Monday, April 30, 2012

Against Faith

*this post is a part of the Assuming the Supernatural series*

Unfortunately there are a great many definitions of Faith (a few of which I'm actually ok with).  Most arguments about Faith get derailed long before deliberations begin- they get derailed because of a fundamental difference the two people have in their definition of Faith.  So I'm going to try to be as specific as possible here and avoid using the generic term "Faith."  Instead, I'm going to talk about "contingent belief", "non-contingent belief", and "divinely imparted belief" as proxies for what most people mean when they talk about Faith

Contingent belief is the kind of Faith that I'm OK with.  This kind of Faith is really just a different way of talking about weak Bayesian belief (I think its a mistake to call this "Faith" at all, because it seems to me so categorically different from the other types of Faith.  But this is the definition some people use- particularly when trying to accuse science of requiring Faith).  It is a mental assent to a proposition that you are less than sure about, but it is necessarily beholden to your future experiences.  Scientific theories all fit into this category.  We're not 100% sure of anything, and if we find sufficient evidence against a theory, we will discard it.  Moreover, we have (or ought to have) no emotional attachment to this kind of Faith, and having this Faith is neither virtue nor vice- it is simply applied logic.

Non-contingent belief is that belief which I cannot accept.  The problem with non-contingent belief is that it separates our beliefs from reality.  We are no longer tied down by experience or reason, but rather let loose to roam the plains of our own desires.  To put it another way, if we allow ourselves non-contingent belief, how are we to decide what to believe without evidence?  Surely there are a great many possible beliefs that we could hold without offering any defense for them.  Why pick Christianity, or Islam, or Buddhism?  Why not pick "Jakeism", the religion of Jake, in which I am god and get to decide what is right and wrong according to my own whims?

I want to be clear that I don't think most religions fall into this category- but many do glorify such belief.  The intelligent Christian believes because there are good arguments, and he is convinced of the historical accuracy of scripture, and he cannot make sense of life without the meta-ethical framework that Christianity provides.  This man may well be wrong, but he is not believing without basing his conclusions on evidence.  But when a religion exhorts its followers towards Faith- towards belief without evidence, or worse, belief in the face of evidence- my spider sense starts tingling.  We ought not believe anything on this kind of Faith.  If we find evidence or experiences that contradict our religious beliefs, we should question our beliefs.  Either our beliefs are correct, and we will find good answers to our questions, or our beliefs are incorrect, and we will be one step closer to finding the correct beliefs.

What I want out of my epistemology is to become a more accurate predictor of reality.  The only way non-contingent belief could accomplish this is if there were something that was true, but no evidence could be offered up for it.  While it is conceivable that such truth exists, consider which is more likely- that someone claiming absolute truth without evidence actually has the truth, or that someone claiming absolute truth without evidence is wrong.  Obviously, we expect you to have no evidence if you're wrong.  You haven't differentiated yourself from other people claiming truth if you tell us that we need faith to believe you.  I don't want arbitrary belief; I want belief based in reality.

But I think the best argument against non-contingent belief is the following: any non-contingent-belief-Faith you have derives from your belief in the Authority of something else (a holy scripture, a prophet, a tradition, etc.) which tells you to have Faith (or at least tells you the truth you ought to have Faith in).  Your Faith can never be stronger than your belief in the Authority.  Likewise, that belief in the Authority can never be stronger than your belief in whatever it is that gives your Authority-source it's Authority.  After peeling back all the layers, there are only two places you can end up: experience, or reason.  Your Faith cannot be stronger than your belief in experience and reason, because your Faith derives itself, through layers of abstraction, from this experience and reason.  Otherwise, what you have is a floating belief, not tied to any actual observable reality.  If your Faith in the Authority is working in a feedback loop with the Authority proclaiming Faith, you need to take a serious look at your belief system, because you would believe it no matter what it said.  You believe it simply because you believe it, and for no other reason.  You are perpetuating the status quo for the simple reason that you already believe the status quo.  And that's why non-contingent belief is such a great evil- because it is inescapable, even when its wrong.

This brings us to divinely imparted belief.  I'm not sure what exactly I can say here, other than throwing up my hands and rolling my eyes.  Fine.  You believe you have divinely imparted belief.  You don't need reasons, because you simply *know* something is true that the rest of us don't see.  This is like the man who is convinced the world is one big dream of his, and he will be waking up any minute.  Nothing you can say, nothing you can do will ever convince him otherwise.  Divinely imparted belief is (most often) a veneer placed over a gaping hole in the reasonability of a religion.

Again, I want to be clear that I think divinely imparted belief is totally possible.  But you ought to be so suspicious of it that you don't believe it, even if it is true, because you're not the only one claiming this.  If other people can be mistaken about the level of certainty they ought to have in the divine origin of their beliefs, why can't you?  It seems like hubris to claim that we have divinely imparted belief, which we can be sure of because it was divinely imparted, but your divinely imparted belief is purely psychological (and by the way, you should convert).

Before closing this post, I should note that C.S. Lewis has a definition of Faith that I can totally get behind.  He basically says that Faith is the ability to hold on to what you know to be true even when it doesn't seem true at the moment.  Certainly mood, circumstance, and chance play a large role in our lives, and can definitely affect what we consider to be reasonable at a given time.  If all we require of Faith is that it is a caution against impetuous overcorretive steering, then I'm on board- you shouldn't make big life decisions about what you believe in an instant.  But if we're saying Faith can keep us from converting or deconverting long-term, even when we're convinced that the evidence is arrayed against us?  I'm not buying it.  That's what keeps people trapped in false religion.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

What DO I Believe?

*this post is a part of the Assuming the Supernatural series*

I've spent a lot of time talking about what I don't believe, and what I find difficult to believe in other religions.  It only seems fair that I talk about what I do believe (at this point), as we can't just go along defeating other people's beliefs forever.

In one sense, these beliefs are not very scientific.  In another, they quite are.  They are the synthesis of my moral sensibilities and my observations about reality as a rational moral agent (and a substantial amount of modern Western culture that has found it's way in as well).  They are (for the most part) distinct from my axioms of belief, but rather are the conclusions I draw from the application of my axioms to my life experience.  Basically, these are the things that I would be looking for a metaphysical system to support if I'm to buy into it.


