By Eric Bright
[Note to the reader: (1) This is not an ad hominem attack on the people mentioned in the post (the names are not real names). I don’t know them in person and I also don’t care who they are so far as this post is concerned. You should be able to change the names to anything else and the arguments should still hold valid. (2) If you prefer, you can download an ODT or a PDF version of this article from here: http://goo.gl/AEHOc]
When someone starts asking questions about his fundamental convictions, he does not necessarily go all the way down the rabbit hole to derive the implications of what he believes as true. Most of us stop early in our search. Most of us never even reach the threshold for understanding the territory in which we plan to dwell. An example would make it more clear.
Amongst other things that I am, I am an agricultural engineer. As an engineer I had to take many courses in mathematics and physics. I took those courses because I had to, and passed them all; some with good grades. However, mathematics never clicked in my mind the way it clicked in the minds of my siblings. Both of my siblings are a lot better than I am in mathematics. As a result, they are graduating in electronic engineering as opposed to me who graduated as an agricultural engineering. I took fewer courses than they did in math and I know a lot less than they do in math.
However, the situation is reversed when it comes to biology. My siblings passed several biology courses with the highest grades. They do understand the fundamentals of biology. However, it never clicked in their minds as it did in mine. I don’t know how many biology courses I passed (I have to look into my records to come up with an accurate number), but they were many to be sure.
Why is that? Why mathematics never clicked in my mind but biology did? Why didn’t biology ever click in the minds of my siblings but mathematics did? I cannot answer these questions conclusively because the variables are too many and I am not aware of most of them. However, I have some observations that might help us understand the problem a bit better (also I ask you to bear with me a bit longer and I will explain the relationship of this example to the philosophy of religion to you).
I never put enough efforts into learning biology, ever. I hardly studied at all for each mathematics exam. Instead of solving problems, I was studying them as if they were biology or history. As a result, I never formed a coherent understanding of the challenges I always faced in mathematics. I never studied math attentively. Doing math always felt like a burden to me; homework and such. I never liked to sit at a table, put my math books and notebooks in front of me, and solve hundreds of math problems; I always was behind solving my math homework. But, that was exactly what my siblings liked to do. They never liked to sit down and study a biology book the way I was doing it, but instead, they were delighted when they knew that their biology exam was over and they now needed not to study it and they could get back to their math homework. Math, sweet math!
That created an
This real-life story has a lot to tell me about how we develop our convictions about stuff we hold in our heads we call beliefs. Religious beliefs also are not any different. When people want to learn about them, they do it in ways that could be very similar to the way I and my siblings tried to study math and biology. Not all of us actually get the points and not all of us want to get the points either.
Most of us reach a point in our lives when we tell ourselves that, “That’s it. I know everything there is to know about [my] religion. Even if not everything, at least everything important that there is. Even if not everything important that there is about it, at least everything that I care to know about it. I know whatever I need to know about religion. I don’t care about the rest.” Then we stop. This is how most of us learn physics, chemistry, biology, math, and any other subject for that matter.
It’s not because we are all vicious or stupid or morons that we stop questioning our beliefs. We just drop the topic at some point and never pick it up again. And that is that for most of us in regard to most subjects in our lives. Religion, again, is not an exception. As soon as we find a comfortable spot for it in our minds, we stop investigating it further.
I would argue that this perfectly natural human behaviour is causing terrible problems when is combined with religion, superstitions, and mystical thinking. Many of us never reach the threshold of understanding what religions are made of and if they hold any truth at all.
If it was literature, let’s say if the topic was fiction novels, the truth of the matter was none of our concerns at any point. In order to enjoy a work of fiction it is advisable to suspend rationality and
Not everything is like this though. The truth or falsity of some claims does matter.
It is easy to get stuck at a certain level of understanding of a topic than to get it right and make it click in your mind. The latter requires a lot more energy to be spent on consistent, stubborn, deliberate mental work over a long period of time; very long in most cases.
One place where many recent religious minds get stuck in when they are trying to investigate the merits of religious claims
Science is based on unverifiable fundamental claims and as such
So far as our most important day-to-day life and issues are concerned, one does not need to know an enormous amount of formal logic in order to be a perfectly profound, critical thinker and a logical person. Nevertheless, even that little logic must be understood not just be memorized.
