Saturday, March 03, 2007

Beliefs That Can't Be Proven

I don't want to generalize from the little bit of debating I've enjoyed on some science/atheist blogs, but there is a resistance to saying "I believe" among many, if not all, of those I encounter. The idea, I think, is that science is about reason, not opinion. I'm not sure why this would lead to not having other ideas based on "believing." But there does seem to be some kind of internal conflict that keeps some (many, all) in this group from "believing." To wit, I found this quote:

Anyway, just remember that we all believe in things that can't be proven. Such as when we believe that rationalism is the best way to live our lives, or when we believe, or presume, that logic and reasoning can prove anything in the absolute. In fact, believing in rationalism is itself untenable, since rationalism values reason, and reason differs from person to person, being but an internally (logically) consistent system of beliefs that must be grounded on one's assumptions.

21 comments:

bernardo said...

Randy, when you publish a new post, please publish it at the TOP of the blog... I check the top-most posts very often, but it's not often that I have time to scroll all the way to the bottom of the screen, reading all the comments along the way, to make sure I did not miss anything important. This is possibly your most important post so far, and I only read it a month after the date on it, since it was never at the top.

In any case, you know my response to this. We prefer different axioms, for no real good reason other than personal preference, and we build beliefs on top of those axioms. So, right, you can't disprove naturalism so I get to be a naturalist if I want, and I can't disprove Christian theology so you get to be a Christian if you want. We all make assumptions and rationalize them and live as though they are "true", and no one knows anything for sure.

You have to admit, though, that Christian theology is much messier and much more contradiction-prone than naturalism. Which is why most naturalists believe themselves to be more rational than people of faith: Because people of faith made leaps of faith and chose to believe things that are not apparent in the physical world.

You have to admit that, if my beliefs are "Everything we see is just the interactions of particles that have certain properties and relationships, which change according to non-changing rules", then it's easier for me to develop my beliefs using reason alone. Meanwhile, you have to wrestle with a being that is God and man at the same time, with a God that has three parts but is only one, with a God who loves people but is quite cruel, and - worst of all - with a God that is omniscient and omnipotent but can't predict people's behavior and needs to keep making adjustments to his creation via miracles because he couldn't get it right in the first place.

Naturalism and deism are not completely rational, and Christianity is not completely irrational. There's a spectrum. But I think it's fair to say that Christianity is less rational than naturalism or deism. (Which does not mean that it is incorrect, or that every person would be satisfied by a naturalist view of the universe).

Randy Kirk said...

Sorry about the location of the post. I write some ahead of time and keep them as drafts to add to later. Then when I post them, I forget to change the date.

I hear what you say about the different axioms, but you didn't really respond to the post. Why is it so hard for some atheists to say: I believe that macro evolution is more likely than Goddidit. They won't use the word believe.

bernardo said...

Because most atheists think that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their world view, thus elevating their interpretations from "faith"/"believe" to "trust"/"rationally conclude".

As you know, I think that the evidence (i.e. everything we see in the world around us) is more compatible with naturalism than with creationism, and that naturalism is a much simpler and elegant world view with much more explanatory power... but I recognize that this preference is not evidence-based, so it qualifies as a "belief". However, I "trust" that naturalist explanations will eventually fill gaps in understanding of the natural world, displacing "God did it", since this has historically always been the case.

So I "believe" that macroevolution is more likely than "God did it", but I trust (am pretty much certain, thanks to consistent evidence of previous "God did it" gaps being filled) that one day we will have extremely compelling biological models about evolution, and at that future time, creationists will no longer be able to reasonably support their beliefs by using biology's inability to explain the origin of certain structures and mechanisms.

Randy Kirk said...

I don't see the difference. I believe that Goddidit, but I trust (am pretty much certain, thanks to consistent evidence of previous "it all happened naturally being discredited) that one day we will have extremely compelling biological models about evolution, and at that future time, naturalists will no longer be able to reasonably support their beliefs by using biology's ability to explain the origin of certain structures and mechanisms.

Hey Skipper said...

Randy:

: I believe that macro evolution is more likely than Goddidit. They won't use the word believe.

All statements are varying mixtures of belief and knowledge. At one extreme, a statement may be consist entirely of knowledge, and not at all of belief, and vice versa.

Most statements fall somewhere in between.

As an example of the former, I can state as a matter of knowledge that if I slowly cool a beaker of water, it will freeze at a specific temperature, and that if I warm it and repeat the cycle, it will refreeze at the same temperature.

It is a knowledge statement because its truth value is distinguishable from contradictory statements.

A belief statement would be something along the lines of "The Universe has always existed." It is a statement of pure belief, because it is impossible to distinguish its truth value from its contradiction: God, which has always existed, created the universe.