I believe in Reason- mostly because it seems to work.  The universe is orderly, not out of necessity, but out of observation.  And we can codify good methods of defining, discovering, and extrapolating that order to make predictions.  Reality agreeing with a belief system's predictions is a necessary condition for me accepting that belief system.

I believe in Right and Wrong- that they are real and objective things.  I believe that when societies or groups don't recognize the objective moral right and wrong (which is a historical reality), it is out of ignorance.  It is because they don't fully understand their actions, or the effect their actions have on other people.

I believe in Love- I believe its more than hormones and herd instinct.

I believe in free will- I don't think we are destined to do anything.  We make our own choices.  If the world was any other way, I see no reason for this physical reality to exist at all.  If the end is already set, why bother with this charade?

I don't care if there's an afterlife-  Seriously, it seems really secondary to me.  First, this reality is the only one I can be sure of.  Second, I just don't see ceasing to exist as such a great evil.  I'm not saying I reject the idea of an afterlife out-of-hand, just that any claim about the afterlife makes me suspicious, because it's a great method of control (not to mention being totally unverifiable).

I believe in freedom- personal, political, and economic.  We ought to be be free to determine the outcome of our own lives. (obviously we can't live in a vaccuum, free from outside influences, but we can and should give as much autonomy as possible to the individual)

I believe everyone has the right to decide for themselves what they believe- I reject any religion or epistemology that threatens the non-believer or disallows interpretation and honest disagreements by its adherents

I believe in accepting and loving everyone, even those we disagree with- I'm not sure yet whether I agree with "loving your enemies", because I'm not even really sure what that means.  But I am pretty sure we ought not make enemies with anyone if we can help it.  Those that differ from us are still human, and worthy of human dignity and love.  I like the way C.S. Lewis puts it- "But whenever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more or, at least, to dislike it less."  Once you see another human as a moral agent just trying to maximize his own happiness, you begin to forgive that which would previously be unforgivable.

I believe in justice- Wrongdoers should be punished.  This is not diametrically opposed to the "loving and accepting everyone" point.  Justice is devoid of emotion.  It is a recognition that actions have consequences, and that to encourage correct behavior we need to discourage incorrect behavior.  "Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen".  But justice is more than this.  I think, even if incentivizing people to not do bad things didn't work, I would still believe that wrongdoing should be punished.

I do not believe in faith- Here's the problem with faith: if we believe something on any strength other than the evidence, then we lose the grounding of our belief in reality.  There are several definitions of faith, but I think they basically fall into two categories- blind faith and contingent faith.  Contingent faith is not really "faith" at all- it's weak bayesian belief.  I have "faith" in those I trust, because the evidence says they are trustworthy.  If they continually fail at that standard, I will lose my faith in them. I cannot justify believing in any other conception of faith. (This is a topic that deserves a more considered discussion.  I'll be writing a post on Faith soon)

I do not think humans are basically good. I do not think humans are basically bad. I think humans are basically free- it seems to me that we all have a great capacity for both.  It is equally hard to be all-good as it is to be all-bad. It seems to be a common claim in religion that humans are all bad, and anything good we do is God, and anything bad we do is us.  I think humans, with or without God, are capable of choosing to do the right thing.  

I do not believe in the authority of tradition- Tradition is useful because smart people have been thinking hard for thousands of years about the same problems we encounter today.  But tradition cannot be authoritative- those who created tradition were no different, no better or worse, than we are today.  If anything, they had fewer resources, had been exposed to fewer diverse belief systems, and had  less scientific and historical knowledge of the world than we do.  Moreover, adhering to tradition for the sake of tradition almost inherently slows down or outright prevents progress.  I cannot and will not cede the authority to determine my beliefs to anyone other than myself.  I am ultimately responsible for both my beliefs and my actions, so I need to take responsibility for verifying my beliefs against reality. There is obviously something more to be said if God has revealed something to specific people- those who had direct interaction with God do have a great deal more authority.  But the standard of proof for me to believe this is astronomically high.  I will cover my full view of tradition in a later post.

I don't believe any human is infallible- I cannot accept any claims of infallibility for living humans, because infallibility removes my right to question, criticize, and argue- those are some of our fundamental rights (and indeed, obligations) as humans.  I'm suspicious of any religion that elevates its leader to "unquestionable" status for the same reason I'm suspicious of any country that has a president but no elections. (note that this doesn't disqualify Christianity, because Jesus was not really human in the sense that all the rest of us are- he was "all God and all Man".  Whatever that means, its something fundamentally different than us)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Assuming The Supernatural...

At this point, I think I've enumerated most of my good arguments against Theism in general.  And I'm finding that, when considering different religions and different sects within the same religion, I'm getting bogged down by questions of metaphysics rather than questions of theology.  While the two are by no means mutually exclusive, I do think there's been an element of not-taking-this-religion-stuff-seriously in a lot of my posts, and more to the point, in a lot of my thinking.

The truth is, I'm about 50/50 on whether or not I think there's a "supernatural" anything.  The half of me that believes in the supernatural is the same half that rejects Nihilism.  The half of me that doesn't thinks we're meaningless bags of atoms hurtling towards our inevitable doom.  The second, it turns out, is a much less interesting half.

I'm going to try and make an effort over over the next few weeks, starting with my next post, to consider the case where I am convinced that there is something more than the physical world, and the problem has been reduced to deciding which of these religions, if any, seem to be the best fit with my observations and reason.  I'm going to mark these posts in the "ATS" category (assuming the supernatural), so I don't have to write this long paragraph every time about how I'm arguing for things with only a 50% buy-in.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Deconverting a Muslim

The question that seems to have generated the most interesting results for me in conversations with Christians is "On what basis should a Muslim deconvert?"  The power of this question is that it forces you to consider what would make you deconvert from a religion, while separating you from the emotional ties you have with your own.  It implicitly asks you if you hold yourself to the same standard you hold other religious believers (who you presumably think have the wrong idea about God, and should convert).

I've been surprised by how many Christians have answered this the same way I did three years ago, but arrived at a totally different conclusion.  My answer was that there was no standard I could apply to both them and myself that would declare my religious experience to be true and their religious experience to be false.  I had to admit that, had I been born a Muslim and maintained my current standards for belief, I would have forever remained a Muslim.  What surprised me about the Christians who echoed my sentiments was that their response was not to doubt the validity of their belief.  Rather, their response was to thank God that they had been born into a Christian environment.  Several times I have heard the phrase "if I had been born a Muslim, I think I would probably still be a Muslim", and was astonished that it was not immediately followed by a recanting of Christianity.

This seems so logically inconsistent to me that I don't really know where to start.  This is a confession that your beliefs are not based on reality, but on Geography.  This is a confession that your beliefs are not objectively true, but rather culturally convincing.  This is a confession that your standards of belief are so weak that you cannot even differentiate yourself from your principle rival (globally speaking) that claims to offer a contradictory version of truth.  And most important, it seems a confession that there is no reason anyone should choose Christianity over Islam, because their relative plausibility is based on your culture rather than the truth.  I just can't get my head around someone admitting to all this, and being thankful they were born into this particular arbitrarily held belief system- as if the Muslim would not say the exact same?

I honestly think Islam is the best argument against Christianity.  It falsifies a lot of the core assumptions of Christian apologetics- that a group of men two thousand years ago wouldn't have died for a belief unless it was real, that God reveals himself in an active and unmistakeable way, that miracles and fulfilled prophecy are convincing and sufficient to prove a religion correct.  Moreover, it shows that people can be absolutely convinced that their religious beliefs and experiences are true- but be totally wrong.

My point is, if you don't have a good filter that passes your religion and fails every other religion, then I think you need to reevaluate your standard of belief.  This is why I placed such a premium on the Personal Relationship claim made by Christianity, because it was just one such differentiator.  But in the end, that didn't bare itself out in my life.

I'd be interested in hearing any suggestions about what kind of filter we might apply that passes one and only one religion- or an argument of how we're justified believing one of the two religions without such a filter

Monday, April 23, 2012

Belief as a Selector

Belief seems to me an arbitrary (and really quite odd) choice for the selecting function of salvation. There seem to be a great many good people honestly seeking the truth and either not finding it, or finding contradicting versions of it. But the one thing that (almost) all religions claim is that belief in their specific version of truth is both necessary and sufficient for salvation.

This is highly suspicious to me. Why is belief the ultimate good? It's highly subjective, wildly inaccurate, and easily manipulated. It's a lot less reliable than, say, how hard a person tries to be good. Or even how well that person succeeds at being good. This makes no sense if a religion is actually true. But it makes a lot of sense if religions are human constructs meant to manipulate people. Just like states need to instill a (totally unreasonable) sense of nationalism in their citizens, so too do religions need to convince everyone of belief as the selector. It is the only method by which religion can procreate, and evolutionarily speaking, it makes perfect sense that the only religions that have survived are those that demand the strict belief of their adherents and the proselytization of the infidels.  

The problem, or rather the great genius, of organized religion is that it makes itself the only unquestionable reality.  I can't tell you how hard it was for me to get out from under the thumb of the terror that I might go to hell.  The combination of belief as a selector and fear as a motivator is incredibly powerful, because its self-reinforcing.  The more you believe, the more afraid of hell you are, and the more afraid of hell, the more you believe.  It's not until you release your fears (or plow right through them) that you're free to even think critically about your religion- for nothing is more frightening to the true believer than deconversion.  And any religion that holds onto converts by fear is one I want no part of.  (To the Christian who feels antagonized, I ask that you consider Islam.  Is this not one of your primary complaints about the religion that it rules by fear?  Well, this is certainly one of the primary complaints of many Atheists against Christianity as well.  So now we've established the problem is real, and we're just "Haggling over the price", as it were)

Leah over at unequally yolked recently posted the following in a discussion (roast?) of Unitarian (and specifically Universalist) theology:

In his discussion with the Universalist minister, York pressed his sparring partner on the boundaries of membership in the Unitarian church. York said that if he committed adultery, he would no longer be a Mennonite – he would have excommunicated himself. He wanted to know if Unitarians had any equivalent acts. I was really surprised he thought the dividing line between people in a particular religious tradition and heathens was their acts. With my crypto-Catholic sensibilities, I don’t see how an action could strip you of your identity as a believer. Bad acts make you a bad whatever-you-are, but only divergent beliefs actually cut you off from the community, since they preclude seeking healing from that church.

I think my problem with this is the idea that "healing from that church" is what gets you into heaven.  That seems to me so blatantly manipulative.  Or perhaps that's too strong- it seems to leave itself open to blatant manipulation (and indeed, the Catholic Church is guilty of this throughout much of its history).  My sensibilities get itchy any time someone ends a sentence with "or else".

Two more points I'd like to note in the interest of fairness.  First, I'm not sure if "healing from the church gets you into heaven" is what Leah is actually arguing for as the rational framework for religion (in this case, Catholicism).  It seems just as likely that she's pointing out that your beliefs are what delineate you into different denominations, not your actions.  I don't take issue with that sentiment at all.  Differentiation is not the same as discrimination.  What I take issue with is my interpretation of the last sentence, that somehow the corporate body of the church (whether Catholic or other) is responsible for your salvation.

The second point is that, while I find this framework distasteful, that doesn't make it untrue.  Just because I see huge problems with belief being the selector of salvation, doesn't mean that it's not.  I'm arguing against the arbitrary choosing of belief as a selector, but I don't really have a metaphysical basis from which to argue.  The only cogent way to talk about this is to assume the position of God and make declarations about what does or doesn't make sense.  But if we're to assume a God in order to make our argument, then surely we have lost some basis for criticizing him.  I guess my point is, this seems like a good reason to be distrustful of organized religion.  But it seems like a very poor reason to conclude that God is not real.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Paralysis of Choice

I'm not sure how many people suffer from this, but I am absolutely paralyzed by choice

I've had to train myself to make arbitrary choices just to get anything done.  People who know me well know that when confronted with a mostly trivial choice (like where to go for dinner), I simply choose one option, with no rhyme or reason.  Part of this is because I think people usually already know what they want beneath the layers of pro/con analysis.  When a friend is struggling between two relatively equal options, I will boldly declare "Option A!".  Typically the response I get is either "yeah, let's do that!", or "no, I want to do the other one!".  The response is rarely continued indecision.

