Tag Archives: faith

Question Everything (Except…)

tumblr_m8tq30CQvB1rq27uuo1_500In his “Miracle of Theism”, Mackie discusses the idea that people might believe in God without any rational reason. In fact, he discusses a few ideas under that heading, asking whether fideism (belief without reason) can be an intellectually respectable position.

My position, like Mackie’s, is that it cannot. In fact, I want to do Mackie one better and say that “just because I believe” is not an intellectually respectable position regardless of the content of that belief.

Mackie, it seems, is only interested in this question as it relates to theism. It never seems to occur to him that, if one must give a reason for one’s beliefs, then materialists, neutral monists, non-reductive naturalists, and other non-theists must also defend their views.

It is, I would say, the general approach of the non-theist to appeal to his/her views as a sort of default position, a thing not to be questioned in the same way that other views are.

But, not only does this distort any real attempt at getting at truth, it prevents non-theistic views from really being examined or refined. As one who believes in questioning–in subjecting views to scrutiny, I’ve believe in the value of challenges, and don’t trust a view that I’m not allowed to question.

Of course, there are those who would balk at the idea that one is allowed to question theism (usually seizing the chance to mock it), but their actions betray the lie. They’ve been given the right to question theism, as is evident from the fact that they’re openly questioning it.

And I have no problem with questioning in itself, but simply take the same approach to the assumptions of non-theist views.

But Mackie doesn’t object to this so much as fail to notice that it is a significant point. If he can’t defend his view on the same terms that he asks that theism be defended, then he has not made a case that his view is superior.

These Goal Posts are Heavy!

football_players_moving_the_goalpost_450In attempting to use the problem of evil as an argument against theism, you’ll recall, Mackie agreed that he has no basis for saying that evil actually exists. Rather, he’s (purportedly) pointing out a logical contradiction between the theists’ position. We believe that evil exists (in some form or another), and he means to show that this contradicts our belief in a good God.

And this is important to keep in mind, because Mackie frequently argues by requesting evidence for the theist’s position. Thus, he seems to be shifting his goal posts as the momentary need arises.

Similarly, he argues from his own inability to picture reasons why a claim might be true. He answers the claim that freedom, in the end, brings about more good than bad with “whatever the valuable, other, aspects or consequences of freedom may be, it is at least logically possible that they should exist without such variation, that is, without bad choices actually being made”.

This section is peppered with this kind of thinking, and it is (whether he realizes it or not) an abandonment of his argument. Simply saying that something is possible does not mean that the theist has contradicted herself.

There are answers that could be given (such as the idea that our having knowledge that our choices are of moral significance is deeply important to God). But the point isn’t whether the theist can show that these are, at the end of the day, good answers. To show a true logical contradiction, Mackie needs to show that they can’t possibly be correct.

He also thinks that the theist needs to prove that we need libertarian free will to make real choices. Some people (the compatiblists) are convinced that one can be said to have free will, even though one’s decisions are completely determined by one’s brain chemistry and the corresponding laws of science.

Most people don’t see that as free will at all. Mackie is allowed to disagree if he’d like, but he is not allowed, in “pointing out a contradiction within theism” to insist that the theist needs to offer evidence that compatibilism is wrong. Yet he does exactly that.

To be fair to Mackie, he does, after a couple of pages on this, admit that this argument is fallacious. But this leaves one wondering why he included these pages at all. Certainly, it serves no purpose but (whether intentionally or not) to act as a rhetorical flourish, leaving the reader feel that theism has other problems that aren’t being answered by the free will defense.

Of course, theists have answered those problems elsewhere, but Mackie includes no two-page digression on those answers.

Instead, he offers an incorrect view of what theists mean by free will.

I don’t think this is intentional, but it is a problem nonetheless. Mackie seems unable to envision any description of human choice other than determinism and randomness (a la Copenhagen quantum mechanics).

He goes on to say that none of these help the believer in libertarian free will. Indeed, they do not for the very simple reason that he has left the actual position of libertarian free will off his list of possibilities.

Essentially, he’s still thinking like a materialist. He’s left out the possibility that the mind could be something other than the interaction of neurons (as materialists envision the interaction of neurons). Of course this leaves him with only these options, but this is precisely what the libertarian denies.

