Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Emails with an Atheist - Part III

Yes, I do indeed believe that humanity can come to more accurately align our ideas about the world with reality. The scientific method and a skeptical worldview help us do that. Religion doesn’t.

A question: I’m quite impressed to hear that you agree that critical thinking and a scientific worldview can “work wonders” when comes to understanding the universe -- but I was thrown off by you specifically saying that these benefits apply to the “material” universe. Is there some other universe where critical thinking and a scientific worldview cease to be helpful in understanding?

A comment on faith: The word ‘faith’ is complicated; very complicated. It has a dozen different meanings, each one less comprehensible to me than the last. Earlier when I used the word, I meant the idea that it is virtuous to believe in something despite evidence to the contrary, or despite a lack of evidence. That seems to be the point of the Doubting Thomas story in John 20, isn’t it? “Blessed are those who have not seen but believe,” Jesus supposedly said.

Regarding the “secular, everyday” faith that you mentioned, I don’t use the word “faith” in that context. I do live my life by certain paradigms and conceptions, but I don’t think the word “faith” is accurate to describe any of them. I do, however, agree that there is a place for having, as you said, “a persistence of will regarding that which we are fairly certain is true.”

Hell: Regardless of if Hell is mentioned commonly in Catholic sermons, it is an article of the Catholic faith. In fact, the idea is fairly important to the notion of salvation at all; any Catholic who tries to understand salvation would necessarily encounter it and would be told that believe in it is necessary. It is, of course, a reprehensible, embarrassing dogma. The message is that if you disbelieve, there’s a chance you’ll be tortured forever. This teaching certainly does have a psychological effect on the doubter, and that’s shameful.

On to your questions: Sure, I believe in the human emotion called “love.” I’m rather compelled to, aren’t I? I suppose you should be concerned about me if I didn’t. Also, I do indeed enjoy art, music, and beauty generally. It’s in my nature. And of course, the scientific method and rational skepticism doesn’t have much to say about how an artist should paint, or how a musician should compose, or what a particular person should find beautiful.

But emotions and ascetics are in a whole different ballpark than an idea like “God impregnated a virgin with his son, who was also himself,” is it not?

Also, you seem to be using some special definition of Reason-with-a-capitol-’R’ that I’m unfamiliar with. Normally, I’d say that the kind of discourse one engages in when thinking about some objective facts about the universe -- like, say, man-made climate change, or economics, or the existence of God -- is totally different than the kind of discourse we engage in when discussing the ascetic value of a particular movie or piece of music. The first should rely on evidence and careful reasoning and a skeptical worldview, and the second is just, well, completely different. Anyway, I’m interested in hearing your next point on this subject.

Adam
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Dear Adam,

1. For your question, "Is there something other than a material universe," how should we attempt to answer that? Should we answer it with a religious prejudice, or should we use reason and examine the evidence?

2. Let's look at the Doubting Thomas passage as a story, without a claim that it's true. Let's suspend the investigation into whether or not it actually happened. The story as a story tells us this: Thomas doubts. He says, "Unless my senses provide me with clear evidence, I will not believe." Jesus appears to him. Thomas uses his senses to examine the facts - nail marks, side wound. He then believes - and rightly so, for within the confines of the story, at least, Jesus has indeed risen from the dead. (Remember, we are suspending all other claims of "religion" on this issue; we're just looking at what the story teaches). Thus, when Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen me, yet believe", He is simply saying, "Thomas, you have discovered via the scientific method what is true. Since this is true, those who believe in this truth without having to test the evidence are blessed." That's the point of the story, and that's the point of faith. But on the contrary, if we have faith in that which is false, we are fooling ourselves. As St. Paul says, "If Christ be not raised, then is our faith in vain ... and we are the most miserable of men." Indeed, if you have faith in a lie you are cursed; if you have faith in the truth you are blessed. Now, granted, this says nothing about whether those who have faith in God are right or wrong - whether their faith is valid or misplaced. But as far as the lesson of the story goes, it is correct. Faith in what is true is a blessing. Faith in what is false is a curse. I think we'd both agree on that. And faith is simply using your will to assent to something you think is true, but that you don't have complete knowledge of (which applies, on a practical level, to almost every single thing in life).

3. Hell. Yes, it's embarrassing and frightening, but is it true? Let's say a group of kids get stranded on an island, sort of like in "Lord of the Flies". They manage to survive and know nothing of the real world. One of the oldest ones says he thinks they will die someday, like the animals around them; he seems to recall his parents telling him something like this before the ship sank and the kids were washed ashore, separated from their families. The other kids say, "What an appalling idea! To think that we will rot and stink and just lie there forever! I object to that idea!" Well, obviously they may object away - and death is indeed objectionable - but is it true? You are correct that hell is part of Catholic teaching, but your objection to it (understandable and healthy as that is) tells us nothing of the truth of the teaching. Certainly, hell may simply be a myth used to bully and intimidate people. I will tell you that I have not seen it used like that once since I converted. I'm sure it has been used like that in the past, and even if true, the teaching is vulnerable to that kind of abuse; but still the question is, "Is this truth claim valid?" Is there a hell?

