Saturday, April 11, 2009

Undemonstrable Faith

Recent discussions between members of the studio audience brought forth this comment:

ENEASZ: I'm going to come out and say flatly that you are wrong. If you wish to base any moral judgement on christianity it is your duty to first demonstrate that your holy book is, in fact, supported by evidence. I've never seen anyone do so successfully, and people (many of them great people) have been trying for about 2000 years.

TOM GILSON: I could say the same about secularism/naturalism/atheism; not that you have a "holy book," but that you cannot show that your basic assumptions rise above the level of an undemonstrable faith.

What I am interested in . . . and people can classify this as they wish . . . is whether a proposition fits into a system that is capable of predicting the future.

Here is one of my favorites:

2002 NT7, a two-kilometre-wide (1.4 miles) chunk of rock, was discovered on 9 July. Initial estimates of its orbit suggested there was a small chance of it colliding with our planet in 17 years' time. However, the latest observations accumulated over the last few days have confirmed the asteroid will fly harmlessly by.

(See: BBC Asteroid to miss - this time around)

Another favorite example was Hurricane Wilma. For days, Wilma moved slowly northwest. Yet, scientists were warning people in the state of Florda to prepare for Wilma. And, as predicted, suddenly, Wilma took a sharp-angle right turn, and tore headed straight for Florida.

It has to do with tsunami warning systems, engineering buildings to withstand earthquakes, predicting the consequences of having certain chemicals in the environment, predicting the consequences of having more and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, determining ways to test for diseases long before the person shows any symptoms and in time for treatment to be effective, the effective treatments that become avaialble, ways to grow more food to feed more people.

It is easy to assert that, your basic assumptions rise above the level of an undemonstrable faith.

However, somebody predicted the course of hurricane Wilma in time to save lives. And they did not do it by reading the entrails of chickens or praying for divine guidance. No holy book contains an account of the paths of all future hurricanes (or asteroid impacts - in sufficient detail to actually be useful).

Whatever system they used to do those things, that's the system that I am going for.

If their system is no better than faith, then why is it that they were able to accurately predict the course of Hurricane Wilma in time to save lives? Lucky guess?

Or maybe they are on to something. Maybe they have actually figured out a way of doing a better and better job over time of accurately predicting the future?

These are not just rare phenomenon. Every day, millions of people hear news that the evidence their doctor has collected predicts a particular course of events with respect to a patient's health - and predicts the consequences of various treatments. Those predictions are getting better and better over time. As such, lives are saved, health is restored, the blind have been given sight and the lame given the ability to walk.

These are demonstrable facts.

This blog is about human well-being. It is about avoiding future harms and harvesting future benefits. Towards that end, I am interested in the claims of those who have a demonstrable ability to predict the future - to tell me where hurricanes will go, the threat of asteroid impacts, the effects of CO2 in the atmosphere, that will provide food for the hungry and treat (or prevent) disease.

The list of propositions that could be true but that have no impact on our ability to predict the future is infinitely long. Because they have no impact on our ability to predict the future, we have no reason to choose which to believe and which to reject. However, because they have no impact on our ability to predict the future they just do not matter.

I may not be able to prove that any of them are false. But I can certainly prove that I have no good reason to care one way or the other.

22 comments:

Baconsbud said...

I wonder why christians feel they don't have to provide evidence for their views, when they are based on the bible. Not all christians are like this but seems a good number are.
I have to agree with you about how science is used every day to save lives. There was a tornado came though a part of this state a few days back and how many lives were saved because of the warning about it? Yes 3 lives were lost but without the forewarning how many might it have been?

Tom Gilson said...

How's this for prediction: Theism predicted centuries ago that the kinds of predictions that science makes would be possible. Alfred North Whitehead, Robert Oppenheimer, Rodney Stark, Stanley Jaki, and many others have pointed out that (1) science (as opposed to mere technology) developed only in the context of Christian Europe and nowhere else, and (2) there are theoretical reasons why this was the case.

Other worldviews, religious and non-religious viewed the world as chaotic, or as not of interest for study, or as cyclical so that there was no conception of such a thing as progress. Christian theism, on the other hand, sees the world as the product of a rational God who expresses himself through creation; thus creation is worthy of study and is rationally knowable by creatures made in his image.

Thus, though there is obviously every reason to credit science for making the kind of predictions you have enumerated here, behind science theism should be credited for its ├╝ber-prediction that stands at the basis of all scientific inquiry.

Further, theism is fully compatible with science as you have described it here. Only when science claims to have a full understanding of reality, and that said reality is comprised only of matter and energy and their interactions by law and chance, does science become contradictory to theism. Not coincidentally, that is also the point where science ceases to be science and becomes metaphysical speculation.

