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Faith in Things Unseen

*rushes in with noise-makers and cake*

Yesterday I had planned to write about pandemonium_213's birthday. I had every intention of writing her a nice birthday post, full of meaty science-and-faith thoughts. I'd even planned out a witty opening line about yesterday (now two days ago) being Charles Dawin's birthday, but even more importantly it was the day before our own pandë's. :-) But I got a bit obsessed with the unhappy juxtaposition of (1) Chris Brown making a "come-back" by performing at the Oscars and (2) the upcoming Valentine's Day focus on love. I couldn't quite get my thoughts to go other places, including what I'd wanted to write about.

So, first things first. Pandë, I really hope you had a first-class day. Our corner of the interwebs is better for your being part of it.

I also wanted to say a few words about the topic of atheism, religion, faith and science. I can't hope that both Pandë and Darwin would approve. Annual posts thinking about the kinds of questions I imagine Pandë asking me are becoming a bit of a tradition, actually! The rest of this post is dedicated to her, though of course the thoughts don't represent her position. But I do hope the labor of love inherent in pondering deep questions will be a fitting tribute to her. (And as always, Pandë, do feel free to respond honestly, if you want to.)

Every so often when celandineb posts to LJ she uses this icon, and I always find it thought-provoking. I wish I knew the source, actually; the sentiment seems almost Humean. And it's a popular idea in certain stripes of philosophy: that you are not allowed to believe something unless you have good reasons for why you believe it's true. Take Christopher Hitchens's famous line, "That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence." Or for that matter Carl Sagan's standard, that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

Neither of them is really a philosopher, but they're tapping into a rich vein of philosophy. It was developed by a group called the logical positivists (think A.J. Ayer, Rudolf Carnap, and even my icon's inspiration, the inimitable Bertrand Russell), but you can see the thrust of the idea as early as Hume. He wrote:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (Enquiry XII.II.133)

I don't think Hume's advocating book-burning here (so please, step away from the Heinrich Heine quote.) Basically, his point is that if some theoretical work – theology, metaphysics, etc. – doesn't offer proof for its views, it's not worthy of our study. You might as well burn it, because that's the only kind of light it can provide. And what counts as proof? Either the kind of things we learn through our senses, or else general concepts we abstract from said sense-impressions (basically the laws of mathematics). But certainly not claims about Russell's invisible teapots in space, angels dancing on the head of a pin or anything like it.

The logical positivists carried it even further and said if there wasn't any possible evidence that could verify a statement, the statement was meaningless. Literally – there was no meaning to it, that it was neither true nor false. This is Ayer's criticism of God-talk. Take a statement like "God is merciful." If we parse this sentence like we do most topics, then it means first, that God exists, and second, that God has the property of being merciful. But what do we mean by mercy? Most people say we get our concepts by looking at lots of things and generalizing a concept they all have in common. (So a soda is cold and the wind is cold and the classroom is cold; and by thinking about what they all have in common we start to work out what cold is more generally.)

Religious people tend to say that God is not like anything else, which means we shouldn't expect our concepts from normal everyday objects of experience to apply to God. Put simply, if God is merciful, it cannot be in the same way that a king is merciful. But what possible experience – either from our concept of mercy or from sense-experience could possibly prove that God had the property of mercy, or even that God exists? According to Ayer and the other logical positivists, this means the statement is neither true nor false – it's meaningless, along the same lines of "what color is the number two"? And since our concept of God is supposed to be "above our comprehension," and there's no empirical or abstracted-from-empirical proof that God exists, the statement "God exists" is supposed to be just as meaningless.

I think this is the point that Cel's icon is basically driving at. That in every subject, what counts as knowledge has to meet the same standard. And I think she's right, at least up to a point. Certainly what counts as proof in history will be different than what counts as proof in physics or psychology, but there's at least a common thread. We might say a horse and a car and a rocket-ship are fast in different senses, so that the speed that makes a horse fast would make a car very slow, but there's at least a common sense of speed, that may be adapted for the different contexts. The real problem, I think, is that the logical positivists trade on an equivocation.

God-talk is meaningless. It does not have a meaning, a truth-value; it is not the kind of thing that we can know. But what people like Ayer are trading on an ambiguity here. In the technical sense, God-talk is meaningless, but all too often people want to use that word more casually – that it has no significance at all. And yes, scientists and analytical philosophers may point out that significance also has a technical meaning along the same lines as meaning; that's what makes this area tricky, quite often the technical terms have non-technical meanings as well. Because even if the phrase "God exists" does not have a technical meaning, I think nearly every religious person would ay that it's pretty meaningful to them – even if they agreed about Ayer's points regarding sense, meaning, verification, and the like. And they'd be perfectly rational to do that, because they and Ayer are using 'meaning in different ways. That doesn't make Ayer wrong, of course. But we do need to be careful to be clear of what we mean with our words.

Here's the point I keep bumping up against whenever I read Cel's icon. It assumes that all of the arts are going after more or less comparable things. Specifically, it assumes they're all after knowledge. No philosopher worth her salt would claim to have an easy definition of what knowledge is, but I think at its most basic it means you have a concept that you understand (or at least that it's possible to understand. Physics may be beyond my dog's ability to understand, and that would mean she can't know that entropy is always increasing in the world (let alone what those sounds mean). But her inability to understand the statement doesn't keep the statement from being true, or part of the objective reality that applies to all of us whether we believe it or not, etc. And if all the humans died out so there were only dogs incapable of knowing Newton's laws of thermodynamics, those laws would still be true. They just wouldn't be known.

What all of that means to me (in both the technical and layman's sense!) is that it's possible that there's a reality that humans can't understand. I'd say that it's possible there's a reality that no part of that reality could understand. But that doesn't keep the reality from existing. Now some arts and sciences limit themselves to knowledge; others try to deal with other ways of looking at things that are beyond what humans can easily conceptualize and explore rationally. Some schools of theology try to explore religious concepts like they were just any other concepts, but other philosophers of religion and theologians get that this isn't always possible. But they reject that just because something can't be explored rationally, that there's nothing worth exploring or that we're incapable of exploring it in any way at all.

Take what the philosopher D.Z. Philips wrote:

If the philosopher wants to give an account of religion, he must pay attention to what religious believers do and say. … The whole conception, then, of religion standing in need of justification is confused. … Philosophy is neither for nor against religion: 'it leaves everything as it is'. … It is not the task of the philosopher to decide whether there is a God or not, but to ask what it means to affirm or deny the existence of God. (The Concept of Prayer, p. 1, qtd. Davies, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion)

Now this can seem an awful lot like giving religion a free pass, and I don't mean to do that. Nor do I want to do the project Phillips is setting out on, if it comes to that. As I read Phillips – and I'm only relying on a quote from him in another book; I've not read the original – he's talking about philosophers who want to give an account of religion. I'm more interested about whether humans can do anything with the concept of God, can we understand it or otherwise work with it with our minds? But I think the point holds that just because something can't be known rationally and fully grasped by a human (or any non-divine) mind, that doesn't mean there isn't still work to be done.

On the "giving a free pass" question, it's worth noting that God's not the only thing that gets by without offering an explanation. And I'm not talking about anything weird or mystical here. Hume realizes that many of the basic ideas we use to make sense of our world aren't the kind of things you can give proof for. Say you close your eyes for a second and when you open them the world seems the same as it was before. How do you know it didn't change while you weren't looking. The Toy Story trilogy exploits this possibility masterfully. If your toys moved while you were out of the room, and hurried back into place just so before you came back, how would you ever know it? Your senses couldn't give you proof.

And by similar logic, since our senses only can ever give us "snapshots," won't there always be gaps where the world could stop existing? Hume thinks it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the world does go on existing, because human nature is such that it's near impossible not to be convinced of that. But these aren't things we believe because we have evidence. And they aren't minor – the problem of induction leads to all kinds of interesting problems, like how we can depend on time and space.

