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

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Evidence, Belief and Will

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 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) constists 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 mateto 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-acknowleged 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 consistence, 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, long before monotheism became dominant in the West, 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 what have you 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.


Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of a history teacher in college, who liked to point out to the class that when people talk about studying something tangible and real-world like mathematics, they are being absurd, since mathematics is about things that do not exist anywhere in the real world.

"Have you ever seen a two?" he asked. "If you have, let me know, and we can take care of you."

Joseph said...

My complaint about materialism is that it's circular. Materialism is a matter of rejecting supernatural explanations and supernatural explanations are those that reject materialism ...

Anonymous said...

Part of the difficulty is that as we become more technologically savvy, more time and emphasis is placed upon being able to manipulate the physical world. Thus, from an early age, we are taught and conditioned to accept as "real" those things that we are able to physically manipulate to our benefit. Pure thinking and other such pursuits are derided as a waste of time if no practical application is apparent. Just look at the relative respect given to say, an engineer or physician compared to a logician or the dreaded philosopher (how different the looks from one's parents when you anounce you are "pre-med" vs. a philosophy major). This conditioning takes its toll on being able to see reality beyond its physical manifestation.

Anonymous said...

You can believe in God all you want but where does that get you? What is the nature of this God or Gods and what, if anything, does He, She, It, or They want from us? Deism is one thing. But Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism, Islam, etc. are a whole different matter.

It is one thing to say that God exists, which is essentially worthless. It is quite another thing to say that the Old Testament is the word of God or that Jesus is the Incarnate God. And that, my friend, is skating on much thinner ice.

Anonymous said...


As very-much-non-theist Richard Dawkins is known to say: "What good is half an eye? A bit more than one quarter of an eye."

I will cede you that the mere conclusion that there is a God does not constitute the end of journey, but it certainly constitutes much more progress than not having yet arrived at even that conclusion. Nor can I find it in me to totally devalue the points at which thinkers like Plato and Cicero arrived: recognizing the existence of a single creative power in the universe that resided at an all-together higher level than the pagan gods, while not knowing more about it than its existence.

Right off, I'd say all that can be known of this God is that he (to use the traditional English pronoun of indetermined gender) is singular, eternal and the creator of the universe. From this, I would say that two things clearly follow: that this creator deserves some sort of respect or worship by the virtue of the fact that he created us, and that because the world was created by such a being, its working must bear some sort of significance (e.g. natural law).

Getting much beyond that requires a great deal more work and thought. Though it is interested to note that many in the 1st and 2nd centuries BC throughout the helenistic would did identify the Hebrew religion with the findings of neo-Platonism, and a Hellenic Judaism sprang up throughout the mediterranian, fueled by converts who believed the one God of the Hebrew scriptures to be one and the same with the prime mover of Platonic thought. The influences of this Platonic strand of Judaism are in turn found in the opening of John's Gospel and in various parts of the Epistles. But that is matter for another post...

Anonymous said...

Right off, I'd say all that can be known of this God is that he (to use the traditional English pronoun of indetermined gender) is singular, eternal and the creator of the universe.

I don't see how we could know even that much. Maybe God was destroyed in the Big Bang? Maybe there is a good God and an evil God at war with each other?

And why would God want our worship? Does He have an inferiority complex?

Darwin said...

Maybe God was destroyed in the Big Bang?

Given that the whole "unmoved mover" concept is pedicated on the idea of a uncreated being different in kind from the physical world, it seems odd to imagine that being somehow being destroyed by the big bang. Indeed, there are some moderately good arguments that for something to be truly uncreated, it must be eternal, and to be eternal, it must be outside of time, and to be outside of time it must be both without beginning and also without end.

Overall, my thought is that this objection makes about as much sense as asking: "What if gravity were destroyed in a black hole?"

Maybe there is a good God and an evil God at war with each other?

Dualism tends to be a rather hard set of beliefs to philosophically justify. (How exactly Augustine managed to hang onto Manicheeism for so long I really can't say...)

For some classical thought on the relationship of a plurality of gods and "good" and "evil" Plato's Euthyphro is a good place to start.

Another of the neo-Platonic ideas about "God" was that he was one and the same with "the Good", the which being (in the Platonic metaphysics) that thing to which anything which we rightly label as "good" in some sense approaches.

The idea of an "evil god" is deeply problematic, in the sense that it's unclear that evil can be defined as any positively existing thing (rather than simply as a lack of goodness.) An "evil god" could not be an equal and opposite to a "good god" in that the evil god's actions would be strictly in reaction to the good god's.

And why would God want our worship? Does He have an inferiority complex?

I didn't say we could know by means of pure reason that the God/creator wanted worship and respect, I just said he deserved it. Any being that is by nature without beginning and without end clearly doesn't need anything, least of all anything without our power to offer. But it strikes me that such a being is worthy of worship (or respect, if you prefer a less loaded term) regardless of whether or not he has any interest in it.

Anonymous said...

Just my luck to get into a debate with a philosophy major. But understandable given that God is merely philosophical speculation.

We now know that the world works in a mechanistic fashion. Plagues, droughts, floods, etc. that were formerly thought to be the work of God are now recognized as the mindless workings of nature. But the question of how it all began remains unanswered. That's about the only turf left for theists to make their stand.

There is a story that when scientists concluded that there must be intelligent life on other planets Enrico Fermi asked, "But where are they?" It's that kind of reality check which separates science from philosophy.

My point is that after all the philosophical arguments are made for the existence of God we are still faced with that reality check, "But where is He?"

Darwin said...

Just my luck to get into a debate with a philosophy major.

Hardly, just an interested amateur who's read the basics... I studied languages in college and write databases for a living.

On the rest, I think it's time to move the comment thread to a new post.