Friday, April 29, 2005

Is it irrational to believe something because somebody said so?

Several years ago, I decided it was time for me to educate myself on the whole issue of evolution and creationism. The first book I read was Vital Dust by Christian de Duve. After reading that book, I came to the realization that before I could ever be qualified to have a strong opinion about evolution, I was going to have to know a lot more than I knew about biology. I gave up on it.

Since then, I have had this sneaking suspicion that there are a lot of people on both sides of the issue who have very strong opinions about it, but who really aren’t qualified to say, because they lack the necessary education to be able to assess the evidence.

I want to observe what seems to me to be an inconsistency among some non-believers. Some of them think Christians are irrational if they take things on authority. In other words, if Christians believe some things because some authority says so rather than because they examined the evidence for themselves, then some non-believers think the Christians are being irrational.

Among those non-believers, there are some who have very strong opinions about evolution, but they have no education in biology or archaeology. All they know is that the vast majority of the scientific community in the relevant field believes in evolution. It seems, then, that they take evolution on the authority of scientists. They don’t believe it because they themselves have examined the evidence and found it compelling; they believe it because many scientists say so.

That’s inconsistent. If they think it’s irrational to take things on authority, and yet they take evolution on authority, then by their own standards, they’re being irrational.

I think where they’ve gone wrong is in assuming it’s irrational to take things on authority. It’s not. If it were, then all of us would be irrational or else we wouldn’t know much at all. Most of what we know, we know because we learned it from somebody who was qualified to tell us. Think about it. Most of the education system is based on authority. That’s why colleges have math professors who are heavily educated in math, and history teachers who are heavily educated in history. When you take notes in a history class or read a history book, you’re learning things by taking them on the authority of the professor or the author. It would be next to impossible for us to research everything we were taught for ourselves, so we must take some things on authority or else remain largely in ignorance.

It is perfectly appropriate to take things on authority if the authority is qualified. It’s not irrational to get legal advice from lawyers, and it’s not irrational to get medical advice from doctors.

Now, of course, sometimes the authorities disagree with each other, and in those cases, you have to be more cautious about just believing anything they say.

Since most of us Christians don’t get direct revelations from God, we have to take many things on authority. The Bible, the prophets, Jesus, the apostles, etc., are all authorities we base our beliefs on. The question is whether these sources are qualified, but that will be saved for future blogs.


At 4/29/2005 4:10 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

Hey eph, this comment is off-topic. You wrote this in a post about Creation at a few years ago:

Let's assume for a moment that God is good. That would imply that everything he did was good. Now God could have created a world where everybody was free to choose between good and evil, or he could've made a world where everybody could only choose good. Which would've been the better choice? Well, most of us wouldn't like it if the government told us what to wear and what kind of car drive and where to live, etc. So we value free choice. Having the freedom to make our own choices is something we consider to be a good thing. So the good thing for God to have done would be to have created a world where people were free to choose between good an evil. If God created beings that would automatically do good, then we wouldn't really be free. So allowing for the choice between good and evil makes evil choices almost inevidible. God knew ahead of time that man would make evil choices, and chances are, he was grieved for creating them on the earth before he ever made them. He knew he would be grieved, but it was apparently worth it to him to have those who would make the choice to love him even though he knew that some would make the opposite choice.

Do you still support this position? Here is a question.

I think it would be possible for God to create human beings to do only good while respecting free will. Why do I think this?

Let's assume we each have free will. We can each choose to do good or bad. But there are also things that humans are not capable of doing even though we have free will. Suppose a person decides that he wants to fly (like a bird). Technically, he has free will so he can do anything he wants. But he can't fly. So he's not able to fly even though he wants to.

So, why can't God do the same thing regarding evil? We may want to do evil, but we just can't, just like we can't fly. People could still not choose to do good, but at least they couldn't do bad.

At 4/29/2005 4:43 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


There's some things in there I still agree with and some things I don't. The analogy with the government equivocates on "free choice." Laws do not prevent us from having free choices in the philosophical sense, because we are still able to disobey them.

I don't think creating free creatures necessarily makes evil almost inevitable.

