Saturday, September 8, 2007

Faith, Belief, and Evidence

In a comment on my first post, I was asked the following question by TDW: "What about the concept of belief? You appear to extend this disbelief towards religious ideals, but end it there. How does the concept of belief (to believe in something without sufficient or even moderately sufficient logical evidence) play out in your world view. The concept seems, from your post, to be used in a slightly hypocritical manner, or perhaps you've compartmentalized the use of the concept? Or perhaps it is simply something I have not considered, which is why I ask."

This brings up something that I was planning to post about anyway, so I will answer it in the context of this post.

I have an unfortunate tendency, as TDW points out, to use 'believe' for things that I think to be true because of evidence, in the same way that I use 'believe' for religious beliefs, and that leads to a lot of confusion. What I should really be using is "religious belief", or "faith", which carries with it the connotation of "belief without evidence". I will endeavor to make this distinction better in the future, although I may slip up from time to time; feel free to call me on this.

I consider the two types of belief to be fundamentally different. Many people do not. I cannot count the number of times I've heard a variation of the argument that "it takes just as much faith to believe there isn't a God" or "it takes just as much faith to believe in evolution" or something else along those lines.

No. It does not. In the case of evolution, or many other scientific theories, believing them is a matter of believing the evidence. I do not "have faith" in the theory of evolution; if, somehow, it were entirely disproved tomorrow I would not continue believing in it in the face of contradictory facts. Of course, I would want to hear how the facts supported whatever replaced it. I approach just about everything in my life this way as well; whatever I believe is generally whatever best fits the facts. When I say I don't believe in something, that means that either I see no evidence for it or I see evidence contradicting it.

Let me expand on this for a minute. It illustrates perfectly my problem with the statement "it takes just as much faith to believe there isn't a God" - it's not so much a positive belief on my part as a lack of one. I think pretty much every atheist is like this, although some express more certainty than others. In fact, I think the entire spectrum of agnosticism and atheism (and, ultimately, religious belief) is pretty much one big sliding scale of percentages - the percentage chance that person gives to the existence of God. The truly waffling agnostics put this chance at about fifty-fifty - those are the people who refuse to take a stand one way or the other. Atheism is just a matter of crossing the threshold to the point where the probability you assign the existence of God is so vanishingly small that religion isn't worth considering seriously. All atheists are (or should be) in this position - yes, we cannot absolutely disprove the existence of God, but we consider it so improbable that we effectively disbelieve it, in the same way we effectively disbelieve Bertrand Russell's teapot. This position does not require faith - it is, in fact, the opposite of faith.

Earlier, I referred to faith as "belief without evidence". Let me expand this definition a bit - I think there are in fact two distinct kinds of faith, one more dangerous than the other. The first is my original definition. Believing that some sort of supreme being created the Universe is belief without evidence - there is no evidence directly against this (at least until we start assigning the creator testable properties), but there is no reason to think that there was some sort of creator without evidence of some kind. While it is much better to believe things only if there is evidence for them, this isn't necessarily a bad thing - optimism, for example, is often a case of believing without evidence that things will turn out alright. It is, however, a spectacularly bad supporting argument - "I have faith that this is true" should not (and does not, in my case) convince anyone of anything. I therefore tend to see this kind of faith as mostly useless, and something to be avoided in any case where I can actually gather evidence for one point of view or another. A lot of the "wishful thinking" aspects of religion fall into this category.

The second, and much more dangerous kind of faith, is "belief in the face of evidence". It is in this category that the most egregious religious offenses against reason fall - creationism, for example, is one big exercise in this kind of faith, especially young Earth creationism. There is a mountain of evidence that tells us the Earth is billions of years old. To ignore this, and believe it is some 6000 years old instead, or to make similarly ridiculous claims, is something that needs to be actively discouraged.

"But Micah," you might ask, "isn't it the right of everyone to believe what they want as long as they keep it to themselves?"

