Aug 8, 2011

A problem w/ apologetics

Is there any reason the scholarship in Christian apologetics has to be so crappy?

Consider Tim Keller's The Reason for God, which came out in 2008, made the New York Time's bestseller list, and won awards from World Magazine and Christianity Today. This is supposed to be "The best apologetics book of the new millennium," and a book that "takes skeptics in and outside the church from doubt to reason-filled faith." If an Evangelical apologetics book could be good, this one should be.

But Keller -- to put it kindly -- misrepresents arguments. Either he didn't do his research, he misunderstands what he's quoting, or he's wilfully misconstruing things.

It's shoddy work.


Keller quotes physicist Stephen Hawking three times, just to take one example. The first quote is benign. Keller is talking about the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" An old, old question, and a good one. Well worth asking. In this context, he cites Hawking as saying, "Almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the Big Bang."

All well and good.

Keller then quotes Francis Collins, the Evangelical answer to the New Atheists, to provide a gloss on the Big Bang and to question whether that answer is enough an answer, all by itself. Collins says, "I can't imagine how nature, in this case the universe, could have created itself." Then Sam Harris is introduced to argue with Collins, and Keller sets up Collins to reply to Harris, and so on.

But then, into that argument between the professional atheist and the Evangelical-scientist-faith-defender, an argument ostensibly about whether there needs to be a non-natural cause of nature itself and if eternal regress is a problem and, if so, for whom, Hawking gets reintroduced, and cited.

But he's quoted on the side of the theists.

Keller's Hawking says 1) "The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the Big Bang are enormous. I think there are clearly religious implications." And 2) "It would be very difficult to explain why the universe would have egun in just this way except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us."

This makes it seem like Hawking is a theist. This makes it seem like Hawking thinks physics supports or even necessitates a theistic position. Keller has Hawking arguing on the side of the angels.

Except, even a cursory knowledge of Hawking's positions would make clear that he doesn't think God works as an explanation for scientic questions. He doesn't think God is a good explanation in principle, or in practice. Hawking's God is, at best, shorthand for the laws of nature, a metaphor. Even just using the easily-sourced quotes page from wikiquote, it's easy to see Keller has misrepresented Hawking.

E.g., Hawking's does not ultimately embrace the idea that the start of the physical universe must have been a cause that was not the physical universe, i.e., that it could not have been self-caused. He ends up, in his famous, best-selling book, arguing for a position more like this:
"One could say: 'The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary.' The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE."
It's also clear that Hawking does not think "God" is the ultimate answer, a good explanation, or even helpful in understanding the beginning of the universe and time. He has said repeatedly that "God is not necessary." To Der Spiegel in '88, for example, he said
"is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn't prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary."
The quote Keller has about "religious implications" has to be understood in the context of "God is not necessary." Else it's a misconstrual.

The quote about how the universe most likely exists for the sake of the creation of humans would also have to be squared with other Hawking's statements about humanity's insignificance. Such as,
"The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can't believe the whole universe exists for our benefit. That would be like saying that you would disappear if I closed my eyes. "
There may well be others who hold the positions Keller basically attributes to Hawking, but Hawking doesn't hold them. No one who's read even a little of the famous physicist would think he does.

I don't know how Keller came up with his version of Hawking. Maybe it isn't dishonest. It feels that way, though.

At very least, it's shoddy scholarship.

But why, though?

And does it have to be this way?