Faith and Epistemological Quicksand

By Sean Carroll | September 17, 2012 9:49 am

Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel are well-known senior philosophers at Notre Dame and NYU, respectively. Plantinga, a Christian, is known for his contributions to philosophy of religion, while Nagel, an atheist, is known (nevertheless) for his resistance to purely materialist/naturalist/physicalist theories of the mind (e.g. in his famous article, “What is it like to be a bat?“).

Now Nagel has reviewed Plantinga’s most recent book in the NYRB, giving it a much more sympathetic reading than most naturalists would offer. (For what it’s worth, Plantinga is a supporter of Intelligent Design, and Nagel has often spoken of it approvingly, while not quite buying the whole sales pitch.) Jerry Coyne offers a reasonable dissection of the review.

I wanted to home in on just one particular aspect because it was instructive, at least for me. There is a long-standing claim that “faith” is a way of attaining knowledge that stands independently of other methods, such as “logic” or “empiricism.” I’ve never quite understood this — how do we decide what to have faith in, if not by the use of techniques such as logic and empiricism?

Plantinga offers an answer, which I think is at least internally consistent — but that’s part of the problem.

So far we are in the territory of traditional epistemology; but what about faith? Faith, according to Plantinga, is another basic way of forming beliefs, distinct from but not in competition with reason, perception, memory, and the others. However, it is

a wholly different kettle of fish: according to the Christian tradition (including both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin), faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment. Faith is a source of belief, a source that goes beyond the faculties included in reason.

God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.)

Plantinga is clearly trying to separate “faith” from merely “things we would like to believe are true” — faith is knowledge that is put directly into our minds by God. Points for at least trying to offer a reason why we should put credence in beliefs based on faith even if the logic and/or evidence aren’t there.

Here, as I see it, is the problem. Any time we have beliefs of any sort, we need to admit the possibility that they are incorrect. Even if we have think that some result has been reached by nothing but the application of pristine mathematical logic (e.g. the ABC conjecture), it’s always possible that we simply made a mistake — have you ever multiplied two numbers together and gotten the wrong answer? Certainly in an empirical endeavor like science, we recognize that our theoretical understanding is necessarily contingent, and are constantly trying to do better, via more precise and far-reaching experimental tests. These are methods of reaching knowledge that have built-in methods of self-correction.

So what about faith? Even if your faith is extremely strong in some particular proposition, e.g. that God loves you, it’s important to recognize that there’s a chance you are mistaken. That should be an important part of any respectable road to knowledge. So you are faced with (at least) two alternative ideas: first, that God exists and really does love you and has put that belief into your mind via the road of faith, and second, that God doesn’t exist and that you have just made a mistake.

The problem is that you haven’t given yourself any way to legitimately decide between these two alternatives. Once you say that you have faith, and that it comes directly from God, there is no self-correction mechanism. You can justify essentially any belief at all by claiming that God gave it to you directly, despite any logical or evidence-based arguments to the contrary. This isn’t just nit-picking; it’s precisely what you see in many religious believers. An evidence-based person might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that there exists an all-powerful and all-loving deity, given how much random suffering exists in the world.” But a faith-based person can always think, “I have faith that God exists, so when I see suffering, I need to think of a reason why God would let it happen.”

Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary. If we built theories on the basis of our sense data, and those theories kept making predictions that turned out to be wrong, we would examine and possibly discard that assumption. If the universe exhibited a chaotic jumble of non-lawlike behavior, rather than falling into beautiful patterns, we would abandon that assumption as well. That’s the most compelling thing about science: it always stands ready to improve by casting out an old idea when the evidence demands it.

Okay, this is probably belaboring the obvious for atheists, and completely irrelevant for believers. But it’s useful to have a specific definition of “faith” right there on the page, if only to understand what its dangers are.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Religion, Top Posts
  • fraac

    Sean, you embarrass yourself with every post you make on this subject. You literally sound like a sophomore. Please stop. And you’ve used an apostrophe in a possessive “its”.

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  • Daniel Engblom

    @fraac: You’re not going to get far with unsubstantiated ad hominems on a science blog: Put up or Shut up: Point out where & how Sean is wrong or something, don’t just shrug and mutter how silly someone is.

    To quote Hitchens:
    “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

    And that will apply to you, until – that is, if – you will back up your claims.

  • Random Rambler

    fraac,

    Do you have anything constructive to say? Ridicule is not very enlightening. Could you describe in what way this post of Sean’s is sophomoric, or whatever? I’m not inclined to accept your characterization of Sean’s religion posts.

    RR

  • Sean Samis

    This is a very good post, minor grammatical errors aside. Which is probably why it frightens the likes of @fraac.

    As Mark Twain wrote once of Christian Science, “I wish to say that of Mrs. Eddy I am not requiring perfect English, but only good English. No one can write perfect English and keep it up through a stretch of ten chapters. It has never been done. It was approached in the “well of English undefiled”; it has been approached in Mrs. Eddy’s Annex to that Book; it has been approached in several English grammars; I have even approached it myself; but none of us has made port.”

    • https://plus.google.com/118265897954929480050/posts Sean Carroll

      fraac, thanks for catching the typo. The unsupported whining, not so much.

  • Joe S

    Sean, I really approcoiate your writings on this subject. Having been raised a christian and turning away from that over the past 10 years (and toward anything but reason and logic), I find your interest on both sides of the argument worth reading. I’ve often considered faith a necessary tool in our evolution – the ability to believe something for which you have no evidence to support: the proverbial leap of faith may have been across an actual ravine. Sure there is determination, but often what was needed was faith in someone elses determination to find a way to get across that ravine.

  • Gene

    Faith is not meant to be a replacement for logic and empiricism. I see it as simillar to the more prosaic intuition which is crucial for any type of understanding.

  • Zerub

    I would love to see you debate either Plantinga or maybe William Lane Craig. Both of you are familiar with Philosophy and Cosmology. And importantly, you both spent an unusual amount of time thinking about time.

    Is there a chance this might happen? Maybe just about the Kalam Cosmological Argument atleast?

  • E

    Can I recommend http://lesswrong.com/lw/e25/bayes_for_schizophrenics_reasoning_in_delusional/
    which relates to an inability to update an explanation in the face of new evidence? I’m not suggesting believers are damaged, but sometimes there seems to be something unshiftable about their belief .

  • Neal J. King

    Scientific knowledge has to be self-consistent.

    Faith-based knowledge has to be emotionally satisfying to the individual.

    As long as the faith-based knowledge is not inconsistent with (has no intersection with) the scientific knowledge, who, aside from the individual, has to care about it?

  • phhht

    How do you distinguish sensus divinitatis from plain old everyday delusional disorder?

  • Al

    Personally I prefer to call myself a non-theist instead of atheist. Atheist like atypical both give the impression of something not normal or defective.
    Being a non-theist is a normal part of the forward march in human evolution.
    We stated out worshipping the trees, mountains, sun, and moon. Then we worshiped gods and goddess that had the ability to shape shift and affect the human condition. Next we moved on to worshiping a single god while considering ourselves the center of the universe. Now with intelligent design we have moved to worshiping the universe.
    The next step is to realize that we are but an infinitesimal part of an insignificant small planet orbiting a non-descript star.
    The sooner we realize that our survival rests on our collective behaviors and actions the sooner we will find true peace.

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  • http://physicalism.wordpress.com/ Physicalist

    It’s worth pointing out that the word “faith” is given many different meanings by the faithful.

    According to the Catholics, to say something is accepted on “faith” is merely to say that it is accepted on someone else’s authority.

    Here’s the example the Catholic Encyclopedia offers:

    . . . for example, we accept the statement that the sun is 90,000,000 miles distant from the earth because competent, veracious authorities vouch for the fact. This last kind of knowledge is termed faith.

    Not what Plantinga or most of the rest of mean, I’d hazard.

  • http://www.youtube.combigatheist Ray Higgins

    if faith is something god put in your head, why is it always limited to what you learned or at least some variant of that. If faith really was from god what we attribute to faith would be the same for every one and independent of any religious belief we start with. If all people shared a common faith or any specific single belief independent of our reality that might be a sign that god exist… but they don’t and it doesn’t. Reality is, faith is the excuse we make up when the evidence tells were wrong but we won’t accept the truth.

  • abb3w

    Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary. If we built theories on the basis of our sense data, and those theories kept making predictions that turned out to be wrong, we would examine and possibly discard that assumption. If the universe exhibited a chaotic jumble of non-lawlike behavior, rather than falling into beautiful patterns, we would abandon that assumption as well.

    As an iota of quibble, there’s two sort of assumptions you’re not paying enough attention to.

    First, science uses mathematics as a language; and thus, implicitly takes the axioms of mathematics. Taking an axiom is, in effect, “on faith”, in that it is not an inference justified from any prior propositions. It’s simply taken absolutely and directly as truth. If an axiom isn’t redundant, it may as an alternative be taken in refutation, without any alteration of the system’s scope for truth (although changing whether some propositions may be valid theorems or not). However, this level of “faith” doesn’t help theologians much. For one thing, the usual axioms taken are so basic as to be hard to take the Refutation of with a straight face. For another, the axiom system starting points are to some degree fairly arbitrary. ZF and vNBG lead to the exact same theorems. Other alternatives may involve some more translation, but remain akin to a choice of doing philosophy in English or French. Finally, it’s hard to avoid getting any language to discuss philosophy without implicitly picking up mathematics along the way.