Well, yes. But unless you're living in a cave somewhere, this kind of faith is extraordinarily hard to keep to yourself, because even if you don't go trying to do things like put it in science classrooms, it does crippling damage to your ability to think rationally, and someone without the ability to think rationally opens themselves up to all kinds of extremely dangerous things. First, if someone actively ignores factual evidence and ignores rational arguments, there simply isn't any way to convince them they're wrong if they hold extremely harmful beliefs. We see the results of this most clearly in Islamic fundamentalism - how do you argue with people like that? They reduce the scope of rational argument to interpreting the passages of an ancient book - and nothing outside that book is a valid counterargument. Effectively, they have removed themselves from the scope of rationality, and in doing so have become civilization's greatest threat.

Now, obviously, not everyone who believes completely irrational things in the face of evidence will end up as a suicide bomber. But it opens you up to that kind of extraordinarily harmful fundamentalism, because if someone can convince you that the source of authority on which you base your irrational faith also supports harmful things, or things that are just blatantly untrue, there simply isn't any other avenue to convince you that you're wrong. When people say things like "There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that would convince me I'm wrong about the existence of God", I cringe, because what else do they apply this impossible standard to?

Why, therefore, do we as a society speak of a “man of faith” as if this is a positive characteristic? As I see it, depending on the kind of faith, it ranges from a slightly to extremely negative characteristic – and yet there is nothing more necessary for a political candidate in today’s society, and we constantly invite professional “men of faith” to share their opinions as if they have significantly more moral authority than the rest of us. It is especially mindboggling because it is only seen as a virtue in the case of religion – ask an economist to support their point of view, and if they cannot give you data to back their theories up, you have every right to laugh them out of the room. In the case of the hard sciences, you cannot even get published without exhaustively backing up your theorems.

It is my opinion, and I do not think I am being unreasonable in the slightest here, that belief backed by evidence is superior to faith, and especially to faith that contradicts evidence. And no belief, or faith, should be immune to challenge.

13 comments:

Divine said...

"I cannot count the number of times I've heard a variation of the argument that "it takes just as much faith to believe there isn't a God" or "it takes just as much faith to believe in evolution" or something else along those lines.

No. It does not."

Actually, I believe it does, but let me explain why. In order for something to have solid evidence, we must assume, or have blind faith, in that what we can observe and work with is reality. Granted, one might say this is new-age hippy crap, but I believe it's a solid argument based on the very nature of science itself. If we find out some key bit of information and all of the sudden everything we know is wrong in some way, then our concept of valid evidence was wrong. While the idea of science is built to adapt to such a scenario, we must still invest belief and evidence for that belief into how we perceive the world around us. This goes for religious and similar ideas as well simply because as unlikely as an unprovable idea is, it's still possible. Unfortunately, this is all apart of the human condition, and personally I'm all for scientific method and such, but it's an aspect that can't be discounted.

*shrugs*

"The truly waffling agnostics put this chance at about fifty-fifty - those are the people who refuse to take a stand one way or the other."

Not at all, though. I'm right there with you in that there is no evidence for some supernatural entity of all creation, as someone who considers themselves a scientist, I can't just will away that minute possibility. In-fact, considering some doctrine on the subject, the creator in Christian mythology doesn't want to be proven, which suggests that there may be a much higher possibility. Further, tribal magic and beliefs suggest spirits which reside in all things and explain the world around them. Can you honestly say that those spirits didn't cause the cause for the illness, or for the properties for x root? You can't, you can only state how we think it occurred naturally.

By taking out that remote possibility, you take it out without any evidence to do so, which seems like an awfully familiar concept. As an agnostic fellow myself, I hardly give it a 50:50, but I find no logical reason to just up and deny the possibility either.

"We see the results of this most clearly in Islamic fundamentalism - how do you argue with people like that? They reduce the scope of rational argument to interpreting the passages of an ancient book - and nothing outside that book is a valid counterargument. Effectively, they have removed themselves from the scope of rationality, and in doing so have become civilization's greatest threat."

While I agree that this certainly limits their ability to expand, change, and adapt.. or to 'improve' by our definition of the term, I believe that (with reasonable grounds to stand on, of course) there are many other factors that account for violent responses in that society. Thousands of years of tribal war long before the Koran got all popular, etc...

