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)


  1. I do believe in Love- Have you read C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves? If you have the chance, I would love to see an exposition on your thoughts on love since Christian’s believe God is love.

    I do not believe in faith- Would you agree that a person who has a confident belief in the supernatural has to have some sort of faith? Would you already be giving up the chance to have that belief if you are already renouncing it?

    I do not believe in the authority of tradition- Please help me understand your definition of progress. Should progress have a goal it strives for? As a Christian my goal is to conform my life to Christ’s life and his teachings. To love as God loves. I can judge my progress by how I have and have not lived up to that standard. Other standards we value such as health, happiness, and intelligence, while goods in themselves, are not the ultimate good I seek. And if we are to assume the supernatural, and God is unchanging, then could there be an anchor in an ever changing society. "If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!" -St. Catherine of Sienna

    I don't believe any human is infallible- This seems a premature limit to place upon God before looking at the merits of a religion. I could understand it better if you had said “God has declared that no man is infallible.” If there is a God and he chose to use humans to mediate his truth, would you be unwilling to accept this? I would argue that an infallible religious teacher does not prevent Christians from questioning, criticizing, and arguing (which of course they are going to do and have done), but helps settle the questions when they cannot agree. Are you familiar with early church heresies such as Montanism, Pelagianism, Arianism, etc. and how they were settled? Perhaps that is a discussion beyond ATS and more into assuming Jesus is God.

  2. Haha- you always seem to contend the points I do not expect and let slide the points where I expect the most resistance. I guess that's the benefit of another point of view :)

    1. I haven't read The Four Loves yet. It's on my (depressingly long) reading list. I find that I struggle mightily to talk about love, because I don't understand it in the slightest. I never have. The romantics seem to have a much stronger grasp of the concept, and the best I can do is hang on for the ride. When I read through a Lewis or a Chesterton, I feel a bit like a freshman in my first college class. But at some point I will certainly have to deal with the subject, as it frankly seems like the most important point of human existence.

    2. I think that "faith" is too broadly defined a word to answer whether or not a belief in the supernatural requires "faith", and we need to be more specific by what kind of faith we mean. I'm writing a post on Faith at the moment, and I hope to clarify my position there... maybe ask this question again if you feel that I don't give a satisfactory answer in my next post?

    3. It seems like you're saying that, since God is (presumably) constant, then "progress" just means getting closer to him- we're not really discovering anything new, because we're striving for the exact same standard the historical Church was striving for. I do agree with this sentiment, but I would make two points: first, just because we're striving towards the same standard, doesn't mean that earlier Christians/Muslims/whatevers had a clearer view of it (although, I suppose we can't discount the possibility). Second, the world as a whole has made a great deal of moral progress in the last 2000 years- e.g. we no longer consider slavery to be ok, we now consider women and men as equals, etc. The Church (any Church) has had to adapt teachings to fit this changing moral environment. So in some sense, we are dealing with a different set of moral problems than the religious people of past ages. My comment about "progress" was perhaps a bit flippant (or more charitably, applies better to domains other than religion). We see this in science all the time, where the established order needs to be overturned (because it's wrong), and it takes a great deal of effort to overturn it because of the strength of tradition. I don't have a problem with the strength of tradition, but I have a huge problem with the infallibility of tradition (Authority and Infallibility go hand-in-hand for me, but perhaps I'm incorrectly conflating the terms out of ignorance?)

  3. 4. That's a fair point- this is an ambitious claim (I don't think I can say "God has declared..." without accepting a religion first). Let me argue this a few different ways.

    First, I've never met a human who is even close to infallible. Talking about an infallible human sounds like talking about a rock that isn't affected by gravity- I just can't even wrap my head around what that would mean. It would be so unlike other rocks that we couldn't even rightly call it a rock anymore. Any human who was truly infallible would be so unlike every other human that I've ever met that we couldn't even rightly call him a human anymore (my understanding of the Catholic doctrine is that the Pope must explicitly invoke Papal infallibility for what he says to be binding- but even the ability to declare yourself unquestionably correct seems beyond anything any human I've ever met could reasonably do)

    Second, a claim of infallibility is totally unfalsifiable, and must therefore be treated with great suspicion (even if we ultimately agree with it). Many a cult leader has used this kind of claim to mislead his followers. I certainly wouldn't call Catholicism a cult, and it seems like the doctrine of infallibility has largely been used in a responsible and restrained way, but how can I as a (lets suppose) believer in Christ accept the declaration of another man as being more authoritative and binding than my moral sensibilities and my reason (the very things that lead me to be a follower of Christ in the first place)?

