Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"They Were Not Irrational Then, We Are Not Irrational Now": Reformed Epistemology and the Anachronistic Fallacy

In my latest posts, I have approached some of the objections of Reformed Epistemology. This post seeks to point out an argument made by proponents of RE that I think is a fallacious one: that is, the idea that the standard for rationality centuries ago is the standard for rationality now.

A statement made by a proponent of RE is as follows:

“Surely there have been many people in the history of Christianity who have had no clue about science, no interest in science, no ability in science, no opportunity to study scientific evidence or theistic arguments, but who still believe in God and Christianity. Were they all irrational?”

This is the question that lies before us: since those in history before us didn’t have access to scientific evidence and theistic argument, and they were not deemed irrational, why should the modern-day Christian be deemed irrational for not knowing about theistic arguments and scientific evidence? I have a simple answer to this: because, in the current world, we have more access to such arguments and evidence than ever before.

I could use the format of the RE proponent’s question and create one of my own. Let’s do it. Asking the above question is similar to asking this question (mine):

“Since individuals of the pre-Enlightenment days believed the earth was flat, and they weren’t deemed irrational, why should individuals of modern-day civilization be thought irrational for thinking the earth is flat?”

See the problem with the RE proponent’s question? It is what I call the “Anachronistic Fallacy,” where the circumstances of a previous day and time are placed upon a current day and time. In the case of the flat earth question I pose, what was believed about the earth in the pre-Enlightenment period (that the earth was flat) is used to justify those in the modern day who think the earth is flat (though the evidence has already been published which testifies to the earth being round, instead). How foolish of me would it be were I, in the twenty-first century, to hold to the “flat-earth” idea of the pre-Enlightenment? The fact that those of that time had little to no access to scientific evidence and believed the earth was flat (not to mention fixed without motion) gives me no right (in the technological age in which I live) to claim these statements. Should I do so today, I will be deemed irrational because the evidence testifies to the contrary. Scientific progress eliminates the rationality of the flat-earth and fixed-earth claims.

This could apply to any example I could use. Interestingly enough, inclusivists make the same claim. “If people could be saved in the pre-Christ times without believing in Jesus, why can’t they be saved now without believing in Jesus?” the argument goes. The solution to this, however, is that the Scriptures explicitly state that there was a time of ignorance, but that time has now passed (Acts 17:30). With changing times and increased knowledge comes increased responsibility.

And this idea of increased responsibility is also seen in the Gospels themselves. Jesus uses the idea of greater revelation and greater responsibility when contrasting Tyre and Sidon with Chorazin and Bethsaida:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment than for you” (Luke 10:13-14, NASB).

Here, Jesus is contrasting these cities on the basis of the miracles done (“if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon”). Jesus’s words condemned Chorazin and Bethsaida because these two cities had seen the Lord Jesus perform miracles, while Tyre and Sidon had not. As a result of Chorazin and Bethsaida’s hard-heartedness, the judgment would be less for Tyre and Sidon than these two cities. In brief, more special revelation leads to greater judgment; less special revelation leads to lesser judgment.

Someone could say today, “Well, what about the person who lives out in the middle of nowhere, whose family has very little formal education or training at all? Does that person have to know scientific evidence or theistic arguments in order to be rational in their theistic belief?” This seems like a fair question, but it presumes that such individuals live so far away from technology that they have no access to these arguments or evidences at all. The truth is, however, that today’s individual living out in the “boondocks” still has greater access to evidence and arguments than someone living on an island. In fact, statistics reveal that more people today have a television than have indoor plumbing (see Dr. Alvin Reid’s Radically Unchurched: Who They Are And How To Reach Them, page 167). And desktop computers and laptops have become even more affordable today. I still remember when my mom bought our first desktop, a Compaq Presario, for around $2000. Today, we could probably buy a new desktop for $250-$300. This means that today’s desktops are (get this!) eight times more affordable than the average desktop was back when I was in seventh or eighth grade. Prices have improved over the last 14-15 years. Anyone that can buy an expensive pair of Nike shoes can afford a computer. This means that scientific evidence and theistic arguments are right at our fingertips!!!

All this is to say that, even the poorest person in the boondocks can probably afford more in the way of technology than an inhabitant on an island who has no possibility of technological access. So, is it true that we are as helpless as someone of the pre-Enlightenment period who wasn’t aristocratic and couldn’t afford to read and write? Not at all. In my estimation, then, we cannot use the intellectual helplessness of the pre-Enlightenment period and plaster it onto the twenty-first century. To do so would be nothing short of making excuses. 

No comments: