How not to do apologetics, Part 1: Why buying a glass of milk does not demonstrate a person's culpability before God

In a recent Triablogue post, Patrick Chan links to a brief apologetic for Christianity by Douglas Jones, in which Jones makes the remarkable claim that in performing such a seemingly mundane task as buying a bottle of milk, the average person actually betrays the knowledge (or at least the belief) that Christianity is true, because only Christianity undergirds the tacit assumptions about the nature of reality that such a task takes for granted. It follows that the average person's failure to explicitly acknowledge this truth is due to that person's desperate attempt to evade God's claim upon his or her life and the truth that he or she is a sinner, the fitting object of God's wrath.

I do not think Jones' apologetic is a very good one, and in this post and the next one I want to highlight what I see as its weaknesses. In so doing I do not mean to attack Jones personally or (God forbid) undermine the truth of the Gospel. My main purpose is to issue a note of caution to overzealous apologists who, starting from the Apostle Paul's claim that "[Sinners] know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them" (Romans 1:19), are tempted to take intellectual shortcuts by insisting that certain data of human experience have much clearer theological implications than they really do. Even C.S. Lewis, after presenting in considerable detail a moral argument for the existence of God which established that there is a moral law, given by a divine Lawgiver, which we continually break, conceded that "I am not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology." (Mere Christianity, p.25) He understood that more argumentative work had to be done in order for the Christian claim to be even prima facie compelling. Paul's comments on the psychology of sin are no excuse for a sloppy apologetic. Of course, in calling Jones' apologetic 'sloppy' I acknowledge my own burden of proof, so on to the text itself.

Jones begins by raising the possibility that we may be radically mistaken in our view of the world: it would be quite possible to wake up one morning and suddenly realize that "your long-held, day-to-day views of nature, social values, and self are obviously mistaken. Common things that you have seen for years take on a whole new light. The world hasn't changed, but different things stand out in odd ways. Things you once adored are now utterly disgusting. Things you once hated now command your deepest loyalty. You can now see through your motives and rationalizations in a way hidden before. How could you have been so naive?" He argues for this possibility, not only in some 'obvious' cases like that of Islamic extremists, but even in very mundane, common-sensical views of the world that seemingly sane people have inherited from their surroundings.

It is clear that this preamble is meant to raise people's suspicions that perhaps they shouldn't take their current view of the world for granted: it is perhaps quite likely that many, perhaps most people are radically mistaken in their view of the world. But Jones makes an almost imperceptible yet crucial shift in his exposition: having started out by talking of being mistaken and naive, in the second paragraph he begins talking of deception and by the eight paragraph he has landed at self-deception. But clearly these are not equivalent concepts, especially given what Jones is aiming at: to get people to admit their moral and spiritual culpability before God. It is hardly culpable to be mistaken in one's view of things, especially since, as Jones observes, "anyone's years on earth have really been very few. And the time any of us spends thinking about the world is relatively minute compared to all that there is to understand." An aboriginal bushman, for example, who has never heard of modern science and simply accepts the evidence of his sight that the earth is a flat disc and the sun is a bright light in the dome of heaven, cannot be held accountable for his failure to embrace heliocentrism. Neither is deception necessarily culpable, since the deceiver might successfully come across as trustworthy, and we usually accept the word of others unless there is good reason to doubt it.

Self-deception, however, is culpable, and Jones attempts to establish it with his example of going to the store to buy milk. The example is worth quoting in full:

In fact, people's actions often reveal more about their likely deception than their words. For example, whenever you do something like go to a grocery store to buy milk, you reveal many things about yourself. When you first walk up to the grocery store, you assume that you and the store are two different things, not one, thus showing your rejection of most Eastern and New Age religions. When you walk down that same dairy aisle and select the same kind of milk, you assume that the world is not chaotic, but orderly, regular, and divided into set kinds of things. When you stand in line with others, expecting others to respect your space and person, you reveal your rejection of moral relativism and your deep trust in absolute ethical norms. When you calculate your available change, compare the price of the milk, and make the exchange with the clerk at the register, you engage in a complex array of thought processes involving nonmaterial rules of reasoning, thus showing your rejection of materialism and evolution.

In short, when you do something as mundane as buying milk, you accept and reject all sorts of views. You act like you reject many popular religious and scientific claims. In fact, given the sum of what you assume and reject just when buying milk, you act like you believe that you live in the world described by Christianity. The world depicted above suggests complexities and contours of reality that are only supplied in Christianity. If Christianity weren't true, then such things as simple as milk buying would appear to be impossible. Now, you may openly reject Christianity, but you certainly act like it is true and that your non-Christianity is false. Why such self-deception? Why don't you just confess what you appear to assume?

I have highlighted in bold the key argumentative moves here. Jones claims that, regardless of what they may verbally profess, people's actions in even an ordinary situation like going to the grocery store reveal their (subconscious?) belief that Christianity is true, because these actions would not make sense apart from the truth (or, at least, people's assumption of the truth) of certain claims about the world that, presumably, only Christian theism can underwrite.

I need to make two points before going on to consider Jones' analysis of these actions: first of all, the link between belief and behavior is not quite as straightforward as he makes it out to be. Our actions do not necessarily reveal our deepest convictions about the world. They may sometimes, but not all of the time. For example, I may be perfectly aware that the House of Horrors at Universal Studios does not house any real horrors, but still feel my heart beating really fast and scream like a little girl when a 'monster' pops out of the mist. It would be silly to infer from my actions that I actually believed I was in danger from Chucky or the possessed girl from the Exorcist. Or consider, more ominously, the case of a preacher who has lost his faith, but still continues to preach on Sundays, his flock not having the slightest idea of his spiritual struggles. Again, we see that a person's actions are not always a reliable guide to that person's true convictions.

The second point is that, even if people act as if a certain claim is true, that does not imply that the claim is true, and therefore that people are self-deceived. It is certainly hypocritical to profess one thing and then act as if one didn't actually believe it, but Jones needs far more than hypocrisy or inconsistency between belief and action in order to get to his claim that the average person is self-deceived and culpable before God: he needs to show that Christianity is true in order to indict people on their self-deception.

Jones attempts to establish both that people's actions at the grocery store presuppose belief in Christianity, and that Christianity is true, but his efforts are not successful. In order to see this, we need to ask whether the beliefs that are presupposed by ordinary people's actions at a grocery store really amount to Christianity, as opposed to a generic theistic or deistic hypothesis, and also whether these beliefs must correspond to reality in order for the people's actions to be intelligible.

His argument for the claim that people's actions presuppose belief in Christianity rests on his analysis of the significance of certain actions undertaken when people go to the grocery store. He starts with going to the store itself: "When you first walk up to the grocery store, you assume that you and the store are two different things, not one, thus showing your rejection of most Eastern and New Age religions." Now it is uncontroversial that people assume the world is made up of discrete things separated in time and space. But it seems wrong to call this a rejection of certain Eastern unitary views of the world, because most people have never heard (and will never hear) a clear exposition and defense of these views, nor how they take into account the apparent multiplicity of the world. This is not rejection, but ignorance, because it may be that at least some people will become convinced of unitary views and accept the explanation for why, even though distinction among objects is ultimately illusory, nevertheless it appears to us as if there are distinct objects (including the distinct object we mistakenly call our 'self'). And these people will continue to go to the store as if presupposing they are distinct from it. This is an important point: the same behaviors may be compatible with many different interpretations of those behaviors, both by the people performing those behaviors and by onlookers. Therefore the fact that people walk to the store does not necessarily mean they are committed to the distinctness of objects.

Nevertheless, as I conceded before, it is probably the case that most people do assume the distinctness of objects, and therefore hold to a position incompatible with certain Eastern views. Does that move us in the direction of Christianity? Perhaps, but we have not yet narrowed the range of possible views very much. Still, a small step in the right direction might have a part to play in a cumulative case, so let's see what Jones says about the other actions.

