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Einstein strikes back!
October 28, 2005 10:20 AM   Subscribe

Einstein Speaks from Beyond the Grave... To issue a vigorous challenge to the muddled claims coming from all sides about the inherent incompatibility of science and religion. (No secondary links to go with this, but in my opinion, this link is interesting enough to stand on its own.)
posted by all-seeing eye dog (69 comments total)

 
Is he speaking through JRun, by any chance...?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:42 AM on October 28, 2005


Waiting .... Waiting ....
posted by Peter H at 10:49 AM on October 28, 2005


Weapons-Grade: Sorry to show my ignorance, but what's "JRun"
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 10:51 AM on October 28, 2005


oh wait--i see what you mean. not sure why the link's so slow. must be a slow php server... it wasn't like this earlier, i swear.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 10:53 AM on October 28, 2005


Einstein, so stubborn, such a tease.
posted by Peter H at 10:54 AM on October 28, 2005


well, dang. it's slow as hell now. anyway to get this fpp pulled, since the link now seems to be intolerably slow?
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 10:56 AM on October 28, 2005


See, he told you time was relative, but could you handle it? Noooooo...
posted by joe lisboa at 10:58 AM on October 28, 2005


heh...
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 10:59 AM on October 28, 2005


I think it will great if the Ghost of Einstein emerges from a special vault when we are faced with big challenges to our society. We could call them Einstein Crises.
posted by freebird at 11:00 AM on October 28, 2005


it looks like the site's actually completely down now, so i dunno. maybe try it again later if it doesn't work?
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 11:01 AM on October 28, 2005


I'd love to see it--hopefully it'll work later? Is it anywhere else online?
posted by amberglow at 11:03 AM on October 28, 2005


freebird: Brilliant!

amberglow: I'll poke around for it...
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 11:05 AM on October 28, 2005


"Is he speaking through JRun, by any chance...?"

LOL!
posted by muppetboy at 11:10 AM on October 28, 2005


Actually, here's a different link to the first article I tried to post, and here's a second link to a whole slew of Einstein's treatments on the subject...

(Not sure how I feel about Einstein's musings being hosted by a site whose domain is "www.sacred-texts.com", but anyway...)
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 11:10 AM on October 28, 2005


Try the Google cache.
posted by vacapinta at 11:14 AM on October 28, 2005


Just wait until the Christian Right ponies up for a computer-generated Einstein who will testify that in the afterlife he has learned that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that he's become a fan of Ted Haggard and D. James Kennedy.

Just saying.
posted by troutfishing at 11:29 AM on October 28, 2005


well, dang. it's slow as hell now. anyway to get this fpp pulled, since the link now seems to be intolerably slow?

I'm glad it wasn't pulled -- I had never read this speech before, and it is (to me) tremendous and important. I can only hope that folks who are pro-religion and anti-science take as much from it as I did (as a nominally pro-science, anti-religion type of guy).
posted by davejay at 11:29 AM on October 28, 2005


It worked for me.

It's a reprint of a speech from 1941. The thumbnail summary:

Religion does not require god.

Science and religion are separate spheres.

The personal god is not much better than the polytheistic god.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:36 AM on October 28, 2005


I always figured that science, being at it's core an enquiry into the nature of reality that demands the highest courage and the finest of our faculties, was all the religion anyone would ever need.
posted by slatternus at 11:41 AM on October 28, 2005


Science and religion are separate spheres.

They could be, but in practice, as Dawkins says, religion often makes scientific claims. They just happen to be bad scientific claims.

"The Universe was created in 6 days" is a scientific claim. "Jesus came back to life" is a scientific claim. Etc.
posted by callmejay at 11:46 AM on October 28, 2005


From Vacapinta's cached link: The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God. [emphasis added]

Bingo.

The idea, here, is that religion and science need not conflict, and that their historical tendency to is largely the product of belief in a personal, anthropomorphized god, and not the all-too-human quest for meaning, significance, or whatever. Robert Solomon (recently?) published a book called Spirituality for the Skeptic that traces similar outlines, and I recommend it if you find Einstein's comments intriguing.

In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself.

You might want to mention that passage the next time a fundie (of any persuasion) quotes Einstein (out of context, of course) to the effect that the big E believed in a personal god.
posted by joe lisboa at 11:50 AM on October 28, 2005


... A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death. ...

...To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly.
... It is a very high goal which, with our weak powers, we can reach only very inadequately, but which gives a sure foundation to our aspirations and valuations. If one were to take that goal out of its religious form and look merely at its purely human side, one might state it perhaps thus: free and responsible development of the individual, so that he may place his powers freely and gladly in the service of all mankind. ...

Great articles!
posted by amberglow at 11:54 AM on October 28, 2005


"Jesus came back to life" is a scientific claim.

Not necessarily. Because of religion's historical tendency to blur fact and metaphor, a claim like this could just as well be a metaphorical one, representing Jesus' rebirth not in a physical embodiment but in the form of the Christian movement that quickly began to spread after his death (not a physical rebirth, but a spiritual rebirth).

Many religious traditions incorporate various conceptions of spiritual rebirth, in which the central mythical figure is reborn in a disembodied spiritual form (almost like an idea, in the platonic sense). I'm not saying that's how your average Christian means it when they make such claims, but the mystical schools and non-lay-practitioners within the various religious traditions often do intend for their religious claims to have non-literal meanings.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 12:13 PM on October 28, 2005


You might want to mention that passage the next time a fundie (of any persuasion) quotes Einstein (out of context, of course) to the effect that the big E believed in a personal god.

jlisboa--this is a really good distinction to point out.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 12:17 PM on October 28, 2005


Religion does not require god.

Perhaps more importantly, God does not require religion. Think about it.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:40 PM on October 28, 2005


...the mystical schools and non-lay-practitioners within the various religious traditions often do intend for their religious claims to have non-literal meanings.

Well, I wish they'd share that with their followers a little more explicitly, then.
posted by callmejay at 12:57 PM on October 28, 2005


Well, I wish they'd share that with their followers a little more explicitly, then.

Me, too.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 1:23 PM on October 28, 2005


callmejay: "'Science and religion are separate spheres...' They could be, but in practice, as Dawkins says, religion often makes scientific claims. They just happen to be bad scientific claims."

And vice versa. Science is always making religious claims. And bad ones. For example, "the aggregate of data collected in observation is the truth about the world." Or: "everything that happens in the world has a physical cause." Or even: "there are such things as bodies." (Of course, it's interesting that you mention Richard Dawkins, since he's the king of pseudo-religious pronouncements; almost every scientist I know cringes when says that science has proven that there is no God, or some such.)

Neither mainstream "science" (Richard Dawkins isn't really much of a scientist, only a person who likes science) nor mainstream "religion" has answered the claims of fundamental nihilism. Briefly: even science, whose love of rigor inspires arrogance on the part of its supporters, gets into a hole because it insists that there is a truth to be found, and that we can understand the world. Why does science assume these things with such blind faith? At least religious people have tried to explain what we can know and how we can know it, even if they didn't get it right.
posted by koeselitz at 2:08 PM on October 28, 2005


...and I want to add: there is a conflict between religion and science. Everyone who has tried to claim that there isn't, like ol' Einstein here, is only parroting Spinoza, although they might not know it. Baruch Spinoza, in his extremely influential attempt to rid public life of what he saw as the ills of religion, made the argument that the claims that religion makes about the world could be ignored, and that the essence of religion was moral, not ontological. The fact that religion still exists in the world is a kind of evidence that Spinoza was wrong: religion has its beginning not from some moral perspective but from a belief about the truth. It was not a question for early Christians, for example, whether Christ's rising was "metaphorical;" it was a question whether it was true.