Getting back to my story of how I learned, or not
Today, most people have heard that asking fundamental questions are the signs of great thinkers. They have heard that it’s cool to be a freethinker and freethinkers, well, ask questions, right? So, they want to be cool too. Then they try to be great thinkers by asking fundamental questions. Most people don’t go any further than that. They just ask those questions, and then they assume credibility for themselves and give themselves a pat on the shoulder for being such great thinkers. Then they magically become cool. Psychologically, that is usually enough for most of us to feel good, or to feel less bad.
To understand the pseudo-analogy about the foundations of science versus religion, I would like to do a thought experiment as follows.
Let us assume we caught a murderer and are asking her questions about her motives. Here is what she told us in her interrogation:
Interrogator: So, you came all the way from your town, 20kms away, to downtown, ran into total strangers, and stabbed three people you hadn’t ever met in your life before. Why did you do that?
Murderer: I have a perfectly justified reason.
Int.: …which is?
Mur.: What I did is justified and this is how: In the US, several people get executed in different states every year; capital punishment, you know. Is that correct?
Int.: Yes, it is.
Mur.: That means they get killed by the government of those states. Is that correct?
Mur.: Killing people, if you question it deep enough, is based on beliefs that are contingent
Mur.: So, my justification has the same value and the weight of the state law for capital punishment. It is as justified as any other state law is. You cannot logically prove a state law. A state law is a belief. My convictions are also beliefs. I don’t need any logical proof for them, or I need as much logical proof for my actions as the state law needs for its laws. Both of them are based on beliefs, and both of them are justified.
Int.: Oh! Really?
Where is the parallelism between this thought experiment and the statement that says science is as much faith-based as religion is and it is ultimately based on unprovable axioms just like religions and thus religions are justified in whatever they propose? Although the thought experiment shows a more practical side of the structure of such an argument, the skeleton of the two are similar. They both are referring to a shortcoming in another position and take it as a justification for their own.
While science thrives on the utility that the law of noncontradiction provides, all religions collapse under its weight. While science cannot function unless it consistently and coherently
The theme of this essay is to question why do people see, almost immediately, the absurdity of the murderer’s case, but they frequently fail to see the absurdity of the case of science-and-religion-have-the-same-foundation. For whatever reason, otherwise very intelligent people miss something crucial in arguing for their stance. Science is not proud of gaps and shaky foundations wherever they might be in its building. Science is not bragging about the contradictions and the arbitrariness of its beliefs if and when they occur. Science has never used an argument that lack of foundations is a foundation in itself. Science never tells you that you have to believe in it because it says so, nor does it tell you that you have to believe in it because there are some unknown elements in its foundations that are very hard to wrap your mind around. It does not tell you that you must have faith in science, nor does it tell you that it’s true or reliable because some of its fundamental assumptions are as absurd as those in the Cinderella story. It does not tell you that not having a proof is a virtue or is something to be proud of.
Science does not claim to know everything or to have a foundation with absolutely no questionable elements. If there are questions about the foundations of science, it invites you to hold it accountable for them and it invites you to not ignore those issues until the truth is learned. So, if science happens to have a foundation that is not provable yet, it’s considered a problem in the scientific community
Now, please let me bring to our investigation a live and real conversation that happened in Google+ Philosophy Community.
Paul 2013-03-05 – 1:51 AM – General Discussion
In this interesting post and comment string [at https://plus.google.com/u/0/108517242362910266319/posts/YEUFDmfkg4t], there have been several suggestions that religious thought is based on beliefs that can’t be demonstrated. This got me thinking along a tangent. It is my contention that, at a base level, we all believe things that can’t be demonstrated. (1) Do you think that this is true and (2) What are the beliefs at the core of your worldview that cannot be demonstrated?
This was the original post. And now see how it was picked up by a few very intelligent members of the community and especially pay attention to how the answers were missed altogether by Paul as if those answers have never been proposed.
