Is It All A Matter of Faith?

Recently in a debate with Scientific Christian over on Nan’s blog he presented a clip that I don’t know was supposed to represent game, set, and match about something, but I’m not sure what yet.  It seems that he was claiming that we all use faith and so any form of faith is just as valuable as the next.  In the clip, you see Dawkins debating with Dr. John Lennox.  Lennox is big into using this argument against people he debates with so let’s investigate this a bit more carefully.

I have argued before that I think faith is an important part of who we are as humans, and an important one at that.  I have not changed my view as faith being a fundamental human quality.  But so is curiosity and so is reason.  If faith alone were the only way determine reality it simply would be insufficient.

First things first, let’s assume that Lennox’s argument is a good one.  Even if that were true, and he caught Dawkins, it still isn’t proof of God.  It is only proof that faith sometimes works or that we all utilize faith to some degree.  It certainly doesn’t always work.

Now Dr. