Bridges for honest skeptics
by Joel Lantz
Are you an honest skeptic? Do you seek truth and at least don't categorically dismiss the possibility of a biblical God. BUT, might you find yourself...
... befuddled by the plethora of prejudices, distortions, and contradictory information in the marketplace of ideas — some of which logically MUST be false?
... bombarded by aggressive scienTISM, which posits that all knowledge and truth ultimately must bow to science (except its own unscientific claims); that nonscientific evidence equals non-evidence; that supernatural equals superstition?
... reading/hearing personal philosophy and conjecture presented as though it's almost established science?
... therefore wondering whether science nullifies the existence of God — or least the need for or significance of God?
... yet sometimes wondering whether we really are just animals and just 'stuff', as often claimed — totally the result of undirected material processes?
... concerned about the compatibility of world evil and suffering with the existence of God?
... confused by verbal and behavioral MISrepresentations of true (genuinely biblical) Christianity, both current and historical?
... wondering whether attested empirical evidence might exist for the biblical God —contradicting the self-refuting claims of scienTISM?
... unsatisfied with shallow answers to hard questions?
If so, you may find Bridges for honest skeptics helpful thinking fodder. This free e-book — written by a physical scientist and former honest skeptic — addresses the concerns raised above.
Interested? Check out the overview at the obooko.comdownload site and the table of contents at the free-ebooks.netdownload site(via the 'Click to Preview' link). Though the treatment of topics in this book varies appropriately, the excerpt below illustrates one of the core perspectives I address.
The following comes from a chapter entitled 'Just animals?' — which presents evidence and arguments for directed human origins. You'll find the citations and endnotes referenced with letters and numerals at the end of this blog post. Hyperlinks to other sections and a glossary are unfortunately omitted.
The cognitive uniqueness of human free will
Are we truly just advanced animals at the pinnacle of evolutionary processes? However intelligent, are we ultimately little more than deterministic machines that are born, eat, live, work, reproduce, and die; born, eat, live, work, reproduce, and die; born, eat, live, work, reproduce, and die...with all behaviors ultimately directed by chains of material cause and effect? Or is morally-cognitive free will REAL and clearly UNIQUE to humans?
I can’t hold the deer that destroyed over a thousand dollars' worth of arborvitae in my yard morally culpable. But had humans maliciously destroyed my bushes, I’d hold them culpable — as would you. Most of us empirically and unambiguously know, without doubt, that claims of human determinism — near-infinite chains of causes and effects — can’t realistically excuse human negatives as the inescapable result of nature and nurture. They can’t realistically devalue human positives as inescapable either. Bad genes and environments notwithstanding, we still regularly make free decisions, good and bad.
Why then do we encounter academic doublethink and ultimate denial of the obvious? Stay tuned.
Claims of determinism self-refute
Consider this argument for the claim titled above:
"In the opinion of many thinkers, human freedom is closely connected with human rationality. If we were deterministic beings, what would validate the claim that our utterance constituted rational discourse? Would not the sounds issuing from mouths, or the marks we made on paper, be simply the actions of automata? All proponents of deterministic theories, whether social and economic (Marx), or sexual (Freud), or genetic (Dawkins and E. O. Wilson), need a covert disclaimer on their own behalf, excepting their own contribution from reductive dismissal." <Emphases are mine.>
Hmm. Such authors then can’t legitimately take pride in or credit for their work. Long chains of deterministic causes and effects, over which these materialists ultimately have no control, compel each word they write or speak. That compulsion must include affirmations of deterministic ‘programming’ in the face of empirically obvious free will — frank admissions of which comprise the bulk of the next subsection.