    Second, you’re neglecting some of the math about a “chaotic jumble”. The notion of “lawlike behavior” can be expressed marginally more formally that experience is information with a complexity recognizable by a Turing Hypercomputer of some ordinal degree. This implicitly takes ZF (independent on Choice), but axioms schema interesting enough to handle “four plus three to the exponent of two equals thirteen” can construct analogs. Given this assumption of lawlike behavior, something can be derived as a consequent implication, that is analogous to the scientific method as a means of competitive testing of empirical hypotheses for probability of correctness. However, as with any non-redundant axiomatic assumption, it can be taken in refutation, and insist that there is overall non-lawlike behavior. Under this (ZF-based) alternative, one may then wander over to Ramsey’s Theorem — which describes how islands of order are inevitable with sufficiently large seas of chaos. This allows an alternate interpretation (loosely speaking) for any apparent order in experiential data: it’s the emergence of an isolated Boltzmann Brain in a really big sea of chaos. Contrariwise, this again doesn’t help theologians much. A scientist can merely sigh, and shut up the philosophical pedant by prefixing “So, EITHER all experience is an illusion of an isolated Boltzmann Brain, OR it currently looks most likely that…” before the latest scientific theory.

    • https://plus.google.com/118265897954929480050/posts Sean Carroll

      abb3w– I think those are reasonable caveats, but also that the informality of my original statements were acceptable within dashed-off-blog-post standards. There certainly are issues of radical epistemological skepticism, of which Boltzmann Brains are a recent example, which I’ve talked about elsewhere.

  • Mr. Anthony

    #18. abb3w: Thanks for that. I understood <50% but am intrigued and will bookmark this page for future study.

    I have this book that I ordered and still haven't read: 'Where Mathematics Comes From' by Lakoff and Nunez. What do you think? http://books.google.ca/books/about/Where_Mathematics_Come_From_How_The_Embo.html?id=YXv6SEjTNKsC

  • Mr. Anthony

    Regarding the article:

    Someone once pointed out that people seem to be literally ‘in-love’ with their religions which is why religious criticism is received about as well as telling someone their spouse is unattractive. Going with that analogy, telling a religious person that their faith is unreliable is like asking a married guy how he knows his wife really loves him.

  • Lord

    Presumably there is a correction method, one that occurs posthumously, or not.

  • Josh

    Zerub — It’s not a very good idea to get into debates directly with the likes of Plantinga or Craig. The problem with these scholastic philosophers is that they are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. Craig once based his rejection of Hawking’s proposal that there was no ab initio event associated with the Big Bang Singularity because Hawking invoked imaginary time which could not possible be correct as it was… imaginary. Yes, Craig as the same irrational fear of imaginary numbers as though Descartes had the last say on what was or was not “proper” in mathematical theory. He may have changed his tune since then, but the very fact that this was part of this argument should give one pause for thought: why is it that the “giants” of Christian “philosophy” are so poorly informed about the basics of the mathematical and natural world?

  • Blunt Instrument

    An evidence-based person might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that there exists an all-powerful and all-loving deity, given how much random suffering exists in the world.”

    A small child might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that my parents love me because they make me eat these horrible-tasting vegetables for dinner.”

  • http://www.pipeline.com/~lenornst/index.html Len Ornstein

    There’s a lot of semantic confusion in this thread. abb3w (17) at least raises the issue of axiomatics.

    Faith is basically an axiomatic commitment to unprovable fundamentals that a ‘follower’ accepts when joining a ‘discipline’. Language, in general, and formal logic and math, also require commitment to unprovable axiomatic rules and definitions for similar reasons – to try to assure that the members of the discipline are ‘on the same page’.

    So Sean’s criticism is specious because his arguments incorrectly imply that science has no dependence on ‘faith-like’ elements – despite the axiomatic structures of language and deductive logic that are the sine qua non bed of scientific endeavors.

    For what may be a more ‘realistic’ examination of the most fundamental similarities and differences of scientific and religious foundations, see:

    http://www.pipeline.com/~lenornst/ScienceInTheSpectrumOfBelief.pdf

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    Amazingly enough, I found myself sympathising with @fraac, which isn’t very nice of me. I think the reason is this:

    Sometimes you will hear that “science requires faith,” for example faith that our sense data are reliable or that nature really obeys laws. That’s an abuse of language; science requires assumptions, just like anything else, but those assumptions are subject to testing and updating if necessary.

    But this isn’t enough; our ability to intepret, and even gather evidence depends on assumptions; they can’t all be tested without circularity. Today I see a orderly world obeying the same laws I remember from yesterday, except there was no yesterday, my memory is just an illusion.

    This is a possibility, but not one I often bother considering. I just say “that’s silly” and move on. If we push skepticism far enough in every direction, we have to fall back “that’s silly”, or “well let’s make-beleive” or some such thing.

  • http://molvray.com/acid-test/ quixote

    Science is concerned with measurable things. Faith is not. Whatever else it might be, it’s a feeling held by the faithful. To argue about evidence or proof or any of those useful scientific things seems rather misplaced. It would be like insisting on proof of someone’s statement that they like strawberry ice cream.

    There is never and can never be objective proof in the scientific sense for how somebody else feels about something. All we can do is take their word for it, and that’s true whether it’s their feelings about ice cream of God.

    Now, if they decide to take their feelings and use them to justify actions outside of themselves, that’s a whole different matter. It’s precisely because there can never be objective criteria for beliefs that secular laws must govern behavior.

    (Well, it makes sense to me. I’ll be curious to see if anyone else agrees or has similar thoughts. Mr. Anthony #19 seems to be on much the same wavelength.)

  • Albanius

    I was greatly relieved to learn after checking just now, that Thomas Nagel is NOT (as I had assumed) the son of Ernst Nagel, who was a protege of the great naturalist philospher Morris Raphael Cohen, EN’s coauthor of Introduction to Logic and the Scientific Method.

  • David

    Since the owl of Minerva only flies at night, we cannot hope to understand faith until we are past it. All the evidence seems to indicate that, with the exception of some geographical pockets, we’re heading toward that ‘enlightening’ night. Meanwhile, however: since our purpose here is to unite our purposes, I propose we would all be a lot further ahead if we read the more recent gospels of James and Dewey and Rorty. The old gospels – Xian and otherwise – are simply failing to assist us in the uniting of our purposes. Pragmatism, my friends. Everything else is, well … less than helpful.

  • Matt K.

    Sean – Thanks for the interesting post.

    Plantinga’s point (as explained by Nagel) is that no “basic” way of forming beliefs can be checked, corrected and validated except by relying on itself. You can’t check whether a belief based on the senses is true except by using the senses. Same is true for beliefs based on memory or rational intuition. The justification for every belief is circular in that way. A radical skeptic argues this general sort of circularity is vicious; it defeats knowledge and justification. Plantinga and lots of others argue it isn’t vicious, and that wherever our belief forming equipment is reliable we know lots of things. Plantinga adds that faith is also part of our basic belief forming equipment.

    Given that argument, I don’t know what to make of your claim that with faith you give yourself no way to “legitimately” decide between two incompatible alternatives, as when I consider the possibility my faith-based belief in God is mistaken. Are you claiming that faith can’t be a source of knowledge or justified belief unless faith-based beliefs can be checked without using faith? If that’s your view, then how do you avoid the radical skepticism that comes from making the same demand on the senses, logical intuition, memory, etc.?

    Or (more likely) is your view that faith can’t function like our other basic belief forming equipment because it doesn’t include the possibility of even faith-based checking of faith-based belief? If that’s your view, I have to say I think it’s just false. There are lots of ways for faith to check itself, and some people actually use them. I look out my window and see camel walk by. I’m not just stuck with believing a camel is out there. I can go look closer. Likewise, I find myself with a faith based belief about God, I’m not just stuck with it. I can read scripture, consider arguments from theology or philosophy, pray for understanding, talk to nonbelievers, etc.

  • Curious George

    Philosophy has not changed much since about 1200: God gave us faith – and that’s all that matters (they can turn an atheism into a faith easily). The proper place for them is the Mecca.

  • Spiros M

    @Matt K. It seems to me that you are suggesting the use of all other methods (except from faith) of reasoning to justify your faith in God (read scripture critically, consider arguments, etc.) That is good and that is the point Sean is making. You CAN’T use faith to test faith, because you take faith on faith. By definition. And praying for understanding is equivalent to sitting down for a second and thinking to yourself: What is my honest, unbiased opinion about this aspect of my life? (well, equivalent up to the “Dear Lord…” part).

    The difference with the other methods of reasoning is not that faith (or divine inspiration) may be somehow flawed in arriving at the truth. It is the lack of the self-correcting mechanism that allows one to update their beliefs based on new evidence. As Sean said clearly in this post, you can’t update your belief in God if your only tool is faith (which requires a belief in (some) God in order to work in the first place.)

    As far as axioms of mathematics are concerned, they are also assumptions that can be updated in the face of evidence against their validity (and in fact, one of them Euclid’s 5th Postulate was updated – and was shown independent of his other axioms – after the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries.) Still, the power of faith to move us forward is immense. It is a fuel that propels us to ask questions and look for answers when we would otherwise feel gridlocked with indecision. So faith should be respected as the starting point and emotional backdrop for many great discoveries and human accomplishments. But using it as the main tool of arriving at the truth is like using a hammer to cut bread – it makes faith look useless even if it is really powerful.