Since (monotheistic) religion posits an omnipotent God, and since an omnipotent God can change the rules of the game at any time, religion must be based on faith, or on some knowledge of the nature of God. Modern science, as it was formulated by Bacon, Spinoza, and others, tried to get rid of this ambiguity or difficulty by assuming from the beginning that there existed no God that could muck up the results and change the rules; then, there could be direct knowledge. The trouble is that science is still making an assumption, an assumption that might not be correct.

The possibility remains that both science and religion are false, and that we can't know anything or trust in anyone.
posted by koeselitz at 2:22 PM on October 28, 2005


The possibility remains that both science and religion are false, and that we can't know anything or trust in anyone.

Wrong, science cannot be false, it is a methodology. Science does not assume that there is no God, or other entity that can muck up the rules. If the rules get mucked with, conflicting experiments and observations would reveal the mucking and scientists would be forced to deal with it.

A better methodology for sharing and verifying knowledge might be possible, and if you think of one, please share. But no, the possibility does not remain that "science" is false.
posted by beegull at 2:43 PM on October 28, 2005


The possibility remains that both science and religion are false, and that we can't know anything or trust in anyone.

And the possibility exists that the world really does completely disappear while you're eyes are closed, but there are lots of other equally likely possibilities, too. As for your point about Spinoza and co. being wrong about the nature of religion, as evidenced by its continuing existence, I disagree with categorical claims about religion or science generally. It's true that some religious practitioners want their beliefs to be literally true; they're called fundamentalists. But the majority of believers don't hold such rigid views, and they never have. Just as in science, there will always be individuals with different innate and acquired abilities and attitudes, and those abilities and attitudes inform their participation in whatever groups they belong to. There is no "essence of" religion or "essence of" science to distill. Both are just systems of practices that people engage in, for all kinds of different reasons. Not every practicing scientist is engaged in some noble pursuit of scientific truth (many of them are just trying to make a buck), and not every practicing Baptist is single-mindedly devoted to getting closer to God (many of them are just trying to make a buck).
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 2:43 PM on October 28, 2005


There's no necessarily innate conflict between a personal God and science. There's different ways to look at it, here's a simple one: God created the scientifically arrived-at reality we continue to discover to our benefit.

Einstein mentions the omnipotent God vs free will conflict, similar type of answer of course, God can do whatever he/she/it wants and we're trying to account for the infinte with finite minds.

I love what Einstein says about humility. He's right and the lack of it on either side generates the concept of sides and the conflict.
posted by scheptech at 2:49 PM on October 28, 2005


The fact that religion still exists in the world is a kind of evidence that Spinoza was wrong.

Thank you for bringing up Spinoza -- he sprung immediately to mind. Would that more contemporary religious thinkers even knew of the guy...

But, maybe the persistence of religions could have nothing to do with the ontological claims made on their behalf and everything to do with the very real human needs, drives, fears and desires that religions (can) meet, tap, soothe, and satisfy, respectively. Those truth claims ("Christ is risen." or "You are forgiven.") matter to people because they address basic anxieties (fear of death, desire for self-importance, will to survive, etc.) and not vice versa, no?

Don't get me wrong: I think what passes for religion is dangerous (and deadly, natch) to the extent that it plays on the more dangerous of our basic tendencies, but there's no reason to go all nihilistic when a pragmatic standard will suffice: you can pray all day but that don't make the cancer go away quite like chemo does, to coin a (sloppy/tactless) phrase. Is it certain knowledge in the mold of rationalists like Spinoza? Hell no. Is it enough to get by as (more-or-less) hairless apes on this little orb? I, for one, think so. Dinner time!
posted by joe lisboa at 2:54 PM on October 28, 2005


I don't agree that science and god have to conflict.

Science relies on evidence to tell us how the natural world has worked and worked.

What we learn from science is what the evidence shows or implies.

Someone who believes in an omnipotent God can believe that God started the ball rolling and left nature to its own devices or that he's been involved with evolution in a way that doesn't conflict with what science has found. Nothing that science has found conflicts with those possibilities. Yes, science does suggest that evolution probably as the result of natural selection after random changes. But science can't prove that the changes were random, only that they look random, because science can't prove a negative statistically. Furthermore, one can believe that God just started the ball rolling and let things roll from there, though that would of course imply that God did not have any direct hand in creating humanity.

Also, it is certainly possible for someone to believe that all the evidence that science relies on has been staged by an omnipotent God. In this case, God may want us to believe in evolution or may be testing our faith.

None of this changes the fact that creation science is nonsense, and intelligent design is religion or philosophy. In college, I had a great history of science professor, Owen Gingerich (his books are recommended), who once briefly suggested that the patterns of the universe suggested an intelligent design to him. I wasn't offended, and I don't think anyone else was either. He didn't say that his belief was supported by evidence, and it was the only time he mentioned the subject in a year long course. I have no problem with someone who truly believes in intelligent design. Some people have made fun of the intelligent design view by making fun of them of believers as "Wow! That's far out. It couldn't happen on it's own, so it must be the work of God" people, and that's kind of accurate, but I don't see anything wrong with that kind of thinking. Lord knows there are many many things people believe that are completely wrong and contradicted by all available evidence because most people don't understand basic statistical concepts (One of my pet causes is that everyone should take a statistical literacy/analysis course in high school; it's 100x more relevant to most lives than trig or calculus)- see the numbskulls who are still refusing to vaccinate their kids and causing measles outbreaks. A belief in intelligent design does not, at least, directly contradict the facts.

Now, personally my concept of God is rather fuzzy. I certainly don't believe in the God of the bible; that God is all too human to me. If there is a God, he/she/it is something we don't understand enough to define. The Bible's depiction of him is rather insulting; he appears to be selfish, arrogant, petty, insecure, etc. I would like to believe that there is something beyond which science explains; that life and existence is more than just biology and chemistry. I don't understand what exactly that is, of course. But religion in all its forms is a matter of faith in something that can't be proved by way of evidence. And I certainly don't see that there is any scientific evidence that all we are is flesh and bones.
posted by spira at 3:13 PM on October 28, 2005


While a belief in the value of the scientific method and god, in the sense of a personal god, don't have to conflict, that fact is they often do. Yes, if a person started from scratch, inventing their god based on what they have seen, what they feel, and not what they were told about what god should be, they could indeed invent a persoanl god whose nature does not in any way conflict with the knowledge we have aquired through science.

But the gods that many believe in were invented before we had such a good way of obtaining knowledge, and filled alot of gaps in knowledge and understanding that are now better filled by information aquired using the scientific method. So much of the intelligent and rational approaches to religion still seem to boil down to making stuff that was made up by what were, in modern terms, very ignorant and insulated people make sense given what we all agree on now, thanks to science.

One conflict science has with religion is a scientific lets no traditional knowledge stand purely on the weight of history, it can all be questioned. Almost all religion relies heavily on accepting tradition as a source of truth, without really questioning it. Why beleive in God over the flying spaghetti monster? When you question tradition it is hard to answer this.