But the other reason I make an arbitrary choice is that it's impracticle to do extended decision analysis on every trivial decision.  My natural inclination is to figure out all the tradeoffs offered by each of my options, and try to make the right decision. But the consequences of making the incorrect dinner choice are negligible compared to the amount of time you'd have to spend making the "right" choice- particularly in matters of taste, where there is no obvious definition for the "right" choice.

But my indicision extends a lot further than this.  I went to a drive through the other day, and my total was $8.40.  I gave the guy a $10 bill, a quarter, a dime, and a nickle.  He came back and gave me two $1 bills and a nickle.  I looked at him confused.  He said "you gave me a quarter and two dimes".  I knew this wan't the case, but after a few seconds of arguing, I just gave up (he was positive he owed me 5 cents, and it didn't seem worth it to keep arguing).  But as I was pulling out, I got to thinking about my relative certainty that I gave him a dime and a nickle, not two dimes.  Could I be wrong?  Absolutely I could.  I've done stupid things like that in the past, not looking closely enough at what I was doing.  I was 99% sure of myself when I first gave him the change, but I was somewhere between 90% and 95% sure I was right after he argued with me.  So far, so good- I got some new input and updated my bayesian priors.  It just so happens that I trust myself a lot more than I trust random-drive-through-guy.

But then I got to thinking on how much I would bet on the fact that I gave him a dime and a nickle.  Would I bet $100?  Or $1000?  Or my whole life's savings?  I realized that, even though I felt very sure I was correct, I still wouldn't bet any amount of money that I wouldn't be totally fine with losing.  When I did my decision analysis, I cared a lot more about the difference between the end states than I did about the liklihood of each of these states actually happening.  I cared about my maximum gain and maximum loss a lot more than I cared about my expected value.

My point is that, while I tend to implicitly trust my own intuitions when it comes to claiming truth, I tend to doubt them quite a bit when it comes to acting on truth.  When I have to make a substantive choice based on my beliefs (a choice that involves actual risk and reward), I find that the very presence of someone telling me I'm wrong with absolute conviction is enough to confuse my decision making engine.  It seems that I just tell myself I'm 95% sure- but my actions say otherwise.

I suspect you know where this is going, but I'll finish the thought anyways.  The parallels between this and religion are pretty obvious.  We're bombarded on all sides by people telling us they know the truth- entirely, completely, almost comically assured that they are correct- and each of these people is pulling us in a different direction.  Any confidence I had in my conclusions evaporates as soon as I meet another (seemingly reasonable) person who believes quite the opposite.

I find that I can pick my way through this minefield much better on matters of fact (the historical nature of the old testament, for example) than I can on matters of personal experience.  Our reason is so colored by our experience that its difficult to say which religion is even being reasonable, much less which, if any, is right.  Religion tell me that this is the point where faith takes over.  Science tells me (and my own natural inclination is) that a retreat to faith in the face of uncertainty is the surest path to being wrong.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Weak Form Christianity

I just had the most liberating conversation with a Christian I've had in a very long time.

Almost all the Christians I know have been Christians their whole lives.  I just had coffee with a friend who didn't become a Christian until her freshman year of college.  One of my favorite things about her is that she doesn't speak Christianese- she just talks about things the way they are.

She has what appears to me (and probably most career Christians) an odd faith.  I'm labeling it Weak Form Christianity (WFC), not because it is inferior, but rather in the same way we talk about Weak Form Efficiency.

To summarize my understanding of the belief, it goes something like this: It is self evident that we are moral agents with free will.  As such, there must be something more than the physical.  This world and everything in it- emotional, intellectual, and relational- points towards a God as that something more.  Moreover, it points toward a relational God, a God who values love, who values self-sacrifice, who values altruism.  The Christian God is unique among all the forms of supernatural that have been proposed by humanity.  In particular, it is the only religion that offers us both an explanation and a narrative for the value of love, self-sacrifice and altruism.  It is the only religion that says that we simply cannot earn, fight, claw, scratch, or otherwise find our way to God.  Instead, it speaks of God coming to us in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice through the life, death, and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ. 

But the difference between WFC and traditional Christianity is that this is pretty much all WFC claims. It doesn't claim any knowledge of whether people from other religions can make the cut.  It makes no claims about the infallibility of the Bible.  It makes no claims about what sort of relationship you're supposed to have with God.  All these are left as exercises for the reader, as it were.  (I want to point out that WFC is distinct from the "lukewarm" Christianity that is fairly common in America today.  WFC can be held with great conviction, and believers can live a life wholly commited to God even without claiming definitive knowledge of the specifics of God)

Essentially, this is an argument that Christianity is true because it just sounds true. It meets our (admittedly western) expectations of what a God would/could/should look like given the moral intuitions and subjective experiences we have in this world. And it gives us a model on which to base our actions and attitudes- a way to live our lives that has meaning and purpose (and is not self-contradictory).

To be fair, WFC is not a particularly well developed world view.  It doesn't explain a lot of things, and it is perfectly comfortable ignoring the problems created by the Biblical doctrines of Christianity.  But then again, it sort of just works.  And let me be clear, I'm not sure if it's true, but I do think it works.  I've seen it work, both in myself and in the lives of others.  It makes you a "better" person.  It makes you a loving person, a generous person, a person less concerned about yourself and more concerned about fixing this world that we've broken so badly.

Oddly enough, I find WFC much more compelling than traditional Christianity.  The more I study, the more convinced I become that we simply can't know the specifics of God with any sort of certainty.  Is baptism necessary for salvation?  Transubstantiation or Consubstantiation?  Is Homosexuality a sin or rejected because of a cultural construct in the time of the Bible?  I don't know.  An honest Christian can't claim to know either (though they could claim a belief or educated guess).  But many versions of Christianity promote these to the role of core doctrines- if not contingencies of salvation, at least contingencies of a "proper" Christian belief.  With so many separate-but-equally-supported belief systems (some internal to Christianity, some external), I find myself rejecting the idea that it would be possible to arrive at the correct conclusion even if one of them really is true.  And WFC does not suffer from this criticism.

I think the real attraction of WFC, however, is that it gives us a basis for living a better life, while leaving open the possibility that we have no idea what we're doing.  It's an acknowledgment only of the things that seem intuitively obvious, and an extrapolation of those things into a religious ideology.  It doesn't make nearly so many unverifiable claims as other forms of the religion.