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  • Brett

    That’s why religion is so dangerous and something that an intelligent race would have to evolve beyond in order to survive in the long run. I became an atheist from christian (including attending a christian school) because of the inability for anyone around me to even consider that we may be wrong in our beliefs. Do you know what they call someone who is absolutely convinced that their belief in a religion is correct despite the evidence? devout, strong, etc. Do you know what they call a scientist who is absolutely convinced their belief in a theory is correct despite the evidence? insane. That’s why science is not on the same level as religion; it’s superior. So to even compare the two as though they are in a battle is something a religious zealot would do; and scientists get dragged into the discussion because of those types of people.

  • julianpenrod

    This may be removed because it will criticize another blogger on Discover, but there are a number of points to be made.
    With respect to Intelligent Design, in a recent “Bad Astronomy” blog, Phil Plait opined against “Young Earth Creationism”. Why the qualifier? Is Plait saying he is willing to accept creationism that involves an earth billions of years old? I dared to contradict and call him on some things he said and, like any insecure megalomaniac posing as a defender of truth, he banned me from his blog, so I couldn’t ask him. If anyone else can go on his blog, perhaps they can ask him about whether he supports creationism on a billions of years old earth.
    And it’s questionable just how unreasonable the idea of creationism is. The discovery of the new monkey species in Central Africa addresses this. A monkey is a large species to miss, especially given the enormous amounts of film, photographs, drawings and histories assembled in the last few centuries! Given the sudden explosion of new species, orders, families, genera, it looks like spontaneous generation, the emergence of life forms without precursors, is continuing.

  • Johannes

    I’d like to point out that there is another position in the theistic (specifically Christian) camp which radically differs from that of Plantinga. The key issue is distinguishing faith from fideism.

    Faith is assenting to what has been revealed by God. But reason must be used to know, first that God exists, and secondly what specific entities or ensemble of entities are the medium that He has used to conduct his revelation. Faith is not a leap in the dark.

    Therefore there are two levels of knowledge related to faith. First the knowledge of the basic truths that form the base for faith, a knowledge which is acquired using reason, and then the knowledge of the revealed truths, which is acquired using faith.

    The most basic truth is the existence of God, and it can be grasped by reason based on the observation of the world and of man. That’s why St Paul blames the Gentiles in Romans 1:19-21 for not having acknowledged God.

    The next basic truths are that Jesus Christ is from God, and that a specific Church is the one founded and assisted by Jesus. These truths can be grasped by reason based on the “motives of credibility”, which are basically historical, unless you see a miracle. (To note, the Church part holds only for Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxs, not for Protestants. Protestants have only the Bible.)

    From that base, the truths revealed by God through the Church (or through just the Bible for Protestants) are believed by faith.

    In short, faith is assenting to what is revealed by divine authority. But reason can and must be used to determine (on the basis of motives of credibility) who has divine authority. Otherwise, faith would be a leap in the dark.

    For anyone interested, this issue is extensively dealt with in this article and subsequent discussion:

    http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/05/wilson-vs-hitchens-a-catholic-perspective/

    from which I quote this paragraph that deals directly with the quote from Plantinga:

    Plantinga treats belief in God’s existence as a properly basic belief. The notion that belief in God’s existence is properly basic is something alien to the Thomistic tradition. And that is because God is immaterial, whereas we know only through our five senses. Therefore until the beatific vision, our belief in God’s existence cannot be basic, but only by inference from causes, or by testimony. Plantinga treats God’s existence as “hard-wired,” as he does our belief in other minds, and the incorrigibility of perceptual beliefs, and belief in the past. But this very way of thinking about belief-formation, namely, as being hard-wired to form a true belief [i.e. that God exists] neither by inference nor by direct perception of God, disconnects intellect from reality. It does this by proposing that the intellect forms belief by a mechanism, rather than by receiving forms only through the senses. But from a Thomistic point of view, characterizing the intellect as jury-rigged to arrive at truth, rather than as directly perceiving the truth itself insofar as it is able through the senses, Plantinga’s epistemology starts already with a concession to skepticism, i.e. we’re already cut off from reality, and have to hope that this mechanism by which we arrive at beliefs is reliable.

  • Doug

    @Blunt Instrument:
    Did you really just compare the random deaths of human being to… children being forced to eat vegetables? Ew. It’s always sad when you realize how awful the so-called “morals” of certain theists are.

  • randommuser

    Perhaps a difference between the assumptions for science and the assumptions for religion is that those for science are so intuitive that nobody *really* question them, whereas many reasonable people do question the assumptions for religion. For example, if you honestly doubt the axioms of mathematics (together with all their implications), or the use of inductive reasoning, your day-to-day behavior would be radically different from what they are now. You would be unable to deduce why you need to eat, or go to work, or why it is fair to get two 10-dollar bills in exchange for a 20-dollar bill, and so on. We need to remind ourselves that science is based on these assumptions, but I don’t think anybody would seriously argue that this is why science is unreliable.

  • Andy Johnson

    This is a welcome post, and useful discussion. I read the article this weekend and thought it quite odd how Nagel gives such a free ride to what appears to be little more than the usual theistic (Christian) claptrap about how faith can shore up one’s belief in science. Though granted I have not chewed through Plantinga’s Warrant trilogy (nor anything of Zizek’s for that matter…).

    Here are two passages of interest from the Nagel article that have thus far, however, received little attention in this discussion and that I find interesting and provocative. I don’t find them persuasive as rhetoric, but rather, as poetry. They speak to the vast gulf that separates believer and nonbeliever, and to the possibility of continued dialog between them.

    (1) “Plantinga compares the difference in justified beliefs to a case where you are accused of a crime on the basis of very convincing evidence, but you know that you didn’t do it. For you, the immediate evidence of your memory is not defeated by the public evidence against you, even though your memory is not available to others. Likewise, the Christian’s faith in the truth of the gospels, though unavailable to the atheist, is not defeated by the secular evidence against the possibility of resurrection.”

    (2) ‘Christians, says Plantinga, can “take modern science to be a magnificent display of the image of God in us human beings.” Can naturalists say anything to match this, or must they regard it as an unexplained mystery?’

    It was once the nonbeliever in defense of his views who was more in the position of one accused of a crime he knew in his heart he did not commit, all the “evidence” arrayed against him. (“It moves,” said Galileo.) And it was once the nonbeliever who felt that the truth in poetic tales (many called “Scripture” by believers) was more a magnificent display of the image of humanity in eternal form than an actual account of things or a form of worship. I do think naturalists today can say plenty to match this, though their saying often would be better suited in the impassioned thought and language of Nietzsche and Blake than in the all-too-literal conveyance of most of today’s defenders of truth.

    Sorry for the long post—it’s my first time.

  • Neanderthal

    @julianpenrod
    So your god is still designing and creating “badly designed” living creatures? Or is the world getting smaller due to the Internet, more sharing of information, such that the probability of information reaching qualified people is much higher than before? Which of these two statements are most reasonable – magic or more accessible information?

  • Matt Bright

    Great post – and the relative absence of shouty believers suggests it’s also a telling one. I’m on a Christian website that claims to welcome non-believers, doing my usual thing of at least trying to understand how it is they come to believe what they believe.

    I’ve engaged someone who doesn’t seem to think I already know this and am simply trolling/in denial. He appears, (at least up until now), to be happy to address individual questions directly as if they were honestly meant and not some kind of trap (which is the usual mess one gets into at this point).

    We’ve got as far as the usual assertion that atheists are limited because they won’t consider evidence to support a belief from ‘strong personal intuition’ or from appeals to the ‘utility’ of that belief (this last one is new to me). I’ve said that I would consider these things if it can be explained to me how I begin to do so, and what I do when evidence from one source contradicts evidence from another (I’ve given him my usual example of a sunrise – my strong personal intuition when experiencing a sunrise is that I’m standing still on a flat plain, and we both know I’m wrong, so…). I’ve been clear that he can even appeal to non-materialist elements/entities, all I want at this point is an understanding of how I use them in some sort of systematic way.

    Apparently, however, even requesting some sort of framework for thinking about evidence from ‘personal revelation’ or ‘utility’ is a ‘somewhat materialist’ approach. Indeed, even trying to get him to explain to me what ‘utility’ means in this context appears to be an example of my closed-minded ‘tyrrany of logic’.

    So I’ve finally cracked and asked how I’m supposed to think at all in the absence of clear definitions of words and ways that I can think about them. He’s gone a bit quiet since then. Do they know, do you think, that this is where it all breaks down? Or does something in their heads kick in that actively blocks out this sort of train of thought? Either way, I’m beginning to think that some sort of deep level cognitive speciation is going on…

  • Blunt Instrument

    @ Doug – 36

    Please do not assume that I am a theist. My comments were intended to show the poor reasoning of that statement, not to make any moral claims.

    If god exists, his/her knowledge would be far superior to our own. Therefore, we could not comprehend the reasons for his/her action or inaction . In that way, we would be as small children are to their parents. Therefore, one cannot prove/disprove the existence of god based on the existence of random suffering in the world.

  • IA

    Your own reasoning is quite poor. Children grow up into big children who understand their parents’ actions, and even a child forced to eat vegetables can understand and know that they’re good for his body and growth. The existence of random suffering in the world suggests that if there is a God, he does not interfere with human affairs, and evolution further suggests that he has interfered with little else in millions of years. The extent of this God’s knowledge is thus as irrelevant. Theists are left with a God of the gaps, and cosmologists are leaving that wispy deity fewer and fewer places to hide.

  • http://www.vmarko.com vmarko

    @ Matt (40):

    “So I’ve finally cracked and asked how I’m supposed to think at all in the absence of clear definitions of words and ways that I can think about them.”

    Be very careful what you are asking for here. :-)

    There are no clear definitions of words. Everything is based on our “intuitive” meaning of some words. There is also no unique way of thinking about words, even if you accept that there is some intuitive agreed-upon meaning for each word (i.e. axioms of logic are in fact arbitrary and not unique in any sense).