Belief in God does not yield the kind of specific, measurable predictions that science does, but to expect it to do so is to make a serious category error. God is a person, he has not subjected himself to any of Newton's or Heisenberg's laws, and he can do what he wills, as long as it is consistent with his character. The science of psychology is not a "hard science" just because persons are not characterized by the same predictability as sodium ions or asteroids. God is a person, and to expect him to be as predictable as a material object is, as I said, quite a category error.

If you want all knowledge to be as precisely measurable as physics and chemistry, then I pity your significant other for the way you must treat him/her.

Therefore our knowledge of God is based primarily in his self-revelation through Scripture and especially the person (there's that word again) of Jesus Christ, who displayed God's power and his character in action.

"But I can certainly prove that I have no good reason to care one way or the other."

No, you can't. You would have to produce a definite proof that there is no God, no afterlife, no eternal consequences for the way you live your life. If you cannot prove these things, then you cannot prove you have no good reason to care.

Baconsbud:

"I have to agree with you about how science is used every day to save lives. There was a tornado came though a part of this state a few days back and how many lives were saved because of the warning about it? Yes 3 lives were lost but without the forewarning how many might it have been?"

Do you have any idea how many untold thousands of lives have been saved by the loving action of Christians who have cared? My daughter is just coming home today from a hurricane relief trip to Texas--she and many others from our church's youth group went there to help during their spring break. This of course was not a life saving trip, but a recovery operation, but it illustrates the same motivation.

I just came home a couple hours ago from visiting a friend recovering from a heart attack. The hospital he's at is called "Mary Immaculate"--it's a Catholic hospital. My sister had a serious head injury two years ago and was airlifted to "St. Mary's Hospital"--also Catholic. Almost every American city has a Presbyteran, Methodist, Catholic, etc. hospital in it. This is the heart of Christianity at work. Medicine in the Third World was for many decades almost exclusively a Christian initiative. Interestingly, though adherents of other worldviews have picked up on the value of medicine, it was Christians who led in caring for people other than themselves. There are exceptions now: Doctors Without Borders (formed in 1971), for example. But the Christians were centuries ahead of them.

Science is not the only life-saver there is, and without heart behind it, it could as easily be a pure killer as a life-saver. The historical reality is that to a huge extent that heart has been motivated by love for Jesus Christ.

Matt S said...

"How's this for prediction: Theism predicted centuries ago that the kinds of predictions that science makes would be possible. Alfred North Whitehead, Robert Oppenheimer, Rodney Stark, Stanley Jaki, and many others have pointed out that (1) science (as opposed to mere technology) developed only in the context of Christian Europe and nowhere else, and (2) there are theoretical reasons why this was the case."

And Jared Diamond showed why the european societies prospered and took the world by storm over any other civilization. But also, the Chinese did quite a bit of technology (which I understand is somewhat intertwined with science)/

Baconsbud said...

Do you have any idea how many untold thousands of lives have been saved by the loving action of Christians who have cared?

What does this have to do with predictive abilities? If I remember correctly it wasn't just christians that were going to the aid of those in disasters. I find it odd that you have to jump on the actions after a disaster not before to try and prove a point.

How's this for prediction: Theism predicted centuries ago that the kinds of predictions that science makes would be possible.

Who did these predictions? Yes I know science was set up by the church but it didn't work for them as they had hoped. It was first started as a means to prove god existed but it didn't have the results they wanted. There were many finds that were hidden by the church when they didn't prove god was true. I will find the links necessary if you need to have them.
What are the theoretical reasons?

When has anyone that is in the many fields of science ever claimed to know the full truth? Most say this is the truth as we know it. While christians tend to say they know the full truth. I think you assume people feel about science as you do about religion. I figure there are some like that but most of the peoples blogs and comments I read don't feel science provides 100% knowledge.
There is another blog which posted a question I think you should try to answer for them. I am sorry if this is against the rules. http://unreasonablefaith.com/2009/04/11/who-is-this-god-person-anyway/
I would like to see what your view is there.

Piero said...

Tom Gilson, do you have any good arguments for your statement that science developed in Europe because it was Christian? Claiming that "Christian theism... sees the world as the product of a rational God who expresses himself through creation; thus creation is worthy of study and is rationally knowable by creatures made in his image" is merely a rationalist revision of Christianity that may be popular today, but was not so popular for the better part of the last two millennia.