I am, at base, an agnostic who chooses faith. I'm agnostic because I believe knowledge is impossible unless you completely understand the concept of God (which is beyond what humans can ever do). All faith is a kind of agnosticism, as is the belief that the world we know is identical to the world that is. But I choose faith because I find it a more useful tradition to work with – and against! – than materialism is. It also happens to explain the various things I experience better, and so to that extent I'd call it true. To really spell out what I mean by that, I'd have to explain what I mean by "truth."  The standard definition is a statement is true if it represents how things actually are in reality, but that doesn't really work here – it implies we can break down the concept and analyze it bit by bit, to see if it lines up. I have a more Anselmian concept in mind, where "truth" means it's appropriate to say something of the object you're talking about. But this topic deserves a whole post of its own someday, so I won't say anymore just now.

(This, by the way, is basically one way of understanding religious language. To say God is all-powerful doesn't mean that God satisfies the idea of power we generalized from seeing steam-engines and bazookas and kings commanding armies; it means that given the connotations that concept has for us, it would be inappropriate to deny God was powerful.)

Now, some of what theology teaches, like empirical or historical facts, can be known – but those facts aren't really true theology. And they should be held to the same standards as other empirical or historical facts. I have no problem with any of that. But for the things that aren't knowledge, you just shouldn't expect the standards we use for knowledge to apply. It's just not that kind of a study. And to be completely fair, neither is theology going after knowledge. Depending on how you understand the terms, theology is really gearing for belief or faith. And those are a completely different mode of cognition than scientific knowledge. If a religious person is going to argue, say, that the earth is only 6,000 years old, you're doing science. And you need to offer proof; saying "the Bible tells me so" won't cut it there.

Similarly, a scientist (or anyone) should only expect a proof like you'd expect for knowledge-claims. Because whatever else we might say about religion's claims, it ain't that.


Feb. 14th, 2012 11:50 pm (UTC)
Ah, a deep thoughts birthday gift! Thanks, Marta! And yes, I do have some honest responses. :^)

First, this, although it occurs late in your essay, immediately sets me off:

Similarly, a scientist (or anyone) should only expect a proof like you'd expect for knowledge-claims.

You're thinking like a mathematician here when you say "proof." Science is all about evidence and observation and testing of said evidence. Evidence does not offer proof in an absolute manner, but it can be very powerful support for a hypothesis or conceptualization, particularly when evidence is accumulated and testable. Which is why my icon collection does not sport any identical to Celandineb's, that is the requirement of proof. Proof is either right or wrong. Evidence, however, operates on a sliding scale. Some evidence is weak. Some is incredibly powerful. Thus, fully agree with Hitch and Sagan. They have it right: it's about evidence.

This kind of misunderstanding can be seen in comments like the following (lifted from TORn; I haven't the energy to light into this guy there, nor do I think it would be exactly encouraged):

"While there is ample evidence to support his scientific theory observing microbes and some higher organisms, that still does not mean his theory is a fact."

Er, well, that's just it. There is ample evidence. Ample with a capital A. Nothing else explains the observations of evolution, both micro and macro, better than Darwin's theory. Nothing.

Now back to the God question and the burden of "proof" on theology. Seeking proof and evidence for the existence of God is about a pointless an exercise as I can think of. I'm not saying this as a sneering contemptuous atheist (well, strictly speaking, like Dawkins I am 99.9% on the "Not" side so I am an agnostic; one cannot absolutely know in the absence of evidence). Rather, I am saying this as an atheist who was raised in a reasonable, mainstream Protestant religion in which proof and evidence of God were considered, well, rather trivial in relation to the Supreme Being's mystery. God, I was taught, is an Article of Faith, not Fact. Very different than evidence or proof. And thus I respect faith in those who believe. It's when the scientific process is hijacked or misrepresented in an effort to "prove" the existence of God that I bridle. For, after all, isn't God beyond proof and/or evidence? I think we are on the same page here actually.