Mackie continues on for a few more pages, ostensibly trying to figure out what is meant by “free will”, but arguing at every turn that such things need to be proved.

And this is, again, shifting goal posts. Mackie is claiming to have seen a logical contradiction in the theist’s position. He, therefore, needs to show us a contradiction, not merely request more proof of the sub-points within that position.

At this point Mackie returns to the main argument “confident that it is not logically impossible that men should be such that they always freely choose the good”. But this, itself, a misstatement of the argument. It was never about logical impossibility, but about the logical fit to the goals of God.

Nor do I see anywhere that Mackie has actually given a reason for the confidence anyway. What he has done is insist that the theist prove that his position is impossible–and completely misunderstood the arguments given.

But, Mackie isn’t quite finished; he then moves to Plantinga’s (well-known) version of the argument. I’ll discuss that in a later post.

Embracing the Irrational?

Life_of_Pi-1I finally got around to watching “Life of Pi” this week.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with the statement that it was beautifully filmed. It is clearly a great picture, and deserves to be praised on those grounds.

But I completely reject the central message.

Just to get it out of the way, this isn’t because the lead character “practices” several contradictory religions. Yes, that is impossible, and promotes a certain relativism about religion that is far too popular, but I wasn’t too surprised by that.

In fact, the story really got to the core of that position.

That is, it promoted the idea that it is belief itself, not the truth of our beliefs, that matters.

This is a certain kind of fideism. That is, faith as many atheists like to define it (“belief without evidence”). While such belief can give us hope and a sense of purpose (neither of which should be underestimated), it divides our minds further into the distinct compartments of intellect and emotion.

Those that take this view of spirituality are double minded. On the one side, he believes, but on the other, he knows he has no rational reason for that belief. On this schema, which side is dominant is the only difference between the passionate believer and the passionate atheist. Both are deeply committed to half of themselves, and one is suspicious that the impatience each has with any who disagree is something more than impatience.

Rather, this type seems always to be arguing with the half of himself that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

Any philosophy worth living needs to be more holistic than that. It needs to to be both grounded in reason and speak to the real issues of life. It needs to reunite the warring factions of the mind.

And that brings me to my definition of “faith”: the coming to personally accept and live out the logical consequences of what one claims intellectually.

Whether one calls this practice “faith” or not, this is the approach we need. Neither bold fideism nor demanding evidence while living relativism is a path to what Jung called individuation. It is a path from, rather than toward, enlightenment.

Putting it All Together

Jesus_Mosaic_by_Mizun0hThough more will probably be added, I think enough has been said to demonstrate that there is more to reality than the physical particles and complex arrangements of physical particles that science studies. But, if we accept that naturalism fails, we still need to ask ourselves what else reality may hold.

Or, more simply, we know that there is something “out there”, so what is it? Tying together several of the past discussions here, we see:

1. Much, if not all, of our mental lives would be included.

2. We know that the ultimate cause of physical reality (i.e. either the cause of the big bang or the cause of the multiverse if it exists) also lies outside the bounds of science.

3. If one accepts the reality of moral truth (as most all who are not beholden to naturalism do), then these, too, would be included.

4. We also see the order of the universe, which cannot itself be accounted for by science (which simply assumes it).

Looking at this list, many will find it hard not to conclude that the explanation for all these curious facts of reality is a single, transcendent God. The suggestion, at least, strikes me as a far more elegant way to account for the facts than any alternative on offer.

And there are many alternatives, most of them complex and inelegant mixes of various conflicting theories. When all is said and done, it seems that the overwhelming response to this is either to agree, or to assert that we simply don’t know (and apparently should avoid reaching a conclusion or looking into the matter).

But simply to ignore the pertinent questions and reasoning will not do. Rather, the rational person will accept the most plausible choice as a guide to reality. What is not rational is to insist that, until theism can be proved absolutely, we should live out our days as if naturalism is true.

Why Russell was Wrong III: Along Came Science

Carina-Nebula-250x230After making the (false) insinuation that theism is based on intellectual laziness, Russell moves on to discuss the Natural Law argument from a scientific perspective, in spite of the fact that this is a category error:

Nowadays we explain the law of gravitation in a somewhat complicated fashion that Einstein has introduced. I do not propose to give you a lecture on the law of gravitation, as interpreted by Einstein, because that again would take some time; at any rate, you no longer have the sort of natural law that you had in the Newtonian system, where, for some reason that nobody could understand, nature behaved in a uniform fashion.