    For example, everything in science is defined up to math. Everything in math is defined up to logic. Everything in logic is defined up to “semantic meaning” of the syntax. The semantic meaning is defined up to the meta-language (say, English, or some other real-world language). The meta-language is assumed to be understood intuitively, with no clear definitions.

    So in a sense, there is no way to “clearly define” anything at all. Every math student with some amount of training in mathematical logic can tell you that. :-)

    If you do not understand someone’s language, it may very well be down to you not having appropriate intuitive understanding of the language, rather than them not having clear definitions. The best you can do is to ask them to help you build your intuition to grasp the meaning of words you do not understand. And they may or may not be willing to spend time on that. ;-)

    Insisting on clear definitions sometimes really is a “tyrrany of logic”. For example, I could also say that I don’t believe a single theorem of math until you give me a clear definition of “set” and of “true” and “false”. Since it is impossible to give such definitions, my denial of math theorems would be a “tyrrany of logic” in the same sense.

    HTH :-)

  • Mr. Anthony

    @Matt (40):

    I think you may have hit on something: anti-theists should pose on religious sites as believers who are having a ‘crisis of faith’ and need help. Spread the doubt!

    Ok, a wee tad bit unethical.

  • Blunt Instrument

    @ IA

    even a child forced to eat vegetables can understand and know that they’re good for his body and growth
    Do you have children? Very small children are incapable of understanding this. You give 18 month-olds too much credit.

    evolution further suggests that he has interfered with little else in millions of years.
    Why is his interference in natural selection necessary to prove his existence?

    if there is a God, he does not interfere with human affairs
    You presuppose that god would choose to interfere in human affairs to alleviate random suffering. Perhaps you or I would choose to do this. But why should god?

    The extent of this God’s knowledge is thus as irrelevant.
    Irrelevant to you, perhaps, because you desire something that is not as it is. But why does god’s lack of action to eliminate human suffering mean that he/she is irrelevant?

    Children grow up into big children who understand their parents’ actions
    So perhaps there is hope for you, as well.

  • Matt Bright

    @vmarko – you may not be able to absolutely define ‘set’, ‘true’ or ‘false’ but you can at least give me a set of axioms – rules for using these words to do maths with that are acceptably self-consistent , don’t lead to contradictions and allow me to construct meaningful chains of reasoning and assess the reasoning of others’in terms of the axioms provided. If my maths teacher told me I could only understand set theory by ‘building my intuition’ about what he or she might mean I’d be a bit bewildered.

    @Mr Anthony – I’m not doing that, where have I said I’m doing that?

  • sjn

    Believers who claim that “science requires faith” or that religious faith is somehow similar to scientific “faith” forget that a scientific claim must be testable, or better yet, have predictive power, neither of which is true for religious faith-based claims. Also, scientific claims must be falsifiable, and religious claims aren’t. That’s why people are essentially free to harbor very weird beliefs if those beliefs are not subject to falsification, e.g., I’m free to believe in god or invisible unicorns because I can’t provide a proof of their nonexistence. However, suppose there was a religion whose believers had faith that they could jump off tall buildings and fly. This, apparently, is not too common since that belief is readily falsifiable.

  • http://empiricalperspectives.blogspot.com/ James Goetz

    Hi Sean, on a tangent, per mathematical logic, Could there be any mistake in the logic that a completed infinite elapse of time is impossible? For example, proposing a completed infinite elapse of time is as logical as saying never-ending time ends. And if this logic is unequivocally wrong, then why is there any justification for proposing a non-zero Hamiltonian value that requires a completed infinite elapse of time? Such proposals also look like epistemological quicksand.

  • http://marksteger.com MarkS

    Sean, I’m neither a scientist nor a theologian, but here’s my take on the question. You understand the Christian position: “faith is knowledge that is put directly into our minds by God.” That’s why it’s often called the gift of faith. The barrier you can’t get past is in your statement, “The problem is that you haven’t given yourself any way to legitimately decide between these two alternatives.” If faith truly is a gift put in your head by God, then those blessed with the gift of faith have no need to “decide” that at all. God tells them. To decide using reason is a whole ‘nother domain of acquiring knowledge, sometimes at odds with faith. I think it’s why Martin Luther said reason is the enemy of faith. Sean, you may not be comfortable leaving reason behind, but then, you don’t have the gift of faith, do you?

  • chemicalscum

    An epistemological quicksand, what an apt phrase and Plantinga is up to his neck in it.

  • IA

    Re: Blunt Instrument

    “Do you have children? Very small children are incapable of understanding this.”

    And bigger ones can, the point being that a child can eventually understand his parent’s actions, so likening the relationship to that of men to God is a bad comparison, since we presumably remain permanently ignorant of God’s motivations.

    “Why is his interference in natural selection necessary to prove his existence?”

    It–along with proof of his interference with things such as tectonic plates or weather–would be necessary to proving that there is a God who interferes with his creation, rather than a deist abstraction.

    “You presuppose that god would choose to interfere in human affairs to alleviate random suffering. Perhaps you or I would choose to do this. But why should god?”

    Why should a God go to the trouble of creating so many beings and places and not care what happens to them? And if he doesn’t, why should we care about him in turn?

    “But why does god’s lack of action to eliminate human suffering mean that he/she is irrelevant?”

    Because a God who does not interfere with the world has no effect on our lives. He is either impotent, indifferent or malevolent. Perhaps he’s relevant to seeing how the universe was created, but cosmology leaves him little room even for that.

    “So perhaps there is hope for you, as well.”

    Yes, but none for a blunt instrument.

  • http://www.vmarko.com vmarko

    @Matt (46):
    “you may not be able to absolutely define ‘set’, ‘true’ or ‘false’ but you can at least give me a set of axioms – rules for using these words to do maths with that are acceptably self-consistent , don’t lead to contradictions and allow me to construct meaningful chains of reasoning and assess the reasoning of others’in terms of the axioms provided.”

    Umm, well, I’d say no, one cannot be given that. Except some very very simple axiomatic systems (those that cannot describe natural numbers), no axiomatic system can be known to be self-consistent (due to Goedel’s incompleteness theorem). You are just working in a set of axioms and hoping that you will not run into a contradiction. Some people would say “having faith” that there is no contradiction. :-)

    “If my maths teacher told me I could only understand set theory by ‘building my intuition’ about what he or she might mean I’d be a bit bewildered.”

    Oh? So how about the axiom of choice? Do you consider it to be acceptable (and live with the Banach-Tarski paradox), or unacceptable (and live with the fact that not every set has a choice function)? Or you keep both options in play and check every proof of every theorem out there for using AC? There is nothing but intuition that can help one decide on the status of AC, and there are many mathematicians with many different intuitions out there… I’d suggest you start building your intuition regarding AC, if you care to understand set theory. :-)

    Similarly, if you talk to a believer about his faith, try to understand their own intuitive reasoning about faith. If you fail, the problem is most probably due to your lack of intuition about what faith is, rather than their lack of definitions which are clear from your perspective.

  • http://www.vmarko.com vmarko

    @IA (51):

    Blunt Instrument:
    “Do you have children? Very small children are incapable of understanding this.”

    IA:
    And bigger ones can, the point being that a child can eventually understand his parent’s actions, so likening the relationship to that of men to God is a bad comparison, since we presumably remain permanently ignorant of God’s motivations.

    It is not a bad comparison. The problem is just that humans do not live long enough to be able to obtain enough information to understand God’s motivation. Just like a child which happens to have an unfortunately short life-span to reach the age where understanding the parent’s actions is possible. IOW, our lack of understanding why God allows suffering in the world is precisely that — lack of *our* understanding. The fact that we do not understand the “big picture”, doesn’t imply that there isn’t one.

    Blunt Instrument:
    “Why is his interference in natural selection necessary to prove his existence?”

    IA:
    It–along with proof of his interference with things such as tectonic plates or weather–would be necessary to proving that there is a God who interferes with his creation, rather than a deist abstraction.

    It would not be necessary. God does not need to interfere with the material world, but only with the social one. God intereferes with the world in the realm of how people understand each other, their emotions, their relationships etc. Stuff that is always open to interpretation and cannot be studied empirically.

    If God were to move tectonic plates or mountains or such, there would be observable proof of his existence. There would be no room for faith — one would be required to accept God’s existence, based on material evidence. In that way God would deny humans of any choice about his existence, in turn denying the concept of free will. And having free will is the very reason why God created us in the first place (if you believe he did).

    So put simply, God wants us to make our own choices about right and wrong, good and evil, belief and skepticism, etc. That’s why he doesn’t interfere with the material world in an empirically measurable way, but only through our emotional and social life.

    Consider this explanation: God allows some of his children to die in agony, in order to maintain the possibility for his surviving children to live in freedom. Is freedom of will worth dying for? That is a tough thing to answer, even for a moral atheist. :-) People have been choosing to die (or let others die) for far less.

  • Gary

    “Faith and Epistemological Quicksand”

    I used to expend energy on such a deliberation.

    I’m still no further on than where I began.

    Life is short, and I have a life to live, what’s left if it.

    This ‘atheist’ has grown bored of such fusses.

    It’s all just noise that interferes with the signal: Live your life, same as everyone else. Stop being a putz.

    The Universe isn’t going to remember you no matter what you subscribe to.

    How’s that for Universal Truth?

  • IA

    Re: VMarko
    “The problem is just that humans do not live long enough to be able to obtain enough information to understand God’s motivation.”