Materialism, determinism, and reality
Perhaps not all materialists deny free will, but seemingly the tendency is to do so, per my exposure to such positions and as suggested below:
"Because materialists only accept the existence or primacy of material things, they also only accept the existence or primacy of material explanations for events. Whatever happens in the world, it must be explained and explainable by reference to matter. Materialism thus tends towards determinism: because there are material causes for every event, then every event follows necessarily from its causes." <Emphases are mine.>
Does determinism for humans square with empirical reality? Even some materialists have frankly admitted that we cannot practically live with determinism; free will stares us in the face. Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence for free will that we routinely see and experience, many materialists continue to hold determinism and free will in cognitive dissonance. (Some materialists even claim that evolution has deterministically programmed us to falsely affirm free will — to believe a supposed lie.) Here are some admissions of such dissonance — the frankness of which I admire:
· Humanities scholar Edward Slingerland, self-described as a ‘complete atheist’:
"...whatever we may assert qua naturalists, we cannot escape from the lived reality of moral space. As neuroscientists, we might believe that the brain is a deterministic, physical system, like everything else in the universe, and recognize that the weight of empirical evidence[a] suggests that free will is a cognitive illusion. Nonetheless, no cognitively undamaged human being can help acting like and at some level really feeling that he or she is free. There may well be individuals who lack this sense, and who can quite easily and thoroughly conceive of themselves and other people in purely instrumental, mechanistic terms, but we label such people ‘psychopaths’, and quite rightly try to identify them and put them away somewhere to protect the rest of us."
Moreover, a journalist noted in 2013 that,
"The couple have a six-year-old daughter whom, Slingerland says," ‘I love intensely’...Slingerland admits his deep affection for his daughter is illogical, since he doesn’t really believe in ‘love’".
Slingerland accordingly proposes
"...living with a dual consciousness, cultivating the ability to view human beings simultaneously under two descriptions: as physical systems and as persons."  <Emphasis is mine.>
A dual consciousness? The ‘hard problem of consciousness’ isn’t hard enough as it is? Might Slingerland and others quoted below prefer such cognitive dissonance over unwanted psycho-social implications of abandoning materialism?
· MIT artificial-intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, who once called the human brain a three-pound computer made of meat:
"No matter that the physical world provided no room for freedom of will: that concept is essential to our models of the mental realm. Too much of our psychology is based on it for us to ever give it up. We’re virtually forced to maintain that belief, even though we know it’s false..." 
With lived reality staring us in the face, according to what unambiguous, unbiased evidence do "...we know it’s false"?
· Philosopher Galen Strawson:
"As a philosopher I think the impossibility of free will and ultimate moral responsibility can be proved with complete certainty..."
...except for a small problem...
"It’s just that I can’t really live with this fact from day to day. Can you, really? As for the scientists, they may accept it in their white coats, but I’m sure they’re just like the rest." <Emphases are mine.>
Why then does Strawson (and, similarly, others quoted here) insist on "the impossibility of free will...with complete certainty," despite the plethora of obvious contrary evidence?
Which of the following might best explain this:
- Deterministic chains of cause and effect that compel him to so insist?
- Free-will unwillingness to face unwanted consequences of abandoning his materialism?
· Harvard cognitive scientist, psychologist, and linguist Steven Pinker:
"We have every reason to believe that consciousness and decision making arise from the electrochemical activity of neural networks in the brain. But how moving molecules should throw off subjective feelings (as opposed to mere intelligent computations) and how they bring about choices that we freely make (as opposed to behavior that is caused) remain deep enigmas... These puzzles have an infuriatingly holistic quality to them. Consciousness and free will seem to suffuse the neurobiological phenomena at every level, and cannot be pinpointed to any combination or interaction among parts. The best analyses from our combinatorial intellects provide no hooks on which we can hang these strange entities, and thinkers seem condemned either to denying their existence or to wallowing in mysticism." <Emphases are mine.>
Do Pinker’s "puzzles" and "enigmas" constitute "every reason to believe" that consciousness and decision-making arise purely from neurochemical processes?