Einstein’s contributions to physics are, to put it mildly, immense. What they are not, however, is an answer to the question of natural law. They do not explain why the universe, contrary to what most people expected, follows natural patterns. Rather, they describe one such pattern to a very high degree of accuracy.

Russell seems here to suffer from a misconception I mentioned in my previous post, which is to envision God as essentially a proto-scientific theory of the natural world which competes with modern scientific theories. Given this assumption, I’d completely agree that God is a silly proposal.

However, the abrahamic God has never been such a concept. The transcendent God proposed by western monotheism is not a scientific, but a metaphysical, claim. It is simply not a scientific hypothesis, and should not be treated as a competitor to General Relativity (or any other scientific theory).

The advance of science, therefore, is not a reason to reject the natural law argument. Rather, it is the success of science that is the primary support for the argument. As the original metaphysical grounding for modern science, God may well be the best explanation for why science works at all.

It was David Hume who, as a non-Christian, famously pointed out that modern people can offer no logical reason why science should work – even though it clearly does. The argument from Natural Law, then, is the position that Hume would have done well to look back to the original thing that made people think science would be worth investing their lives in (before it had proved itself): belief in a rational creator of the universe.

Russell then turns to the area of science which, on the surface, offers the strongest support for his position:

On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance;

This really seems to simply have replaced “laws of science” with “laws of chance”. Not only is quantum mechanics much less random than this implies, but this is completely beside the point in any case. The natural law argument does not preclude the idea that natural laws are statistical averages based on the properties of fundamental particles.

It’s fairly easy to see, actually, that the fact that we get a particular average for rolling double-sixes out of a pair of dice is precisely due to the structure of the dice. What is not so easy to see is that all of nature must have had a structure that makes it either consistent or intelligible, which is what Russell should be trying to prove.

This mistake, one suspects, is due to a failure on Russell’s part to realize that he’s not arguing against the God Christian theists actually believe in. The “God” he refutes is, again, basically a physical theory – a law of nature that explains gravity in the way that General Relativity does – rather than a metaphysical explanation as to why nature is consistent enough to have laws in the first place. The God he dismisses is actually a contradiction the God of the abrahamic faiths.

The fact that it was western monotheists who developed science goes completely overlooked by his reasoning here. If God were simply an answer to avoid real inquiry, science would never have been developed by believers in God. The natural law argument, in one sense, simply points out the importance of God to the foundations of scientific thinking.

And this is one thing, among many, that bothers me about the New Atheist project. After centuries of development of natural science by monotheists, committed to the idea that God would have created an ordered universe, a group of atheists seize on science as if it had been their idea all along. Slogans declare that, somehow, the view that helped to inspire science is somehow less scientific than the view that did nothing of the sort.

None of this means that atheists cannot be great scientists, but it should be clear by now that, in attacking the infamous “God of the gaps”, Russell is refuting a god that isn’t anything like the God that thoughtful Christians actually believe in.

Nor is he addressing the challenge leveled by the argument from Natural Law and acknowledged by Hume: secular views of reality give us no reason to think that science should work, whereas monotheism does.


I’m beginning to think that scientism is not only the greatest threat to religious belief in our current society, it is also the greatest threat to our discovering any valid philosophy of life.

That is, we seem to be heading back into the late nineteenth century mentality that science will give us all truth about life.

This, of course, immediately brings to mind the reasons why such an attitude failed – as well as the fact that our current optimism seems no more prepared for those difficulties than its nineteenth-century counterpart. The limits of science, the brutality of human nature, and the uncertainty of perception have not changed. I’ve even seen a growing defense of eugenics, as if the issues of corruption and discrimination have somehow been solved.

Rather, it has been shocking to me how many people find themselves unable to seriously question the idea that all truth is physical – that any true statement can be measured by science. Of course, philosophers are quick to point out that this belief, itself, cannot be measured by science and that, consequently, it fails on its own terms.

