Saturday, April 29, 2006

Re: Fact versus faith (and religion vs. science)

(The following represents a reply to a particular email from a discussion about science and religion that has occurred recent on the listserve of the evolution study group to which I belong. Although my words address aspects of the absent text to which I am responding, I think the important parts can be inferred. If anything seems truly confusing, let me know.)

Hi there,

As discussions are more interesting when there is disagreement, I shall respond to some of Steve’s statements.

Necessary caveat: Although it is obviously true that two different people are in fact different, I just wanted to acknowledge that we have both had a multitude of dissimilar experiences which have likely lead to our current stances. Consequently, I am open to reading the key sources that support your viewpoint and which may alter mine. But, such an alteration has yet to occur, so I shall present my current thoughts. What else can one do?

First, let me say I agree that “religion is not as subjective and science is not as objective as many blithely assume or claim.” Your email provided much food for thought to those that get carried away with(in) their systems of thought. As well, I concur that it is not true that “science is all fact and religion all faith.” But, I do disagree with the following statement: “to insinuate or baldly claim that religion is about believing in something that is based on no evidence at all is not only unfair and inaccurate, but a straw man argument.”
Of course, I technically cannot disagree because of the phrase ‘no evidence at all,’ but more realistically, I think that religion is based on such a small amount of evidence that it is practically negligible. The historical accuracy of the Bible is minimal. Some people existed, but it doesn’t make them sons of God. As well, there is very little that exists in the present that the religious can use to verify their views. Science, alternatively, could be done and the major findings scientists believe would likely be replicated. If no replications occur, everything would be re-evaluated. This leads us to the issue of ‘faith’ and what it means. In my experience ‘faith’ means belief in the absence of evidence, and sadly, sometimes illogical belief in the face of evidence. It is true that many scientists believe things not based upon evidence, but as a whole, scientists seek verifiable evidence and are willing to alter their views when confronted with evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This is not always true, but such alterations happen far more often than they do with religious people. Science succeeds because the pencil is mightier than the pen.

You wrote that “Science and religion are two ways of knowing about reality,” and I agree with this, but I think their differences overwhelm their similarities. To be honest, I think you may do both Science and Religion a disservice by putting them so conceptually close. They have two different goals: Science provides information; Religion is a prescription for how to act in the world. As for how each one succeeds at its goal… well, that depends on what kind of information one seeks and what kind of world one wants. I for one am happy with the type of information science provides, and as for the world I want, religion could be doing a much better job. (Or perhaps it couldn’t and that is the problem.)

To share my core beliefs, I am for questioning why certain values, policies and ideas exist, using some sort of utilitarianism as my guide. As much as possible, I try to submit my personal preferences to the grand arbiters of rational argument and verifiable evidence. When I observe bad ideas - those without rational argument or evidence - I am unhappy and look for the source. It is usually a lack of critical thinking… but this lack is usually a result of religion. As an enterprise, religion discourages critical thought. For if it did not churches would crumble like dry Eucharist. I’m not just referring to the Inquisition, but to current events that cannot be debated rationally because deference to a book or a person, and not the worth of an idea per se, is seen as a valid point of view.

I wish this was just an academic debate, but people are suffering and dying needlessly.

Why demonstrate genocidal stupidity and deny the use of condoms in Aids-infested Africa?


Why be opposed to two consenting adults marrying? (Oh, they just happen to have similar sex chromosomes)


Why not allow research on stem cells – cells that haven’t even differentiated into a specific type – that, in turn, could possibly decrease the pain of others?


Why not allow a human that is still ‘sane’ and in extreme pain to end that pain by ending their own life?


Similarly, the issue of abortion is not a debate about when a fetus might be conscious or feel pain or when it becomes a person, it’s about destroying a soul. (A recent study suggest about 7 months)

(To say nothing of religious beliefs that lead to killing yourself and others for fabulous gifts and prizes in the afterlife.)

I would prefer these issues could be discussions about information (gained scientifically) and ethical arguments based on reason, logic and the evidence, but one just need look around to see that religious beliefs often preclude such a preference.