I leave open the possibility that people have personally "experienced God" in some way that cannot be explained by an indoctrination into some traditional religion, and if it ever happens to me or someone I trust I will reevaluate my current belief that the existance of God is no more likely than the existance unicorns or dragons or ghosts.
posted by beegull at 3:49 PM on October 28, 2005


everything to do with the very real human needs, drives, fears and desires

So the solution exists because the need exists? Maybe, but allow me to redefine the need:

There are people who feel, intuit, sense, know, are utterly convinced there is 'something' beyond the here and now, something greater than themselves, something very real and of ultimate significance. And, to explain it or deal with it or reconcile themselves to it, some eventually turn to the various religions. (Or adopt one or another secular philosophy, or throw themselves into work or drink or whatever and just repress it.)

So one way of categorizing people might be: those who are unaware of any such sense, those who are but are unsettled as to explanation, and those who've picked one.

If religion is made up then, it's done first and entirely to reconcile a belief about 'something or someone else' and not to merely assuage personal anxiety or provide meaning or do any of those other things that are positive but secondary effects.


Almost all religion relies heavily on accepting tradition as a source of truth, without really questioning it.


Well, for anyone truly religious the questioning comes first and the religion is the answer they finally settle on. If you have no questions to start with, then religion is an solution looking for a problem, makes no sense, and just looks like a waste of mind-space.
posted by scheptech at 3:58 PM on October 28, 2005


Well, for anyone truly religious the questioning comes first and the religion is the answer they finally settle on. If you have no questions to start with, then religion is an solution looking for a problem, makes no sense, and just looks like a waste of mind-space.

I think, by that definition the number of "truly religous" people is pretty small. And religion has, in the past, answered many questions that now fall into the realm of scientific knowledge. In my opinion, it is onyl recently in history that "true" religion has become more and more limited to a few very large and potentially unanswerable questions.

Maybe there are people who have questions that are very important to them and then search for a religion with satisfactory answers, but shopping through traditional religions seems like an act of willful ignorance about the limitations to knowledge and understanding that have existed in the past. Are we still ignorant now? Yes, but maybe, with the help of the science, less so all the time.
posted by beegull at 4:12 PM on October 28, 2005


Amen.
posted by damnthesehumanhands at 4:12 PM on October 28, 2005


Excellent discussion all around! Personally, I count myself somewhere in between those who "feel, intuit, sense, know, are utterly convinced there is 'something' beyond the here and now" and those who see themselves as "hairless apes on this little orb." I've had spiritual intuitions which, from my perspective at least, can't be explained away; but I try to maintain enough humility to recognize the fallibility of my own intuitions. For me, that's what spiritual faith is all about: the dynamic tension between feeling a certain limited sense of spiritual certainty while not being so selfish as to bet someone else's farm on it, so to speak. Also (even accepting the skeptical view that consciousness is just an illusory epiphenomenon) I can't find one good reason to rule out the possibility of consciousness (or pseudo-consciousness, or whatever it is) emerging naturally in vastly larger systems than we typically imagine, and for me, that suggests some intriguing speculative possibilities. Beyond that, I'm also pretty solidly convinced by the arguments that Godel's work on incompleteness does strongly suggest that the objects of formal systems exist independently of those systems; and if that's correct, then all sorts of possibilities not currently considered in strictly reductionist approaches to furthering human understanding are fair game and should probably be taken more seriously (though certainly not mistaken for hard science just yet).
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 5:13 PM on October 28, 2005


Just a small addition:
The Unarians down in El Cajon, CA have also channeled Albert. There is a book about the transmissions as well.

In April 1955, Einstein changed worlds or left the physical plane in so-called death and ascended to one of the higher celestial dimensions. He now resides on the spiritual plane of Eros, a nonatomic planet devoted to the expression of science. After his transition to his spiritual home, Einstein began the process of tearing down or unlearning some of the concepts and precepts of his material life on Earth, replacing them with more of the higher and infinite concepts, which are clearer when one arrives in these inner and higher dimensions, formerly known as Shamballa.
posted by vporter at 5:28 PM on October 28, 2005


Jesus died so that we could be rid of religion, and would stop projecting our own needs and fears upon God. When Jesus was crucified, so should have the idea of the personal God.
posted by john wilkins at 5:29 PM on October 28, 2005


The Unarians down in El Cajon, CA have also channeled Albert. There is a book about the transmissions as well.

Um, aren't the unarians the ones waiting for the Space Brothers to come and enlighten mankind, or some such? Let me state for the record: I'm not so sure they're right about that. (And the whole idea of chanelling seems a bit far-fetched to me too, but then, rational-choice economic theory is every bit as scientifically baseless, and it passes itself of as legitimate theory, so who am I to judge?)
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 5:43 PM on October 28, 2005


Wrong, science cannot be false, it is a methodology.

Bwahahaha! Just try and work out a rigorous methodology that's completely free of substantive assumptions (what religious people call faith). It simply can't be done.

As Daniel Dennett has pointed out repeatedly, "There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination."
posted by gd779 at 6:15 PM on October 28, 2005


As Daniel Dennett has pointed out repeatedly, "There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination."

Exactly--That man's a frickin' genius, IMHO...

We could call them Einstein Crises.

freebird: Excellent Asimov allusion, BTW...
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 6:22 PM on October 28, 2005


Bwahahaha! Just try and work out a rigorous methodology that's completely free of substantive assumptions (what religious people call faith). It simply can't be done.

Sounds reasonable to me. If it's not too time consuming, please enumerate a few of the substantive assumptions of science for me.

And if, like you say, almost any rigorous methodology will involve assumptions, that doesn't prevent science from being the best rigourous methodology we have so far. I think the methodologies that involve deriving truth and knowledge from prophets who talk to the big guy in the sky are a lot less rigourous, personally.
posted by beegull at 6:53 PM on October 28, 2005


If it's not too time consuming, please enumerate a few of the substantive assumptions of science for me.

The most important paper on this topic is probably Quine's Two Dogmas of Empiricism. It's a bit difficult to read if you're not accustomed to reading philosophy, but it's well worth the effort.
posted by gd779 at 7:16 PM on October 28, 2005


Actually, forget Quine. From the tone of your posts, you're almost certainly not interested enough in this subject to put out the (considerable) effort that Quine requires.

Here's an excellent summary, that's much shorter and much easier to comprehend. It's an exchange between Professor Stanley Fish and Father Richard John Neuhaus on the nature of truth, reason and, to a lesser extent, science:

Why We Can't All Just Get Along, by Stanley Fish.

Why We Can Get Along, by Father Neuhaus.

A Reply to Richard John Neuhaus by Stanley Fish.
posted by gd779 at 7:23 PM on October 28, 2005


"Bwahahaha! Just try and work out a rigorous methodology that's completely free of substantive assumptions (what religious people call faith). It simply can't be done." :

OK. If I grant this - and Greek Skepticism long ago demonstrated that I must do so - then on what basis then do I calculate the trajectories of rockets or the nuances of celestial orbits ?

Faith ? Geocentrism ?

As spastic ( apocryphal ) Wittgensteinian hand gestures attest, Language is not built of logical propositions, and we speak in English, not Newtonian calculus.

So, do we just throw up our arms and declare that "Young Earth" theory is just as valid as modern geological theory, because both involve untestable assumptions ?
posted by troutfishing at 8:35 PM on October 28, 2005


troutfishing: If your logic appears to force you to a conclusion, and if you haven't made any logical errors, then you must either accept the conclusion or give up on logic altogether. I mean, that's the whole point of logic, isn't it? If you do it right, it's conclusions are infallibly right.

do we just throw up our arms and declare that "Young Earth" theory is just as valid as modern geological theory, because both involve untestable assumptions ?

Just as valid? No. Just as rational? Yes.

Of course, this doesn't mean that the Young Earth creationists and modern scientists are equally right. It simply means that the problem cannot be resolved rationally. One side may be right and the other wrong; it's just that further discussion won't tell us which is which, because at bottom our knowledge (if we have it) necessarily comes from something other than pure human reason.
posted by gd779 at 9:44 PM on October 28, 2005


One side may be right and the other wrong; it's just that further discussion won't tell us which is which, because at bottom our knowledge (if we have it) necessarily comes from something other than pure human reason.

Well if we do actually attempt to reach bottom, and young earth creationists come with us, they might find that the truly rational assumptions underlying their logic are not as believable as the assumptions that underly science.

But maybe the opposite is true too. And despite your arrogant assumptions based on the tone of my posts, it's definitely something I want to learn more about and I'll try my little ol' best to comprehend some of the philosophy you've linked here.
posted by beegull at 12:38 AM on October 29, 2005


I didn't read much of Einstein, but what I read seems crystal clear to me and agreeable by approximation.

The situation may be expressed by an image: Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration towards truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason.

There's a lot of confusion between faith, religion, science ; there first two words are used too often as sysnonymous ( two words to which some give the same meaning are called sysnonyms) but they're NOT

Let's make an example: we're going to sleep this night and we know that the sun will be rising tomorrow ..but we can't see the sun right now because it's night. Clearly I believe in my idea that the sun will be rising, therefore by believing in something I can't see shows I've faith in something.

That's my belief that the sun will rise is based on observation , on my own memory..on the fact that everytime I went asleep it was dark and every time I woke up there was light and the sun was there. My faith is based on observation and repetition of the observation..it doesn't require any god.

Then I meet someone blind..the blind person always sees dark so he thinks I'm crazy..and it's no wonder because he physically can't see..but he doesn't know he's physically blind because he never has seen the light of sun. If I tell him he's blind he'll probably reject the notion..that would mean not being able to understand and know oneself, indeed a scary proposition.

Similary, people with a belief often don't often question their belief ..and sometimes one can understand why we don't ; we're either preoccupied with other problems (growing food, hunting, getting money ,whatever) or their particular belief or we find that particular belief to be acceptable and even pleasurable or reassuring

For instance, the belief that there is one God creator and that he's benevolent and that the answer to anything is rather reassuing , the belief that there's life after death can be reassuring to those who fear death and almost everybody, more or less consciously, fears death.

In a way those belief can be welcome and maybe are useful but, if we choose to have such beliefs, then we should accept them blindly, as they don't resist rational questioning or sometimes are completely outside the sphere of analysis.

Unfortunately we can't simply sit down and accept blind beliefs..or we could , but that almost surely would lead us to suffer the rule of some theocracy... slowly but constantly pushing for a word in which the Priest rules and the rest of the world blindly follows.

And it doesn't have to be a spiritual theocracy either..other religions are based on faith on economic "invisible hands" and faith that public is always better then private or private always better then public..there could be a parascientific religion as well, as the dreaded Scientology which actively attempt to repress any dissent or disconfirming toughts.
posted by elpapacito at 1:10 AM on October 29, 2005


beegull: if it's not too time consuming, please enumerate a few of the substantive assumptions of science for me.

I already pointed to a few. I think I can point to others, as briefly as possible. gd779 referred to some interesting things on this; the best book I've seen on this, however, is The Great Dialogue of Nature and Space, by Yves Simon. That's not an easy book, either, though I highly recommend reading at least the first essay in it.

Anyway, there are a few things that science has to assume. First, it's important to get a handle on what we mean by "science," and where it came from. Most people have the idea that science has always been around in some form or another. This idea tends to reinforce the feeling that the assumptions of science are unassailable.

But what we call "science," the method and outlook we signify by the word and all the intellectual and emotional baggage attached to it, arose about five hundred years ago. People like Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Francis Bacon, and others formulated the modern scientific method in the hope that, contrary to the beliefs of some contemporaries, we really can have certain knowledge of the world around us. This is the founding assumption of science, of course, and even scientists of ancient times (Aristotle and Archimedes, for example) at least entertained the thought.

But the new wave of scientists over the past few hundred years were radical in their belief that true knowledge of the world, clear and distinct, was immediately available to us; much of the philosophers who supported the new science were bent on proving this. Furthermore, scientists assumed certain other things. Anyone who believes that categorical and rational observation will reveal the truth about the world must assume: first, that the world is rational, and in particular rational in the exact way that we think it ought to be; second, that the truth about the world always stays the same, and never changes, so that an observation now (for example) will be consistent with an observation two minutes from now or two hundred years from now; third, that there is a 'world,' in the sense that there is a single, whole universe, wherein the same rules apply everywhere.

In short, the new scientists of the last five hundred years have assumed radically that there are laws by which the world works and always must work. To assume this is to assume that there is no higher being who might violate those laws, or to assume that the higher being is those laws. Baruch Spinoza, who (in an extremely important book called The Theologico-Political Treatise) stated the new scientific project with utmost clarity, was more honest or clear that anyone else has been: he used the words "God" and "Nature" interchangably, and took "God" to be the aggregate of all the inviolable laws by which the world functions. This was the goal of the new science: to reach a knowledge of God, and thus the whole world, through observation and thought. (One can see this very clearly, for example, in the last section of Isaac Newton's Principia.)

The difficulties that this project met with in the 1800s led many to draw back from this a bit. With the advent of 'positivism,' some began to claim that science doesn't give us truth, but only a likely story, and that its goal is merely to build working bridges and save us from diseases and such. But the question still remains: is it rational to assume there isn't something more to the world than laws? When I study the systems, for example, of the Greeks, or the Hindus, I see a lot more wonder, and a lot more openness to the world and what it is. What's more, the old religious claim that there might be a God who intervenes in the world and changes it in ways we can't understand still has force. On this, I'd like to quote what I believe is a very provocative statement by Leo Strauss:

Now there is today, I believe, still a very common view, common to nineteenth- and twentieth-century freethinkers, that modern science has refuted revelation. Now, I would say that they have not even refuted the most fundamentalistic orthodoxy. Let us look at that. There is the famous example which played such a role still in the nineteenth century and, for those of us who come from conservative or orthodox backgrounds, in our own lives: the age of the earth is much greater than the biblical reports assume. But this is obviously a very defective argument. The refutation presupposes that everything happens naturally; but this is denied by the Bible. The Bible speaks of creation; creation is a miracle, the miracle. All the evidence supplied by geology, paleontology, etc., is valid against the Bible only on the premise than no miracle intervened. The freethinking argument is really based on poor thinking. It begs the question. Similarly, this applies to textual criticism-- the inconsistencies, repetitions, and other apparent deficiencies of the biblical text: if the text is divinely inspired, all those things mean something entirely different from what they would mean if we were entitled to assume that the Bible is a merely human book. Then they are just deficiencies, but otherwise they are secrets.


posted by koeselitz at 6:24 AM on October 29, 2005


Unfortunately we can't simply sit down and accept blind beliefs..or we could , but that almost surely would lead us to suffer the rule of some theocracy... slowly but constantly pushing for a word in which the Priest rules and the rest of the world blindly follows.