He suggests that "When you walk down that same dairy aisle and select the same kind of milk, you assume that the world is not chaotic, but orderly, regular, and divided into set kinds of things." This too is fairly uncontroversial: we assume that the sun will rise every morning and that our clothes will not suddenly disappear from off our backs, among other things. But how does this move us in the direction of Christianity? At most it affirms the uniformity of the world and its processes, which is compatible with deism as well as Christianity, and a fairly attenuated version of deism at that. In fact, it may involve no more than a kind of Spinozistic pantheism, in which everything that happens in the world, happens of necessity, as an expression of the modes or properties of the one self-existent (but hardly personal) substance.

Next, Jones points out that "When you stand in line with others, expecting others to respect your space and person, you reveal your rejection of moral relativism and your deep trust in absolute ethical norms." Now I am of the opinion that people indeed are intuitive moral realists, but that you must present them with certain paradigm atrocities or good acts before they reveal this. It is not at all clear that standing in line at the grocery store involves 'expecting others to respect your space and person'. It may merely involve expecting that people are simply indifferent to you, that even if they don't respect you as a person they would see cutting in line as more trouble than it is worth. A person may have little confidence in absolute ethical norms but still be confident, even using a cold utilitarian calculus, that he will be left alone, and that he will be able to keep his space in the line. In sum, it is not at all clear that 'playing by the rules' at a grocery store reveals people's 'deep trust in absolute ethical norms.' Other behaviors may do this, but not buying milk at the grocery store.

Lastly, Jones appeals to a form of the argument from reason: "When you calculate your available change, compare the price of the milk, and make the exchange with the clerk at the register, you engage in a complex array of thought processes involving nonmaterial rules of reasoning, thus showing your rejection of materialism and evolution." This is actually a different claim than the ones given above. In the previous examples, Jones only claims that people act as if they viewed reality in a certain way. That is, they act under the assumption that certain facts hold, whether or not those facts do actually hold. Here, though, Jones presents a claim about what actually underlies the person's actions. He is not claiming that people only act as if their thought processes involved nonmaterial rules of reasoning, but rather is claiming that their thought processes do in fact involve nonmaterial rules of reasoning. But whether or not this is true, we are not given information about the person's beliefs concerning thought processes. In fact, it is doubtful whether most people know enough to make the distinction between material and non-material processes, let alone identify their thoughts as instance of the latter category. Just as with the Eastern religions, it is not so much rejection on display here as ignorance.

The problems with Jones' statement do not stop there, however: equally egregious is his conflation of materialism and evolution. If we take materialism to be the view that reality is fundamentally purposeless, consisting of nothing other than inert particles of matter in random motion, it is clear that materialism is not the same as evolution, where we take the latter to mean the process of descent with modification via the mechanism of natural selection. Evolution can operate in a purposeful, i.e. nonmaterialistic context, such as when a computer programmer deliberately sets up a Game of Life in order to create certain complex structures (the rules of the game of life are not exactly those of biological evolution, but they are both examples of processes where the continued application of a few simple constraints results in complex outcomes). It is telling that both of the great defenders of the argument from reason, C.S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga, distinguish clearly between evolution as a biological process and the conjunction of evolution with naturalism, which is supposed to be self-defeating.

So in the end, what do the person's actions at a grocery store imply about that person's beliefs about the world? Merely that the person believes the world is divided into distinct objects, that the world is orderly and that other people will not interfere with that person's affairs if that interference is more trouble than it is worth. We might possibly add, despite the worries raised in the last two paragraphs, that they presuppose the efficacy and rationality of their thought processes.