There are obvious problems with WFC, however (lest the reader think me a convert).  Picking the parts you like and rejecting the parts you don't is almost never a good idea (whether its in a religion, a person, or anything else).  While WFC does not suffer from as many unverifiable claims as the rest, is does suffer from a few.  It makes some pretty big assumptions, going from "Moral Law" to "Omnipotent Benevolent Personal Relational Deity" without blinking.  It makes even fewer substantive claims than traditional Christianity- if Christianity is unfalsifiable, WFC is even more so.  But I think the biggest argument against WFC is that it's pretty clearly incomplete.  Nobody really believes this vague generalist view of God.

Interestingly, WFC seems to be the doctrine most Christians turn too when cornered by any of the (seemingly insurmountable) problems with the religion.  They invoke the "God works in mysterious ways" argument (one of my least favorite things in the world), and then say "But that's not the point of Christianity.  Christianity is about...", and they go on to expound WFC.  But very few Christians actually admit to believing only WFC.  They still hold to these ancillary claims and traditions that seem to have no basis, particularly if WFC is the only thing that really matters.

I honestly suspect this is an issue of ignorance within the church.  I have yet to talk to a Christian who has seriously considered in their own life all the arguments I have against the infalliability of the Bible, or the problem of Geography, or the basis on which Muslims should deconvert.  No one has given me even close to a satisfactory answer on any of them, and when confronted with these arguments, they retreat to WFC- but they never actually deal with the issues at hand.  And this seems to me a damning piece of evidence.  It seems to me that the Christians I know (even the ones I respect) live in a state of cognitive dissonance- they haven't really followed the conclusions of their religion to the logical end.  To be fair, I hadn't either.  When I did, I rejected my formulation of Christianity. 

Let me pause here and say that I don't legitimately think I'm living without cognitive dissonance.  I think it's something everybody deals with, as nobody has come up with a seriously liveable world view that does not contain at least a few contradictions and idiosyncracies.  That said, we ought (and here I go irrationally prescribing things again) to examine ourselves for this bias at every turn.  We should NOT be ignoring contradictions in our belief system; rather, we should admit them and attempt to rectify them with reality.  And it frustrates me when Christians don't do this, and instead rely on the boogeyman of epistemlogical debates- "We can't understand God"

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Power of Grace

This is pretty similar to my divinity of love argument, so I won't spend too much time talking about the Power of Grace.  But I do think it's worthwhile to extend this idea that some emotions and experiences just don't make a whole lot of sense without a supernatural.  They do not have objective value outside of a supernatural framework, but more than that, they don't even have a satisfactory explanation outside of the supernatural.

I think the Power of Grace is one of these things.  Anyone who has ever been extended true grace, or has seen someone else extended true grace, has seen the powerful effect if can have.  It can turn bitter enemies into fast friends literally overnight.  It can absolutely free someone from prejudice, from hate, from emotional damage that has haunted them for years.  It creates an instantaneous bond that supersedes all kinds of other biases and predispositions (including legitimate ones).

I don't think I'm claiming anything extraordinary here.  I'm not sure how much time I should spend trying to convince you of the power of grace, because I'm not sure how many people actually doubt how powerful grace is (one of the curses of growing up Christian, I fear, is that I don't know what vocabulary non-Christians use for these things, and to what extent they're accepted as givens).  At the very least, we have all seen those movies where the hero extends grace to the villain, and the villain is profoundly changed by it.

The question, then, becomes whether or not this makes sense outside of a supernatural explanation.  I tend to say no.  I don't see a conceivable evolutionary reason for grace to be so powerful.  And I don't think it stops here- we can say the same for honor, duty, humor, hope, meaning, purpose, and probably some more experiences I can't think of right now.  Can these be explained by evolutionary psychology?  I don't know.  Maybe.  I have a really hard time claiming that anything is unexplainable by evolutionary psychology, including emotional experiences that we don't observe in reality.  And if I'm going to hold it to the same standard that I'm holding religion, that means evolutionary psychology isn't actually making any claims at all.  This is one of my principal complaints against Christianity- it can be warped to explain any fact, therefore it makes no predictions and is totally unfalsifiable.  So as much as I'm nervous about claiming that something "can't be explained" by evolution, I think I'm even more nervous with claiming that anything can be explained by evolution.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Define "Relationship"...

I had lunch with an old college friend the other day, and he brought out two points that I haven't covered yet that I thought were worth discussing.  I'll talk about the Power of Grace in my next post, but today I want to talk about what exactly Christians mean when they say that God desires a "relationship" with us.

My friend pointed out that when we talk about having a relationship with God, we tend to talk about it in the same terms we talk about our own relationships with other people.  We tend to cram God into the little hole we have carved out for what a relationship should look like.  But there is a problem here.  This approach assumes that our relationship with God should look similar to the relationships we have with other people.  It assumes we have any idea what a relationship would look like between two beings differing in consciousness the way we differ from God.  This isn't like our relationship with another person- not even like our relationship with a dog, or an ant, or anything else we can think of.  We really have no model for what a "relationship" with God should or even possibly could be like.  But yet we're surprised (and indeed offended) that we don't have a "two directional" relationship with God (this was my single biggest complaint with Christianity, and is certainly the biggest reason I walked away)

Now I see both a big problem and a big relief for Christianity in this statement.  The problem is that after all the research I've done, and all the Christians I've talked to, I still can't find a consensus about what Christians mean when they talk about having a relationship with God.  Most individuals I talk to end up admitting that they don't in fact feel God's presence in their day-to-day lives.  If Christianity can't even tell us what it means when it talks about a relationship with God, then Christianity isn't really making any claim here at all.  Moreover, this makes any attempt to verify the existence of this relationship fundamentally impossible (even in the most subjective sense)

But there is also relief here.  If we don't feel this relationship, perhaps that's because we don't know what a relationship with a being so different from ourselves feels like?  Perhaps a relationship with him doesn't feel like anything? The problem with this argument, of course, is that the relationship the Old Testament God demonstrated with Moses, the Israelite people, and the prophets in general seems to be exactly the kind of relationship we expect from God- two directional, present, and leaving no doubt of its reality.  The kind of relationship we get seems quite different- one directional, full of ethereal vagueness, and closer to self-actualization than meaningful dialog.

