Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Evidence, Belief and Will

[This post originally ran back in December of 2006. I've made several changes from the original due to typos and accuracy.]

I had the chance to catch up on John Farrell's blog yesterday, and from there came across an interesting post by Ed of Dispatches From The Culture Wars which dealt with whether a theist could be a positive influence on science:
I reject the notion that belief in God, in and of itself, takes anything away from science education. Ken Miller is a theistic evolutionist. His scientific work is impeccable, as are his efforts in science education. Can Moran point to anything at all in Miller's scientific work that is "sloppy"? I doubt it. Can he point to anything at all in his work on science education, the multiple textbooks that he has authored on evolutionary biology, that is affected in any way whatsoever by his Christian faith? Again, I doubt it.

So what he's really arguing here is that despite Miller's successful work in the laboratory explaining molecular evolution and his astonishingly tireless work on behalf of sound science education all over the country, the mere fact that he believes in God somehow undermines the principles of science. Further, that I should be ashamed for not declaring Miller my enemy as he has. And if your bullshit detector isn't in overdrive right now, it must be broken.

All of this just reinforces my suspicions that we simply are not on the same team and are not working the same goal. My goal is to protect science education. Moran's goal is to protect his atheism against any and all religious impulse, even if held by people who are excellent scientists and defenders of science education. And as his team pursues their goal they seek nothing less than a purge of the most valuable members of my team as we work to achieve ours.

This in and of itself is an important point to be made, but the comments quickly veered off in the more basic direction of an argument of whether religious belief is so irrational that all other views held by a believer were thus suspect. From one commenter:
The belief in a god doesn't necessarily mean that one can't do good science, but it does make all that person's ideas less credible. To believe in something for which not only is there no evidence (like leprechauns and gods) but for which every attempt to find evidence has turned up nothing is to raise doubts about how rational one can be about anything.
Now, anyone how reads much stuff written by skeptics will already be tired of this line of thinking, but this particular statement struck me as so bald in its assumptions that it's actually useful in unpacking some of what's going on in the materialist vs. religious debate.

One basic assumption that those on the "religion is totally irrational" side make is that there is no other form of evidence than physical evidence and that there is no other form of inquiry than scientific inquiry. Thus, when one commenter said it was not irrational to accept the existence of non-physical reality, one of the materialist partisans snapped back, "non-physical reality, is that where all the married bachelors live?"

What this person is clearly doing is unconsciously making an assumption about what 'reality' consists of. Many things that we think of as very real in our human experience do not exist in a pure physical form. Some of these are mathematical concepts. For instance, there is no such thing in physical reality as a perfect circle. Does this mean that circles do not exist? We can define a circle mathematically, but all of the circular things that we in fact find in the world are (however minutely) imperfectly circular.

Another set of non physical things which we often believe that we experience (though perhaps imperfectly) consists of qualities such as "goodness", "justice", "love", etc. We experience things that seem to contain these qualities to a greater or lesser degree, but we cannot actually find physical evidence of the qualities themselves. In a given circumstance, a husband giving his wife a dozen roses might be evidence of love. In another circumstance, he might do it so that she won't suspect that he's sleeping with his secretary. Even assuming an infinitely wide frame of reference such that all external circumstances (such as the secretary) were known, no degree of strictly physical evidence can prove the existence of the non-physical quality: love. One could, of course, dispense with the idea of love entirely, and insist that it is simply biologically advantageous in the long term for each mate to believe that the other one has "love" for the other since this creates greater family stability and thus more successful rearing of offspring. This explanation can be seen as responsible for all our experiences of "love" but it is not necessarily satisfying from a human point of view.

This brings us to the other thing that I think often goes un-acknowledged in these kind of conversations: In any given situation, there is often more than one conclusion which explains all of one's experiences with logical consistency, and at such a point, one must make a decision what to believe. This decision is not merely arbitrary. Usually you will make it because you are convinced by one of the experiences or observations which make up the "evidence" that you are weighing.

In a classic example, it is logically consistent with one's observations of the world to conclude either that there is an outside world populated by other thinking, acting entities or to conclude that one's entire experience of the world is the result of a demented imagination, and there is in fact one reality but one's self. Both explain all of one's experiences and are logically consistent. However, since solipsism if profoundly un-useful, few people choose to believe it.

Similarly, well before monotheism became dominant in the West, some pagan philosophers had worked around to the idea that since no thing exists without a cause, and since an infinite regression of causes doesn't make any sense, that there must be a single, eternal, uncreated thing which existed by its nature and was in turn the cause of all other things. The "unmoved mover" proof of God's existence thus goes back further than Christianity does. However, modern non-believers generally laugh it off with a "If you can believe God exists without a creator, why not believe the universe exists without a creator?"

The answer is, of course, that one can. The force in the "unmoved mover" argument is that our experience generally tells us that normal physical things always have causes, and thus the universe as a whole must have a cause while is wholly different from all those things which we normally experience. However, if one is ready to instead believe that just this one time the physical universe behaved in a way wholly different from how we've ever experienced it to behave, that belief is also fully self consistent. One must, in the end, make a decision which metaphysics to believe. The evidence cannot make that decision for you. There is no one conclusion which is so overwhelmingly clear as to be unavoidable. Rather, if one is willing to accept the implications of either, one may then adopt that belief with full logical rigor.

At the end of the day, belief in God, or belief in a spouse's love, or belief that all men are created equal, or any such belief, may be supported by an incredible amount of evidence, but the belief itself is a choice. The evidence will take you so far. Belief does not have to be some sort of "blind leap". But it is a crossroads, and one must decide which way to go.


John Farrell said...

I moved my blog from my website to blogger's archive, and now I can't recall which post that was! :)

Gail F said...

That kind of argument (equating lepruchauns and gods) leaves me speechless. Sure, I will agree -- anyone who truly believed in lepruchauns would need everything else he said scrutinized. But that said... 1) People believe all sorts of insane things (conspiracy theories, alien abductions, Bible codes, etc.) that somehow do not really impact the rest of their thinking. And 2) What about the Mormons? Personally, I find the Mormon religion to be an obvious fraud. But I used to work in an industry dominated by Mormons, and they are great business people. Mormons, despite their odd beliefs, seem to be able to run their state, run their businesses, run fire departments and schools and hospitals and every other type of organization perfectly well, and to be able to succeed in every profession.

So this so-called scientist is full of it. I doubt he really believes what he spouts off -- he probably trusts religious people to do all sorts of things for him every day.

TheOFloinn said...

The universe is not an object, but a collection of objects and exists iff any one object exists. To suppose that "the universe" has no cause is to suppose that, say, a photon has no cause, or perhaps an alpha particle has no cause.