Agree, and the Priest would soon become corrupted by absolute power, as anyone would, as history more than adequately shows. In Christianity this is the point and motivation of Protestantism.
posted by scheptech at 7:28 AM on October 29, 2005


schleptech: "Agree, and the Priest would soon become corrupted by absolute power, as anyone would, as history more than adequately shows. In Christianity this is the point and motivation of Protestantism."

"The Priest" still rules. He's just gotten much better at making people believe in him; by asking less of people, and giving them a lot of material goods. As a wise old professor of mine once said, on being asked if he believed in God: "everybody believes in God. It's just a question of what you think God is."

If by "religion," one means "stifling dogmas which are accepted blindly without any rational thought," then "religion" is alive and well. Some (well, I, for one) might make the argument that it's more alive and well today than ever before. At least in the religious ages of the past the alternatives "believer" and "unbeliever" were available, and unbelief was a possible, if ill-advised, option. Today, not agreeing with the presumptions of science is incomprehensible even to most "religious" people, and not believing, for example, that the motion of objects is regular and predictable as defined by certain laws, is seen as mere foolishness, the act of an idiot. We're more closed-minded than ever.
posted by koeselitz at 8:27 AM on October 29, 2005


and not believing, for example, that the motion of objects is regular and predictable as defined by certain laws, is seen as mere foolishness, the act of an idiot

There you go, it is seen as by somebody , but not necessarily by everybody. I really don't think we're more close-minded then ever, I think there will always be some close mindend stubborn people but they're only part of the living human beings..the majority is just plainly ignorant.

Ignorance can be addressed and reduced by education, but what about stopping these who promote apathy attempting to undermine rational and critical tought ?

He's just gotten much better at making people believe in him

True and and the good signals are being lost in a sea of noise ..no wonder trash tv/radio/media isn't opposed from powers that be..some religion even have joined the club with channels constantly repeating prayers and prayers with hypnotic effects.
posted by elpapacito at 9:15 AM on October 29, 2005


In short, the new scientists of the last five hundred years have assumed radically that there are laws by which the world works and always must work.

I think you're right that science must make assumptions like this for the methodology to work. But the laws themselves do not have to be limiting. If the exact same experiment is run at two different times, with two different results, science does not burst into flames because of the conflict. A new theory would have to be created to explain that, and with enough evidence pointing in that direction, that theory could even involve god. It seems to me that, even though the god of the bible was doing all sorts of things that affected the physical world in ways that would have obviously broken the scientific laws we have now, he's made himself pretty scarce since science became so popular.

When I study the systems, for example, of the Greeks, or the Hindus, I see a lot more wonder, and a lot more openness to the world and what it is.

You obviously have very strong assumptions about "the world and what it is" that has nothing to do with problems in the scientific method. In my world, and what it is, science is open enough to explain or at least provide a model for explaining the things I have experienced and the beliefs I've derived from that experience.

My own feeling is that science, or religion, is all about building models of the universe, and that science is so far a much better way of building models than religon ever has been, msotly from a pragmatic perspective, but also from the perspective that, given it's assumptions about laws, and observing the natural world, people have come to alot of agreement on the models in science.

Religions that allow for revelation, and allow for real priests, not priests by your definition, start from assumptions that make questioning the knowledge gained through revelation difficult. If you assume that people can have real revlations, you still need tools to distinguish between prophets, let's say, and people that are insane attention-whores. It may be that we have the tools to distinguish between those things now, or some people have at some time, but I am skeptical about how much peopl actually go through that process of question their prophets before following them.

If all religious people were willing and able to question their prophets and assumptions, I think religion would be a much more positive force. Even though I have a strong bias towards science, because of my own life, my underlying belief is still that it is a framework for creating models which happens to be better than the others I've seen. And since the existence of a model of the world is pretty much inevitable as we interact with it, I'll stick with science to build my models until something better comes along.
posted by beegull at 10:38 AM on October 29, 2005


If all religious people were willing and able to question their prophets and assumptions, I think religion would be a much more positive force.

I'm with beegull here.

Now, I would say that they have not even refuted the most fundamentalistic orthodoxy. Let us look at that. There is the famous example which played such a role still in the nineteenth century and, for those of us who come from conservative or orthodox backgrounds, in our own lives: the age of the earth is much greater than the biblical reports assume. But this is obviously a very defective argument. The refutation presupposes that everything happens naturally; but this is denied by the Bible. The Bible speaks of creation; creation is a miracle, the miracle. All the evidence supplied by geology, paleontology, etc., is valid against the Bible only on the premise than no miracle intervened. The freethinking argument is really based on poor thinking. It begs the question.


Koeselitz: Logical argument and human reasoning generally are predicated on many of the same unproven assumptions you attribute to the scientific method. If you want to pull the rug out from under reasoning, generally, then you're left with no defensible basis for your arguments against reason. Your advancing a self-refuting proposition. Why should I buy an argument that explitly rejects the possibility of my evaluating it? You seem to be arguing, literally, for irrationality. That might seem defensible from your perspective (you might argue that just because a claim isn't rational, doesn't make it any less a de facto possibility), but the problem with your position is that I can just as easily take a position diametrically opposed to yours, and make exactly the same defense for it. You could claim it's a reasonable possibility that God created the world in 6 days and then created misleading evidence of longer-term geologic processes to test our faith; I could claim it's a reasonable possibility that a demon named Belial created an illusory world in which it only appears that God created the world in 6 days and that evidence of longer-term Geologic processes are actually traces of the real world that Belial forgot to obscure. Or I could argue that a pair of omniscient and omnipotent magical scissors created the world by spontaneously cutting it out of whole cloth. Or anything else that I managed to firmly convince myself of for that matter. Do you really believe thinking along such lines has the potential to create anything more than an endless series of rhetorical arguments that lead nowhere? The scientific method, at least, has an empirical component to complement its reasoned arguments: What you seem to be proposing is just a never-ending game of he-said she-said, with the only evidence for any claim being the extent to which others will believe it. To me, that smells like BS most foul. I still hold to a very firm belief that scientific reasoning is ultimately not in the slightest way anathema to the deeper spiritual and religious impulses. Is there a conflict between science and some of the more superficial and unreflective religious claims? Yes, but that misses the point.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 8:20 PM on October 29, 2005


"this doesn't mean that the Young Earth creationists and modern scientists are equally right. It simply means that the problem cannot be resolved rationally. One side may be right and the other wrong; it's just that further discussion won't tell us which is which, because at bottom our knowledge (if we have it) necessarily comes from something other than pure human reason." ( gd779 )

So we can't really determine which model of reality is closer to the truth, can we ? [ I was hoping to preclude this sort of answer by conspicuous name dropping ]

And - if so - what right does government have to keep parents from teaching their children to reject the Copernican model of the Solar System ?

None, I'd say, but for the imperatives of Democratic societies - which need common language and belief.....