· UC Berkely philosopher John Searle, who
"...believes that the mental will ultimately be explained through neuroscience," nonetheless admits that we don’t know that free will is false:
"...we cannot get on with our lives without presupposing free will. Whenever we are in a decision-making situation, or indeed, in any situation that calls for voluntary action, we have to presuppose our own freedom. Suppose you are given a choice in a restaurant between steak and veal. The waiter asks you ‘And sir, which would you prefer, the steak or the veal?’ You cannot say to the waiter, ‘Look, I am a determinist. I will just wait and see what I order because I know that my order is determined.’ The refusal, i.e. the conscious, intentional speech act of refusing to place an order, is only intelligible to you if you understand it as an exercise of your own free will. The point that I am making now is not that free will is a fact. We don't know if it is a fact. The point is that given the structure of our consciousness, we cannot proceed except on the presupposition of free will." <Emphases are mine.>
Will Searle ultimately resolve his cognitive dissonance between deterministic materialism and obvious reality?
· MIT computer science and engineering professor Rodney Brooks:
"On the one hand, I believe myself and my children all to be mere machines. Automatons at large in the universe. Every person I meet
is also a machine—a big bag of skin full of biomolecules interacting according to describable and knowable rules. When I look at my children, I can, when I force myself, understand them in this way. I can see that they are machines interacting with the world.
But this is not how I treat them. I treat them in a very special way, and I interact with them on an entirely different level. They have my unconditional love, the furthest one might be able to get from rational analysis. Like a religious scientist, I maintain two sets of inconsistent beliefs and act on each of them in different circumstances. <Emphasis is mine.>
Dr. Brooks writes accurately about himself; the huge cognitive dissonance between his "two sets of inconsistent beliefs" is clear. By contrast, he writes inaccurately about the "religious scientist", at least in my case. This ‘religious’[b] scientist (me) experiences no cognitive dissonance between the existence of and evidence for a biblical God AND unambiguous, falsifiable science — vs. some broadly interpretable and interpreted observations, worldview-biased interpretations (from materialist axe-to-grind scientists as well as religionists), unfalsifiable hypotheses, and pure conjecture.
· Evangelistic atheist Richard Dawkins claims that we’re ultimately nothing but machines. Referencing a British comedy scene, in which a car owner 'punishes' a car that won’t start by beating it with a tree branch, Dawkins writes,
"Of course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the car, we would investigate the problem...Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don't we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal? Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes?" <Emphases are mine.>
What if someone encrypted Dawkins’s computer system with ransomware, raped his wife or daughter, beat his car with a branch, or punched him in the nose? Would he dispassionately "investigate the defective component, upbringing, education, or genes of the responsible 'machine'?
Probably not. In a Q&A session during a Washington DC promotion of one of Dawkins's books, he was confronted by Joe Manzari, a young Washington think-tank employee:
Manzari: "If humans are machines, and it is inappropriate to blame or praise them for their actions, then should we be giving you credit for the book you are promoting?"
Dawkins: "I can't bring myself to do that. I actually do respond in an emotional way and I blame people, I give people credit."
Manzari: "But don't you see that as an inconsistency in your views?"
Dawkins: "I sort of do, yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with—otherwise life would be intolerable." <Emphases are mine.>
So Dawkins must abandon a key tenet of his materialism in real life, which "otherwise... would be intolerable." Why, then, does Dawkins regularly express so much contempt for non-materialist, non-determinist belief systems?
· Journalist Tom Wolfe has referred to scientists, including Richard Dawkins, whose
"...theory is that the human brain is nothing but a machine, after all, a form of computer, and therefore it has no free will. In any situation we find ourselves we can only do what our evolutionary software—they love computer talk like ‘software,’ meaning genetic makeup—has programmed us to do."