Things religion can do are great, and hardly always negative. Patience, wisdom, and many other positive traits come from religious ideals. For tens of thousands of years religion has been the social framework which has held together people and gotten us this far. Technology and a law based society has begun to replace what religion supplied people with before. Effectively, we're getting our opiates from another dealer now. As you said, civilization's greatest threat, I ask you who's civilization is it the greatest threat to? Ours, sure. For theirs, it's vital. If they give too much, it'll get overwhelmed by modern globalization as is happening throughout thousands of different cultures. Can you put a value on one culture over another, taking into consideration your own personal bias for your lifestyle and ideals? This is a hard question to answer. One the one hand, I would -love- the concept that humanity bands together and advances into crazy science and travel about (I hope to visit another planet before I die, feeble as that may be). On the other, it means the partial or complete destruction of so many other ways of life that work just well. As an anthropologist, this bothers me in a deep way. It's almost a case of not being able to prevent yourself from being selfish. One the one hand, you're the moral superior and your way is the best way. In the other, you force consistency upon people who would benefit in many ways from other cultures. Personally, I'm torn and bothered by the thought, but sound in the obvious reality that one of the two will occur.

Since I'm ranting, I'll end this here and see where that goes. I'm sure I'll add more if I can clear my head and think of something novel to say~

Micah said...

"Actually, I believe it does, but let me explain why. In order for something to have solid evidence, we must assume, or have blind faith, in that what we can observe and work with is reality. Granted, one might say this is new-age hippy crap, but I believe it's a solid argument based on the very nature of science itself. If we find out some key bit of information and all of the sudden everything we know is wrong in some way, then our concept of valid evidence was wrong. While the idea of science is built to adapt to such a scenario, we must still invest belief and evidence for that belief into how we perceive the world around us. This goes for religious and similar ideas as well simply because as unlikely as an unprovable idea is, it's still possible. Unfortunately, this is all apart of the human condition, and personally I'm all for scientific method and such, but it's an aspect that can't be discounted."

I'm afraid I agree with your first qualifier - it is, unfortunately, new-age hippie crap. We do everything we can, in science, to take out the human subjectivity and error, working as best we can with what senses our body has. There is a world of difference between saying "the evidence, based on the absolute best measurements of reality that we can acquire at present, says X" and "I believe in X just because" or "I believe in X because it is in this thousand year old book". If you take your argument to its logical conclusion here, then absolutely no claim has any priority over any other claim, and it requires just as much faith to believe we are not all the boogers of sophisticated space aliens or something equally ridiculous. Basically, I give the chance that our entire conception of reality is completely wrong about the same chance I give the existence of God - and I'm afraid I find this argument just as useless.

"Not at all, though. I'm right there with you in that there is no evidence for some supernatural entity of all creation, as someone who considers themselves a scientist, I can't just will away that minute possibility. In-fact, considering some doctrine on the subject, the creator in Christian mythology doesn't want to be proven, which suggests that there may be a much higher possibility. Further, tribal magic and beliefs suggest spirits which reside in all things and explain the world around them. Can you honestly say that those spirits didn't cause the cause for the illness, or for the properties for x root? You can't, you can only state how we think it occurred naturally.

By taking out that remote possibility, you take it out without any evidence to do so, which seems like an awfully familiar concept. As an agnostic fellow myself, I hardly give it a 50:50, but I find no logical reason to just up and deny the possibility either."

See, what you're doing here is engaging in a classic fallacy, very common to this debate. You're putting the burden of proof on me, to prove that X is not true, or did not cause Y. This is not only invalid, it's entirely counterproductive - there are infinite Xs, and if I spend my time trying to prove that each and every one of them is false, I will never get anywhere and I will do neither of us any good. Sure, I can't say for certainty that spirits didn't cause my illness - neither can I say for certain that my illness was not caused because Tad, the teenager in whose computer simulation we are all situated, pressed the "make Micah ill" button. But it does me no good to consider these possibilities - the natural explanation is the one that I can do something about, that I can repeat, that I can actually demonstrate in some useful way as the real cause. It's Occam's Razor again - if the answer is "because germs" or "because germs AND INVISIBLE FAIRIES", I'll go with "because germs" until the invisible fairies part actually has some positive evidence behind it.