And also for the fact that science currently makes some strong claims about the continued viability of life on Earth :

I guess those claims are just as valid ( or not ) as any random punditry, chatter or raving one might hear.

Yet, somehow my computer and microwave function - magic ? Luck ?

Yes, I know you're not making such claims of equivalence - you're just asserting that evaluation is not possible. Maybe so.

But the Greek Skeptics asserted similar positions - which I deem to be ironic or specious - thousands of years ago.
posted by troutfishing at 8:46 PM on October 29, 2005


But the Greek Skeptics asserted similar positions - which I deem to be ironic or specious - thousands of years ago.

And this is the point. We do not simply conclude that a position is specious from the force of our objective rational analysis; we deem it to be specious. We do not find truth, we make it.

This is not a criticism: we have no other choice but to make up our truths, at least if we are to avoid the abyss of nihilism and total skepticism. The truths of reason necessarily unfold in relation to a proposition which they do not generate; that proposition (or propositions), whatever it or they are, are a person's faith, a person's God, if you will. But "objective rational analysis" is quite simply beyond our reach; to invoke Nagel, there is no "view from nowhere". An objective rationality is impossible; objective truth is out of our reach, and we all stand on a foundation of pure dogmatic faith, whether we realize it or not.

(To put it another way: people who live in glass houses ought not to throw stones).

I think the best summary on this subject is provided by the eminent German epistemologist, W. Stegmuller:

The academic expert, concentrated on his special field (mathematics, history, natural science), does not like to be told that basic assumptions of his thinking are metaphysical in character; the metaphysician does not like to be told that his mental activity rests on a prerational, primordial decision; philosophers of all types — apart from skeptics — do not like to be told that the kinds of skepticism that are to be taken seriously are irrefutable; and skeptics themselves, of all shades, do not like to admit that they cannot prove their standpoint. Such a complex assessment more or less provokes the indignant protest: "This cannot possibly be your last word. One way or another, there must be a solution of some kind." To which I can only reply: "The solution is in your hands, at any time. Make up your mind. Decide."

— W. Stegmuller, Metaphysik, Skepsis, Wissenschaft [Metaphysics, Skepticism, Science], 1954, 2nd ed., Berlin/Heidelberg/New York, 1969, pp. 1-2.

posted by gd779 at 7:49 AM on October 30, 2005


"None, I'd say, but for the imperatives of Democratic societies - which need common language and belief..... "

"Hi, my name is Plato. Have you heard about this thing, 'the noble lie'? It really is necessary for the Republic."
posted by klangklangston at 9:29 AM on October 30, 2005


Man. Sorry I missed most of this. Big Spinoza fan.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:48 AM on October 30, 2005


gd779: An objective rationality is impossible; objective truth is out of our reach, and we all stand on a foundation of pure dogmatic faith, whether we realize it or not.

I don't know why people keep bringing this up as if it is some kind of a radical revelation that we are all unaware of. Most people on the skeptical side of things agree that there are some limits to our knowledge that force us to either accept some things a priori or admit some wiggle room in regards to "Truth." Calling those core principles "faith" is a bit of a bait and switch though, because there is a pretty hefty difference between claims that basic arithmetic logic must be taken for granted, and claims that we know God bulldozed the surface of the Earth in a 40 day flood because he dictated his word to a few inspired prophets.

In other words, it is possible to reject a framework that has an unacceptably large number of contradictions in favor of one that minimizes those contradictions.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:48 AM on October 31, 2005


there is a pretty hefty difference between claims that basic arithmetic logic must be taken for granted

This is disingenuous. Read Quine, or most modern philosophy, and you'll find that the faith committments of any possible worldview necessarily go much, much deeper than that.

And that's presuming that it's possible to make a determination, ex ante, as to which faith committments are extensive and which are are not. Is one large faith committment better than many small faith committments? Is one implausible faith committment better than many plausible faith committments? How do we judge "plausible" and "implausible"? How do we judge "large" and "small", or even "one" vs. "many"? Is belief in the Christian God one plausible faith committment, or hundreds of interrelated and implausible faith committments? At bottom, these judgments are necessarily irrational assertions of our own predetermined preferences, as folks like Popper have argued.

In other words, it is possible to reject a framework that has an unacceptably large number of contradictions in favor of one that minimizes those contradictions.

Interestingly, there's a good argument to be made that evolutionary theory contradicts naturalism (defined here as belief that God and the supernatural don't exist) and is consistent with theism. For example, read Naturalism Defeated, a draft paper by Alvin Plantinga (Philosophy, Notre Dame).
posted by gd779 at 5:41 PM on October 31, 2005


So I'm curious, what are these faith-based assertions that supposedly undergird my worldview?

Stuff like knowledge of what part of the observable universe constitues my body? I'm just not sure what people are getting at when they make these claims. Sure, the senses can be messed with in odd circumstances (like when under the influence of drugs or extreme physical states or tricks or whatnot), but they are pretty damned reliable a huge, huge proportion of the time. That's what my experience of reality is based on - the things I sense and the patterns I observe with my mind. Where's all this faith that I'm accused of having?
posted by beth at 10:11 AM on November 1, 2005


Sure, the senses can be messed with in odd circumstances (like when under the influence of drugs or extreme physical states or tricks or whatnot), but they are pretty damned reliable a huge, huge proportion of the time.

That seems to be true. And even if it weren't true, a naive skepticism that simply denies the physical world would be easy enough to counter - since this is the world as I perceive it, this is the world that I care about. Doubt that my senses represent the "real" world is arguably irrelevant for most people.

But that's not where your real faith committments lie. You mention that your beliefs are based on "the patterns I observe with my mind". What Quine points out is that those patterns, which feel to us compelling, are, when rationally examined, simply one of a nearly infinite number of equally rational patterns that our minds could have chosen. Worse, when we chose among the seemingly infinite number of patterns that can be squared with our sense experience, there is no strictly rational way of saying that Pattern A is more likely to be true than Pattern B. We feel that A is better than B, but upon close examination we can't prove it rationally, because if both patterns are consistent with our sense experience, then how do we know which actually reflects reality?

Is the chair in this room made of wood? It looks like wood, but what if it's actually made of a plastic that just appears to be wood? We could touch the chair, maybe break it apart and look at the insides, but maybe it's just a very good, meticulously constructed fake, and even the internal plastic appears to be real wood from a real tree? So far, both arguments are completely consistent with sense experience.

In the last case, if pressed hard enough, we could even plead hallucination or amend the laws of logic: as Quine points out, "revision even of the logical law of the excluded middle has been proposed as a means of simplifying quantum mechanics; and what difference is there in principle between such a shift and the shift whereby Kepler superseded Ptolemy, or Einstein Newton, or Darwin Aristotle?" These latter arguments (pleading hallucination, especially) seem to us to be "desperate" and "implausible", but how can such judgments be rationally defended, if our only weapon is pure reason without recourse to dogmatic assertion and faith? After all, both the argument that the chair is a hallucination, and the argument that the chair is real wood, can be squared with sense experience - who hasn't had a dream that felt real?

One might respond, as I didi above, that "who cares if, strictly speaking, I can't prove to you that the chair is real, it feels completely real to me and this doesn't feel like a dream and that's what matters". But then how can you answer the Christian who makes the same argument about God?