Wolfe decided to test the livability of that position:
"So at a recent conference on the implications of genetic theory for the legal system—five distinguished genetic theorists are up on stage—I stood up in the audience and asked, 'If there is no free will, why should we believe anything you’ve said so far? You only say it because you’re programmed to say it.' You’ve never heard such stuttering and blathering in response to anything in your life." <Emphasis is mine.>
Though I admire the frankness of the folks I’ve quoted above, I ask the same question as Wolfe. Does ‘unity of truth’ no longer apply? Can we legitimately simultaneously hold contradictory truth claims to suit our fancy? Doing so sounds much like Eastern ‘Both/And’ thinking, arguments for which ultimately self-refute (recall 'Contradictory belief systems are equally true?') [Hyperlink to another subsection in the book.]
Following a talk in which apologist Nancy Pearcey presented some of the examples above — which primarily highlight academic materialists’ cognitive dissonance — a visibly upset Harvard professor approached her and complained that,
"They know their theories don’t explain ordinary life outside the lab. But why throw it in their faces?" <Emphasis is in the source.>
Why indeed? Was Pearcey being unkind? No. These scholars’ frank admissions of cognitive dissonance are public, in their own writings. Pearcey, and I, merely seek — in the interest of truth — to emphasize to a broader audience that purely naturalistic assessments of human cognition and behavior don’t jive with empirical reality. I submit that doublethink like that revealed above ultimately stems less from the pursuit of truth than from a materialistic commitment to scientism.[c]
The concerns of this chapter go well beyond unwarranted rejection of theistic involvement in human existence. Falsely reducing human existence to undirected, purely mechanistic processes — to ‘just machines’ and ‘just stuff’[d] — seriously demeans human value and significance. Ideas have consequences. For example, Friedrich Nietzsche’s a) naturalism-based reduction of humans ultimately to little more than advanced, power-seeking animals, b) his despisal of human kindness and modern morality as unnatural and dangerous, and c) his promotion of the conquering, valueless Übermensch (superior man) substantially fueled Adolf Hitler’s murderous policies.
We’d be foolish to think that falsely considering humans as little more than deterministic machines, with no ultimate value or freedom, has no negative consequences for us.
Author Q & A
For what age group do you recommend your book?
Teen to adult. Thinking people of all ages (other than perhaps young children) wrestle with the concerns that I address.
What sparked the idea for this book?
For several years I pondered why some people embrace biblical Christianity as true (including me, after a period of skepticism) and others reject it. Though the answer is multifaceted, I concluded that one factor is knowledge of available evidence. I sensed a calling to publicize a bit of such evidence, leading to the first edition of my book (thirteen accounts). Based on 1st-edition feedback, I felt led in the 2nd edition not only to expand the number of evidential accounts but — most importantly — to add large sections containing scientific and logical evidence and arguments to help readers overcome potential objections to the accounts based on faulty information, unwarranted scientistic bias, and anti-supernatural prejudice. This 3rd edition greatly expands that material further in multiple ways.
What was the hardest part to write in this book?
Even though I'm a scientist, the science-related parts demanded more research, reflection, and rewriting than some of the others. Also, such concepts were often more difficult to express clearly and concisely to my readers. Hopefully some colored illustrations, a large hyperlinked glossary, appendices, and extensive hyperlinked endnotes enhance understanding.
How do you hope this book affects its readers?
I hope to mitigate some misunderstandings, prejudices, and factual distortions and — in their place — promote realistic perspectives. Most importantly, I want my readers to come away from the evidence and arguments in this book understanding that acceptance of the supernatural generally and the biblical God specifically is rational and worthy of their consideration.
How long did it take you to write this book?
The first (brief) edition, called God sightings?, was released in late 2012, the second edition in early 2014, and this now-renamed third edition in June 2016 — with a few 'point-release' revisions since. I.e., I've worked on this book intermittently over four years.
What is your writing routine?
It varies. Sometimes insights and new data have driven many hours, late nights, and even days of work at a time. At other times I've frankly struggled to put in even an hour or two a day.
I often write down ideas and insights as I hear of them or as they come to mind internally, wherever I am — sometimes on snippets of paper but mostly now as text entries or dictations into my smartphone. If worthwhile, these insights often catalyze revised or new subsections in the book.