The burden of proof is always on the person making the claim. If they can't back it up, don't bother wasting time on it.

And, again, you've misread me. I don't completely deny the possibility - but I think it so improbable that it is not worth considering in any serious sense. If you're crossing the street, you can't completely discount the possibility that you will be hit by a meteor in the very next second - but do you waste any time on this? No, because the chances are so vanishingly small that it's pointless wasting your time on it. Same thing here.

As for your last paragraph, it brings up some stuff I want to address in the future, so I'll leave it be for the most part. What I will say is yes, I do believe some cultures are superior to others - we've evolved past human sacrifice, for instance. Can't we evolve past fundamentalist hatred as well?

Divine said...

"See, what you're doing here is engaging in a classic fallacy, very common to this debate. You're putting the burden of proof on me, to prove that X is not true, or did not cause Y."

Actually, I didn't put any burden of proof on anyone. I was simply stating, as you mentioned, that you can't know. Agnostic-ism (Is that a word?) is simply a state of accepting that it's possible, not probable. Any day of the week I'd go with the more likely option. I totally give importance to the most likely of causes and only acknowledge the possibilities of the others because, as you said, it doesn't do any good (and to modify that quote, "...to consider that initially and equally").

"But it does me no good to consider these possibilities - " .. said the man of god as he turned and prayed, so devout in the belief that he was right so that other possibilities didn't need to be considered? A holy man who is open to new ideas gains more respect than a man of science constrained by their own. *shrugs*

Agnostic belief (to me) is more of the idea that one never discounts anything, but prioritizes likely-hoods. Sure, a rock from space could hit me any second, but it would be a waste of time to look for it as I would get hit by the much more likely car racing down the road.

It's not the answer for me that's most important, but how the answer is aquired... I think this would be a good way of stating it. The disregard of a possibility. If we just went and discounted an idea all willy-nilly because it's very unlikely and we can quote/apply Occam's Razor, science wouldn't be half as advanced as it is today.

That said, the topic here obviously isn't exactly the same, but I don't think it does us any good to just discount the supernatural in any/every form.

Micah said...

But people DO consider the supernatural seriously. Supernatural claims have been tested time and time again. Hell, if you can demonstrate a paranormal ability, conclusively, to James Randi, he'll give you a million dollars.

Nobody's ever done it, just as nobody's ever managed to provide any positive proof for the supernatural. So, yeah, I'll live my life under the assumption that it doesn't exist right up until the point that someone proves it does (which I consider very unlikely to ever happen). Again, I'm not completely discounting the possibility - but I'm not going to waste my time on it until someone demonstrates that I should.

You're very much right that with science, we have to consider the ridiculous claims - we ask for evidence, or if it's our own claim, we go and look for it. If we find it, then hey, we've taken a step forward. If we don't, or aren't shown any, then we go right back to not considering the claim.

Divine said...

I'm not one of those people though, and those people arn't agnostic.

"You're very much right that with science, we have to consider the ridiculous claims - we ask for evidence, or if it's our own claim, we go and look for it. If we find it, then hey, we've taken a step forward. If we don't, or aren't shown any, then we go right back to not considering the claim."

Science doesn't remove a possibility simply because it doesn't have any evidence. They just say, "there's no evidence for it". Not, "there's evidence disproving it". Individuals may "go right back to not considering the claim", but that's only because they cannot move forward with it at the moment. It doesn't disprove it.

What your argument reads to me, is that you're taking that blind step and saying the supernatural doesn't exist. Going "backwards" as it where, on the little line of scientific validity, when there is no evidence to go backwards. Thus it sits in the gray zone.

It's because of that uncertainty, that gray zone, that I can't just go and say it doesn't exist, even with the catch that one would change their mind if evidence came along.

Micah said...

I realize you aren't making any positive claims here - that "you" was more addressed to anyone making such claims.

