How to Think: Vicious Circles

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Dog chasing tail. How to think ... NOT! A clever skeptic named James Huber created a clever skit called “Kissing Hank’s Butt”. That’s the version he created for use in G-rated contexts. His main site uses more mature language. Many Christians will find it offensive. But I might go so far as to say it should be required reading for anyone who cares about apologetics and evangelism. It is a parody of course, and with that it is a caricature of believers. But it is helpful to note what it looks like to the outside world when our co-religionists are doing it wrong. I mention all this to highlight one bit of the dialog.

How to think: The 'Plain Silly' Version

The whole thing revolves around the idea that there is a millionaire philanthropist, Hank, who revealed some truths on a “list” to a guy named Karl; the chief revelation is that if you kiss Hank’s butt, he will give you a million dollars when you leave town. Conversely, if you refuse to kiss Hank's butt, he will beat the tar out of you. The main character is simply called “Me”.

Me: “You're saying Hank's always right because the list says so, the list is right because Hank dictated it, and we know that Hank dictated it because the list says so. That's circular logic, no different than saying 'Hank's right because He says He's right.'”

John: “Now you're getting it! It's so rewarding to see someone come around to Hank's way of thinking.”

This is poking fun at the 'vicious circles' which religious people often use to support their belief in God and God’s revelation. But this isn’t the only way to go. The response to this sort of thing (and the Flew-Wisdom Parable, if you are familiar with that) is that we agree. Fideism—belief apart from any evidence—is just plain silly.

How to Think: A Basis for Sharing Our Hope.

We can debate the best epistemology (the study of how we know things); we can debate the best ways to help people evaluate their beliefs. Set aside your thoughts about the merits of Reformed Epistemology, Postmodern Aesthetic Apologetics, theistic proofs, or old school evidentialism for the moment.

For now, it is enough to share with our friends who aren’t Christian that we do have a reason for the hope that is within us.

We need to be clear that circular reasoning, pure and simple, is not what is required to consider the claims of Christianity. The problem that arises is the reality of our deep-seated biases. Philosophers in both the analytic and continental traditions seem to agree these days that absolute certainty, neutrality, or pure objectivity are not available to us. We all have backstories. We all have biases. Moreover, because of the fall, sin affects our ability to weigh evidence and use it rightly (Romans 1:19-23). So, ought we despair about the 'vicious circles' of knowledge in which we find ourselves?

My answer is, 'no'.

We need to stick with the evidence, but we also need to evaluate the network of beliefs through which we evaluate this evidence.

How To Think: Evaluate the Evidence AND the Paradigm.

Since the criteria are important to any future posts I write related to the topic of apologetics, allow me to restate them here. As you read them, think of ways in which this might not only help you evaluate your own religious beliefs, but also help you make decisions about your paradigms. Paradigms are networks of beliefs that, according to philosopher of religion and science, Ian Barbour, can be judged according to four “trans-paradigmatic criteria.” I will conclude by summarizing them here:

  1. Agreement with data - Ask yourself: Does what I believe take account of the evidence around me? Am I ignoring important data that challenge my beliefs?
  2. Coherence - Ask yourself: Do the things I believe fit together? Am I playing some kind of game when I think about religion that I would never play in other areas of knowledge? Are my core beliefs contradictory or do they bolster each other?
  3. Scope - Ask yourself: Does my understanding of the world take all domains of knowledge into account or am I deceiving myself by having tunnel vision with respect to truth and reality?
  4. Fertility - When I go about my exploration of the world, do my beliefs help me predict new experiences in the world? Or, is it often the case that my beliefs cause me to expect one thing but the evidence turns out to point in directions I didn’t expect?

In each of these areas, our paradigms will be challenged.

We should expect our perspective on the world to run into anomalies and challenges, whatever we think. Nonetheless, if our paradigm keeps coming up against the evidence, is blatantly self-contradictory, fails to take into account all aspects of experience, or seems to consistently fail to predict future evidence, we might be ready for an intellectual conversion.

I invite you to stick with the conversation on this site and see whether Christian beliefs are true. In the end, I hope you will taste and then see that the Lord is good.