thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

A god question

with 5 comments

The Other I is a blog I recommend to anyone interested in lucid and non-dogmatic discussion of serious things. (Not to imply it is only about ‘serious things’…)

Below is a response I wrote to one of the posts on The Other I: Why the existence of God isn’t a scientific question:

I don’t disagree with any of your explanation here – and in particular with what you say about falsifiability versus verifiability. What intrigues me are some of the implications.

To follow an absurd thought experiment – imagine an over-the-top Hollywood disaster movie called something like End Time. A bunch of privileged survivors witness the end of the world in all its technicolor glory. Nothing remains – apart from themselves, somehow, as disembodied souls. They next witness the creation of another world, from nothing. All the while an impeccable American English voice on the soundtrack tells the survivors what is happening, and that he is what is making it happen.

Now imagine this not as a movie but as really happening. For at least one of those survivors, that might count as ‘verification’, in a straightforward meaning of the word, of what he or she believed prior to the event. If however it later turned out that these poor privileged survivors had in fact been duped by a virtual reality extravaganza involving sophisticated technology and psychedelic drugs, that would constitute ‘falsification’.

Or to take a slightly less far-fetched example: a charismatic martyr is executed somewhere in the world and is pronounced dead. A few days later some of her former colleagues meet her and are convinced it is she, restored to life. Forty days later, in the presence of witnesses, she is lifted up into the sky and a cloud takes her out of their sight. Again the events themselves would be some sort of verification of the claims the charismatic martyr might have been making before her execution. And any subsequent discovery that the whole thing was an escapologist’s stunt would constitute falsification.

My point is that there was a significant historically continuous population who, for whatever combination of reasons, actually believed that phenomena like this were possible and had actually happened; and also were unaware of any reason to think any subsequent exposure had happened to falsify their picture. And that if this significantly populated and institutionally powerful tradition had never happened, there would not have been an army of theologians from Thomas Aquinas onwards to deconstruct and/or reconstruct the concept of god into something more philosophically defensible.

What I think is important is the light the history of belief might shed on what ‘faith’ is all about. I have a suspicion that ‘faith’ might in the end boil down to ‘wonder’ plus a nostalgic remnant of unreconstructed belief.

Questions like ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ and ‘why do the fundamental constants appear fine-tuned so as to allow a coherent universe?’ and ‘why is reality regular enough for the scientific method to be even possible?’ are legitimate and profound questions. Anyone who wants to define ‘god’ as the answer to these questions is free to do so, as long as no other content (eg any nostalgic remnant) gets smuggled in along with that word.

What concerns me in particular is the link with ethics. In a parallel sort of way, questions like ‘what is goodness?’ and ‘why do we feel moral imperatives the way we do?’ are also both legitimate and profound. And again, anyone who wants to define ‘god’ as the answer to these questions is free to do so, as long as nothing else (eg no nostalgic remnant) gets smuggled in.

Another thing I think should absolutely not be smuggled in is the previous definition of ‘god’ as the answer to cosmological questions. For that, I think, is a very dangerous fallacy. There is no reason to equate ‘god’ as ‘cosmological/metaphysical answer’ with ‘god’ as ‘ethical answer’, and every reason why not. The temptation to do so might well be another nostalgic remnant.


5 Responses

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  1. Thank you too. For the conversation, for the editing, and for the insights. Terry

    Terry Sissons

    10 April 2009 at 5:05 pm

  2. Hi Terry,

    Yes, agreed. I think I’d call myself an atheist as in ‘one who does without god’ rather than as in ‘one who is 100% convinced there is no god’.

    Your example of the ex-Christian parents is interesting. On the one hand there’s much that is admirable in Christianity, as there is in other faiths. But, if the idea is to inculcate into children the idea of a really existent external & divine authority figure, I’m not sure what’s worse – doing this if you really believe it yourself or doing it if you don’t. The latter seems ‘safer’ than the former but, ironically, dangerously insincere.

    I can remember hearing so-called ‘religious leaders’ berating the modern ‘pick’n’mix’ approach to religion as if this is something people have never done before. Yet it’s probably fairly universal.

    The problem with a lot of Christian narrative is for me not so much the ethical messages as all the supernatural trappings. So in the context of bringing up children it could be quite a challenge to edit & customise without confusing the poor children so much it’s self-defeating.

    Having said that, children don’t have to be that old before they can understand perfectly well the concept of some people believing one thing & other people believing something completely different. Plus the Golden Rule & its variants are always on hand, Sermon on the Mount or no Sermon on the Mount…

    Thanks again for the conversation,

    Chris Lawrence

    10 April 2009 at 4:40 pm

  3. Chris – From what I can tell, there aren’t any really fundamental issues about which we strongly disagree. The things about which I disagree are trifling, and many about which we agree are immensely important. In the trifling department, I would not call myself an aethist (although I dare say there are those who would). But for me athism comes with an aura of too much dogma, a kind of Reversed Faith in which someone claims to know that there isn’t a god with the same absolutism that others claim to know there is.