What, though, are you willing to take that step on? What are you willing to say doesn't exist? Zeus? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? The Matrix? Unicorns? Give me an example here. Do you have one? If you do, the chances are that I put God and the supernatural in the same category you put your example.

The point with the supernatural, though, is that as soon as you start making positive, testable claims, either you run across evidence disproving it or you run across a much better natural explanation which renders your supernatural explanation moot. From my perspective, every positive claim ever made by a proponent of the supernatural has either been disproven or rendered moot, and there's been enough of them that I think the whole of the supernatural falls into the "doesn't exist" category.

Again, what "doesn't exist" means to me is that I consider the probability so vanishingly small that I am willing to take that step and say "it doesn't exist". This does not preclude me from being proven wrong - I am not saying "it doesn't exist, and no evidence could convince me it does". But I think that at some point, some level of certainty, you DO have to make the "it doesn't exist" claim, and that's what I do in regard to God and the supernatural.

Divine said...

"What, though, are you willing to take that step on?"

My ideal is not to take that step on anything, and I attempt to live up to that as best I can with the knowledge available to me. There are of course social exceptions where you 'believe' in an individual or person but those are unique situations where many other social and biological factors are in play, and is an entirely different realm of dealings.

"The point with the supernatural, though, is that as soon as you start making positive, testable claims, either you run across evidence disproving it or you run across a much better natural explanation which renders your supernatural explanation moot."

Maybe the scientific method cannot be applied to the supernatural because it works on entirely different concepts that those which our modern society follows. That's just another explination of why scientific evidence can't seem to support supernatural, but can't disprove it either. I'm not defending the supernatural, I just can't give any evidence against it, nor has anyone else as far as I know, so I have no reason to make the leap.

I also don't agree that one -has- to say, as you mentioned, that the supernatural doesn't exist. I would be an example of this. I may have wrong information causing my view on a subject to be pushed one way or the other, but as soon as it's corrected it returns to that gray area.

What's wrong about being in a state of limbo on the subject? There is no evidence for it to be wrong or right, so to me, it's just an unanswered question, stacked among the millions of others. Why do we -have- to know or say it's one way or the other? Why can't it just be "It's possible but highly improbable?"

Micah said...

If it's got testable results that actually affect our world, the scientific method can be applied to it. If it doesn't affect our world, then either doesn't exist or... it effectively doesn't exist, which amounts to about the same thing.

And the reason I say it doesn't exist rather than just saying "it's possible but highly improbable" on every single statement ever made is that the latter phrase, from my perspective, does no good at all - and is much less effective in arguing against really bad stuff.

Let's take a common example in regard to the supernatural - people who claim they can talk to the dead. When someone is being emotionally manipulated and bilked out of their money, does it really do you much good to waffle and go "well, there's an infinitesimal chance that it's actually happening, but it's almost entirely certain that they're full of shit"? Or do you want to be able to state to them definitively that no, this person cannot talk to their dead father, and here's why, and here's how they're faking it to manipulate you. Professing uncertainty in cases where there is no practical uncertainty whatsoever weakens your argument to no good effect.

Most people also don't have a good grasp of probability, and they don't really understand what "infinitesimal chance" means - hell, just look at the success of the lottery to see how people show a lack of ability to understand statistics. They think you actually mean it has a realistic chance of existing, and the more you equivocate about it the better. For many people, even admitting a chance is equivalent to an admission that something exists (yes, many people are stupid).

We've come down, I think, to a fundamental difference in our worldviews. You are not willing to take the step of denying anything, and I believe that "X effectively does not exist" is perfectly reasonable license to say "X does not exist". I think my view is the more practical one and serves much better for arguing against bogus crap, so I'll stick with it.

Basically, your gray area is indistinguishable from black in every way, but since there's still one microscopic, invisible tinge of white in there somewhere, you remain scrupulously exact and continue to call it gray. Me? I'll call it black.

Divine said...