Jane 7:02 AM
Not all opinions/beliefs are equal. It is clear that all opinions are not equal considering that we know some beliefs are true and others are false. First, mathematical truths, such as 1+1=2 is not up for debate. Second, it is pretty clear that some opinions are better than others now that science is so successful. How to make a television set is not a matter of belief, it is a matter of reality. Jumping off a skyscraper will kill you no matter how safe you might believe it to be. And so on.
It is also clear that all opinions are not equal because such a belief is self-defeating. Imagine for a moment that all opinions are equal. However, in that case the opinion that “not all opinions are equal” is just as good as the belief that “all opinions are equal.”
What makes some opinions better than others are (a) the truth and (b) justification. Some opinions are true and others are false. Some opinions are justified and others are unjustified. The best beliefs are the most justified beliefs. It is better to believe something false for good reasons than something true for bad reasons. Why? Good reasons are reliable and bad reasons aren’t. The odds of having a true belief from good reasons are higher than from poor reasons.
Some myths about opinions/beliefs:
– All opinions are equal.
– Challenging a belief is an insult.
– Something is true because I feel certain about it.
– An objection to a belief proves it’s wrong.
– All beliefs are rationally acceptable.
To which Paul replied as follows.
Paul 7:15 AM
Jules Korngold, thanks for your long answer. Without actually addressing my original questions, you have actually managed to demonstrate one of my points. I agree that science is exceptionally successful in helping us to navigate the physical world. However, it requires an unjustified commitment to causality. I agree that we can’t ignore the success of this assumption but it is, nevertheless, unjustified and therefore falls into the category of ‘core belief that can not be justified’ in my original question.
So, what Paul is saying is essentially what I said above: “Science is ultimately based on bullshit,” and the place where he wants to take his stance is to add that
The next exchanges of the comments show exactly that pattern:
Den 8:30 AM
Are religious beliefs based on assumptions that cannot be demonstrated to be true? Yes, that is why it is called religious faith/belief and not religious knowledge. Is anything certain? No, but that does not make what we know about the physical world through science equatable with faith. There are degrees of certainty and faith is at the opposite end of the spectrum to a statement like “I exist”. So of course all core beliefs are questionable but some are more likely to be true than others
To which Paul replied:
Paul 8:37 AM
Without going over old conversations, people within religions rarely use the word faith that way. For me, faith is trust based on experience. I have a faith in science because it has proved itself to me within its realm of explanatory power. I have faith in God for the same reason.
“…all core beliefs are questionable but some are more likely to be true than others”
How do you judge this without assuming what you are trying to prove?
Paul, as it turned out, takes science seriously for the wrong “reason.” No one has any faith in science technically speaking. The reason why we trust science is not faith. Faith, by definition, does not apply to science. Here is how the Oxford dictionary defines faith.
Definition of faith
1. complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
2. strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.
The first definition of faith does not apply to science because no scientist has “complete trust” in something or someone when it comes to scientific matters. The second meaning also does not apply to science because there
Here is how Webster dictionary defines the same word:
Definition of FAITH
1 a. allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty
b (1). fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2 a (1). belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion
b (1). firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
3. something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially: a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>
None of those conditions apply to science. Definition number 2 b (1) is especially very interesting: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Science is actually opposed to that.
All right. Let’s continue with the conversation that Paul has under his original post.
Den 8:47 AM
Paul, hey again
Whilst it is true that many religious people “trust in God” that is irrelevant. Their trust is still a faith by the definition that I mean it: belief without evidence, for there simply is no tangible evidence for God. In fact, the evidence is the opposite. The twisting of the word faith does not change this factor.
Let me give you an example of a degree of knowledge. It is more probable that what I believe is reality is reality and that my dreams are my dreams rather than my dreams being reality and my reality
beingmy dreams because my dreams are inconsistent whereas realityis. We could say that it is more probable that gravity exists in this world we are in thana personal god because everything in the world reacts to gravity whilst it is illogical to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent god for if we were the creation of such, evolution would seem to be a pretty far-fetched way to go about creating mankind considering we have lived in this world for something like 0.00001% of the universe’s existence. (Does the Universe Have a Purpose? feat. Neil deGrasse Tyson)
If you tell me that all my foundations of knowledge are removed, then you fall into solipsism and nothing can be proven. To
philosophizeyou must make the assumption that the world around us is probably reality otherwise no statement of truth holds up. Once you accept that this world does exist, however, there are certainly degrees of knowledge depending on the amount of evidence or rational thinking there is behind a belief.