"Do you have any idea how many untold thousands of lives have been saved by the loving action of Christians who have cared?"
Do you know how many lives could be saved if the Pope would stop blathering about condoms? Do you know how many lives would be saved if Christians would start a worldwide campaign to provide a tsunami early warning system to areas at risk? Do you know how many lives would be saved if Christians would stop their anti-abortion campaigns? If every Christian in the world donated 1 dollar to stem-cell research, the amount of lives saved would dwarf any of the accomplishments you seem so proud of. In fact, I suspect you and the rest of your fellow Christians relish the thought of people suffering, because it affords the opportunity to show how righteous and concerned you are.

Piero said...

Oops, sorry, Alonzo. I meant to congratulate you on your latest post, but I got carried away answering Tom Gilson's post.

Tom Gilson said...

Piero,

"Do you have any good arguments for your statement that science developed in Europe because it was Christian? Claiming that "Christian theism... sees the world as the product of a rational God who expresses himself through creation; thus creation is worthy of study and is rationally knowable by creatures made in his image" is merely a rationalist revision of Christianity that may be popular today, but was not so popular for the better part of the last two millennia."

The arguments are in three categories:

1. Christianity by its theological nature is a religion that values the pursuit of knowledge (including knowledge of creation), views creation as being intrinsically rational and therefore knowable on its own terms, and views history as moving in a direction of increasing knowledge rather than cyclically. This is fairly unique among pre-scientific worldviews in the world.

2. Empirically, science as we know it, the pursuit of understanding nature (as distinguished from technology), developed only in Christian Europe.

3. The contrary belief, that Christianity has engaged in an historic war against science, is simply not true. It was (as documented in the link) a 19th-century invention by atheists with an agenda.

This is an outline only of the argument, of course. To do the whole thing justice, I suggest you read from the sources I quoted earlier. Obviously this runs seriously counter to atheists' common beliefs, and a fully presentation of the argument would run to several chapters. The authors I have referred to have already written it better than I could. But at least you have an idea of the direction the argument goes.

Baconsbud said...

Ton I agree with you that science and religion haven't always been in conflict. When science as we know it began it was controlled by the church. When the church lost control was when the conflict started. If I remember correctly Bacon had a good bit of scientific knowledge that wasn't release until many years after his death because it didn't help the church prove god was the truth. The conflict isn't coming from science near as much as it is coming from religion.

Geoffrey Cloud said...

Tom Gilson:

"1. Christianity by its theological nature is a religion that values the pursuit of knowledge (including knowledge of creation), views creation as being intrinsically rational and therefore knowable on its own terms, and views history as moving in a direction of increasing knowledge rather than cyclically. This is fairly unique among pre-scientific worldviews in the world."

This is absurd. The very reason, according to the Bible, that mankind suffers today, is because Eve partook of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. God condemned the acquisition of knowledge in the same way that Zeus condemned Prometheus's theft of fire (technology). In both cases, the dominant religion, as is made clear in their religious texts, prefers humanity as ignorant house pets rather than thinking individuals.

Augustine in the fourth century AD (and later, Aquinas, and most recently Pope Ratzi himself) noted that rational thought indicated that Mosaic law was wrong. But because it was the law of God, given directly to Moses, it was immune from criticism. Simply put, only Jesus of Nazareth could redefine Mosaic law, because only Jesus had the authority to do so.

This thinking is in line with God's dictum in Genesis against the acquisition of knowledge. Christianity holds that only those who are gifted with divine authority can subject God's law to Occam's razor. If the fundamentals of law and belief cannot be challenged by any human being with evidence, your religion cannot be said to be pro-science, Newton's personal belief in God notwithstanding.

Christian pursuit of knowledge only covers knowledge insofar as it can be reconciled to official Church doctrine. Furthermore, it was most certainly not unique in the pre-scientific world. The many Islamic universities, the libraries at Alexandria, the Classical philosophers, Mayan astronomers, and Polynesian explorers quite clearly demonstrate that all (or nearly all) pre-scientific cultures supported science within the limited scope of their beliefs.

Jayman said...

Geoffrey Cloud:

This is absurd. The very reason, according to the Bible, that mankind suffers today, is because Eve partook of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.It was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9), not the tree of just any kind of knowledge. It was sin that caused the fall and not the acquisition of knowledge in and of itself. The knowledge of good and evil is actually a positive trait to have (e.g., 1 Kings 3:9).

God condemned the acquisition of knowledge in the same way that Zeus condemned Prometheus's theft of fire (technology). In both cases, the dominant religion, as is made clear in their religious texts, prefers humanity as ignorant house pets rather than thinking individuals.No, God condemned disobedience (Genesis 3:11). There are entire books in Jewish and Christian literature about wisdom and knowledge, such as the book of Proverbs: "Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid" (12:1); "The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly" (15:14); "The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out" (18:15); and "A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength" (24:5). Christians are to always "be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15). And whereas Prometheus was tortured, God provided the now ashamed Adam and Eve with clothing (Genesis 3:21).