"Let's take a common example in regard to the supernatural - people who claim they can talk to the dead. When someone is being emotionally manipulated and bilked out of their money, does it really do you much good to waffle and go "well, there's an infinitesimal chance that it's actually happening, but it's almost entirely certain that they're full of shit"? Or do you want to be able to state to them definitively that no, this person cannot talk to their dead father, and here's why, and here's how they're faking it to manipulate you. Professing uncertainty in cases where there is no practical uncertainty whatsoever weakens your argument to no good effect."

I wasn't aware that these two responses are mutually exclusive. You seem to think I can't act on the probability that something isn't real simply because I accept that there is a chance of it. A deal of evidence can be put foward to show the 'spiritual guide's' true nature. This does absolutely nothing to say if the possibility of what the individual was faking was real or not.

As for the people who keep going back to these con-artists even after it's been shown to them that odds are they are all... con artists, well that's their own fault and ignorance.

"from my perspective, does no good at all - and is much less effective in arguing against really bad stuff."

Well if they can't be reasoned with I hardly see why that matters... :|

"For many people, even admitting a chance is equivalent to an admission that something exists (yes, many people are stupid)."

Sure, but they arn't understanding the point, and are irrelevant unless you're trying to convince them of something. Which, if you up and tell them "No, X doesn't exist" they'll ask for evidence and when you can't give anything solid, they do the exact same thing.

"We've come down, I think, to a fundamental difference in our worldviews. You are not willing to take the step of denying anything, and I believe that "X effectively does not exist" is perfectly reasonable license to say "X does not exist". I think my view is the more practical one and serves much better for arguing against bogus crap, so I'll stick with it.

Basically, your gray area is indistinguishable from black in every way, but since there's still one microscopic, invisible tinge of white in there somewhere, you remain scrupulously exact and continue to call it gray. Me? I'll call it black. "

I think you're reading me wholly wrong. As I mentioned, I put things in the black -if- there is evidence against it. More so depending on how much evidence and the validity of the evidence. Supernatural has a lack of -both- sides of evidence, for and against. I consider many things impossible, or at best highly unlikely because of valid evidence against them.

"Basically, your gray area is indistinguishable from black in every way, but since there's still one microscopic, invisible tinge of white in there somewhere, you remain scrupulously exact and continue to call it gray. Me? I'll call it black."

Not in the least. Gray is gray is gray. Gray is the limbo point of evidence. Where none exists for either side of the argument. Probability simply suggests which side of that gray spot it's probably on, but since probability isn't always correct, you can't say for a degree of certainty.

Sure, a lot of claims of supernatural have been shot down. This is disproving invalid evidence, not evidence for non-existence. You -could- make the claim that what people say is supernatural can be disproven and evidence built against, but it again says nothing about the objective existence of the supernatural, which is basically "Forces which defy the laws of reality with no naturalistic explination".

You'd say, "No, it doesn't exist." I'd say, "There isn't any evidence for it." As you said, a basic difference in our world views. But I don't see a reason to up and lie about evidence. Even if it means I have to correct them when they make the conclusion you suggested. Does this allow people to just cling onto their little hole until they evaporate? Sure. But then again, there is very little in this world that will change their minds, and I very much doubt anything you say would, simply because you just outright deny their belief.

Micah said...

"Well if they can't be reasoned with I hardly see why that matters... :|"

But it's more a case of arguing for the undecided ones. Sure, the hardcore crazies aren't going to be swayed by logic and reason, but when both of you are trying to convince someone who's on the fence, it generally doesn't pay to admit nearly nonexistent uncertainty - your opponent certainly won't.

"Sure, but they arn't understanding the point, and are irrelevant unless you're trying to convince them of something. Which, if you up and tell them "No, X doesn't exist" they'll ask for evidence and when you can't give anything solid, they do the exact same thing."

You can give them the fact that any evidence put forward for X has been disproved and there's nothing out there showing X's existence in the slightest, which is the kind of argument I find pretty convincing when it comes to something's nonexistence.

"I think you're reading me wholly wrong. As I mentioned, I put things in the black -if- there is evidence against it. More so depending on how much evidence and the validity of the evidence. Supernatural has a lack of -both- sides of evidence, for and against. I consider many things impossible, or at best highly unlikely because of valid evidence against them."