I usually don't lose heart at the struggles of writing, keeping in mind that I have plenty of company in that regard. At least I haven't needed the extreme motivational measures reportedly used by one famous author; he worked naked (semi-naked?), having asked a servant to hide his clothes so he'd not be tempted to wander from home when he was supposed to be writing!
How did you get your book published?
My book was first published on obooko.com a free-ebook site. This was a relatively painless process, and I've published the second and third editions there too. The folks at obooko have been very helpful. I've also published on getfreeebooks.com and, most recently, on free-ebooks.net. They've all worked well, though I less favor getfreeebooks.com because they don't have a download counter (important to me). I can recommend any of these three sites to other free-ebook authors.
What advice do you have for someone who would like to become a published writer?
I can only speak for someone like me — who wants to help others as a labor of love, with no expectation of remuneration. I recommend the same route I've taken in 'How did your book get published?'
Also, applicable to all writers, stick with it, even if irregularly (like me)! Some days you'll probably want to quit, but keep plodding!
Moreover, I highly recommend using one or more quality promo sites like this one to publicize the book — something I've done only recently. Not all such sites are a good choice, however, and I consider my Facebook promo to have been a waste of time and money. (Though 'your mileage may vary'.) A second promo site to which I submitted my book a month ago has neither promoted my book nor even communicated with me. But a third site resulted in 75 downloads in two days. And I anticipate favorable results from this site as well. Choose carefully!
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
Read — and watch/hear in some cases, e.g. via The Great Courses — modern science and technology (especially cosmology), philosophy, apologetics, theology and current events. Watch documentary videos. Read and post in Quora (a Q&A forum). Hike and camp. Invent and make. Play electronic Scrabble and 1010!, as well as table games such as Rummikub, Quirkle, and Sequence. And, of course, spend time with family and friends!
Please tell us a bit about your childhood.
I grew up in a home with plenty of latitude to explore new things, both outdoors (e.g. as a hiker) and indoors (e.g. as a 'child scientist’). A birthday chemistry set from my brother evolved into an impressive lab — in which I did serious chemistry at times but frankly inappropriate 'experiments' at others. (Had my parents been scientists, they never would have let me do some of that stuff!) Those experiences lead to choosing a career in science.
Did you like to read when you were a child?
Yes. I've been a 'reader personality' for a long time. Sometimes I read encyclopedia entries as a child for fun. (Yeah, I know; sounds kind of nerdy.) I've always been a self-motivated learner.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
A temporary detour from my R&D career found me doing sophisticated technical writing, professionally. Explaining concepts and procedures to others proved satisfying. Much of the highly structured and 'chunked' writing style that you'll find in my book evolved from those experiences.
Did your childhood experiences influence your writing?
I suspect that experiences of being bullied as a child have influenced my interest in the foundations of evil as an adult.
Which writers have influenced you the most?
Hard to pin that down. I've read so much. But undoubtedly authors at Reasons.org have been the most helpful in establishing my confidence in the harmony between science and the biblical God.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
Unfortunately, the free-ebook sites on which I host my book do not provide opportunities for written reader feedback — only star ratings, which thus far have mostly been quite favorable. Some local-friend readers have supplied some very encouraging feedback.
What can we look forward to from you in the future?
I wrestle with the subject of evil and suffering and have written two large appendices — one complete and the other partial — that address the foundations of evil. The completed appendix ended up in the present edition of Bridges for honest skepticsThe partial appendix did not; but it tentatively will end up as part of an independent book on this topic.
Anything else you would like to add?
I welcome feedback, positive or negative, so long as it's constructive. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I cannot promise to respond, but I'll appreciate comments that may help me to improve the book, either in subsequent 'point release' revisions of this edition or in a future new edition.