I am unsure of the validity of your statement that religion is also “self-correcting.” While it is true that very few Christians happily keep Christian slaves anymore, I personally find it a bit too slow to adapt to the human rights I seek. As for the human right of religious people to be religious, that is fine with me as long as it doesn’t trump what I consider to be more important rights. (right to equality, to marry… etc)

Lastly, it appears to be true that religion is not sufficient for morality (compare societal health of the US and Japan)

With all this in mind, why not just have good, rational reasons for doing moral acts? That way, we still have all the ‘goodness’ but it rests upon a foundation of reason and truly tenable arguments using the best evidence available by the best means available.

Sounds good to me,


ps: By no means did I intend to imply that religious people do not care about suffering. It is just that some of their beliefs (and subsequent actions) exacerbate some forms of suffering instead of decreasing them.

pps: In all seriousness, how could one actually study the non-material? Please share if you have an answer. I can only think one could study the material effects… but that isn’t the desire. And if it can’t be studied in any systematic way, then there is almost nothing there.


Blogger mush said...

Here's the thing, you've failed to recognize that the proof of G'd lies in the banana.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous david said...

it makes me sad how little you actually know about "religion" (the news and the comedy network don't count as knowledge)and yet how comfortable you are making sure statements -re. religion = lack of critical thinking, historicity of the bible (Tom Harpur is a quack even half his sourses would dissagree with his conclusions). it's obvious that there would be some conflict between science and religion because as you say they have different objectives the question is can a system be thoroughly critical of itself? good religion and good science must. i, as a christian am more concerned with criticism of christianity because that is what i absolutely value. criticism of "science" is what i engage in sometimes because as a religious person today i have my back against the wall, i have to justify myself to the "arbiters of rational thought", who happen to think there is only ONE kind of rationality and logic. I would be interested to hear your serious criticism of scientificity, evidentiality, rationality etc. or are these iron-men untoppleable concepts, the neogods of modernity?

9:25 AM  
Blogger Darren said...

Was I wrong? Isn't religion an impediment in all those areas/discussion? Do you know of evidence verying the Bible?
Please respond to specific things I wrote.

As for 'religious' knowledge, you probably have more than me... but considering the totality of 'religious beliefs' that have occured throughout the past as well as in the present, we are both quite ignorant. But that ignorance is about practices, not the foundation.

Leading us to a lack of critical thinking... give me one good argument to be religious. I've yet to hear one.

First Cause doesn't work, natural law doesn't, from design doesn't, pascal doesn't, Anselm's is sketchy and, as we've discussed, one cannot rely on feeligs alone because it could allow for the conscecration of all deep seated prejudices.

I'm not saying I won't believe, just convince me... and if you say that is the point, that's what 'faith' is, then that is exactly the violation of critical thinking I'm talking about. Such a process could then be used to take anything on faith... dangerous teritory.

I didn't say science was flawless; it is done by humans, how could it be? (Well, maybe when the machines start to do it.) The process of acculumation of information (that I see as valuable) is better than anything else. That's my point.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous dave man said...

1. Historicity of the Bible:
any "history" that is contained within the bible is incidental and almost completely secondary to thrust of its message. the bible is not historical though it does contain some history, the bible is not literature though it does contain literary quailities, the bible is best described as "kerygma" (revelation/proclaimation. don't be scared by the word "revelation"; it simply means, here, that this story/myth is 'believed-to-be' endowed sacred meaning and significance. "Proclaimation" means that it is an affirmative form of rhetoric that tells proclaims this particular meaning. the bible is not simply a propositional text.

2. critical thinking:
i could never give you a good reason to be a christian because it requires that you base your eternal happiness on nonsense: that the eternal entered history in a particular person. what evidence could possibly satify that claim in such a way that you would say, "ok, now i believe it"?
we know that there is nothing evidential that would satify you but that does not mean that religions are non-critical. religions employ a different logic. most religious scholars don't upold the veracity of first cause (aristolean anyway)or other forms of appologetics primarily because they assume the primacy of the Greek category of being and then God is or argued to be a predicate of it - this is not theological but philosophical.

there is no "proof" for the existence of God in the bible because it's not a question. the question is always put to humans (through the story of the people of israel - that is its context up to the new testament) who will you serve? will you serve the gods of humanity and the kings of the nations, or will you serve me, God, the creator, the one who brought you out of slavery (literally or metaphorically, it doesn't matter).