If the fundamentals of law and belief cannot be challenged by any human being with evidence, your religion cannot be said to be pro-science, Newton's personal belief in God notwithstanding.Christian responses to challenges to Christianity are nearly as old as the religion itself. For example, Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165) wrote a number of books dealing with both Jewish and Greek objections to Christianity. These discussions were not off limits merely because Christian beliefs were challenged.

Christian pursuit of knowledge only covers knowledge insofar as it can be reconciled to official Church doctrine.The Christian believes all true knowledge can be reconciled with true doctrine, which means the pursuit of knowledge cannot be confined by doctrine. There is nothing stopping one from changing denominations or even religions.

Eneasz said...

The Christian believes all true knowledge can be reconciled with true doctrineI'm curious about this point. When knowledge contradicts doctrine, how does one determine which is "true" and which needs to change? From a christian point-of-view, I mean.

Geoffrey Cloud said...

Jayman,

One of the major reasons we support the cultivation of knowledge is because it enables a person to make informed choices, i.e. to choose the "right" action, or (as Alonzo might put it) to have the "right" desires--the desires that people generally have reason to promote.

In order to accomplish this, people must generally have a love of "good" and an aversion to "evil." This debate, then, is about the acquisition of knowledge of good and evil, not the knowledge of bread and toast.

Genesis clearly indicates that God only supports knowledge insofar as it is within the scope of obedience. God allows Adam and Eve to observe all the animals and plants, and to taste all the fruit except the fruit which would give them the knowledge of good and evil.

Jewish and Christian literature is filled with verses giving praise to those who seek knowledge, only if the knowledge falls within the scope of what "God wants us to know."

In 1 Peter 3:15, for example, the speaker does not encourage us to seek knowledge in order to determine right and wrong, only to defend his (the church's) definition of what is right and wrong. Similarly, in Kings 3:9, the speaker does not ask God for permission to seek answers for his questions of good and evil (that would be off-limits.) He is asking God to give him the answers. (Pre-Biblical authors almost always used the term 'understanding' to mean 'hearing')

And whereas Prometheus was tortured, God provided the now ashamed Adam and Eve with clothing (Genesis 3:21).The Christian believes all true knowledge can be reconciled with true doctrine, which means the pursuit of knowledge cannot be confined by doctrine.God expelled them from Paradise and forced them to earn food from sweat and labor. He forced them to get sick and suffer and die, merely because they sought knowledge when he told them not to.

Again, I did not say that the Christian doctrine opposes knowledge per se--it is all for knowledge, as long as that knowledge fits within their pre-defined scope. It is perfectly acceptable for Martyr to write books defending Christianity. What is not acceptable is the pursuit of knowledge that demonstrates the doctrine to be false. One is not allowed to challenge doctrine, even if the doctrine is not true, unless (as in the case of Jesus) one has the divine "right" to do so.

This is where Christianity's inherent opposition to knowledge becomes apparent. Even if the church teaches something that is manifestly false (e.g, evolution), church doctrine is still immune from criticism. Even further, the person with knowledge is not allowed to apostatize, because to do so condemns him/her to hell.

Jayman said...

Eneasz:

I'm curious about this point. When knowledge contradicts doctrine, how does one determine which is "true" and which needs to change? From a christian point-of-view, I mean.I don't think there's an exclusively Christian answer to your question. If I relialize that I hold belief A and that it contradicts belief B I would do something like the following:

1) Re-examine the evidence for both beliefs to see if I am mistaken.

2) See if the beliefs are really contradictory or only appear so on first glance.

3) If I determine the beliefs are truly contradictory I would reject or modify the belief that has less evidence in its favor.

I imagine you would do something similar. Of course there is the possibility this process would lead me to change my doctrine or even my religion.

Jayman said...

Geoffrey Cloud, Christianity is not opposed to trying to answer questions. In other words, there is not a question that you cannot try to answer. An answer to a question might place you outside of Christianity but this is true of any group defined by the beliefs it holds. For example, both a Christian and an atheist could ask whether God exists. Depending on the answer each gives, they may or may not remain a Christian or atheist.

Doctrine is not immune to criticism, it's just that not everyone is convinced by the criticism. We could take an entirely non-religious topic and opinion could be divided on it too. This division is not necessarily because one side is immune to criticism or ignorant, it may be because the two sides disagree over the facts of the matter.

Eneasz said...