So what's the takeaway here?  I think we need to answer a different question first: do we require an active and present God in order to believe in a particular religion?  My inclination is that if God is active and present, then there should be no doubt for his believers (and almost every serious believer I've talked to has struggled with doubt in some form or another).  Moreover, there should be no way for someone like me, who wants to believe, to arrive at the conclusion that God simply isn't there.  So if our answer to this question is "yes", then I think I have an insurmountable problem with Christianity.  Unless and until I have a supernatural experience with God (some "other half" to my prayers), I cannot take Christianity to be true.  But if our answer is "no", then I think we must turn to what the Bible says.  If Christianity does indeed claim this kind of relationship for its followers, then I'm stuck once again.  But if it does not, then I don't think I'm justified in demanding it.  It seems reasonable to me that the God of the universe would not feel particularly inclined to converse with me.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Reason is Not Enough

Reason alone is not enough.  It took me a really long time to realize that.  And a big part of my journey has been predicated on the idea that reason can conclusively differentiate truth from not truth.

Allow me to stop and clarify, because I mean something extremely specific here: what I mean is that if you were only allowed to use reason, you could only deduce a priori truths.  You could formalize logic.  You could do a fair bit of math.  But that's about as far as you could possibly go.

But surely this is not surprising.  All of our modern scientific knowledge is a synthesis of reason and experience- science is itself predicated on empiricism.  Empiricism is in fact entirely divorced from reason (in a sense)- our deductions must be verified by experience, not the other way around.  We don't theorize about the world based on logic and create laws that apply to nature; rather we observe nature and from that deduce its laws.

But there is one more very real sense in which knowledge does not flow from reason alone.  We cannot ever be entirely sure of our own reason.  This took me a long time to admit- ironically, I realized it through empiricism.  My rationality has failed me too many times to be trusted.  My view of the rationality of religion has changed (more than once) over the last five years.

Now I'm definitely not advocating for giving up rationality here.  I certainly don't think that we as humans have a more reliable method for determining truth in the absence of direct observation.  But I am advocating a somewhat tempered view of our reason.  I think atheists tend to glorify reason as a proxy for truth- and I think properly applied reason does lead to truth, in the domains it is capable of addressing.  But I'm not so sure how confident we can be in our own application of reason, and I'm not entirely sure as to what that reason-addressable domain is.  To put it another way, I think logic and reason are the strongest way we can know truth.  But they are not a foolproof way.  And they are not the only way.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

In Defense of Non-Nihilistic Atheism

I've spent a fair bit of time in the last week reading and writing about Atheism as it relates to Nihilism.  It strikes me that there are a great many Atheists, but very few Nihilists.  Or at least, the Nihilists out there have a much less visible share of the Atheism blog market (which I suppose we should expect from the Nihilist).  This has convinced me that it would be worthwhile to make my best argument for Non-Nihilistic Atheism, as this seems to be the path of most who reject the supernatural.

So let us suppose, for a moment, that God does not exist.  Let us suppose that we are those infintessimally small cogs in the great machine of the universe, and that we are simply complex chemical reactions bound by the laws of cause and effect.  Does it follow that life is inherently meaningless and without intrinsic value?

Well if your definition of "meaningful" is "eternal", then yes, I suppose it does.  But if your definition of "meaningful" is "worthwhile", then absolutely not.  Regardless of what constitutes a human being (whether it is purely physical or something more) the fact exists that we believe and act as if we are autonomous moral agents.  We have this sense of self.  The reality of metaphysical principles has no bearing on this.  The value of life is in our perception of life- the very fact that we are conscious and aware lends us import.  Consider the dog: not many Theists claim that the dog has a "soul".  They don't claim he is eternal, anything greater than exactly the physical dog he appears to be.  But likewise, we don't consider him without value.  We recognize each dog has a personality all its own, and we recognize their value in this individuality; the fact that the dog has a personality is the reason we value him over a computer program.

But if we're to talk in terms of "value" and "meaning", we must eventually tackle morality.  Many would claim some objective moral standard is necessary to lend our lives- or at least, our actions- meaning.  But this is not the case.  Why does utilitarianism suffer in this paradigm?  If we all are compelled to do what is best for each other, we can greatly increase all of our enjoyment.  Human meaning is not a zero sum game, as the Nihilists would have you believe- everyone out for themselves actually produces a much worse world than everyone out for each other.  And since our experience of value is unaffected by whether or not we actually have value, surely utilitarianism it is categorically better than selfishness.  You Nihilists can't play the prisoners dilemma on us if we all recognize what you're doing.

We must also deal with the question of free will.  Some would claim that Determinism is a defeater of meaning- that is, if everything that will happen must happen, and cannot conceivably be changed, no meaning is possible.  After all, how can we claim meaning if we can't even control our own thoughts and actions?  But that's a bit like complaining that the characters in a movie did the same thing after you rewound and played it again.  Well of course they did.  That's what that character would do, by his very nature- else he would be an entirely different character.  It is no condemnation of he that takes action that he would have taken the same action presented with the same circumstances once again.  And it takes nothing away from the experience of watching the movie that it was filmed and burned to disk long, long before you ever watched it.  Since the future is patently unknown and unknowable, determinism is at best 20/20 hindsight.  So we can explain why things happen after the fact- so what?  That takes nothing away from the reality of the present, just as knowing the dice rolls after a game of risk takes nothing away from enjoying the experience of playing.

It is better, though, to think of this another way.  Rather than asking what the implications of a purely physical reality would be, and accepting or rejecting that reality based on these implications, instead think of the idea as already decided.  Either there is more than the physical world or there is not, and no amount of wishing or self-deceit can change it.  There is nothing more; now what will you do with it?  Certainly Nihilism is one approach- but just as certain, there are others.  Clearly beauty still exists, even if there is no metaphysical principle underpinning our perception of it ("beauty is in the eye of the beholder", after all).  Clearly love is still a powerful and glorious thing.  Clearly the common good, basic rights, and the value of human life are as apparent to us as ever.  What we have in Physicalism is an excuse to deny them if we wish- not a mandate to do so.  There is no reason that says we must live as if these are merely evolutionary fabrications.  Our day-to-day lives need be no different than they ever were before; what had value then has value now, if only in that our metaphysical beliefs do not change our underlying perceptions in the slightest

If what you're asking for is a purely rational defense of why we should act in a certain way, I can't give you one.  But niether can the one who claims the supernatural as his source.  Both of us have given a little bit in rationality to get back something much greater.  In the supernaturalist's case, he's gotten back conviction of a higher purpose.  In my case, I've gotten back a value that we consistently (even if arbitrarily) attribute to humanity and human causes.  A robotic "intelligence" would surely arrive at Nihilism.  But a self-aware being has a great many other options.