With regard to naturalistic evolution, it is a hypothetico-deductive theory. As such, it has deductive consequences, all of which must be true in order for the theory to be true.

There are evolution has many deductive consequences; here are two examples:

1. The earth must be very, very old.

2. All isolated populations diverge over time from their parent population.

As it turns out (pace am pretty much certain, thanks to consistent evidence of previous "it all happened naturally being discredited), all of evolutions deductive consequences hold.

Does that prove evolution? No.

But it allows distinguishing the truth value of contradictory theories: if they fail to account for known consequences, or account for fewer, then those contradictory theories fail.

Which is why they can say that naturalistic evolution accounts for natural history, without using the word "believe."

So I "believe" that macroevolution is more likely than "God did it"

That is a false dichotomy.

Evolution may well be exactly how God did it; it just isn't the way you prefer God to have done it.

one day we will have extremely compelling biological models about evolution, and at that future time, naturalists will no longer be able to reasonably support their beliefs by using biology's ability to explain the origin of certain structures and mechanisms.

Reminds me of a half dozen or so years ago, when ID/Creationists, in an early form of irreducible complexity, pointed to birds' wings as proof that evolution couldn't possibly be true: "What use is half a wing?"

Then came the unearthing of some new dinosaur fossils in China.

Which demonstrated precisely how wings came to be.

The question for you is: how many times does evolution have to demonstrate its validity before you conclude that the lack of a developmental path for specific instances is solely due to an absence of information, not any lack in the underlying theory?

bernardo said...

Randy,

I think we agree on this one. At least I agree with what I think you're saying.

Let me put it this way:

- I believe in naturalism, in "no God necessary".

- I am certain that if you want to believe in "God did it", then the gaps in our understanding of the physical world are NOT what you should be using to support your beliefs.

Skipper is right. There is no conflict. Science should not get in the way of believing in God.

And notice how Skipper's "knowledge" vs "belief" breaks down similarly with my "how" versus "why": Science can give us reliable models for physical phenomena, but is not quite so good about figuring out how things came to be as they are, is not really equipped to investigate how the universe came to be in the first place, and is way unequipped to deal with why the universe is as it is. The knowledge-to-belief spectrum follows similar lines, in my opinion. Which means you can "know" what science tells you more than you can "know" what religion tells you. You have to "believe" what religion tells you. Someone only has to use this kind of "belief" in science when (as I do) they want to "believe" that naturalism is all that there is - something not knowable within science itself.

Randy Kirk said...

"The question for you is: how many times does evolution have to demonstrate its validity before you conclude that the lack of a developmental path for specific instances is solely due to an absence of information, not any lack in the underlying theory?"

You are exactly correct. And for the naturalist, the opposite would still be true. How many examples of miracles or supernatural-seeming occurances would it take to prove God. For some, they claim they still wouldn't want to worship the God who did the flood.

bernardo said...

"And for the naturalist, the opposite would still be true. How many examples of miracles or supernatural-seeming occurances would it take to prove God."

Claim James Randi's million bucks - or prove (PROVE!) the effects of the supernatural some other way - and then we'll talk about "how many examples of miracles" are known at all.

The question is, can a mircale be proven for sure? How can you know that a "claimed miracle" was not actually caused by reproducible natural mechanisms that we just don't understand?

Yes, I know that it's not reasonable to be skeptical about EVERYTHING. There might be things that, if I witnessed them or was given enough evidence, I might agree are supernatural in origin. But I can't think of what those things might be. I think it would be one of those "You'll know it when you see it" kinda things. And no, I don't expect to ever see it. But who knows.

Hey Skipper said...

Randy:

You are exactly correct. And for the naturalist, the opposite would still be true. How many examples of miracles or supernatural-seeming occurances would it take to prove God.

Ok, let's take Lourdes as proof of miracles.

In addition to proving miracles, it proves God hates amputees.

Alternatively, given the evidentiary basis for miracles, there is no reason to believe they exist, in the sense that if you could rewind the tape and be a fly on the wall, what was said to be, wouldn't be.

Bernardo points out the huge gulf bwetween is and ought.

Randy Kirk said...

hey skipper:

I'm sorry to be so dense, but you lost me on both the fly point and the God hates amputees point.

I do understand that miracles are impossible to prove because they better not happen on command. I also agree with Bernardo that the personal experience of what would seem miraculous is powerful. The problem is that relating your miracle to another, even to another believer, is usually met with sketicism.

I've seen a few things in my brief stay that are way to strange to mark up to coincidence. And I've heard enough stories that seem to be told without any intent to impress or gain that it certainly would appear to an objective observer that miracles may truly be taking place.