See, that's where I disagree with you. I think the supernatural has plenty of evidence against it - the fact that there is ALWAYS a better natural explanation for things, the fact that every piece of evidence put forward for the existence of the supernatural has been shown to be invalid, the fact that we can't see or measure its effects in any way. You seem to be willing to draw at least somewhat of a line against specific claims, but refuse to draw the same line against the basis on which those claims rest - well, as far as I'm concerned, the fact that every single positive claim every based on the supernatural has basically been shown to be invalid absolutely counts as evidence against it. If every argument based on X is false, eventually you might want to look at X as the cause.

"You'd say, "No, it doesn't exist." I'd say, "There isn't any evidence for it." As you said, a basic difference in our world views. But I don't see a reason to up and lie about evidence. Even if it means I have to correct them when they make the conclusion you suggested. Does this allow people to just cling onto their little hole until they evaporate? Sure. But then again, there is very little in this world that will change their minds, and I very much doubt anything you say would, simply because you just outright deny their belief."

There's always the hope that some of them will change their minds, and as I mentioned above, the fence-sitters are served much better by arguing in strong terms against the crackpots.

As for the rest of your statement, I already addressed part of it (regarding evidence) above, but let me just add one thing: your entire definition of the supernatural is effectively evidence against it. If it has a measurable effect - and if there is no measurable effect, then it doesn't affect us and is irrelevant - then it's a natural force by definition. We've cataloged the natural forces pretty well and have a very good idea of what they do and don't affect.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence - and, again, when all of your evidence is shown to be false and your claims are shown to be extraordinary, that's about as good as you can get for evidence against, as far as I can see it.

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard said...

"In the case of the hard sciences, you cannot even get published without exhaustively backing up your theorems"

I still don’t see how it is reasonable to compare empirical scientific observation directly to metaphysical judgments to explain why the latter is baseless. Obviously when you’re discussing history or natural phenomena it becomes troublesome that one might say “nothing existed prior to the date we affix to creation” or “this miraculous medical recovery occurred because of divine intervention” when we have scientific evidence of forty thousand year old civilizations or how a certain drug caused a patient to recover. These are concrete statements that empirical observation might contradict. But judgments concerning ethics and what might be called the “soul” have never been subjected to the rigors of empirical science. For this reason many skeptical philosophers have rejected metaphysics, and that’s understandable. But I think it’s an intellectual sleight of hand to compare a judgment made on the basis of scientific experimentation on the one hand and a religious judgment based only on personal experience (“feeling the Holy Spirit”) or “faith” on the other. This implies somehow there is a rift between people that make purely scientific judgments and religious people who do not. But as atheists are always quick to point out, they themselves make ethical judgments the same as religious people. Are these judgments subject to testable scientific processes? Even ethical judgments with the most scientific of pretensions, like most utilitarian philosophies, are still based on the acceptance of certain axioms. For example, it’s better to be alive than dead, therefore we should work to keep people alive.

A lot of people may consider it insufferably annoying to dispute whether we can know for a fact that the universe prefers for us to be alive rather than dead, because that feeling is very natural. In fact, it’s no less natural than a tendency to believe in the divine.


"on which you base your irrational faith also supports harmful things, or things that are just blatantly untrue, there simply isn't any other avenue to convince you that you're wrong"

I don’t want to sound as if I’m disputing the notion that the age of reason compelled people to reject many inhumane practices that had previously been accepted as a matter of faith. But I don’t know if I can completely accept the notion that closed mindedness is alone an aspect of faith. The 20th century showed us how people could be destructively closed-minded on the basis of reason. I’m thinking especially of certain Marxists who decided their interpretation of history was “scientific” and therefore had to constantly find ways to reinterpret history to fit Marx’s predictions.

I digress, but it’s worth bearing in mind: People who substitute faith for reason have met their match in modern times by those who claim “science” as the basis for beliefs that clearly aren’t scientific.

Anonymous said...

Thank God (pun fully intended) for people like you. :)