Alternatively, one might argue, using Occam's razor, that belief in the chair is "simpler" or requires fewer assumptions. Setting aside the truth of that argument, can you rationally defent the proposition that simple beliefs are more likely to be true? Or is that just another assumption, made on faith, which helps you to deal with the overwhelming complexity of reality?

Let's take a step back. Our minds seem to be built (evolved? designed? whatever) to strongly prefer the apparent safety of belief in certain patterns. When these basic patterns of belief are challenged, they can become inventively defensive and even angry. So the best way to see this argument, really, is to abstract away from any particular belief, and consider the justification of beliefs in general.

Say that one wanted to form a perfectly rational belief about Proposition X. How would you do that? You'd have to have "evidence". This evidence, to be logically valid, would generally take the form of a chain of reasoning: I believe Proposition V to be true, which logically implies W, which logically implies X. The question is, how far down must that chain of reasoning go?

There are three possibilities: 1) the chain is infinite (it is "turtles all the way down", 2) the chain is circular (the conclusion which you're trying to "prove" is itself used as proof) or 3) the chain is finite, and at some point there is a Proposition A which is not rationally justified in any way - that is to say, it is assumed, or taken on faith.

Now, assume that when you're trying to determine the truth of Proposition X, which some people say is true and some people say is false.

X is controversial, because some people believe (way down their chain of reasoning) in Proposition A and some people believe in Proposition A'. How do you rationally decide whether to believe in A or in A'? You can't! If you could rationally decide between A and A', then you'd have to come up with a reason (Proposition A-1) for your choice, in which case A would no longer be your bedrock First Premise, and then you'd be back to square one when trying to decide between Propositions A-1 and A-1'!

So, in the abstract, it is clear that the propositions of "reason" necessarily unfold in relation to a proposition which they don't generate. That proposition - God exists or he doesn't, miracles are possible or they aren't, the world is entirely naturalistic and mechanistic or it is not - determine the entire content of your subsequent beliefs.

Here is Professor Johnson (law, UCLA) summarizing this problem:

What we think is reasoning is very often rationalization. When you speak of rationality, there are two very distinct components. One is logical reasoning, which is about going from premises to conclusions, conclusions that should be as good as your premises. Thus, logic will get you into insanity if you’ve got the wrong premises.

The other component of rationality is having the right premises. How do you get them and how do you determine that they are right? Not by logical reasoning, surely, because then you would be reasoning from other premises in order to justify them. There is an instinct, or revelation, or whatever you want to call it, that underlies your thinking, and the only interesting problem in philosophy is how you get that.

After figuring that out, it was the death of rationalism, as far as I was concerned. The problem with rationalism is that it isn’t rational. It fails to give sufficient importance to the development of the choice of the right premises; it tries to justify them by circular reasoning.


Since we are on the subject of God, I will borrow an example from Stanley Fish on the possibilities of miracles. People like Kirkjobsluder will assume, on faith, that miracles are impossible. They will assert that this belief is based on the "evidence", of course, just as the Christian will assert that his belief in the existence of miracles is based on the "evidence". But here is how Professor Fish characterizes this debate:

The central beliefs of Christianity cannot be falsified (or even strongly challenged) by evidence that would not be seen as evidence by those who hold the beliefs. If you tell a believer that no one can walk on water or rise from the dead or feed five thousand with two fishes and five loaves, he will tell you (in the mode of Tertullian) that the impossibility of those actions for mere men is what makes their performance so powerful a sign of divinity. For one party the reasoning is, "No man can do it and therefore he didn't do it"; for the other the reasoning is, "Since no man could do it, he who did it is more than man." For one party falsification follows from the absence of any rational account of how the purported phenomena could have occurred; for the other the absence of a rational explanation is just the point, one that, far from challenging the faith, confirms it.

When Neuhaus declares that essential Christian truth claims would be in very deep trouble "were a corpse to be identified beyond reasonable doubt as that of Jesus of Nazareth," it depends on what he means by "reasonable doubt." If he means the kind of doubt an empirically minded nonbeliever might have, then the doubt is a foregone conclusion since it is implicit in the way he (already) thinks. "A virgin birth? A God incarnate? A dead God who rises again? Come on! Give me a break!"

But if Neuhaus means a reasonable doubt a Christian might have then it would have to be a doubt raised by tensions internal to Christian belief, and not by tensions between Christian belief and some other belief system. An atheist might see the Holocaust as further confirmation of the doubt that is an article of his (non) faith ("See, I told you there is no God"); a believer might see the Holocaust as something difficult to reconcile with his conviction of a God who is merciful and he might find himself in a state of doubt. He might then be able to overcome the doubt by finding a way to understand the event that did not deny God's mercy; and then again he might not, in which case he would be in the middle of a crisis of faith. But whatever he did with the doubt, it will have been a doubt for him by virtue of what he believed and not because a challenge to his belief has come from someplace outside it.


To paraphrase Fish's later arguments for a bit: What atheists like Kirkjobsluder typically do (and note here that I refer to atheists like Kirkjobsluder, and not to atheists in general) is they dismiss the Christian belief in miracles as a belief that no "rational" person would subscribe to. But if Kirk were to make such an argument, all that he would have done is to have defined "rational" so as to make it congruent with the ways of thinking that he and those who agree with him customarily deploy.

An opinion that is "rational" is an opinion held by someone who argues from the same premises and with the same tools you do; an opinion that is "irrational" is an opinion held by someone who argues from premises and with tools you and your friends find provincial at best and dangerous at worst.

But at bottom our choice of toools and premises, our "patterns" of thinking, were not rationally chosen - after all, how can one perspective be said to be "rational" and the other "irrational", when both perspectives are equally consistent with sense experience?

Similarly, here is Thomas Nagel (NYU, philosophy and law), critically examining Intelligent Design:

Although I seem to be constitutionally incapable of religious belief, I find the contemptuous attitude toward it on the part of prominent secular defenders of evolutionary naturalism intellectually unreasonable. Unless one rules out the idea of divine intervention a priori (and setting aside the problem of evil), some version of the argument from design seems to me a perfectly respectable reason for taking that alternative seriously – no less so now that Darwinian theory has been elaborated through the great discoveries of molecular biology....

If one believes in God already, that belief will naturally form a part of the way one understands other things one knows about the world. If on the other hand one doesn’t regard the existence of God as a serious possibility, it will not be included among the resources that could conceivably be used to make sense of anything else. To someone for whom the possibility of an interventionist god is simply ruled out in advance, any problems in working out a purely mechanistic account of the evolution of life are nothing but intellectual challenges to evolutionary theorists to develop the theory further. There is no available alternative to an explanation in terms of chemistry and physics. To a believing Christian, on the other hand, the question is naturally open. After all, if God is responsible for the character of the world, including our existence, this responsibility might have been exercised only by establishing the eternal laws of physics, or it might have been exercised more specifically, by ordaining further principles, processes, or events not determined by the laws of physics.

Both the Christian and the atheist can agree that the hypothesis of intervention in the physical order by a creator, perhaps through the creation of very special initial conditions, would render the observed biological facts at least as likely as the hypothesis of blind physical forces, working ultimately through the processes of mutation and natural selection. But to an atheist the former hypothesis has zero antecedent likelihood, so there is no contest. It can be safely ignored, like the hypothesis that an otherwise inexplicable misfortune that has happened to me can be explained by witchcraft. Most of us would dismiss that hypothesis even if the misfortune followed the sincere attempt by one of my enemies, fresh from an overdose of Harry Potter, to cast an evil spell on me.