Sometimes we humans, those who believe in God (or manifestations thereof) and those who do not, find a similar path to the same end. For me, morality and altruism are part and parcel of our evolution as social mammals. It's in the best interest of our species' survival to try to be "good" to others. The human predisposition for belief in gods or God arises as part of our brains' evolutionary development to have an awareness of others' existence even though we cannot see them (see Paul Bloom's writings on the subject). When I listen to Hindu stotrams or an uplifting Christian hymn, I don't feel that I am communing with a Higher Power, but instead I marvel that my complex neural network — a result of endless forms most beautiful evolving through time — is being stimulated in a pleasing way that brings about a peaceful feeling and sense of connection with the material universe ("We are star stuff," after all). I am motivated to have some level of decency toward my fellow humans not because of the promise of an afterlife, but because this life is all we have. So yes, I am very much a materialist.

But that does not mean that I think religion is bad or pointless. On the contrary! Belief can be and is a wonderful thing for many people, and I would never deny them their faith. Belief/Faith and Secular Humanism may walk side-by-side along the same pathway: decency and love toward our fellow humans, and in the end, isn't that the most important thing?

Heh. That's about as much as my rhinoviral-addled brain can handle. My apologies for the less-than-cohrent screed, but that was a neat post, Marta, and you did get A Reaction. :^D
Feb. 15th, 2012 02:59 am (UTC)
First, thanks for your reply. It's always nice to have your reaction to my deep-thoughts - your perspective is different, but you offer it up respectfully and I always feel like I walk away with a lot to think about.

==> on proof vs. evidence

I can see how that would catch your attention! You're right, I was thinking like a mathematician - that's my training, and having worked in a humanities department for so long, the distinctions kind of level out.

As I understand the logical positivists, though, they'd still say you need some kind of evidence, even if it's empirical evidence that makes a conclusion more or less likely. They'd say a statement is the kind of thing that can be true or false if there's some proof (or possible proof) that would make it more likely a statement is true or false. A good example of this concept is Russell's teapot. There's no sense-experience that would even make it more or less likely the teapot exists, so the statement "Russell's teapot exists" is neither true nor false - it's not even a well-formed question.

My point is, you should only expect evidence when we're talking about knowledge. Knowledge has well-formed concepts and methods for exploring them. Other mental states (beliefs, faiths, hopes, etc.) don't necessarily have such things. So the fact that there's no evidence to support them doesn't necessarily say the claim is false.

==> on seeking proofs in theology

We are on the same page here. I do natural theology proofs because I think they help illuminate other concepts (does the universe have an order to it, is existence a property, etc.) but I think at best they would prove something about some particular concept. Since God isn't the kind of thing we can completely understand, any proof that starts with a concept you have in mind isn't going to be talking about God anyway.

(Incidentally, this is the point of the Phillips quote; it's basically saying that you can't rationally analyze God - or scientifically investigate God, I'd imagine - but you can say a lot about what people try to do with their concepts of God. So a philosopher of religion shouldn't be asking does God exist, but what would it mean for a God to exist - basically exploring the way God would impact things we can investigate rationally.)

It's when the scientific process is hijacked or misrepresented in an effort to "prove" the existence of God that I bridle.

You and me both. I'm saying this as a theist and a philosopher rather than a scientist, obviously. But when you reduce God to something you can wrap your head around and manipulate, you're no longer talking about God.

There's a great quote by someone whose name I can't remember - that man was made in the image of God, and since the dawn of time man has been trying to return the favor.

Sometimes we humans, those who believe in God (or manifestations thereof) and those who do not, find a similar path to the same end.

You know, I've been thinking about that a lot lately and I think that quite often I agree more with my atheist friends on substance a lot more than I do with some religious people. (Not all, of course.) But it seems like some of the time we are talking about similar concepts, or emphasizing different aspects, while at root the actual differences aren't so huge. I suppose that if I had had a different childhood, I could have made a good secular humanist. But I also think that religions need people like me, too, if they aren't to go completely off the deep end. ...