I must confess that after writing this post, I can see how this is a tennable world view.  It sort of has the ring of satisfaction offered by Theism, but allows you to hold on to a bit more of your pure rationality.  But ultimately, I still can't buy atheism leading to anything other than Nihilism.  Even the arguments I've presented here can be best described as a dressed-up version of Hedonism.  My arguments for group morality and meaning are really made out of selfishness- I want the group to be moral because it benefits me.  I want to love another person because of the benefits I get from it.  There is no basis for altruism here, no basis for self-sacrifice.  Hedonism is applied Nihilism in the same way that Physics is applied Math.  We can talk about utilitarianism all we want, but ultimately all we're trying to do is maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain.  And if the Pleasure/Pain +/- is really trying to maximize the rate at which one set of neural pathways get exercised and minimize the rate of another, then we can't claim any more meaning than a star burning itself out in a glorious explosion, or lighting taking a beautifully twisted path to get to the ground.  All of us are simply following the path of least resistance.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Broken System

My mom recently got a ticket for a seatbelt violation.  She's very small, so she can't wear the seatbelt over the shoulder like the rest of us- it ends up being more "over the face".  Instead, she wears it under the shoulder, so it still protects her and won't rip off her head in the event of an accident.  Today I got an email from my dad describing her court appearance to fight this ticket:
Mom: "May I read you the law?"
Judge: "You don't need to read me the law, I know the law"
Mom: Reads the law anyway..."Blah, blah, blah...Properly Restrained..."
Judge: "Stop right there. There are two key words there, properly restrained" (thinking he has Mom)
Mom:  "right, and properly restrained is defined below as...worn across your chest... chest is defined in the New American Standard Dictionary as..."
Mom:  *shows picture of her wearing seatbelt across her chest, submits as evidence*

*Judge is a pig and doesn't listen anyway*

Actually, I concluded it's a fixed and broken system.  You can't win, the judge will always side with the cop.  There's no argument that can be made that will cause the judge to show up the cop.  And if the cop just doesn't show up, the person goes free.  So the only determination of guilt or innocence is whether or not the cop shows up.  Facts and argument don't matter.
This seems a pretty good summary for my problem with mainstream religion (which is a bit ironic, my parents being devout Christians).  The system is broken.  Since there's no verifiable truth claims made by any of them (at least not that I've found yet), there's no argument that can be made that differentiates one as true and another as false.  We can talk about which makes more sense (or maybe makes the least amount of not-sense?), or which we feel is true, or which we like better, but I've yet to see a rational way of arriving at a claim that one is truth and the rest are not.  So the only determination of guilt or innocence is whether or not you happen to guess right.  Facts and arguments don't matter.

This is, perhaps, not quite fair.  Religions do make some competing claims- though I've yet to be convinced they're competing enough to differentiate truth from non truth with any certainty.  Is God supremely Holy and will judge our actions according to both his mercy and justice to decide our fate?  Or are we saved by grace alone and God requires nothing but our acceptance of this fact?  I don't know.  Both have about the same level of plausibility.  If you're wondering, those are (my understanding of) Islam and Christianity, respectively.

But I do believe that once we acquiesce to the existence of a God, we've given up a part of our strict dependence on rationality.  At the very least we've given up applying a strict rationality to the supernatural.  And if we can no longer consistently apply rationality, then I'm really at a loss as to how we can arrive at any meaningful truth claim that is not wildly subjective and biased towards the status quo.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Free Will vs. Determinism

This problem is monumental to me.  If there is anything that might convince me of the supernatural other than a direct miracle, it is this: if we are nothing more than the sum of our parts, and we are just purposeless bags of atoms, then each and every thought we have and each and every action we take is predetermined.  This is not simply a claim that we are deterministic chemical reactions- this is much more sinister.  This is a claim that the totality of history, human and otherwise, is the way it is because it could not possibly have been any other way.  Our fate was sealed the moment time itself began, by pure consequence of the position and velocity of every particle in the universe.

At its heart, this is nothing more than an argument from causality.  If every event must have a cause, and each cause is itself an event, then we're stuck in this infinite backwards loop of causes piling on top of each other until we run into the origin of the universe.  As far as I can see, the only way to claim anything other than strict determinism is to make a claim that the human soul (call it the mind, if you're more comfortable) is itself an uncaused cause (or at least has the ability to spawn uncaused causes).  It must be something beyond the laws of physics, beyond even the laws of rationality (for the irrationality of an uncaused cause is not limited to the physical world).  Choice itself seems to derive from the theory that humans are by their very nature extra-physical.

I should note that quatum mechanics has introduced the possibility of true randomness into the universe- and therefore *might* negate this argument of determinism.  I don't think I'm enough of an expert to comment meaningfully on whatever definition of "random" the physicists are using, but I will say that I don't think this solves our problem.  Our complaint about determinism is in the lack of choice, not in the method of determination.  It is a complaint that "I" the moral agent have no say in any of it.  And picking randomness instead of the original state of the universe as our action selector does not solve this problem.

Here's the thing: I think I might believe in free will more than I believe in my conception of rationality.  One of the ways you reject epistemology is when it necessarily yields a conclusion that you cannot or do not accept- sort of like a proof by contradiction in math.  Over the course of the last few weeks, I've become convinced that Physicalism necessarily leads to both Nihilism and Determinism (many people do not agree with me, but that is my conclusion nonetheless).  This leaves me, then, with Dualism.  And I see no reasonable formulation of dualism that does not include the supernatural (I may not be using the most precise definition here, but my idea of the supernatural isn't really noticeably different then the technical definition of dualism).  Or perhaps more accurately, whether or not we call it "supernatural" is not my chief concern- rather, the fact (or my belief) that something beyond the physical and measurable exists at all opens up a whole universe of possibilities.