What Den said sounds reasonable to any rational person. But, look how Paul manages to miss almost everything that Den said. It’s just incredible!
Paul 9:01 AM
Den, there is no twisting of the word faith here. Sure the ‘against the evidence’ is a possible definition but if you use that as an argument against the rationality of religious people, you are arguing against a straw man. You need to argue against the, also valid, definition that is used by most theists to engage in the conversation.
With respect to gravity, yep, totally with you. With the evidence for God, nope, totally not with you. As you know, I see the whole of existence as evidence for a creator God. I see the existence of consistency in universal physical behaviour as crying out for a creator God. I see changes in my own behaviour, thoughts and emotions since becoming a Christian as needing explanation outside myself. I see human morality as crying out for a creator (not any specific morals but the existence of moral convictions at all). The last of these is less convincing for me but it is a cumulative assessment.
I guess my point is that evidence for God is in a completely different category to evidence for a scientific theory as it gets at the very nub of existence itself rather than something within that existence. I can completely see why some might go “It is OBVIOUS God DOESN’T exist” and others “It is OBVIOUS God DOES exist”.
Do you see the absurdity of Paul’s blah-blahing? He did not even try to answer Den’s objections. He just went on to another topic altogether without addressing any of the Den’s arguments against his position as if Den said absolutely nothing. Wasn’t it incredible?
He first mentioned Den’s argument, and then moved on without providing a shred of argument for agreeing and disagreeing with any part of the Den’s argument. And that’s how illusions persist. It does not matter how Den tries to address any of Paul’s alleged concerns. Paul is only playing a game of ‘Yes, but!’ even if unconsciously.
Paul’s argument in that comment is regardless of Den’s counter-arguments and he jumped from a branch of a tree to an entirely different branch of an entirely different tree. As a moving target, with absolutely no disciplined method of argumentation, now he is bringing up something else as his “reason” why he believes in what he believes. He said, ‘According to my experiences, I believe in God, the same way that I believe in science.’ Now, suddenly and out of a blue, he is claiming that the kind of “
Not only he missed everything that Den said, but also he moved on to a completely different topic and used a totally different argument to support that topic.
But if you mention this to him, or any other religious and mystified mind, he will refuse and he will switch to yet another topic. This is how you keep your target moving less it gets nailed by reasoned arguments. If you watch or listen to any of the debates between Christopher Hitchens and religious fanatics like Alister McGrath or William Lane Craig or many other logically disabled believers like them, you will see this dance-like movement all around you. There is hardly any time that a religious mind can actually stay on a topic without jumping off any coherent chain of thought and moving its goalposts.
This technique has a few benefits to the mystified minds. For one, it gives the unlettered minds the impression of triumph. They sincerely feel and believe that their arguments are sound and could not be answered by their opponents (I am not sure if they know what a sound argument means though). The second benefit is that any viewer becomes so confused and would not see the end of any particular chain of reasoning and therefore he would not see the failure of the argument of the mystified mind. This makes the illusion that the argument of the mystified mind has won, whereas the argumentation was abandoned and because of that, the collapse of the claim never came to light. It’s like abandoning the solution to an equation halfway through and announcing himself the winner without letting the audience to see the end result. What if he could never solve the equation had he stayed on the topic?
Changing the meanings of the words is also an extremely popular game amongst the religious proponents. As you saw in the case of Paul’s wordplay, he changed the definitions of words twice in less than three paragraphs. Once he said, “ You need to argue against the, also valid, definition that is used by most theists to engage in the conversation,” which was proposing a different definition for “faith.” And a couple of paragraphs later he said, “I guess my point is that evidence for God is in a completely different category to evidence for a scientific theory as it gets at the very nub of existence itself rather than something within that existence,” which is a change in the definition of “evidence.”