3. a brief history of western thought following four trajectories not entirely inseparable:
(a)The Greeks: Plato and Aristoltle are basically the fathers of western philosophy and science and much of their terms and concepts deeply influenced earth church theology. they "believed" in a dualism that is fundamental and ontological - that of form and matter. all Being is understood as either Form or Matter. Form being the highest as idea and concept and matter being the lesser as carnal and animal. But all of their philosophy and metaphysics was the attempt to unite form and matter, the two antinomes. this is the metaphysical conceptual framework underpinning all philosophy henceforth. the attempt to reconcile form-matter.
(b) the early church was not satisfied with this antithesis so it replaced it with another antithesis: nature-grace. God occupies the Form side of the Greek antinomy and humanity is the nature side. but humanity cannot, with its own reason attain absolute knowledge or redemption/salvation. human reason can elevate itself, and therefore the wisdom of the Greeks is essential, but ultimately it is God's grace that reaches "down" and pulls ut to His side.
(c)the enlightenment, fed up with the bullshit of the Church for the previous few hundred years, and newly equiped with amazing technology astronomical understanding realized that the nature-grace antinomy needs to go. God and his so-called grace offers nothing to reality, they claimed, and so was born the modern antithesis of nature-freedom. you see we are not far from form-matter or nature-grace, but now the goal of modern western thought is struggling with its apperatus to reconcile nature(material) with freedom(the intellect, reason, the formal). God is indeed dead for modernity but the metaphysical ghost remains in the form of freedom. now instead of a God out there we are gods in here - the self, the I. (this is where dennett and derrida are great - they abolish the tidy ego) the nature-freedom motive is the metaphysics (adapted from plato and aristotle)that girds the natural sciences and humanism.
(d)what Protestant and Reformation Christians (that's me)claim as biblical understanding of the state of affairs is: Creation-fall-redemption. there is a gap between humanity and God that humanity cannot bridge (creation), humanity in (limited)freedom is constantly in rebellion of God's grace,the i want to be god complex of creaturhood, the desire of humanity to create victims and require sacrifice, scapegoating ("fall"); God, out of love and his will to be in fellowship with humanity chooses to break the cycle of victimization and death brought on my humanity's pride, and therefore makes himself the victim of law, the victim of hatered and death, makes himself knowable to creation as creation - and even still creation refuses to recognize - wills himself to die. dies. resurrects. bridges that gap that human will, reason, technology could not and opens the possibility of new life.

this is a breif overview of western thought and some christian theology. today of course there is a lot of hybridization of all of these "motives" and ways of understanding the world but i thought i would just present what i think is basically the assumption of every theory: either the assumption of form-matter, nature-grace, nature-freedom, creation-fall-redemption.

now, we could go on and evaluate assumptions, which might be messy, but then i have to warn that i am radically commited to my assumption, that's the faith part. i will always accept criticism of how my faith functions in the world and i will be very critical and analytical about that and i will change my beliefs in nuance around my experience and criticism of my faith. i'm assuming you do the same. or maybe your nature-freedom motive is evidentially supported, but since the antithesis bears no evidence to support its foundationality in the universe from plato or aristotle, i doubt you could prove scientifically the foundationality of nature-freedom since the nature-freedom motive conditions scientificity.

i hope this adds to our on-going attempt to understand each other. i want to make it very clear to you that i am never concerned with making you "see the light" or believe. my struggle in our conversations is to make you understand as best i can, why i am a religious person, and why that is not an itellectually irresponsible position to hold.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Darren said...

I appreciated the greater detail in your second comment, especially part 3d where you describe your own beliefs. I think that is something we should discuss more.

You raised many interesting points which I don't have the time to address. Overall though, I think one of my main points is that you want it both ways and I don't think that is fair.

You don't want to (or say one cannot) have a logical debate about god, but still want to have logical debates about other things.

You want me to provide some sort of reasoning and some sort of rationale/evidence for the things I believe (which I think is fine), but it doesn't go both ways.

So, sometimes I'm supposed to take you seriously (I assume) when you say "Tom Harpur is a quack..." (and all the other arguments you make)
But we both know I could disagree, I could just 'believe' it, call it a matter of faith and that's that.

So, who decides what can be taken 'on faith?' Well, my stance is that the goal would be to minimize the number of things taken on faith.

And this can lead us into a metaphysics.

I had previously thought our foundational metaphysics was similar, but didn't get to far that night at the Maddy. Perhaps we need another night out ;)

1:06 PM  

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