    What on earth makes you so sure that we would do so even if we did live long enough?

    “The fact that we do not understand the ‘big picture,’ doesn’t imply that there isn’t one.”

    As if there was any reason to believe in a bigger picture!

    “God does not need to interfere with the material world, but only with the social one.”

    First Blunt Instrument claims God is not understandable and now you’re telling us what God needs or doesn’t need to do…

    “God intereferes with the world in the realm of how people understand each other, their emotions, their relationships etc.”

    Show me any reason to believe this.

    “If God were to move tectonic plates or mountains or such, there would be observable proof of his existence. There would be no room for faith — one would be required to accept God’s existence, based on material evidence.”

    And is that a bad thing? Free will would still exist, just as we exercise enough free will to defy any other authority figure. And I’m uncomfortable with the idea of God standing by as earthquakes and tsunamis kill thousands of people just because interfering would blow his cover. Such a God would be a neurotic tease.

    “That’s why he doesn’t interfere with the material world in an empirically measurable way, but only through our emotional and social life.”

    And doesn’t interfering in our emotional and social life influence our moral choices?

    “God allows some of his children to die in agony, in order to maintain the possibility for his surviving children to live in freedom.”

    Name an example where this happens.

  • Matt Bright

    @vmarko
    “Umm, well, I’d say no, one cannot be given that. Except some very very simple axiomatic systems (those that cannot describe natural numbers), no axiomatic system can be known to be self-consistent (due to Goedel’s incompleteness theorem).”

    I know that. The axioms lead to some unprovable-but-true statements, but they don’t lead to contradictions and – importantly in this context – I can in principle understand how to manipulate the relevant symbols and check that other people’s manipulation is consistent. Without any kind of framework at all for working with concepts like ‘set’ and ‘number’ maths itself – including, ironically, the proof of Godel’s theorem itself – is impossible. This is where we are.

    “ You are just working in a set of axioms and hoping that you will not run into a contradiction..”

    No, I’m just working in a set of axioms. I don’t ‘hope’ or ‘believe’ anything about them. If they lead to a contradiction then there’s something wrong with the axioms, or something wrong with my reasoning. If I hit a Godel-type statement then I’ve reached the limits of that particular axiomatic system.

    “Oh? So how about the axiom of choice? Do you consider it to be acceptable (and live with the Banach-Tarski paradox), or unacceptable (and live with the fact that not every set has a choice function)? Or you keep both options in play and check every proof of every theorem out there for using AC? There is nothing but intuition that can help one decide on the status of AC, and there are many mathematicians with many different intuitions out there… I’d suggest you start building your intuition regarding AC, if you care to understand set theory. “

    I’m not a set theorist but I’m given to understand that the current protocol is your third option – where it actually matters to a proof, one produces a non-AC and an AC version, or states that the proof only works in one of these. I’m not aware that it’s necessary for the set theorist, personally, to ‘believe’ either one of these options. And I’m still lost on what ‘building my intuition’ means in this case – what process would it entail?. Is it your contention that a mathematician ‘builds their intuition’ sufficiently they will have some kind of personal epiphany about the Axiom of Choice and deeply ‘believe’ one way or the other? How would that help them do maths?

    And we remain with the basic problem that if we can reach no mutually agreed-upon defnition of ‘set’ then the Axiom of Choice is irrelevant because the set theory to which it applies becomes impossible to do.

    “Similarly, if you talk to a believer about his faith, try to understand their own intuitive reasoning about faith.”

    This being what I’m doing. This is why I’m asking the questions. My problem isn’t that I don’t understand the answers, it’s that given even the widest parameters I’ve never been able to get any answers at all. Which bewilders me since the religious seem to think it’s terribly, terribly important that I believe the things they believe. You’d think they’d try harder.

    Unless, of course, it’s genuinely impossible. Which it might be, but that really would imply that the consciousness of the religious is so wholly alien to my own that any appearance of communication with them at all is simply an illusion bought about by a shared language-system. Which is an unnerving, bodysnatchers-type thought.

    “If you fail, the problem is most probably due to your lack of intuition about what faith is, rather than their lack of definitions which are clear from your perspective.”

    How am I to judge this when I keep saying that I have no definitions at all, clear or otherwise. My ‘intuition’ about faith is that it’s somehow deciding that it’s OK to think certain things, but not others, are true without checking anything but one’s own internal feelings about them. Since I literally don’t know how to do this and can’t even imagine it’s possible without some sort of major rewiring of my nervous system, I remain confused.

  • Matt Bright

    Except, of course, I did say, ‘self-consistent’, didn’t I? My bad, and I promise not what I meant to do.

  • Nathan

    I feel like this has been an excellent discussion and a great topic. I am LDS and we have a different definition of faith, summed up well in a chapter of the book of mormon. I would love any thoughts on this chapter, I recommend starting from verse 20:

    http://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/alma/32?lang=eng

  • Blunt Instrument

    @ IA (51)
    the point being that a child can eventually understand his parent’s actions, so likening the relationship to that of men to God is a bad comparison
    You attempt to discredit my analogy by extending it where I did not.

    would be necessary to proving that there is a God who interferes with his creation
    Why is it necessary for god to interfere with his creation in this way? According to the new testament, god sent his son here to teach us how to live (among other things). What else is required?

    Why should a God go to the trouble of creating so many beings and places and not care what happens to them? And if he doesn’t, why should we care about him in turn?
    You presume that the only place where god can care for them is here on earth.

    Because a God who does not interfere with the world has no effect on our lives.
    God does not need to interfere with the world directly to have an effect on our lives. For example, our lives are as they are today because of the spread of christianity over the last 2000 years. They will be changed by its likely continued decline over the next several decades. How can you possibly say that this has no affect on your life?

  • http://www.documentx.net Joseph Noor

    I am a Muslim and believe in God based on evidence and reason. In the Qur’an there is no place for faith without evidence, since baseless beliefs can be dangerous. Belief in the Qur’an as a divine source neatly explains cosmic fine tuning, bio-friendliness and progressive evolution. The serious difficulty with this idea is that it does not say how God accomplished this and leaves God Himself unexplained. The Qur’an eliminates these 2 difficulties by informing man how he did it – and since no human had access to such ultramodern information when the Qur’an appeared 14 centuries ago, the reader is driven to invoke a superior intellect. Evidence is an essential aspect of reality – why should religion which is supposed to be a way of life, be approached differently?

  • IA

    Re: Blunt Instrument

    “You attempt to discredit my analogy by extending it where I did not.”

    And why did you not follow it through to its logical conclusion? Because it did not h0ld. A child’s situation is not permanent, whereas man’s in regard to God is.

    “According to the new testament, god sent his son here to teach us how to live (among other things). What else is required?”

    How about a reason to believe that what the New Testament said actually occurred? Why should we believe it more than the Greek or Norse legends?

    “You presume that the only place where god can care for them is here on earth.”

    If God does not care for man on earth, there is little reason for man to care in return. Why should a deity indifferent to our suffering on earth suddenly care what happens afterward?

    “God does not need to interfere with the world directly to have an effect on our lives. For example, our lives are as they are today because of the spread of Christianity over the last 2000 years.”

    And where is the proof that this was God’s doing, rather than another example of a man-made craze?

  • Blunt Instrument

    @ Gary (54)

    I’m still no further on than where I began… This ‘atheist’ has grown bored of such fusses.
    This ‘atheist’ thinks the fusses can be quite entertaining, but agrees that they are likely of little utility.

    It’s all just noise that interferes with the signal: Live your life, same as everyone else. Stop being a putz.
    That’s probably the most succinct description of ‘religion’ that I have encountered. Excellent.

    The Universe isn’t going to remember you no matter what you subscribe to.
    The universe will ‘remember’ us; the universe ‘remembers’ everything. But whether the universe ‘cares’ is a separate issue.

  • Blunt Instrument

    @ IA (61)

    And why did you not follow it through to its logical conclusion?
    Because my analogy was specific, not general. Yours is a ‘junior league’ rhetorical trick. Debate the analogy, not what you want the analogy to be.

    How about a reason to believe that what the New Testament said actually occurred?
    Currently, we only have the surviving records of testimony and subsequent behavior of numerous eye witnesses. God apparantly does not believe that your skepticism about it requires further clarification from him.

    If God does not care for man on earth, there is little reason for man to care in return.
    You continue to presume, without justification, that god does not care for man on earth just because god’s demonstrations of ‘caring’ are not consistent with what you want them to be.

    Why should a deity indifferent to our suffering on earth suddenly care what happens afterward?
    Perhaps because afterward is more important. That’s what the new testament teaches.

  • IA

    RE: Blunt Instrument

    “Yours is a ‘junior league’ rhetorical trick. Debate the analogy, not what you want the analogy to be.”

    When an analogy is bad, it deserves it to be taken apart. A child is simply not in the same position as a man before God, because unlike that man, the child will eventually understand the ways of his parents.

    “Currently, we only have the surviving records of testimony and subsequent behavior of numerous eye witnesses. ”

    No. We have a bunch of contradictory texts of doubtful provenance, written many years after the events they claim to have witnessed. Even the issue of the existence of a prophet named Jesus is doubtful.

    “You continue to presume, without justification, that god does not care for man on earth just because god’s demonstrations of ‘caring’ are not consistent with what you want them to be.”

    Any evidence of God caring for man on earth is flimsy and less likely than the idea that life subject to chance and the everyday forces of geology, physics, and biology, none of which show any signs of divine interference. The recent tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia have no more likelihood of being God’s work than 9/11 did. What I want God’s demonstrations of caring to be are justifications backed up the evidence of this world, not an old books of myths written by goat-herders.