Here is another example of him doing exactly the same thing in another discussion:
Ted, Peter, you guys keep sucking me in!!!
I would suggest that you might just broaden your definition of what constitutes a language ;-). Then again, this might just be semantics.
So, whenever in doubt, change the definition of the word to your liking or stretch it to cover your ass or uncover the ass of your opponent (whichever is simpler for you at a given time). This is a sure technique and can never be countered effectively. The reason is not
Things get even more dramatic now. When Den attempts, again, to address Paul’s nonsenses, this time point by point, see how Paul manages to ignore the problem with his stance.
Den 9:17 AM
Paul, it’s not a straw man argument. Someone may have a trust in a god, but that trust is ALSO a faith without evidence and thus, the argument remains. The second meaning is not relevant for it concerns not either truth or knowledge but trust.
“The whole of existence cries out for a god.” This is the cosmological argument. If anything, it cries out for a deity, and certainly not a theistic, personal god. Thus, faith in a personal god on this grounds is certainly a belief without evidence.
Consistency of the universe? Look up Brian Cox and his explanations for why the universe is actually not consistent at all and that the supposed continuity of existence we experience is the result of randomness. This argument is also a version of the cosmological argument, and once again, it comes down to a belief in a deity if any god at all, and not a personal god. (http://dharveyphilosophy.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/cosmological-argument.html)
Changes in your own mentality shows the strength of belief and psychological phenomena as I am sure any psychologist will explain to you. (bit on the power of the mind: http://dharveyphilosophy.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/the-psychology-of-rituals.html)
Morality can be explained as part of evolution. Just look at the differing levels of morality in different animals. Depending on brain size and the amount animals have evolved, their ability to empathise, rationalise and socialise change, and as a result, so does their morality. (http://dharveyphilosophy.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/immorality-its-origins.html)
Your point about god seems to me to be this: we don’t know for certain that we exist, so we can’t know for certain that God doesn’t exist. You are right, but it doesn’t help anyone with anything, and it certainly does not help the case for a god’s existence.
To which Paul replied as follows. Bear in mind though that Den also made a few logical mistakes in his second paragraph when he says, “If anything, it [i.e. the whole of existence] cries out for a deity,” which it does not. There is absolutely no way to draw such a conclusion at any level and by any stretch of the imagination. If we assume a universe with no purpose and no creator whatsoever and start to see its implications, we are left with a universe identical to the one we are living in. So, if anything, the kind of universe that we do live in has exactly the same properties of a universe that does not and cannot have a creator. Also
Paul 9:38 AM
Den, it really is a straw man. If you want to argue against someone, you have to argue against what they believe (ie, the way in which they use words not the way in which you use words). As I have said, to a theist, faith in God is not without evidence (it is no good just repeating that it isn’t). The disagreement is therefore what evidence is acceptable and whether belief in God is a reasonable conclusion from that evidence. It is clear that you think not but you need to engage with people who genuinely DO believe that their beliefs are based on evidence and reason but have come to different conclusions to you. It really doesn’t achieve anything to just say “You are irrational and your beliefs are not based on evidence” repeatedly.
For me, theism is easily the best rational explanation of all of my knowledge (with any reasonable definition of practical knowledge) and experience.
Edit: Just thought of another way of putting the straw man thing…You are arguing against the person who says “I look at all of the evidence, it seems to suggest that God doesn’t exist but I am going to believe in his existence anyway”. There are very few theists who think this way.
Then, according to Paul, ‘I look at all of the evidence, it seems to suggest that God does exist and I am going to believe in his existence anyway.’ For him, an evidence is what makes him believe in something, no matter what. That’s what the theists do with their “evidence” anyway. Never mind the fact that your personal “evidence” based on your personal predispositions and motivations go contrary to the facts and to everything that reason has been telling us. Don’t care about inconsistencies; they do not matter. If it is “true” for you, then it has to be true, no matter what.
At this point, there is no way one can reasonably converse with such a mystically mystified mind. You cannot say anything that can possibly turn out to be an “evidence” against what the mystical mind wants to believe.