It should be quite clear that this cluster of beliefs does not amount to full-blown Christianity, not by a long shot. Even if the ultimate implications of these beliefs converge upon Christianity, if the person is not aware of the connections between these beliefs and the tenets of Christianity then Jones cannot argue that people's actions presuppose belief in Christianity. At most, people's actions presuppose beliefs that are compatible with or ultimately lead to Christianity. Now later on Jones seems to argue that people in fact are aware of the connections between these beliefs and Christian theism, but try to suppose their knowledge of these connections by making up "grand scenarios to evade [God]". But Jones does not demonstrate that people are in fact aware of these connections. Therefore, he has not shown that people's actions presuppose Christianity.

As if that weren't bad enough, Jones does not establish that Christianity is actually true. All he says is that "given the sum of what you assume and reject just when buying milk, you act like you believe that you live in the world described by Christianity." Let's assume, despite the misgivings of the previous paragraph, that Jones has in fact established this. But from the fact that people act as if they believed they lived in the world described by Christianity, it does not follow that they are deceiving themselves, if Christianity is not true. At best, if they profess not to believe in Christianity yet act as if they believed in it, they would be hypocritical. But the only gesture Jones makes towards showing that Christianity is true are the next two sentences: "The world depicted above suggests complexities and contours of reality that are only supplied in Christianity. If Christianity weren't true, then such things as simple as milk buying would appear to be impossible."

The first sentence is clearly false, or at least, Jones hasn't argued for its truth. He has not ruled out deism, for example, as an explanation of the orderliness of the world and the existence of moral absolutes. More to the point, however, what does 'the world' in the above sentence refer to? If the preceding discussion is any indication, here world should mean only 'the world as construed by people who buy milk at the grocery store'. That is, so far we have only been discussing the phenomenal world, the world as it appears to those who buy milk and engage in certain actions. But how to establish a correspondence between that world and the 'real world'? It seems Jones tries to do this with the second sentence, where he claims that certain actions would simply be impossible if Christianity weren't true. Granted that people assume certain things about the world when they perform certain actions, perhaps those actions themselves would be impossible if the things people assumed about the world were not in fact true. But this is not the case, as a study of people's folk intuitions about biology and physics shows. For example, most people believe that an object must be continually pushed in order for it to stay in motion. This is false (Newton showed it's the other way around: an object will stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force), but that doesn't make pushing objects around impossible: a false assumption about the world expressed in a certain action does not make that action impossible.

Now Jones might attempt to give a description of what it is that people buying milk at the grocery store are really doing when they perform certain actions, as opposed to what those people think they are doing and what they assume about the world as a result, but that would only mean that those people are mistaken, not that they are deceiving themselves. To establish the latter result one would have to make the case that people are actually aware of what it is they are really doing, along with the theoretical preconditions of those actions, but Jones has not made such a case. His argument has been limited to the claim that people act as if they believe certain things, not that they act on the knowledge of certain things about the world.

So we see that Jones' apologetic fails, because he has not established that people act as if they believe Christianity is true, and because he has not established that Christianity must be true in order for those actions to be intelligible.

This is not to say that transcendental arguments for the existence of the Christian God are impossible. But if they are possible, they must rest on features of human experience other than those involved in buying a bottle of milk. In the next post I will discuss Jones' arguments on several other topics, such as faith and rationality and original sin.


Metacrock said…
Jones is on a par with Francis Shaffer. For me that's not a good thing.
Anonymous said…
You built your whole argument on a straw man... Jones illustration is just that, an illustration. It is not his argument for presuppositionalism but an example of how some of the truths reflected in the nature of a humanist worldview is really lived out in every day life. There are many pages (or volumes) of technical writing that stand behind this simple illustration. I'm sure you are aware of that also. So your assessment is "hot wired" to your conclusions and reflects your own apologetic bias (much of which you 'assume' yourself in the discussion)... bottom line - you lack research and scholarship in your evaluation of Jones, or perhaps your bigger target - transcendental arguments. e.g. Bahnsen, Van Til, others have written much on this topic - and it has stood up in many scholarly debates at a University level.

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