I can see the horrified reaction of the Atheist now.  It is the same reaction I would have had just a month ago.  My decision appears not to be based on reason, but on something else.  Some conviction of a real truth that I have no evidence for.  This is partially true.  There are some interesting arguments for dualism made, if you review that link to the Wikipedia page, which I do find reasonably compelling.  But in the end, I do think you can construct a coherent view of reality from Physicalism- it's just a reality I don't particularly want to live in.  So in a way, I'm rejecting the idea because I just can't stomach it as much as I am because it strikes me as wrong.  I'm certainly not rejecting it because I find any holes in the reasoning I used to get there.  I'm not quite sure if this qualifies as rational or irrational.  But I do wonder how Christians would feel about me believing- that is, professing and acting- out of a rejection of the opposition rather than an acceptance of their doctrine?

Does this mean I'm an Agnostic now?  Maybe.  I've mentioned before that I don't think you should make big life decisions while in an emotional state.  I'm going to sit on this for awhile and see if I don't reach any new conclusions over the next few weeks.  But right now it's looking like I'm going to have to change this blog's tagline.


*Unequally Yoked recently ran this post about the proper application of Atheism.  One of her points sparked a discussion in the comments section between some other readers and myself, which is the basis for this post*

I tend to see Nihilism as a necessary consequence of the rejection of the supernatural in all forms. If we’re to say that there’s nothing more than the world we observe, then a human boils down to a collection of semi-related particles doing whatever it is that semi-related particles do given the proper initial shove at the beginning of time. We can’t attribute a higher purpose or meaning to thoughts and emotions, because they really and truly are just chemical reactions. To accept anything else- that humans fundamentally have meaning- seems to me an equally large leap of faith as that which is required to accept the supernatural (and not all that different of a leap either- an acceptance of a non-physical reality on the basis of our desire for there to be one, rather than on empircal evidence).  I'm not sure where exactly we can claim meaning from if we reject all such forms of faith.

I think by “meaning” here, I simply mean that we are more than a series of chemical reactions- and maybe more importantly, other people are also more than chemical reactions.  We're not just random collections of particles, specks of dust in an infinite universe.  The idea of humans having a soul seems dependent on this proposition, and I’m not sure I can ever get to any worldview other than strict Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest unless I regard humans as being more valuable than the sum of their parts. Obviously we could still have societal laws in place, since it’s (on average) in all of our best interest to have these laws, but I find that following this model on a day-to-day basis would lead me to become a sociopath, by the strict definition- a person whose behavior is antisocial and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.

There are basically two kinds of replies to this argument that Atheism necessitate Nihilism.  This first is "I know, and I don't care".  In this framework, our thoughts and feelings are themselves justification enough of our meaning.  That is to say, the very fact that we seem to believe (or at least want to believe) that we have meaning is enough to give us meaning.  In some sense this is true- purpose is entirely self-fulfilling.  As I've said before, the definition of someone with purpose is someone who thinks he has purpose.  But in another sense, this is really an argument of denial.  The problem with substituting conviction of purpose for actual meaning is that we are left with no standard to judge reality.  If all that's required to have a meaningful life is to construct a belief system that declares itself meaningful, then we've lost any basis for deciding which of the infinitely many such such systems to believe.  This is perhaps forgivable if there truly is no meaning.  But let us consider the terrifying possibility that one such belief system is true and the rest are not.  If we want any chance of finding this truth (if it exists), then the "I don't care" framework is unacceptable.

The second reply says that Nihilism is not a necessary conclusion to draw.  To quote the reply I got on the forum: 
I disagree that God or nihilism are your only choices. If there’s not a God to give my life/actions meaning, it doesn’t follow that nothing can give them meaning. I happen to think that the best course is to provide one’s own meaning. Life’s most basic “meaning” is to preserve itself, in the most pleasant/satisfying manner possible. The meaning of a human life is to be the best human life it possibly can. Meaning is inherent in the thing itself, not imposed from outside.
I think the problem with this response is that it's not dealing with the same definition of meaning that I am.  This is an argument that we don't need a God in order to rationally take action in life.  I agree with this premise.  I don't think suicide is the rational conclusion of Atheism.  But what I'm looking for is much more than a basis for taking action.  I'm looking for a reason to consider humanity significant.  I'm looking for justification of this claim my subconscious is making that humanity, right and wrong, love, life- all of it matters.  I'm not sure how I can explain this properly, for I'm not sure I truly understand it myself.  But something inside me howls for the knowledge that my life is worthwhile.  It is worth the effort, the pain, the repetition of failure.  There is some reason to endure these things more than trying to wring the most pleasure out of our brief existence that we possibly can.

I think this quest for meaning is a nonsensical thing to those who do not experience it themselves.  It can't really be properly explained, because we can't even properly define what we're trying to get at when we say "meaning".  But for those who feel it, as I do, it is plain as day.

Moreover, this argument seems to relegate humans to the same level as chimpanzees, or dogs, or insects- we could make the same meaning claims about them.  I don’t see how we justify the fact that we value human life so highly. I don’t attach any importance to the oxidation of metal, or to combustion, or any other chemical reaction, so if the totality of a human is just a more complex version of that, I can’t bring myself to care about it (even if we give it the label of “soul”). Somehow its a much worse thing to interfere and prematurely end a more complex chemical reaction than it is to do so to a less complex chemical reaction?  I don’t see how complexity maps to value.

I’m also not sure what the “best human life it possibly can” actually means. The word “best” implies that there’s something we ought to be doing? Something we can compare a life to to say whether it was lived correctly or not? This is essentially the Moral Law argument for Christianity.

I am of the opinion that with or without this need for meaning, a rejection of the supernatural in all forms leads to Nihilism as its only conclusion.  The non-nihilist cannot give a reason why they believe what they believe that I find compelling.  Social utility and evolutionary biology are not enough.  A claim of meaning is a claim either of an extra-physical reality, or a deliberate self-deception for the good of ourselves or our species- simply act as if our arbitrary morality has meaning, and the world will be a better place.  The only moral framework available to the Nihilist, however, is rational self-interest.  And I know I don't want to live that way.