I would reject or modify the belief that has less evidence in its favor.Ah, fair enough. To follow-up: how do you determine what evidence is valid? I think you'd agree with me that the "evidence" of alien abductions is sadly insubstantial.

Geoffrey Cloud said...

Jayman,

I agree that doctrine is not immune from criticism. That is why I criticize it.

While I think that, like many theologists, you are obviously a very intelligent person, it still seems apparent to me that your definition of Christianity is somewhat idiosyncratic when compared with traditional Christian ideology.

I still hold that the story of Genesis illustrates (and the work of major Christian philosophers corroborates) that "God's law", just on virtue of being God's law, is not to be touched by human criticism, even if it is manifestly false. It is quite different from disagreeing on matters of secular policy, because Christian thought generally holds that one cannot challenge "God's word," unless one has been specially granted the divine right to do so.

Jayman said...

Eneasz, my brief answer is that a piece of evidence is valid if it will lead to the conclusion you are trying to make. But in real life a piece of evidence can rarely be considered absolute proof for a conclusion. Instead we deal with probabilities. I believe Bayes theorem represents what I am getting at (but I might be rusty on that).

Geoffrey Cloud, I'm not sure what you have in mind when you mention "traditional Christian ideology". I can merely say that there have been many intra-Jewish and intra-Christian debates over doctrine throughout history and into the present (I mention both religions because they both view Genesis as scripture). You mentioned evolution earlier. You can find a wide range of Jewish and Christian opinions on the matter because Jews and Christians will criticize doctrine. And it is not solely people from sect A criticizing the doctrine of sect B. People examine and critique their own beliefs too. Christians generally don't try to show the Bible to be false because, well, they believe the Bible to be true. If a Christian were to come to believe that the Bible was false I'm quite sure he would challenge it. You will have no problem finding websites written by former Christians criticizing the Bible

Emu Sam said...

. . . my brief answer is that a piece of evidence is valid if it will lead to the conclusion you are trying to make. So if I want to conclude that a plant is safe to eat, and I have two pieces of evidence, the valid evidence is the one pointing to the plant being safe to eat? What if one piece of evidence is a book written by someone who had never seen anyone eat it but thought it looked a bit like a banana, and the other is my daughter throwing it up all over the floor?

Jayman said...

Emu Sam, I worded that poorly. I meant that if you are trying to argue for some conclusion that the evidence you use must point to that conclusion. Using your example, I would say observing people's reaction to eating the plant would be a valid piece of evidence in determining whether it is safe to eat the plant. On the other hand, observing the position of the stars would not be a valid piece of evidence in determining whether it is safe to eat the plant. Hopefully that's somewhat clearer.

Eneasz said...

I meant that if you are trying to argue for some conclusion that the evidence you use must point to that conclusion.

That's not really what I meant when I asked the question. I meant to ask how do you tell if the evidence you are using is solid, dependable, truthfull, etc... or if it's weak, questionable, false, etc.

I find that the inability of most people to differentiate between valid and invalid evidence is the greatest enabler of false beliefs. It's why testimonials are STILL used to sell products, to great effect, even though they are worthless.

Thus the question.

Jayman said...

Eneasz, the amount of trust you place in a piece of evidence is related to the past success of evidence of the same kind. For example, if a crime is committed we take the word of an eyewitness over the word of someone who heard about the crime second-hand because past experience has shown that eyewitness testimony is more reliable than second-hand testimony (all other things being equal).

Dale said...

Tom Gilson said: "God is a person, and to expect him to be as predictable as a material object is, as I said, quite a category error."

The claim is not that god's psychology -- or mood swings, or future statements, or exertions of will -- ought to be predictable if he exists. This would be absurd.

The claim is that if god exists as a physical entity (whether person or other) we should be able to make valid, testable inferences about his qualities. Namely, we should be able to look at him, smell him, hear his voice, stroke his mighty beard, conduct tests upon his remains, whatever. This is the crazy, far-out, pedantic standard that we atheists apply to proving the existence of other persons when the subject comes up. Why should god be different?

If he does not exist in any observable form -- if there is no strong, non-subjective body of evidence that we can point to that establishes that he exists -- then I see no reason to trouble ourselves with him (her? it? them?). We might as well bow and scrape toward the next god described in the next holy book we pick up at random -- or, for that matter, The Cosmic Spirit, or Julius Caesar, or elves, or the Loch Ness monster, or Prospero from Shakespeare's The Tempest.The point: the claim "X exists" gives rise to testable inferences. If it does not give rise to them, then we suspend judgment pending better evidence and/or the development of better experiments, and move on. At most we treat any such claim as highly tentative, and scale the ambition of our downstream conclusions accordingly.

To treat the claim "god exists" differently is mere special pleading.