4. My point about Reason capital-R is that one can discover the truth in ways that are more broad than just via the scientific method. The things that poetry and music and art and love teach us are true things. Certainly, there's an element of subjectivity in assessing them. But the reason there are film critics, let's say, is there is some standard by which a work of art can be judged that is not merely arbitrary and subjective. You've probably seen movies and then said, "Well, it was a good film, but I didn't like it." My point is that our aesthetic sense is not merely a subjective sense, though it has many subjective elements in it. A great work of art is great because it attains some sort of objective beauty that most people can recognize. And this objective achievement can not be measured scientifically. I'm simply saying that scientific reasoning is very valuable and is a subset of Reason with a capital R. Reason includes science and is bigger than science; science is a type of and an example of the use of reason, but is not reason itself. For instance, this whole discussion is not merely scientific, as we're talking about things that science can not measure or address; but we're using our reason to do so. Now, the scientific method and logic will certainly be a part of this discussion - if science manages to prove the existence of God or disprove the existence of God, we have both agreed to accept what science teaches us, for we are both committed to accepting the truth and living by it, even if it hurts. I realize that we could get into a whole discussion about what science can and can not say about God, but I'm simply pointing out that science strictly speaking (measurement, hypothesis, experiment, etc.) is a very sharp tool but one that can't be used for everything. Hammers are great things. But you can't use them to paint a picture, at least not a very good one.

Well, this is all quite interesting. I'm glad that you're a patient and reasonable debater and that you're enjoying this. I hope we can both avoid the shrillness and name calling that sometimes characterize these discussions. So far we have, and that's why this is fun!

I suggest, however, that we focus on one thing at a time. Otherwise our emails will go on forever and I won't get anything else done in my life. Also, since one issue will lead into the next, let's just take our time and follow where each issue leads us, putting some things off for later. For instance, I think the key question at this point in our debate is the first one. How are we to determine if there exists something other than matter? This is not exactly the same thing as saying, "Is there a realm beyond nature?" It's a similar question, but it's still only a question about the natural world. Is there something other than matter and energy in the natural world, and what are we to use to essay this question? Reason or prejudice? How shall we approach the question of "What is the world made of?" - evidence and experience or unexamined dogma?

Kevin

4 comments:

  1. Brilliant Gentlemen! keep up the good work.

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  2. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.
    —Orthodoxy, Chapter III: The Suicide of Thought, 1909
    GK Chesterton

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  3. Well, one example of a non-scientific form of reasonable knowledge is mathematics. Natural science deals with the abstracted metrical properties of physical bodies; but mathematics deals with the abstracted properties of ideal bodies. The physical world contains this rock and that rock and the other rock, but mathematics contains the abstracted concept of 3. (3 may have physical instantiations, but 3 itself is not a material body.) One will never discover the irrationality of π using the scientific method, for any measurements of circumference and diameter of any physical circle will be good only to the number of decimal places the instrument can provide, and thus their ratio will always be rational.

    Metaphysical determinations are more like mathematical deductive proofs than they are like natural scientific inductions.

    Also - as Heisenberg once pointed out - materialism does not even give a good account of matter.

    For that matter, if the human mind is inherently incapable of discerning Truth due to all those biases, then what assurance do we have that natural science discerns truth? Because those who pursue it are purer of heart or of elevated mind? It is sometimes amusing to ask people to prove empirically that the earth turns on its axis or at least to explain how it is empirically known that it moves with a rectilinear motion. It usually turns out that they have know idea why it is true. They only know that it is true. They take it on faith, much as anyone lacking an accelerator in his basement must take particle physics on faith. Heck, even the proof that the world cannot be flat, as the Chinese believed in the 17th century, which was a trivial matter to the Greeks, draws blank-eyed stares.

    Defining "faith" as belief in spite of evidence is a formal fallacy in logic known as "begging the question" (a.k.a. "circular logic").

    It is also useful to distinguish between physical facts and physical theories. The theories are stories that seek to make sense of the facts. But natural science is underdetermined, and there is always more than one theory that can account for the same body of facts. So that whether one believes in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the Many-worlds interpretation, the transactional interpretation, or indeed the Thomistic interpretation, is largely a matter of faith.

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  4. That's pretty much the same thing Richard Dawkins explains in his article
    There is no God. He also points out how so many "believers" seem to hope for the end of the world. What a grim and sad thought.

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