    I'd be comfortable with a religion saying "Look, if there's a disagreement, our leader can, on rare occasion, invoke a trump card as a tie-breaker, and we'll go with that". In practice, this seems to be what happens in the Catholic Church. But I reject the idea of a religious leader being able to make a proclamation that must be treated as unquestionably correct by his followers.

    1. 1. Wow, that really comes as a surprise to me. I thought I was pretty predictable. Where did you expect the most resistance? I don’t see anywhere else I would really disagree with you.

      3. Ah, I see your point, but has morality evolved because of the revelations from Christ or in spite of it? Are the things we typically value as Americans, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, right to life, liberty, and the whole ball of wax, products of Christian thinking? Have these ideas flourished in non-Christian areas of the world?

      4. "I'd be comfortable with a religion saying "Look, if there's a disagreement, our leader can, on rare occasion, invoke a trump card as a tie-breaker, and we'll go with that". In practice, this seems to be what happens in the Catholic Church. But I reject the idea of a religious leader being able to make a proclamation that must be treated as unquestionably correct by his followers."

      Agreed. I never really thought of that way before but that's pretty much the gist of it, in the Catholic Church at least. The pope isn't a man who can do and say no wrong, he and the magisterium (when the bishops are united) are God's tie breakers. Of course there's complicated theological stuff that it's based on, but I’m not even sure you need it at this time since we basically agree.

    2. Just would like to add that you might like to read this:

      for an intro on the different kinds of love.

    3. I expected more push back on me generally not being willing to cede any authority, on reason being empirically verifiable, on incorrect moral standards being a consequence of ignorance, on the secondary-ness of an afterlife, and on the fundamental state of humanity being "free" instead of "good" or "bad". I expected a lot less contention on my definition of "progress", and on the idea that any supernatural bent requires the same type of Faith. But I did expect some resistance on the infalliability thing.

      3. That's a good question. I'm not a humanities guy, so I have a regretably narrow view of history- answering that question would require a great deal of research for me. But even so, I'm not sure how helpful this is for us. Todays big issues (women's equality, gay rights, contraception) are moral questions the Church has never seriously had to answer before. And any answers it has given have been in the context of the culture they were given in. To extrapolate those answers into modern moral imperitives (i.e. appealing to the Authority of Tradition to say ___ is wrong) seems to me like a mistake. And that's what giving Authority to Tradition seems to do in practice- it locks us into rules that were created for societies very different from our own. Now if morality is absolute, then on some level we ought to be locked in, regardless of the context- but that does not seem to be the case for the majority of these issues. Nobody (even Christians) is actually advocating for returning to the moral standards of 2000 years ago.

      That link was an interesting read. I'm particularly curious about what differentiates storge from philia. More reading is in order...

    4. Would I be correct to assume that you would cede authority to God if He existed?

      I assume when you say “reason being empirically verifiable” that you mean a religion should not contradict observable reality. I admit that the Yudkowsky article you linked to kind of confused me.

      I would probably argue that we aren’t neither good or bad, but that we are both good and bad. There is probably an important theological difference in there but it seems like splitting hairs since I think we would both agree that man has the potential for both due to his free will.

      “Now if morality is absolute, then on some level we ought to be locked in, regardless of the context- but that does not seem to be the case for the majority of these issues. Nobody (even Christians) is actually advocating for returning to the moral standards of 2000 years ago.”

      Then the question must be is that what the church is doing? Is the defense she gives for positions simply an appeal to tradition, or is it based on an objective unchanging morality? Perhaps we can tackle each big issue one at time at some point.

  4. Do you believe in relativism? Is science a reliable source of truth?

    1. I don't believe in relativism. Relativism seems to me to be a dressed up form of amoralism. If we're allowed to determine for ourselves what is right and what is wrong, then what's to stop me from deciding murder, rape, infantcide, and cannibalism are all ok? We can start to talk about utilitarian ethical frameworks, but even that discussion is predicated on the idea that the "good" of the many is somehow better than the "good" of an individual. It contains within it an inherent value system that we are claiming as being universal and accessible to all people.

      I do think science is a reliable source of truth. Or rather it is the most reliable source of truth that we have. There are too many conceptions of God and Spirituality for me to consider that kind of truth all that reliable. But there's not really any debate on the basic formulas of Physics, or about the heliocentric nature of our solar system, or about the behavior of transistor in certain environments. These things are all non-obvious, non-a-priori facts, but we've demonstrated them all rigorously enough to be very, very sure about their accuracy. This is borne out by experiment- GPS works because of relativity, we were able to send a probe to Mars because of heliocentricity, we have working computers because of transistors- and nobody can construct a reasonable view of reality that rejects these basic premises

  5. Reasonable atheists: definitions, and a major premise or two, away from being Catholic!

    1. LOL... too bad about those pesky major premises ;)

  6. Would you say you are more into scientism than atheism? How do you know science is reliable?