About the Author
Joel Lantz, a Northeast Ohio resident, is a physical chemistry PhD and a former honest skeptic — a person who believes in, seeks, and at least wants to embrace truth. He's overcome his own doubt struggles with ENOUGH answers, however incomplete. This book resulted from a passion to help other honest skeptics — who don't easily settle for shallow answers to hard questions — as well as folks with doubts further along the road to belief in a biblical God.
As Joel has found from fact and logic, our world's myriad and often contradictory belief systems, whether religious or secular, CANNOT all be true. Either all are false or one must be true or most true. Logically, then, the marketplace of ideas that we routinely encounter confronts us with falsehoods and distortions of truth. Joel's book presents evidence and arguments to counter some of these distortions, thereby potentially building BRIDGES over a few worldview traps and minefields.
Joel hardly promises anything close to comprehensiveness or perfection in this little-page, phone-friendly book, and he admits to personally still having many unanswered questions. But he expects the book to minimally mitigate some misunderstandings and misrepresentations. And he’s confident that even if you dislike or disagree with some of the content, you'll doubtless encounter helpful perspectives that you've not previously considered. And even if you read only the EVIDENCE part (the first major part of the book) and forego the more cerebral (and occasionally more technical) THINKING FURTHER and ABOUT US parts, you'll doubtless get more than your money's worth :-).
Joel's only reward for writing this free e-book is the satisfaction of helping others. Contrary to anti-supernaturalist assertions that we're purely the product of undirected, materialistic, mechanistic, purposeless processes, he argues that each of us has purpose and meaning. He considers writing this book part of his purpose.
The endnotes below apply to the Excerpt provided earlier in this blog post.
[a] "...weight of empirical evidence...?!" What ‘empirical evidence’? The obvious empirical evidence for free will that stares him (and everyone else) in the face doesn’t count? Per 'Claims of determinism self-refute', why should anyone listen to Slingerland’s claim that "...the weight of empirical evidence suggests that free will is a cognitive illusion." (Consider also the rest of this chapter and 'Just stuff?'. [Hyperlink to another subsection in the book.])
[b] I dislike that word because of its huge spectrum of meanings. I don’t consider myself ‘religious’ per many behavioral connotations of the word.
[c] ...which insists that all knowledge must ultimately answer to science, no exceptions. (Moreover, many scientism adherents seemingly allow, as knowledge, only their own interpretations even of scientific data). Yet scientism is implicitly a self-refuting worldview (recall 'The problem of scientism [hyperlink to another subsection in the book].
 Copyright © 2016 by Joel B. Lantz. All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in reviews and summaries as allowed by copyright law.
 Theoretical-physicist-turned-priest John Polkinghorne, Science and Theology, Fortress Press, 1998, p. 58.
 Austin Cline, What is Materialism? About History of Materialism, Materialist Philosophy, ‘Materialism and Determinism’ section, atheism.about.com, December 4, 2014. Available as of 3/25/2016 at: http://atheism.about.com/od/philosophyschoolssystems/p/materialism.htm
 Edward Slingerland, What Science Offers the Humanities, Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 289.
 Galen Strawson, interview by Tamler Sommers, You Cannot Make Yourself the Way You Are, The Believer, March 2003. Available as of 3/17/2016 at: http://www.believermag.com/issues/200303/?read=interview_strawson.
 Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo, B&H Publishing Group, 2010, p. 153. Pearcey heard this Manzari-Dawkins exchange on an audio tape. (The name of the questioner, Manzari, is revealed in her book only in an endnote.)
 Carol Iannone, A Critic in Full: A Conversation with Tom Wolfe, National Association of Scholars, Academic Questions (vol. 21, no. 2), Aug 11, 2008. Available as of 3/24/2016 at: https://www.nas.org/articles/A_Critic_in_Full_A_Conversation_with_Tom_Wolfe.
 I want to give appropriate credit here. Many of the book pages and articles that I’ve reviewed (as originals, in context) and cited in this subchapter were helpfully called to my attention by citations in Pearcey’s book Finding Truth (see below).