, this "best explanation" approach fails to address our knowledge of the problem.
Playing Dodgeball with an Apologist
So, here is how the game is played, and why I had my initial impression of slipperiness about McGrath.
- First it was "faith is reasonable", based on evidence, going beyond the evidence to the "inference to the best explanation" and that as a result one can have a reasonable faith in God
- When asked about his belief in a creator, and the evidence for it, despite having difficulty with the implied complexity of such a creator, he says
I want to go back to CS Lewis who says I believe in Christianity as I believe the Sun has risen, not simply because I see it by by it I see everything else. Belief in God gives you a way of seeing the world that makes an awful lot of sense of it.
- When pressed on what this implies, he says that "there are many reasons I believe in God and that [origins] is not even the primary one"
- He then says that "religion really isn't much about where things came from, about things in the distant past, but really about how things are now. How to live your life, how to be moral, etc..."
- Then this becomes "the key reason for believing God is Jesus, that there is something [in the Jesus story] that needs explanation"
- Then this becomes that it is not really about the life of Jesus, and his historicity, but how he was perceived by his followers - the significance they saw in the life and teaching of Jesus.
Notice how this keeps shifting? Every time he gets pushed on the specific consequences of his statement, he retreats, redefines, and redirects the conversation.
He doesn't seem to realize that any explanation, even of things currently, entails assumptions that can be tested - perhaps with observations about the past. He can't simply say that religion is "not about where things came from", when they explicitly make statements of origins - statements which have been universally discredited. The atonement, for example, does depend critically on the existence of Jesus, the existence the "Fall", and a creator of the universe - for none of which did McGrath provide evidence. If Jesus didn't exist as a real person (or even if he was just an ordinary guy) then it doesn't matter that his followers simply believed that Jesus was God incarnate when determining ones belief in the doctrine of salvation. The demonstration of the historicity of the events claimed is necessary for the doctrinal belief. If you don't have strong evidence of the former, then you are not rational to believe strongly in the latter - you'd be claiming to know things you could not know.
As a scientist, one takes an idea, and pushes the idea to it furthest consequences to see where it breaks, or to see what it depends on. McGrath changes the topic whenever this is done - he does not want to face the very real, specific consequences of his stated beliefs and refuses to see the connections between the things that may be confirmable (apparent design in the biology and the universe itself, historicity of people and events, alleged miracle claims, etc...) and the things that make him feel good, but are unmeasurable (existence of heaven, the atonement of sins, etc...).
The Problem of Evil
His biggest dodge came with the problem of evil. When initially asked about it, he says that there are two basic approaches. One is to "find an explanation for it, but that doesn't get us really far because we can't really make sense of these things". And the other approach is to address how to "cope with suffering" that is a part of this world. Now that is an amazing admission! He's basically missing the point of the argument, either willfully or otherwise, to focus on what feels good. He wants to wave away the real consequences of the beliefs he is claiming to have.
McGrath was quick to make the following statements:
- God does not act directly in this world
- The single child saved in a tragedy killing ten thousand people he'd interpret as an act of God, and thus God is responsible for this child being saved.
- The killing of ten thousand people was not God's fault, but rather perhaps there is no other way for the universe to be this way
See the contradictions here? McGrath couldn't. Either God acts in the world, and is measurable, or he does not act in the world and is thus either impotent, immoral, or simply indifferent. The problem of evil has no other outlet. If you try to argue (as William Lane Craig does) that God may have sufficient reasons, then you undermine the entire notion of personal conscience - the seemingly immoral actions (or inactions) of God fly in the face of it.
One final thought
McGrath stresses again and again the usefulness of religion, without once demonstrating that it is true. He failed, again and again, to address the immediate consequences of his beliefs and simply dodged at every point, in order to wallow in generalities.