    “Perhaps because afterward is more important. That’s what the new testament teaches.”

    The New Testament also teaches that God is not indifferent to our suffering. Given the evidence for his indifference, I ask again why should a deity indifferent to our suffering on earth suddenly care what happens afterward?

  • http://www.vmarko.com vmarko

    @IA (55):

    Me:
    “The problem is just that humans do not live long enough to be able to obtain enough information to understand God’s motivation.”

    IA:
    What on earth makes you so sure that we would do so even if we did live long enough?

    Well, nothing, of coruse. But even if we assume that humans are in principle able to understand God’s perspective (given enough information), our lifespan is just too short to obtain all that information. The opposite assumption (that humans could never understand God’s perspective) can also be true, but reaches the same conclusion — we have no way of understanding why God behaves as he does.

    Me:
    “The fact that we do not understand the ‘big picture,’ doesn’t imply that there isn’t one.”

    IA:
    As if there was any reason to believe in a bigger picture!

    That is the whole point of religion — belief that there is a bigger picture (life after death stuff), despite lack of any evidence whatsoever. Feel free not to believe if you don’t want to, but also let other people believe if they choose to.

    Me:
    “God does not need to interfere with the material world, but only with the social one.”

    IA:
    First Blunt Instrument claims God is not understandable and now you’re telling us what God needs or doesn’t need to do…

    I am not telling you what God needs or doesn’t need. I am just offering a possible explanation for God’s behavior, which many religious people find plausible and satisfactory. If you want to understand why religious people are religious, and what do they actually believe in, then I guess it can be a good idea to understand how those people explain God’s behavior to themselves.

    Me:
    “God intereferes with the world in the realm of how people understand each other, their emotions, their relationships etc.”

    IA:
    Show me any reason to believe this.

    What do you mean by “reason to believe” here? Evidence? If there were evidence, belief would not really be an option, everybody would have to face this evidence. Motivation? The motivation why some people believe this is because this belief makes their lives more soothing, and gives them a sense of purpose in the world. If you don’t feel a need for having a purpose in the world, and if you don’t need any soothing and comforting in the time of pain — or if you have an alternative way of satisfying those needs — feel free not to believe. Everybody can make a choice that fits them best. :-)

    Me:
    “If God were to move tectonic plates or mountains or such, there would be observable proof of his existence. There would be no room for faith — one would be required to accept God’s existence, based on material evidence.”

    IA:
    And is that a bad thing? Free will would still exist, just as we exercise enough free will to defy any other authority figure. And I’m uncomfortable with the idea of God standing by as earthquakes and tsunamis kill thousands of people just because interfering would blow his cover. Such a God would be a neurotic tease.

    Regarding free will, it would be just a mirage, since one would be given an ultimate authority that can answer what is good and what is bad. The point of free will is in the absence of an authoritative answer to the good/evil question — you need to exercise your free will to make your own decision about what is good and what is evil. Religious people just believe that this question has a well-defined answer (that will be revealed to them at the judgement day or such), while atheists believe that the “real” answer doesn’t exist and that concepts of “good” and “evil” are always subject to interpretation. The physical world around us does not have a definition for these concepts, so each person needs to make up their own mind. If God were interfering with the material world, one would in principle be able to “measure” (or otherwise deduce from observations) what is “really” good and what is “really” evil. There would be no choice one could make about the matter. Free will stops there.

    Regarding your uncomfort about God doing nothing to stop a tsunami… As you know, everybody dies, eventually. The mechanism (tsunami, car accident, disease, old age, …) is not actually relevant too much, although you might find some of them more frightening than the others. A plausible explanation again: God is not interested too much in a material body of a human — it will perish anyway in some years. What is much more important for God is the human soul. Btw, the soul is again a psychological/social/emotional construct, having no manifestation in physical world, other than through human behavior.

    So if someone dies a horrible and quick death by a tsunami or dies a painless and slow death of old age some years later, is not so important to God. It is only more or less frightening for humans. It also seems to be a bit less frightening for religious people than atheists, as far as I can see. People who are “strong in faith” do not really care when, where and how their life will end. That is an example of the “soothing comfort” that religion gives to a believer, that I mentioned above.

    Me:
    “That’s why he doesn’t interfere with the material world in an empirically measurable way, but only through our emotional and social life.”

    IA:
    And doesn’t interfering in our emotional and social life influence our moral choices?

    Of course it does, that’s why you see religious and atheist people having all those moral debates about various stuff (abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, accountability for crimes, etc.). What is your point with this question?

    Me:
    “God allows some of his children to die in agony, in order to maintain the possibility for his surviving children to live in freedom.”

    IA:
    Name an example where this happens.

    I am not exactly sure what kind of examples you are asking for, but let me try:

    As for God, one example would be Jesus Christ dying in agony as a form of sacrifice for the remainder of the human race (as far as Christianity is concerned; I am not familiar enough with other religions to name analogous examples).

    As for people, there are numerous examples — people sacrificing their own lives in order to save their loved ones; military leaders sacrificing the lives of some soldiers in order to win a battle against the enemy; even ants and bees display this kind of behavior, sacrificing part of the collective for the benefit of others. Also, governments of the developed countries sacrificing hungry children in Africa in order to maintain the wealth and life standard for the children that live in developed countries. Etc. It happens all the time. :-)

    HTH :-)

  • http://www.vmarko.com vmarko

    @Matt (56):

    Me:
    “Umm, well, I’d say no, one cannot be given that. Except some very very simple axiomatic systems (those that cannot describe natural numbers), no axiomatic system can be known to be self-consistent (due to Goedel’s incompleteness theorem).”

    Matt:
    I know that. The axioms lead to some unprovable-but-true statements, but they don’t lead to contradictions and – importantly in this context – I can in principle understand how to manipulate the relevant symbols and check that other people’s manipulation is consistent.

    Ooops, no, wait, I was talking about the *other* Goedel’s incompleteness theorem — the one that says it is impossible to prove the consistency of an axiomatic system if it is strong enough to describe natural numbers. So you *cannot* know that the axioms do not lead to contradictions. Sorry, I wasn’t precise enough.

    Me:
    “Similarly, if you talk to a believer about his faith, try to understand their own intuitive reasoning about faith.”

    Matt:
    This being what I’m doing. This is why I’m asking the questions. My problem isn’t that I don’t understand the answers, it’s that given even the widest parameters I’ve never been able to get any answers at all. Which bewilders me since the religious seem to think it’s terribly, terribly important that I believe the things they believe. You’d think they’d try harder.

    Maybe you are talking to the wrong people? ;-)

    Also, there is a name for people who want to enforce their religion to others — fundamentalists. Religion (and also atheism) is a matter of personal choice, and everyone should be allowed to make that choice as they see fit. It is very important to make a sharp distinction between religious people and fundamentalists. It is also very important to refrain from judging about religion itself based on the hostile behavior of the fundamentalists (that would be a very blunt error). I find it quite sad when some atheists are reenforcing their atheism just because they live in a hostile fundamentalist environment (this is especially common in the USA, as far as I can hear). Just make sure not to fall into that trap. :-)

    When I figure that someone stops comparing my beliefs to his beliefs, and starts insisting on persuading me to accept his religious point of view, I usually give up discussing. Religion is about choice, not truth.

    HTH :-)

  • collins

    Dr. Carroll and others who actively promote atheism are presumably doing so because of all the harm done in the name of the Abrahamic religions. If the majority of Christians had actually followed what the New Testament says over the past 100 years, there would have been no WW I, no WW II (at least not in Europe) and certainly no Holocaust. So, bringing to mind a debate you can see on the Skeptic mag website held earlier this year, rather than debate the topic “Does Science refute Religion?”, maybe the more important question for atheists to consider is “Does Science refute that humans can truly follow their Religion?”
    If the answer is no (ie, the majority of humans can over time be Christ-like or Buddha-like), then promoting atheism seems like a small, inconsequential academic argument. But if the answer is yes (ie, humans can profess these beliefs but cannot follow them), then the atheists challenge to believers should be “you call yourself Christian?- prove it (faith without works is dead).” It’s not the responsibility of a believer to prove to an atheist that God exists, but to prove that his Religion actually exists by healing/repairing the world.

  • omeoide

    “Once you say that you have faith, and that it comes directly from God, there is no self-correction mechanism. You can justify essentially any belief at all by claiming that God gave it to you directly…”

    This is essentially the classic Great Pumpkin objection that Plantinga himself raised in a paper on his “Reformed epistemology” thirty years ago. It has been both the foundation and the primary weakness of his externalist system from the beginning.

  • Andy Johnson

    Believers don’t get the joke nonbelievers tell them and vice versa. Therefore each tries to explain the joke to the other. We all know how funny jokes are when they need to be explained.

  • http://empiricalmystic.blogspot.kr/ Vijen

    Some of the assumptions which science rests upon are truly fundamental, being about the scientist his- or herself. The kind of hand-waving which this piece resorts to in attempting to privilege methodological naturalism will not suffice to validate them: “If … theories kept making predictions that turned out to be wrong, [or] the universe exhibited a chaotic jumble of non-lawlike behavior, rather than falling into beautiful patterns”. Such unverifiable assumptions include:

    1) The consciousness which I experience is localized.
    2) This consciousness is distinct from and independent of all other conscious entities which may exist.
    3) This consciousness can be considered to operate independently of its content.
    4) This consciousness, as it now manifests, is comprehensively representative of consciousness as it has been experienced by humans.