Example in another sphere. I don't believe in UFO's. If there are 20 reports per year with fuzzy pictures, I don't change my POV. If there are 100,000 reports per year, and many of them are from reputable folks, I will want to start studying the details. If 20,000,000 report such sightings including my personal friends, and they can point to changes that took place that are not what normally is expected, then I'm at a tipping point. If I see one, then I probably tip. If my sighting includes other evidence, I almost certainly tip.

Randy Kirk said...

No one wanted to touch this response. I will surely be putting up a post on the accumulation of evidence.

bernardo said...

All right, I'll have a go at it.

I think the "fly on the wall" comment just means that we have no real reason to believe miracles have ever happened. Or that the Bible contradicts history and natural history. Or something like that. Ok, I'm not super-clear on what that comment means either.

The "God hates amputees" thing is a common point many atheists love. (You know, up there with the orbital plane of the planets, the moth spiraling into the flame, etc). No matter how hard you pray, or what spiritual healer or miracle site you visit, God will only cure conditions that could conceivably get better on their own or thanks to medicine. Conditions like cancer, infections, problems in the nervous system, etc. God will NOT cure conditions that could not conceivably be cured by natural ways - conditions such as missing a limb. To God, growing (or re-growing) a limb should not be any harder than curing cancer. So the whole "God hates amputees" thing is just another way of saying "There is no evidence for miracles. Unlikely cures are still possible through naturalistic mechanisms, and God has never cured anyone from a condition that could not possibly have been cured through naturalistic mechanisms".

As for the UFOs thing, you are making the same mistake when atheists say that "There is no "evidence" of God and therefore tehism is wrong":

There is evidence for theism, and there is evidence for atheism. However, it turns out that it's all the same "evidence" - we all live and observe the same world - we just interpret what we see in different ways, since different people start out already wanting to interpret what they see in different ways. This desire to interpret things one way or another is much more powerful when someone is forming theistic beliefs/non-beliefs than when someone is deciding whether UFOs are real.

Let me see if I can explain what I'm thinking here.

Say I show you a blurry picture of a UFO, source unknown. It is either pretty good evidence of a fake (because, if you were to fake one, you would probably not make the image super-sharp so that the signs of forgery are less apparent), or pretty bad evidence of a UFO (because it could be lots of things, and you only see "UFO" as the more likely explanation if that is what you want to see to begin with). Now let's say someone like me (who is pretty well educated, knows a lot about aerospace technology, and knows how to work a long lens) releases a sharp picture of what looks like a UFO and claims that it was taken while observing a vehicle pulling near-impossible "g"s. This is either pretty bad evidence of a fake (it could be a fake, but it would be a fake unlike most fakes) or pretty good evidence of a UFO (it's sharp and comes from a credible source).

Now, someone who is a hard-core UFO skeptic will say that the first shot is certainly fake, and that the second one is almost certainly fake. Someone who is a UFO believer will say that the second shot is definitely real (and "proof" of UFOs) and that the first shot might be real too. This parallels the differences between religious people and naturalists: naturalists will look at evidence and say "No God needed", while religious people will look at the same evidence and say "Proof of God".

The thing is, the UFO debate is different from the God debate in an important way. People don't really care whether UFOs are real. While some hardcore UFO skeptics exist and some hardcore UFO believers exist, most people would be willing to interpret the evidence either way. Most people would tend to interpret the evidence as a skeptic if most of the evidence is "Good evidence of fake, bad evidence of UFOs" (which does happen to be the case right now), and most people would tend to interpret the evidence as a believer if most of the evidence is "bad evidence of fake, good evidence of UFOs". Most people are willing to be pragmatic and to see both possibilities as being possibly real. With God, though, most people WANT to believe one side or the other. Independent of evidence, one side makes more sense to them than the other. People base their whole world views on whether God exists and on what God's relationship with humankind is. There is much more at stake, some very serious implications, so the predisposition to interpret all evidence one way or the other way is much stronger to begin with.

All right, I'll do what I asked you not to do, I'm sorry but I hope you understand: In this sense, it is like the global warming debate in its current state. The stakes are so high, and the implications of either possibility are so great, that it's very easy for people to cling to one interpretation of the evidence. The difference is that with the global warming debate, it is conceivable that some evidence could effectively prove that one side is right, we just don't have that evidence yet. Same with UFOs: If a strange VTOL craft landed in the middle of a populated area and displayed technologies beyond what humans are capable of doing right now, then UFOs exist, period.

The big difference is that nothing can prove or disprove theism, and nothing can prove or disprove atheism. Any apparent "miracle" would to me seem more probably like the work of technologically-advanced aliens, or maybe a hallucination, than the work of a supernatural entity. And on the other hand, even if science did explain perfectly the motions and properties of every last particle in the universe, theists would still believe that the universe was deliberately created and tweaked by God.