I don't think libertarian free will is necessary for good and evil anymore. I've been working on a blog that addresses this issue, and I hope to start posting it next week.

I still agree that if God determines that we do only good, then we aren't really free to do good or evil.

What prevents us from being able to fly is a natural inability. There's a lot of things we can't do because we are physically incapable of it. I don't see how God could give the person the physical ability to cut lettuce with a knife, while at the same time causing them to lack the physical ability to cut people with a knife. The motions could be the same--just put the person where the lettuce was.

The only way I can see for your scenario to work is if God intervened and physically stopped us every time we were about to do something evil. But, as Greg Koukl argued on one of his CD's, if God did that, we would no longer be concerned with the problem of evil; instead, we'd be concerned with the problem of good.

At 4/30/2005 9:37 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I've been thinking about the idea of God preventing evil by physically preventing us from ever doing anything wrong. If he did that, I don't think it would really solve the moral problem of evil. All it would do is prevent suffering that resulted from moral evil. I could be prevented from axing somebody to death by having my hands tied, but it wouldn't prevent me from having the same intention to ax somebody.

At 4/30/2005 11:18 AM , Blogger daleliop said...


1. What is the problem of good?

2. The argument I was trying to illustrate was that we each have a limited amount of choices in any given situation even though we have free will. In particular, note we each have a set of moral choices in front of us everyday in almost any given situation.

Suppose I go to the bank on a Monday morning, and I have four choices:

(i) Take out a loan of $100.

(ii) Withdraw $50.

(iii) Put $5 in the donation jar.

(iv) Rob the bank.

I think (given only this information) most people would agree that choices (i) and (ii) are intrinsically nonmoral, (iii) is intrinsically good, and (iv) is intrinsically bad.

Now, note there are also a list of other choices that we are not capable of doing in this situation (here's three):

(v) Fly to Thailand.

(vi) Turn into a pig.

(vii) Brush my teeth.

But suppose we move choice (iv) of robbing a bank from list #1 to list #2. Now robbing a bank is no longer a choice that we are capable of doing in this situation.

If God could fashion a world that would apply this modification universally -- that we would not have the option of making an evil choice as it would be undoable in all our situations -- then this would not compromise our free will. This is because we still have a limited amount of options in any given situation whether in this world or in the hypothetical world. It would just be that the immoral choice would be inserted into the list of undoable options. We would still have free will in that we could freely choose which option to carry out on our list of doable options.

God could either do this by changing the natural law, or using his omniscience to place everyone in situations throughout their entire lives which did not have an immoral option (but still retaining free will to choose any viable option in that situation).

3. If God intervened and prevented us from doing anything wrong (which I think is different than my scenarios above), then you are right, we may still have the intention to do evil, but we just wouldn't be able to.

However, at least this would solve the problem of suffering. God could still apply justice on a would-be murderer just like how our courts prosecute crimes like attempted murder. This way, though, there would be no victim who would suffer as a consequence of the crime.

4. Do you have time to answer all these posts? ^)

At 4/30/2005 11:42 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

1. I'm not sure if Koukl was serious when he mentioned the problem of good, but he used several illustration of what life would be like if God physically stopped us every time we were about to do something wrong. For example, say you're on a date, and you lean over to make your move and slam into an invisible barrier with your face pressed against it, and smearing you spit all over it. Or imagine you're about to cuss somebody out and just as your open your mouth, it freezes, and you can't talk for a minute. Or imagine if every time somebody were about to gossip, they'd say something like, "You know that ole Jane is ... such a nice person." Considering the propensity to sin, we might as well all be in a straight jacket or a padded room, and if we were, we'd be complaining about the problem of good.

He used another explanation for why this would be a bad way for God to prevent evil. He compared it to raising children. When children are young, we do put physical barriers up to prevent them from doing things that are wrong. We watching them closely and micromanage their lives. But as they get older, we allow them more freedom, because we're training them to grow up and be mature. I guess the point was that God didn't think it was a good idea to treat us like perpetual infants, but that we ought to take responsibility for our own actions, and we can only do that if we're free to act.