    Nor am I that much taken with the apophatic tradition, though I am not well versed in it. But a long list of what god isn’t doesn’t do much for me on any level. Except it does sweep away a lot of anthropomorphic detritus.

    About which we passionately agree: the determination of some believers to enshrine behaviors which their religion demands on the majority. Most saliently in terms of forbidding abortion and euthanasia, the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in schools.

    And lastly, your learned exploration of the relationship between ethics and religion. I have just recently been in a long discussion with two young parents who no longer believe most of the Christian doctrine they were taught themselves as children but who are nevertheless teaching it to their children Because they don’t know any other way to instill moral values. If nothing else, this would convince me that there is something profoundly lacking in their religion, if they can think of no reason to be moral except that “God” demands it.

    More, no doubt, on your more current posts. Terry

    The Other I

    8 April 2009 at 10:52 pm

  4. This is also a response to: Why the existence of God isn’t a scientific question on The Other I.

    Hello again,

    I probably give the impression of greater disagreement because of a specific focus.

    There are certainly some aspects of religion I’m uncomfortable with, but I’m not sure they’re limited to fundamentalism. On the other hand I’m fully aware of the positive benefits religion can bring. For example there is the evident correlation between religious faith and the kind of service to others which requires selfless sacrifice. Things like this are difficult for an atheist like myself to explain away.

    Of the religions I know anything about, I would probably count Roman Catholicism and Islam among my least favourite. Yet some of the best, most generous people I know are strict Muslims or either practising Catholics or ex-Catholics. Then our own Desmond Tutu is a world figure for whom I have nothing but admiration.

    But what I don’t like about religion is probably where this science/faith dichotomy is particularly relevant. By ‘science’ I mean something quite broad, but characterised by open method and structured doubt. You can’t exactly do controlled experiments in history for example, but there are techniques of verification, consistency etc that can be applied to put new findings & interpretations to the test.

    My religious problem areas are not confined to fundamentalism. They are also found in mainstream faith and the upper reaches of theology. One way of getting into them is by identifying different uses of a word like ‘believe’. For example the difference between ‘believe in’ and ‘believe that’. But it’s not quite as simple as that.

    If I hear someone say eg ‘As a Christian I believe in practical compassion’ – I have no problem with that. Even less of a problem if I see a Christian (or a Buddhist or a Muslim) behaving with practical compassion. Ditto, but with some qualification, if someone says, eg ‘As a Christian I believe in acting as if all life is sacred’. OK, but that gets a bit close to: ‘As a Christian I believe that all life is sacred’; and then to ‘As a Christian I believe [or indeed know] that all life is sacred because we are all created by God…’ etc.

    Clearly it is a tiny minority of believers who go from that last affirmation to attempting to assassinate abortion practitioners. But a far greater proportion will be eg driven to influence legislation to force women to continue with unwanted pregnancies, and therefore force some of the resulting children into lives where they are not wanted.

    In a general sense it’s where believers ‘believe’ and claim to ‘know’ things in a cognitive sense – about the world or the universe or reality – which is where things get problematic for me. And despite what a lot of theologians and apologists say, this ‘cognitive’ believing & knowing are not confined to fundamentalism. Just to take one example within mainstream Christianity, among the kinds of things said & shared & assumed within christenings, weddings & funerals there is very frequently a clear cognitive content about the way the world is & the relation between that world and god. And very significantly this is the kind of content which children growing up in a particular faith are typically exposed to, and typically in a fairly highly-charged emotional context.

    Or take another strand of the phenomenon of religion – sophisticated Christian theology. As you know I’ve been reading a number of responses to Dawkins’ The God delusion. They haven’t typically been from theologians themselves but from writers & academics arguing from an apparent understanding of what current Christian theology is about. As a result it is quite hard to pin down who thinks what. Which is almost my point. It’s bad to generalise, but a word to sum up a lot of what I’ve been reading recently could be ‘disingenuous’. The writers seem very clear about what they don’t like about what Dawkins says about faith & about how he characterises it, but extremely unclear about the positive content of their own positions. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read ‘But God is not a …’.

    I understand the apophatic tradition, and respect it, but it needs to be employed with great care – particularly when communicating ‘outside the club’. I haven’t read him recently, but Don Cupitt is someone I remember as writing extremely lucidly and movingly – and not at all disingenuously – about this of area of faith. Karen Armstrong is in a slightly different domain, but it’s for similar reasons that I lap up every word she writes.

    Turning to your other point of possible difference, I’m certainly not claiming the scientific method for general problem solving. Not at all. As I’ve tried to say above, the science/religion tension applies in the specific area of claims about what is the case, and therefore excludes whole universes about how to feel, how to act, how to live one’s life etc. It’s possible that one of the things that makes me most uncomfortable about some types of religion is what many people value most in it: the ability to slide from statements about the way reality is to decisions about how to live your life – and back again.