The UFO debate has lower stakes and potentially very conclusive evidence, so a tipping point is easy to reach. The God debate has huge stakes and possibly no conceivable conclusive evidence, so a tipping point is very very hard to reach. (And global warming is probably somewhere in between. Closer to the UFo end of the spectrum, as far as I can tell).

Randy Kirk said...

Bernardo,

Very cool insights. A few problems, though. If the UFO landed, there would be those who would say it was a trick. In the same way that if God appeared in the sky so that every human could see and hear him at the same time, and he said I am God, there would be plenty of people who still wouldn't believe.

There is, interestingly, a better chance of those two happening than of science being able to prove that everything happens naturalistically. Therefore, you are correct, that theists can continue to posit God no matter how much science shows natural cause and effect.

Jesus cured a withered hand, and someone who was blind since birth. Those would seem to be the cases you are looking for.

Anonymous said...

"There is, interestingly, a better chance of those two happening than of science being able to prove that everything happens naturalistically."

Randy, I have a hard time believing that you calculated the chances (I prefer to use the word "probabilities") of these three things.

To make my point short: the variables involved are nearly limitless.

Kit

bernardo said...

"There is, interestingly, a better chance of those two happening than of science being able to prove that everything happens naturalistically."

Science cannot prove that things happen naturalisticly. This is an assumption that science makes to begin with. So, yes, you're right, there is a better chance of [insert improbable thing here] than of science being able to prove that everything happens naturalisticly.

"If the UFO landed, there would be those who would say it was a trick."

But if the UFO landed and, in front of many people, did things that people cannot do - such as levitate buildings, change the weather, shape light or water, make things appear or disappear, or other more amazing things I can't think of right now - then it is simply not possible that human technology is behind the "trick".

"In the same way that if God appeared in the sky so that every human could see and hear him at the same time, and he said I am God, there would be plenty of people who still wouldn't believe."

Right, because it is possible that such an event might be an alien trick, or a hallucination, or things other than "God".

If God appears, then "Could this have been set up by entities other than God?" is a "Yes". If aliens do some amazing stuff we cannot do, then "Could this have been set up by humans?" is a "No".

It's like what I keep saying about Creationism: The only way I will ever say "Ok, ok, this was probably God" is if there is no naturalistic model/idea/explanation/hypothesis that could possibly EVER explain the event. I can't think of what such an event would be. However, human technology is currently limited, and many people know a lot about those current limits, so it should be possible for us to say "This is not human" with an extremely high degree of confidence.

Identifying aliens depends on the current limitations of our technology. Identifying God depends on whether the world is naturalistic or not, which is much trickier to determine for sure.

Anonymous said...

And that doesn't even get into these two issues:

1. Science doesn't try to "prove" anything. Proofs only exist in math.

2. Science wouldn't try to show that everything happens naturalistically. The scientific method utilizes methological naturalism; it doesn't try to "prove" methological naturalism.

No one has ever shown how anything but methological naturalism can be useful within scientific exploration; if someone did, we'd be using that.

Science uses what works. For everything that we now understand how it naturally works (e.g., volcanoes, embryology, seasons, etc), there were once many (many) supernatural explanations. Which do you use now for the examples I just gave?

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

I have only started reading The Selfish Gene, and Dawkins has used the word Why, Believe, and Purpose about 100 times. He then applies the arguments about his brand new idea to social systems and how he would like to see things work. Is this what you mean?

Anonymous said...

Randy,

I haven't read The Selfish Gene, so I don't understand your question.

I know who Richard Dawkins is, of course, and I know the book. I just don't have much of an interest in reading most atheist writers.

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

The point of my question stems from other threads here where I have wondered why atheists have a hard time with such words, and claim that the science is about the science, and not applications to society. But the leading guru of Darwinism has no such hesitancy.

Anonymous said...

Randy,

You think that Dawkins is "the leading guru of Darwinism"?

Honestly?

Besides saying, "do you know what saying that makes you look like?", if you're talking about evolutionary biology, he's certainly not a "guru".

The sentence sounds aburd to me.

Also... I don't know what you mean by "the science is about the science". That reads like a tautology to me.

Lastly, Randy, it's not that I have a problem with any of those words (why, believe, purpose); it's that I prefer not to use them because other words, often functionally synonyms, give a better connotation of what I'm trying to say. Communication is important to me, and therefore selecting vocabulary that most closely fits with my intention is critical.

I don't see those words and run screaming to momma's apron. I have other words that represent my intentions better, in my opinion.

Kit

Randy Kirk said...

Wikipedia: In Western usage, the original meaning of guru has been extended to cover anyone who acquires followers, though not necessarily in an established school of philosophy or religion. In a further metaphorical extension, guru is used to refer to a person who has authority because of his or her perceived knowledge or skills in a domain of expertise.