2. I don't think that removing an option from a situation is as easy as removing a sentence from a paragraph. If I'm physically capable of walking into a bank, and if my arms and legs are working right, then I'm physically capable of taking something that doesn't belong to me. It seems to me the only way God could prevent me from robbing a bank is by giving me a desire not to rob the bank (denying me libertarian free will), or physically stopping me, by tying my hands, disabling my legs, or something like that.

The situations we get in are largly the result of choices already made. God could only micromanage our situations by controlling our wills, and it would follow that we don't have libertarian free will.

I can't conceive of a life that is free from any option of evil. Even if I were in a padded room, I could bite my own tongue, doing damage to myself out of self-loathing. But any human interaction at all is an opportunity for evil.

3. I suppose you're right. God could've made us all bullet-proof and immune to every illness. And for all we know, maybe he did. After all, our resurrection bodies are supposedly imperishable. Maybe that's how we were before the fall.

4. Yeah. I was going to work on a bow today, but I needed a new band saw blade, and the machinery shop was closed. Since I'm not working on the bow, I've got a little time.

At 4/30/2005 12:40 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

Thanks for your comments.

What are you doing in the summer, btw? Will you have more time?

1. I dunno, I'm thinking if it's worth the trade. I think maybe it's worth it, if no one has to suffer. Don't you think? Maybe the interventions would serve as negative reinforcement so we would learn not to do bad, instead of only paying the full price after we die. At least no one would have to suffer.

2. What if we were made ignorant of the evil choice? ie we can only make good or nonmoral choices because we're not even aware there is an evil choice we're able to make. We already don't know a lot of things. Maybe evil could be included as an option none of us are aware of. (On a side-note, perhaps this was how it was before the Fall?)

At 4/30/2005 1:11 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


You really ought to start a blog of your own. You're a pretty smart guy, and you always have interesting things to say.

Besides working, I plan on spending as much time this summer making bows as possible. It's an obsession, you know. I'll have more free time since I'm not going to summer school.

1. I don't really think that no suffering is the ultimate good. If it were, God could've avoided any possibility of suffering by not creating us at all. And it just seems to me that an overprotective parent isn't really doing their child a favour. While they may prevent the child from getting hurt, they're also preventing the child from being mature and responsible.

2. You raise an interesting point here. After all, if the fruit they ate was from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you'd think they didn't have any knowledge of good and evil before they ate their fruit. I'm not really sure what all that means, though. If lacking a knowledge of evil prevented them from doing evil, then by the same reasoning, lacking a knowledge of good would prevent them from doing good.

At 4/30/2005 1:16 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I always think of things to say after I already responded to you. I wanted to say one more thing about the suggestion that God leave us in ignorance about evil choices.

We all have this intuition that "ought" implies "can." A person with no legs, for example, can't have a moral obligation to walk, because he lacks the ability. It seems to me (and good ole Jonathan Edwards agrees with me) that ignorance is also a natural inability. We can't be held accountable for what we didn't know. That works both positively and negatively. If I didn't know I was supposed to walk, then I can't be blamed for not walking. Likewise, if I didn't know I wasn't supposed to walk, then I can't be praised for not walking. If we were left in complete ignorance about any evil choice, then we couldn't really be praised for always doing good.

At 4/30/2005 3:11 PM , Blogger daleliop said...


Thanks for the encouragement, but I wouldn't have anything to say if you didn't say something first. ^)

Just a comment on #1:

It's a bit different than an overprotective parent and a child. It is more like an overprotective parent and multiple children. A parent would not allow one of his girls to beat up, let alone kill, one of his boys. I don't think preventing the murder is being overprotective. If the parent lets his daughter kill his son, then

(i) I'm not sure if this will let his daughter feel responsible for her actions; there could be a better way, like intervening and then punishing.

(ii) The son definitely does not become more mature or responsible by being murdered.

(Though, something like this already played out between Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). God didn't stop Cain from killing Abel. When confronted, Cain said "Am I my brother's keeper?" I don't think Cain felt responsible until God punished him for it ("My punishment is more than I can bear"). One could argue that God could not punish Cain as much if Cain hadn't really killed Abel, but only tried to kill Abel. But Abel, an innocent, suffered for the crime too. Was it worth the trade?)


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