What concerns me, however, is the speed with which many try to rescue scientism from this self-contradiction. I’ve encountered several methods, all of which are poor, but it is extremely rare that a proponent of scientism seems to genuinely question the idea. I consider this to be extremely dangerous:

“Even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates. For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism [i.e. scientism]. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination?”

– E.A. Burtt

To simply believe the philosophy one absorbed from PBS documentaries and high-school science classes, rather than understanding the exact nature of the discipline of science, brings a sort of absolute certainty that allows all the judgment, ridicule, and tribalism we see in any fideism.

Rather than insist that the limitations we impose on reality are correct, or claim that the (often wild) extrapolations modern people make from science are automatically valid, let us be open to the idea that physical evidence is irrelevant to many of life’s biggest questions. Simply using the terminology of science does not make science applicable to the question.

As a professed lover of science, I’m offended that people can’t enjoy science for what it is – simply marveling at the insights it gives us – rather than feeling the need to eliminate all other forms of knowing. Is science not amazing enough until we declare our rejection of everything else? Certainly, science itself does not comment on other fields of study.

I find that, while I don’t need to believe in fairies to enjoy a garden, I can equally enjoy it without pausing to eschew all belief in anything which can’t be reduced to physical processes.

The Paradigm of Faith and the “Scientific Mind”

DNA ModelScience is, of course, the banner of the current atheist movement. Richard Dawkins has referred to the “scientific mind” as a state of thinking superior to, and incompatible with, religious belief. While I believe that it is much further from the actual reasons for the movement than its purveyors claim, the relationship between the scientific and the religious has become a key topic for many.
Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists often demand that science has settled the matter of God’s existence. Contrast this with Gould’s claim that science and religion have nothing to do with one another, and we see that the point deserves some attention.

First, it is true that the supernatural is not addressed by science. The scientific method, by definition, can only test the empirical. This is why it is ridiculous to attempt to assess the quality of a friendship, or the beauty of a sunset through scientific experimentation. It is also why science cannot tell us whether a thing is good or evil.
This point seems to have been missed by some who, reacting against “God of the gaps” apologetics, point out that the gaps are steadily closing, and that science has replaced religious belief. Such atheists often assert that religion is humanity’s pre-scientific attempt at explaining the world, but is no longer necessary now that we have a better system.
This, of course, completely overlooks the concept of paradigms, and that religion was never meant to address the questions science studies. The fact that people don’t abandon faith after learning of science should make it obvious enough that want of scientific answers is not the reason for belief in God.
But, if this is a common counter-apologetic, theists are partly to blame. We spent quite a bit of time and energy arguing for God’s existence on scientific grounds, and, like it or not, have impressed upon many the idea that God’s existence is basically a scientific question. Looking back, we should have been more careful.

There is a kernel of truth in all this, however. That is, such objections to God recognize that there is a scientific element to religion in general and Christianity in particular. While it is entirely true that spiritual, metaphysical, and supernatural claims can never be tested with science, the Christian God is God, not only of the unseen, but of the seen as well. While, for the most part, this means simply that he is the master of science, and maintains scientific order in the universe, it also significant that there are claims about the physical world made in the Bible. (The universe had an origin, for instance.) These are scientific claims, and should be treated as such.

Sir Issac NewtonOne of the many bold claims of Christianity, however, relates directly to science (though it is not properly scientific). It is the claim that science will work.
For most of us in the modern world, science is so “obvious” that we can hardly believe that it was not conceived of earlier. In truth, science is based on a number of philosophical assumptions that were anything but agreed upon outside of western monotheism.
Put simply, the early scientists believed in science because they made the absolutely radical claim that the world was rationally intelligible. They made this claim because they believed in a rational God.
In a sense, then, the success of science is a confirmation of monotheism. No other pre-scientific system of thought expected that science should work. While this does not prevent Buddhists, pagans, or atheists from becoming brilliant scientists, it does seem to establish that science and Christianity live quite peacefully with one another.

Of course, there are those who accept that there is no conflict between belief in God and what Richard Dawkins has called “the scientific mind”, but instead claim that specific findings of science contradict the tenets of Christianity. As an avid reader of both science and theology, I’ve seen no such thing, but will have to defer the matter to another post.