    Having said that, although I would agree that the answers to your example questions are not scientifically verifiable, the reasons why this is so are not the same in each case. Some are pure decisions, and as such are not the sort of things that could be verifiable in any way, scientifically or otherwise. (Should I marry this person? What career choice should I make? Should I take this trip to India?) In a straightforwardly physiological sense the question What will happen to me when I die? does have a scientifically verifiable answer. If that answer is unsatisfying, or unsatisfyingly incomplete, that could be because of an insistence that it misses out something important which is not scientifically verifiable. The question then is whether that means ‘not scientifically verifiable yet’ or ‘not scientifically verifiable in principle’.

    Then What is the best escape from this fire surrounding me and my family? is a fascinating one, because it contains many questions in one. Some of those are scientifically verifiable – eg to do with relative heat, air supply, where the smoke is, how long will that door take to burn through, the strengths & capacities of family members etc. But of course, depending on the nature of the fire, the correct answer could well be ‘the one you decide on in seconds rather than minutes’!

    Coming back to religion v science I think my bottom line is this. If a religious statement is about how reality (the world, the universe) is (and not a guideline as to how to behave, how to interact, how to live your life) then it is either a statement which stands to be tested against scientific criteria of some kind, or it needs to be recognised as purely a way of labelling the question to which the statement is a suggested ‘answer’.

    So for example the statement: ‘God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing’. This is a statement about reality, and not a guideline as to how to live your life. So it could be literally a way of naming or labelling the wonder: Why is there something rather than nothing? I shall name this wonder ‘God’. If it is not that, then as far as I can see it stands or falls by whatever the most appropriate branch of science is. I see no justification for claiming it is neither of those but something else entirely.

    Thanks again,

    Chris Lawrence

    5 April 2009 at 3:14 pm

  5. Chris – I think there is one great mantra on which we agree: we oppose the right of people to impose their certainty on others who do not share it (except when action of some kind must be taken and either choice involves doubt.) TAnd there is an awful lot of that around in human society. Despite the lessons of history, despite the separation of church and state in modern democracies, despite the lip service paid to free choice, the modern world is rife with attempts to impose religious rules universally.

    However, I think we may differ in our emphasis on two things. Your examples are almost all examples of certainty rooted in “faith,” and it seems to be the dogmatic certainty of religious fundamentalists that you find most objectionable. I am not a believer in a set of beliefs laid out by any institutionalized religion, or even of any other individual. I do know, though, that there are religiously committed people who live quite courageous lives according to their principles, but who have no need to impose their beliefs on others. And as I have mentioned before, I have more than enough personal acquaintance of intolerant scientists determined to impose their certainties on others.

    And so as I said before, I tend to think now that the problem isn’t so much unverifiable religious belief vs. verified scientific facts as the capacity to live with the possibility of doubt in both the religious and secular spheres. Perhaps it is because I am a psychologist, but I ask myself if there is a critical psychological dimension which determines the difference? For myself, I have learned to ask what vulnerability has been hit in myself when I am unable to tolerate dissent from one of my firmly held values.

    Which is not to say that I don’t have firmly held values. I do. I think people need firmly held principles. But I think we need always to be able to consider that there may be another way of looking at things. And this applies to scientific conclusions every bit as much as it does to religious ones. Not only that, but there is as much room for doubt in science as there is in religion. I only wish that all the economists and mathematicians who so confidently led the world into our current economic crisis had considered a little sooner how completely, absolutely, and devastatingly wrong they might have been.

    I would also be interested to know just how many of life’s questions can be addressed through the scientific method. Much as I enjoy and value it, it seems to be an awful lot of things can’t be answered scientifically. It seems to be there are huge swathes of human endeavours which are either practically or intrinsically impossible to subject to scientific study. Should I marry this person? What career choice should I make? Should I take this trip to India? How should I invest my money in the current economic climate? What will happen to me when I die? What should I cook for dinner tonight? What is the best escape from this fire surrounding me and my family?are all questions whose answers don’t seem to me to be verifiable scientifically in real life. Yet they and a thousand more like it are important in human lives. Sometimes reasoned analysis (which is not necessarily scientifically based), or past experience, or professional advice or yes sometimes religion can help make a better or worse choice. But none of them are strictly scientific. And none of them eliminate doubt. I’d very much like o hear your thoughts on this

    What I like best about this conversation, by the way, is that we both agree and disagree, and that you know as much – probably more – about the subject than I do, but there is not a 100% overlap in what we each know.

    Now I think I must retire and figure out how to “ping” this onto ThinkingMakesItSo the way you are pinging your comments onto this blog. In the meantime, I will cheat and simply paste this as a comment onto your blog. Thank you again for writing. Terry


    4 April 2009 at 10:27 pm

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