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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.


Comments

gwynnyd
Feb. 15th, 2012 11:47 pm (UTC)
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.)

splutters incoherently - but, but, as I understand it, there is not now and has never been a difference between people who believe and people who don't believe in any particular god. Religious people are not less likely to get sick or be well, be harmed in accidents or not, be "good" or "evil", be mentally healthy or not, be happy or not than agnostics or atheists or people who believe in a different god/s or different manifestation of god. Neither prayer, however fervent and sincere, nor sacrifice of any kind has ever yielded more than random chance outcomes that get handwaved into significance with bafflegab of some variety.

There are probably too many variables to control for on an individual basis, but if there was a measurable difference between populations of believers on the god issue on any point, then that would be an empirical proof of god/s' existence. It's not there.

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