    It is, moreover, perfectly possible to investigate these subjective issues empirically; a process which is properly termed “meditation”. Each of us sometimes experiences the numinous. Whether systematically, through meditation; experimentally, through psychedelic drug use; or idiosyncratically, through those marvellous moments when we spontaneously find ourselves in harmony with nature. Science is awesome, but it isn’t enough.

    Of course faith is ridiculous, but more importantly it is unhelpful as a means to comprehend reality. It is a potent distraction to those who are not content to go along with the current fad of ignoring one’s own subjective reality in favour of “emergence” or some such piffle. Consciousness simply can’t be reduced into information, it can’t be finessed into non-existence. I AM, and even though my nature is obscure, still nothing is more directly observed than the fact of my own existence.

  • Matt Bright

    @Vijen
    I need make no assumptions at all to do science. The ‘actual’ nature of my consciousness, the consciousness of others or the external world in general, if there is such a thing, is irrelevant. I observe correlations. I make and share models that explain those correlations and we all check that they don’t also predict other correlations that aren’t observed or vice versa. Why does it matter whether the correlations or the people I share them with are ‘real’ in any absolute sense, or even whether I am?

    And, I have, of course, experienced ‘the numinous’ via various routes. The fact that it can be induced chemically is pretty strong evidence that it’s a biological event, entirely describable in terms of the aforementioned correlations. This doesn’t mean it is, of course, but I’m not clear how the existence of transcendent experiences is conclusive proof that science ‘isn’t enough’ (enough for what, btw?).

    As for consciousness itself – either it can be described as part of a model of the observed correlations or it can’t. If it can, then wouldn’t it be interesting to do so? If it can’t then we’ve always got art, which has been generating and sharing intricate and beautiful models of subjective experience since we first started banging drums, telling stories and daubing mammoths on cave walls.

  • http://empiricalmystic.blogspot.kr/ Vijen

    @Matt Bright
    I’m quite sure I made no claims upon “absolute” reality, but are you satisfied with “correlations”? When I assert that science isn’t enough, I do so on my own authority, based upon my own experience.

    I would guess that you have an extensive science-based education, as do I. After at least a decade of hard work you have attained to a sophisticated appreciation of the wonders of external reality. So: when you chat with friends who followed a different path, is it easy and straightforward to share your scientific standpoint with them? Perhaps they accept your authority on evolution, vaccinations, climate change, homeopathy, etc.; but are they really competent to understand your perspective? Isn’t it probable that the next eloquent advocate of pseudoscientific bullshit will change their minds?

    I’ve spent several decades engaged in an empirical enquiry into my own subjectivity. I’m not the first, there is a vast corpus of reported results from such enquiries. But unless you, yourself, invest the effort in meditation, this research will remain inaccessible to you. Any so-called “philosopher” (Dennet? Chalmers? McGinn? Flanagan?) will be able to confuse you.

    I am driven to pursue a scientific understanding of the outer world by the same implacable spirit of curiosity which drives my joyful exploration of the inner world. As you say, artists do indeed have one foot in each world, but scientists can do the same. Stop trying to put a wrapper around consciousness and check it out for yourself, directly.

    Thanks for your intelligent response, by the way, there’s more on my blog (click on my name) if you’re still attending.

  • Matt Bright

    @vijen
    Yes, I am entirely happy with correlations. Some of them are elegant. Beautiful, even. I have no interest in whether they’re ‘true’ in any but the most trivial, everyday sense of ‘consistent with the currently available evidence. Which is lucky, since neither you nor I have a pipeline to the Ding-an-Sich, or even any guarantee that there is such a thing.

    I am, as we all are (or, to be rigorous, appear to be), ‘engaged in an empirical enquiry into my own subjectivity’. Meditation is one form of this, but so, of course, is eating lunch. I have, yes, enjoyed the thinking of Dennett, yes, and Metzinger, and Damasio as considerations of subjectivity. I have also enjoyed the poetry of John Ashbery, the paintings of Mark Rothko, the music of Bach and Stockhausen, the comedy of Stewart Lee, the snooker of Jimmy White,a well-cooked dinner, a stimulating conversation, good sex and numerous other modes of investigating, experiencing and expressing subjectivity

    I’ve even tried to create similar expressions myself – you seem to assume that scientists have difficulty creating art. I would like to disagree and so – in a much more forceful and worthy way, would Miroslav Holub, Primo Levi, Alexander Borodin and, I’m sure, many other.

    In the end, there is no ‘inner world’. There is no ‘outer world’. There is ‘world’ – ‘suddener’, as Louis MacNiece said, ‘than we fancy it…crazier and more of it than we think. Incorrigibly plural.’ The thing to do is stop thinking you’ll get the drop on it, because you won’t – sit still and it goes away, act and you’re too busy to notice it. Fretting about ‘what it really is’ does you no good. I’m very firmly not putting a wrapper around consciousness – but you appear to be trying to.

  • Lonely Flower

    As as Justin Barrett pointed out,” we might be born as believers”,
    “Do children believe because they’re told to by adults? The evidence suggests otherwise”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2008/nov/25/religion-children-god-belief

    But anyway believing that there is God is based also on intuitive thinking .
    I can’t see how the universe, multiverse or whatever would emerge from nothing (literally nothing at all), how can physics explain that, so ignoring that point and accepting the world is against intitution and logic .

    We should take care of details but never forget intuition or the whole picture.

  • Lonely Flower

    The following article discusses also how believing in God is an intuitive thing
    http://www.livescience.com/16151-god-belief-intuition.html

    May be my two comments are out of context of the current article ,but I wanted to point out that believing in God is not an irrational or illogical.

  • melior

    A more honest definition:

    Faith is what you profess to believe out loud in order to be accepted into a club which demands that as the exclusive price of admission.

  • Gary

    @Blunt Instrument (62)

    “That’s probably the most succinct description of ‘religion’ that I have encountered.”

    I was speaking about atheism. Works both ways.

  • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

    Based on Sean’s comparison (“An evidence-based person might reason, “I am becoming skeptical that there exists an all-powerful and all-loving deity, given how much random suffering exists in the world.” But a faith-based person can always think, “I have faith that God exists, so when I see suffering, I need to think of a reason why God would let it happen.””) , I have to wonder how many faith-based people he’s spoken to.

    In many (if not most) cases the faith-based person has found evidence that God exists,. If you don’t believe me, read John Piper’s blog or the writings of any number of conservative representatives of the monotheistic faiths. You won’t get them to concede that they have faith in God’s existence. They only speak of evidence, so it’s impossible for them to see their answers to the Theodicy question as “needing to think of a reason,” because they believe God spoke to them.

    So the track the religious person takes is often the same as the evidence-based person. You couldn’t have convinced the Apostle Paul (to use a classic example) that he didn’t see a vision of Jesus speaking to him. Even if it was an illusion or a seizure or whatever one may choose to chalk it up to, what matters was his certainty. He didn’t see himself as thinking up reasons why suffering happens. I think Paul would have likely said. “I know that there exists an all-powerful and all-loving deity, given how much random suffering exists in the world.”

    So skepticism is not the only approach that insists on evidence-based thinking. Creationists are absolutely convinced that they have persuasive evidence that evolution is false, and they see themselves as people in the process of gathering that evidence. In fact, what I think you’ve shown here is the similarity between atheism and fundamentalism. The faith-based example you give is a better representative of religious moderates and liberals.

  • Sean Samis

    Christian Vagabond is correct about the religious character of atheism. To state positively that there is no god at all is to claim a fact that cannot be justified by evidence or reason. That does not make the claim wrong, just not reasoned.

    Christian Vagabond is wrong in a subtle way about evidence and the question of theodicy. Evidence is not enough for a rational person, the value of evidence is established by reason. “Finding evidence” and embracing it without reflecting on its character is not the act of a reasonable person. Evidence is just some fact, its relationship to belief is established by reason.

    The scientific method does not give value to Authority as evidence, and treats anecdotal evidence with suspicion. Spiritual experiences make an awkward fit with empiricism. If one has had a spiritual experience, empiricism has no power to say the experience must have been in any sense “false”. But the reasonable person still must vet their experiences against the process of reasoning.

    The problem of theodicy however, points to the other consideration: faith is not just belief in the absence of evidence, it is often belief over and against the evidence of reason. There is no way to reasonably justify the claim that God’s power and goodness can, by reason alone, be squared with the pervasive evil of the world. Only someone who has been “favored” like Paul with some direct experience of God can clear that awesome chasm, and then not by reason, but by trust. Perhaps there is a god, and perhaps that god is evil. Spiritual experiences may solve the question of a god’s existence, but as for that god’s goodness, only pure, unreasoned Trust can suffice. This does not make such trust an error, only unreasoned.

    Those who believe but who have not been favored like Paul must choose faith without evidence, and even a Paul must choose trust AGAINST reason. Atheists on the other hand choose disbelief AGAINST evidence; they must assume that all testimony about gods is false even though they cannot prove that assumption.

    For myself, lacking the experience of a Paul, and maintaining my belief in the necessity of reason, all I have is doubts.

  • MKS

    Sean,

    hopefully you can take the opportunity to talk with these people who bring up points that cause personal confusion? :3

    Here’s a short interview with Alvin…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7377jU2a8Y&NR=1&feature=endscreen

  • Sean Samis

    MKS, thanks, but talking to these folks is just another source of confusion; they don’t all agree even among themselves as to what their experiences mean. The most probable takeaway from their confusion would be to say that they are deluded. If believers all agreed, that would be evidence of their correctness; their disagreements weigh against them. It may be that at least some are correct, but I can’t tell if that is so much less can I tell which ones are correct.