To a Christian, the possibility of divine intervention in the natural order is not ruled out in advance. Therefore the fact that such intervention would render certain observed facts probable is evidence in its favor, and it becomes one of the possible explanations of facts that might also be explained naturalistically, but that are by no means rendered more probable by the assumption of pure mechanism than they would be by purposive intervention. Perhaps on Christian assumptions it is a question left open by the available evidence, but it will certainly not be reasonable to think, as atheists naturally do, that there must be a purely mechanistic explanation of the origin and development of life.

To claim that that is the only reasonable conclusion for anyone to draw from the empirical data, the defender of evolutionary theory would have to claim that the belief in a god who can intervene in the world, like the belief in witchcraft, is itself irrational, and that it has been refuted by science. I am sure there are atheists who believe this, even if many of them would be reluctant to say so –- for reasons of tact if not of political prudence. But I believe they are mistaken: Neither belief nor disbelief in God is irrational, and the consequence is that two diametrically opposed attitudes toward the natural order are both reasonable.


These are all ways of approaching the same, central problem: reason requires evidence prior to belief; but evidence can only acquire its meaning in context; and the creation of a context requires preexisting beliefs. Thus, in the final analysis, it is not pure reason that does the work of deciding what we feel to be "true", but instead some other part of our minds that decides on truth and then justifies its decision by using reason to work out an agreeable context. As the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer said in one of his books: “In understanding we are drawn into an event of truth and arrive, as it were, too late, if we want to know what we ought to believe.”
posted by gd779 at 6:26 PM on November 1, 2005


And, by the way, there are very good methodological reasons why science, and by extensions scientists, simply cannot reason in the way that I'm describing. The "dogmas" (to use Quine's characterization) of reductionism and simplicity are helpful assumptions to make when you have to manage the rather messy process of scientifically exploring the world. But they are not, at bottom, rational, and they do not bear any necessary or logical relationship to the truth of the world as it really is. More to the point, there is no good reason for anyone other than a practicing scientist to accept these dogmas, and we only do so because, for many people in the Western world today, science is akin to something of a religion; it is the orthodoxy through which they view the world. (And rightly so: I don't wish to dethrone science, only to make non-scientists aware of the logical limits of its tools).
posted by gd779 at 6:36 PM on November 1, 2005


Your writing is quite eloquent and all, but you haven't gotten to the specifics that I was most interested in.

The fact that it is possible to be fooled by appearances doesn't mean that we must cast out appearances as evidence for anything, anywhere, at all times. Whether something is wood or not is something that can be confirmed between reasonable people - slice it, look at it microscopically, consider the state of the art in making faux-wood products, etc. See what happens when it burns.

I still don't see where faith enters the picture. It's all well and good to talk about generalities, and it sounds neat to be able to call everyone on their irrational base assumptions on which they build their worldviews ("See! It's all built on nothing provable! My belief system is as good as yours! HA!"), but face it: some base assumptions are way more rational than others.

Let's take just one premise: belief in eyewitness testimony, and "evidence" from personal experience. I'm guessing a Christian would give a lot more credence to this notion than an atheist. I'm thinking of prophetic experience, belief in revealed religious truths, that sort of thing.

But we can look at how eyewitness testimony plays out in real life, by doing experiments - and what is found is that it's not so reliable after all. Also, people often lie or embellish their experiences (for all sorts of reasons), and we know this because sometimes we catch them doing it, and / or they confess. You can also look at how people respond to pressure to say that something happened - witness the preschool sex abuse scandals that involved dozens of children being convinced by their interviewers to say that abuse had occurred, where none had.

I'm saying we use evidence and investigation to find out what types of information are reliable, and how reliable they are. We also discern based on specifics of the situation at hand - are the claims extraordinary? Does the person have an identifiable agenda that is advanced by the claims? Does the person's story change with each retelling?

This is just one small area where we have to deal with trying to figure out the truth. And yes, I am aware, it is possible to split hairs and get all anal-retentive about Exactly What "Truth" Means, but I'm not talking theory, I'm talking the practicalities of real life. The vast number of questions of truth we deal with in day-to-day life are quite conventionally knowable. Taking the nuanced or ambiguous cases and blowing them up in importance doesn't change the fact of the usefulness of truth-detecting for all sorts of purposes.

I mean, seriously, we all do this. "Gee, my car keys aren't where I usually put them.... was I absentminded, or did gnomes sneak in and move them?". Certain theories are far more plausible than others.

Okay, sorry, I'm rambling. But seriously, I am sincerely trying to figure out something I believe that is based on faith, and I can't come up with anything. Everything I can think of that I believe is based on evidence of some sort, and there are lots of things that I believe only partially, or qualified with stuff like "based on what I have seen so far" or "in my experience, though I know others have had different results" or things like that. Not everything in my mind is binary black-or-white, there is lots of gray, and it's always changing based on new data. Plus there are lots of questions where it really doesn't matter to me one way or the other so I just leave it open and undecided.

To me, the big problem with faith is pretty much as follows: if you can believe X without evidence, then you can believe pretty much *anything* without evidence, which is a horrifying, terrifying concept. A weakness like that can be misused, manipulated, and exploited in oh-so-many awful ways. History abounds with examples.

I understand that religion is a comfort for many people, and it gives them pleasure. I also understand that some people are kinder to their fellow humans in the presence of religion than they would be without.

I suppose the same can be said of people under the influence of various drugs (ecstasy comes to mind), but we don't automatically conclude that a drug habit is a good thing. We have to look at the negative effects, too.

I'll stop there, I'm rambling too far afield, sorry.
posted by beth at 8:32 AM on November 2, 2005


face it: some base assumptions are way more rational than others.

I'm not sure that you're taking the word "assumption" seriously here. An assumption can't be rationally evaluated because it is, well, assumed.

I am aware, it is possible to split hairs and get all anal-retentive about Exactly What "Truth" Means, but I'm not talking theory, I'm talking the practicalities of real life.

Well, as a practical matter, you may believe whatever you wish to believe, and there is very little that I can do about it. If you're not willing to carefully examine detailed logical arguments (and I conceed that there's no good reason why you should want to do such a thing), then there's no point in saying anything about the subject at all.

Imagine a physicist who has difficult but mathematically valid proofs of certain weird behavior caused by quantum mechanics. He may well be right in what he thinks is happening "under the surface" of the physical world, but if people don't care enough about physics to deny or question their own practical, everyday, Newtonian worldview ("who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"), then he might as well keep his insight to himself. And then most people will go on contentedly believing that the world is purely deterministic, despite the willingness of the physicist to pay attention to what he could learn from "nuanced and ambiguous" cases.

The point is, the world is often very different than we expect, and seeing that sometimes requires difficult effort and great attention to detail.
posted by gd779 at 7:27 PM on November 2, 2005


(and setting aside the problem of evil)

Nice parenthetical! Nagel loses me there. It must be nice to live in a bubble free from the very sorts of stuffs that call the assumptions of your basic world view into question. You know, "God" forbid.
posted by joe lisboa at 12:13 AM on November 6, 2005


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