For me, morality and altruism are part and parcel of our evolution as social mammals. It's in the best interest of our species' survival to try to be "good" to others.

Do you happen to know any good sources on this? I find it very interesting because, while I can see being good being helpful evolution-wise, it also seems like it wouldn't seem that way incrementally. (You're essentially giving up your resources to help others.) In particular, I'm interested in how altruism developed for strangers. I've always wanted to have my class read something on that.

(Okay, switching off the inner-philosopher...)

Feb. 15th, 2012 12:47 pm (UTC)
Quickish reply here, and thanks muchly for your response! Always good to read these thoughts from one of the Rational Faithful. :^)

Re: logical positivists. It's a sensible position. Otherwise, doesn't one fall prey to the "god of the gaps?" For example, until we as humans understood the natural origins of lightning, that infectious disease is caused by viruses and bacteria, and epileptic seizures by neural misfiring, we attributed these things to gods. But evidence showed us otherwise. The problem with negative arguments is that they rely on lack of knowledge rather than positive results.

Re: altruism and evolution. Quite a bit of research (and conjecture) has been devoted to the subject. Check out Martin Nowak's research as well as popular writing, e.g., his book SuperCooperators: The Mathematics of Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour (Or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed). Also, Frans de Waal's Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved is a decent read, complete with responses from Pete Singer, Christine Korsgaard, and Philip Kitcher.
Feb. 15th, 2012 03:00 am (UTC)

I am motivated to have some level of decency toward my fellow humans not because of the promise of an afterlife, but because this life is all we have.

For what it's worth, most religious people aren't very afterlife-inspired anyway. Or they shouldn't be; their religion says you can't earn heaven that way. And the sensible ones tend to think that's kind of a cheap view of God, reducing him to a cosmic Santa Claus. I know I do.

Heh. That's about as much as my rhinoviral-addled brain can handle. My apologies for the less-than-cohrent screed, but that was a neat post, Marta, and you did get A Reaction. :^D

And a good reaction it is! Though are you sick? (Or is that what you're doing at work?) In any event, I hope you're okay, and I do appreciate your thoughts.
Feb. 15th, 2012 12:51 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, most religious people aren't very afterlife-inspired anyway.

True, that is, for the more mainstream folks, for example my mother (United Methodist) and my late mother-in-law (Roman Catholic), both of whom followed the "grace by good works toward others" credo. However, from what I have observed amongst fundamentalists is a tad different than that.

Yes, I have a head cold. Recovering though.
Feb. 15th, 2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
The human predisposition for belief in gods or God arises as part of our brains' evolutionary development to have an awareness of others' existence even though we cannot see them

That's an interesting one, and I'm going to follow up some of those references at some point, Pande, thanks.

Another aspect of evolutionary development which I've long thought may be associated with the human tendency towards belief in gods is related to pattern recognition - our ability to predict likely future events from presently observable data (animal behaviour, weather/climate patterns, etc), which was an evolutionary advantage, evolving way beyond its original use to the extent that as a species we find pattern, meaning and narrative profoundly satisfying, and therefore seek and want to find those meanings and narratives in events and external phenomena whether or not they are objectively "there". Umberto Eco picks up on this in some of his essays, notably Kant and the Platypus and Six Walks in the Fictional Woods if I remember correctly...
Feb. 16th, 2012 01:11 am (UTC)
Another aspect of evolutionary development which I've long thought may be associated with the human tendency towards belief in gods is related to pattern recognition.

Indeed, that's another possibility for the predilection for seeking out meaning of the unseen, and perhaps a byproduct of our tendency to think of our mind as separate from our bodies, e.g., Paul Bloom argues that we are natural born dualists. I have to admit that I view some aspects of "evolutionary psychology" with several grams of salt, but Bloom's science is pretty robust.



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