  • MKS

    Ooops, my post was meant for Sean Carroll, but good onya Sean Samis for riffing on your Code of Conduct :3

  • Sean Samis

    Obviously I composed this before seeing MKS’s clarification above. So I’m gonna post it anyway; the video is worth a response.

    MKS, I watched the Plantinga video, I think it supports my conclusion. To put it into his words, we have no warrant to believe in God unless God actually exists, nor any warrant to believe there is no god unless no god exists. In my words: since we don’t know whether any god exists, we have no warrant to believe either way, so we are not justified in taking a position on this question.

    Care needs be taken: Plantinga uses “irrational” for a specific meaning different from that I do. Plantinga takes “irrational” to indicate a defect of mental process/equipment. I take “irrational” to mean “not in accord with proper reasoning”.

    The bottom line is that I do not have warrant to believe in God, nor to believe there is no god, so I can take no position. Plantinga (and others) allow for some kind of fundamental, axiomatic knowledge of God, but I have no such thing; so I am left where I reported earlier: doubting all propositions about God or gods; and unaware of any rational evidence (warrant?) of any gods’ existence.

    MKS, thanks, but talking to these folks is just another source of confusion; they don’t all agree even among themselves as to what their experiences mean. The most probable takeaway from their confusion would be to say that they are deluded. If believers all agreed, that would be evidence of their correctness; their disagreements weigh against them. It may be that at least some are correct, but I can’t tell if that is so much less can I tell which ones are correct.

  • CJB

    Regarding “… quicksand” I will keep this short and sweet. I am a former atheist and a current man of science. I think you are missing a basic concept of belief (as I once did). First, faith is absolutely given by God. It is not a result of logic. If your ever interested, let me know and I’ll tell you my story of epiphany. Second a logical fact base test of the validity God is by its very nature inconsitant with faith. If one could prove God’s existance (or disprove it) faith would not be needed. In fact, atheism is as much a faith based religion as christianity or islam. There is no way to prove logically that God does not exist yet atheists (remember I was one for 30 years) appear to firmly grasp that belief system. An atheist’s god is reason, individual will and intellect

    Lastly and most importantly is the misconception regarding a person’s use of faith. A person of faith willhave noneed nor desire to try to objectively decide between God or no God. If blessed with faith of devine organ, there is certainty. The idea of making a mistake when multiplying two numbers is a bad analogy. Instead, with faith the certainty in His preence is akin to counting to zero. God is a certainty for a person of faith, as certain as I am that I did not make a mistake counting to zero. At least for me, I really does not care whether I can prove the truth of my belief to another. I know it’s truth for me. All that matters is strengthening my relationship with God. That same faith also keeps me from judging you for your belief. A faithful person knows that God is working in the lives of even those that most loudly disown Him.

    God is not about proof. It is about opening your heart and letting love and compassion happen. If you do that, there will be no question in your heart what is Truth.

  • MKS

    One of my favourite models right now: science is a way of knowing where we uncover/discover facts. Art is another way of knowing where we create meaning. Religion is an art.

    Confusion happens when the two are mixed; thus we get people trying to prove Genesis or that G_d doesn’t exist…I think the ‘truth’ is much richer and more fun :3

    and we know what happens when people have an impacted sense of humour–they invade Iraq or fly planes into buildings :3

  • Sean Samis

    CJB, you wrote that “atheism is as much a faith based religion as christianity or islam.” I agree, assuming that by atheism you refer to the belief that there is no god, and not merely the failure to believe in some god.

    You also wrote that “…faith is absolutely given by God. It is not a result of logic.” If true, then those who have no faith (or no longer do, such as I) cannot gain faith by any means except waiting for God to give it. This also means that if God condemns the faithless to punishment for their lack of faith, then he is punishing them for his decision not to give them faith.

    But you also wrote that “It is about opening your heart and letting love and compassion happen. If you do that, there will be no question in your heart what is Truth.” You may believe that God is constantly trying to plant faith in everyone, but I know that is not true. My story is almost the opposite of yours: I am a person of faith whose faith died. This did not happen without a struggle, and I can say that if there is a god, that god took my faith from me. I am not an atheist, but I do doubt the existence of any god. About gods I have only doubts and questions.

    I can tell you that I miss having faith, but sincerely I don’t have any now. So I know that God (if any god exists) does not “give faith” to everyone. That means that not only are logical arguments pointless, so is evangelism. If God does not give faith to someone, then all the evangelism in the world will not give faith. And if God does give faith, evangelism is not necessary. If you have no faith, there’s nothing for it but to wait and see.

    If God does give or at least offer faith to everyone, how does one recognize that they have received such an offer? Telling them to “open their hearts” and just let it happen is not meaningful; some report doing so and finding only nihilism or other dark emptiness. If logic and reasoning cannot help, then we are left with waiting, as before.

    You can, of course, reject my testimony as erroneous, but you base your comments on your personal experiences, which anyone could reject as erroneous too. Our conflicting experiences give third persons nothing to go on but logic and reason, or to just wait and see.

  • MKS

    Sean Samis,

    “…thanks, but talking to these folks is just another source of confusion…”

    You read like you have a good head on your shoulders :3

    I like going to different places of worship and experiencing (I’ve even had a historically-secretive scientologist be open aboot her beliefs); I’ve noticed that even within the same congregation people are going to have different ideas on just what their beliefs are

    I even am aware at how I categorize people as ‘believer’ and not, in which I am always involved

    I’m even married to an episcopalean :3 and the United Church of Canada has an atheist minister :3

    I’m glad not everyone shares the same sense of humour or worldview; that would be quite boring :3

  • Sean Samis

    CJB, please let me clarify something. When you wrote that faith is about “opening your heart and letting love and compassion happen” and that “there will be no question in your heart what is Truth” you are–intentionally or not–describing an infallible process. For those of us without faith, when we look at the many faiths within the world we see that the “faithful” have found wildly different and conflicting “truths”. Clearly this “opening your heart” process is just not reliable. Much less is it infallible.

    You can and might say that there is no infallibility, that many persons are wrong about the “truth” they think they know. From us non-believers you will get no objection to that point. If that is true, then something needs to fill the role of reason and/or logic; something that helps sort the true from the mistaken. Any “person of faith” needs to “objectively decide” whether the “truth” they sense is real or false. But if (as you wrote) faith is wholly outside logic, then there is nothing to fill that gap, and all faith is far from certain.

    Perhaps for those “blessed with faith of divine origin, there is certainty”, but either all gods are insane or not all faith is of divine origin. Either way, certainty is lost. Some faith certainly could be of divine origin, but who can tell? Absent the application of reason, we can never be certain that any of it is divine. Probably a lot of faith is mere projection of human desire. A conscientious person of faith must beware of that risk. But without any means to work through this danger, they cannot be certain of the truth of their faith. This does not mean they must give up their beliefs; it does mean that they cannot honestly claim certainty.

  • BradC

    Great article, I wanted to expand on one of your points:

    “So you are faced with (at least) two alternative ideas: first, that God exists and really does love you and has put that belief into your mind via the road of faith, and second, that God doesn’t exist and that you have just made a mistake.”

    There is, as you mention, a range of alternatives between those two extremes, including:

    * God exists and divinely imparts knowledge, including that specific belief
    * God exists and divinely imparts knowledge, but he didn’t impart that SPECIFIC belief
    * God exists but doesn’t divinely impart knowledge that way
    * God exists but is substantially different than you believe Him to be
    * God exists but doesn’t interact with the world in any meaningful way
    * God doesn’t exist

    Plantinga doesn’t even provide a way to distinguish between the FIRST TWO of these, let alone all the rest. So even if you believed everything he said about divinely imparted knowledge through faith, you’d still have no basis to decide on WHICH knowledge you believed was divinely given (unless everyone had the same faith-imparted knowledge, which is obviously not the case).

  • Sean Samis

    BradC;

    Well put.

  • Blathering Blathiscope

    Blunt Instrument can’t have it both ways. You can’t bring up the testaments and suggest that God doesn’t interfere.

    According to the testaments he banished man from Edan. He caused a flood. He spoke to numerous people. He burned a bush. I could go on and on, and this doesn’t even include the things Jesus did, who, according to some cults/sects, is God.

    So don’t suggest that God doesn’t interfere when the Bible suggests the opposite.
    And so many Christian sects suggest that God is a loving God. God talks to us and listens to us.

    You can’t have it both ways. He makes floods killing almost everyone, but he can’t interfere to save babies dying in agony? This is what the blog post was about. Faith doesn’t even require self consistency. It’s all just self delusion. You ignore huge basic faults in your reasoning.

  • Joebevo

    You say “Any time we have beliefs of any sort, we need to admit the possibility that they are incorrect.”

    I don’t understand your point of view. Where does this “need” come from? It certainly isn’t an innate drive. In fact, if anything our need to have faith is a more basic drive. This skepticism of yours is a very modern, American (or Western) tendency compared to our “faith” faculties. And I would suggest that you’re going against your inner nature in taking on a skeptical outlook. It may work well in the lab, and in intellectual discourse, but that’s about all it’s good for. Faith can get you much further than that. It can help you live, not merely argue. Once you become a believer, you’ll see skepticism for what it is: as a kind of stunted way of seeing the world.

    To put it another way, have you ever considered the need to be skeptical of your skepticism? We all need to believe in something. You seem to believe in a progressive unfolding of knowledge through skeptical enquiry. Perhaps God doesn’t work that way. If He did, He’d be a theory or an equation. But in the Christian conception of God, He’s a person.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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