That was the case with the mystical mind even from the very beginning. His “evidence” has never been the kind of evidence that you and I talk about. To us, something is an evidence if and only if it can be reproduced over and over by anyone at any time under a given set of circumstances for as long as anyone wishes. An “evidence” to a mystical mind
But what about the mystical claims? They are called mystical for a reason! One of the ways of knowing that an idea is mystical is to see if the kind of “
So, Paul is right in saying that his mind sees things differently. It actually does. One thing, for instance, that his mind fails to see, and would fail to see anyway, because he seems to be too fixed in his flawed way of thinking to move by anything anyway and his intention in here also is not to learn anything to begin with but just to argue, is that he does not realize the criticality of logical impossibilities and their implications. He does not get it. Not because he does not want to get it, nor because he is inherently incapable of comprehending the concept of logical impossibilities. Because this concept appears on one of his blind spots. There is no way for him to pay attention to this critical point. Even if or when he does, or when he is directed to this issue, his mind wanders around it for a few seconds, says “So what?” and moves on. His mind is not properly wired to get that point. Like my mind that is not properly wired to get mathematical points. My brother and my sister try to demonstrate a point to me and they expect me to be able to carry my understanding of their demonstration over to the next math problem, but I don’t do that. Not that I don’t want to. Not that I didn’t try. I was even interested, at many points, at learning to think the way they think. But, due to my lack of persistent commitment to practicing math almost every day for several years, I never formed the required insight for what they ask of me. I look at them, look back at the problems, blink, blink, and that’s all. Then they get frustrated at me and usually suggest watching a movie or doing something else instead of pointlessly, as they think, working on my math skills.
Paul and millions like him are like that in regards to their beliefs. They have never reached a point at which they could have a grand view of what they say and what the implications of what they say would be. One of the implications of what they believe to be the truth about their alleged “god” is that, due to its internal inconsistencies, it’s a logically impossible concept, if anything at all. Aside from it being meaningless altogether (what do they mean by the word “god” anyway? If they can make that clear, or if they ever could make that clear, there wouldn’t have been any theist on earth to begin with). If they mean anything by the term they use as “god,” their proposed concept of it is always inconsistent; that’s to say it is logically impossible. But, and this is a HUGE but, they don’t understand what entails by a concept being logically impossible. Logically impossible, to them, sounds very much like any other impossibility.
For example, it’s impossible for humans to fly. Or is it? Flying for humans, the exact way that birds fly is a nearly impossible task. However, it is not logically impossible and certainly, it is not inconceivable at all. Also, if we relax our criteria, then flying for humans is actually very possible (have you watched The Birdman in Norway yet? Watch it if you have not https://youtu.be/KNHMT2v2G2k).
So, is all
Mystical minds are not alone at such foolishness and it is certainly not intentional in many cases. Most people don’t even distinguish the two different kinds of impossibilities, and a logical impossibility is all the same to them as any other impossibility that might be out there. “Why should they differ? Why should their differences be important anyway? Okay, okay! They are important, but so what?”
So what? Well, if one actually asks such a question, it indicates that he never understood the implications of logical impossibilities in the first place.
It does not help the mystical mind if you try to explain the differences to them the same way that it was not enough for my siblings to explain the details of how I could solve a math problem. When they understand the point of your explanation, they fail to understand the implications of the point that they just understood. In the same fashion, when my siblings demonstrate the proper way of solving a complex equation, I learn it very well, but a second later, I fail to apply it to a new equation with a novel twist as if I had never learned anything (I am not dumb though. I remember the time back in school when I could do just that. But, now I have forgotten almost all of those subtleties). So, a perfectly capable mind can fail perfectly!
Also, it does not matter, at all, if an individual is a scientist, is a genius, is a Nobel prize winner, is a professor at Oxford University, is a movie star, or is anyone else. None of these things guarantee anything, less them guaranteeing any understanding of the mechanisms of arguments, logic, or critical thinking. I personally know an individual who does not have a proper, formal education, and nevertheless has one of the most logical and rational minds that I have seen in my entire life amongst humans (including all the famous philosophers). Formal education does not make someone sane, nor does it eliminate mystical thinking. Professorship at Harvard or Cambridge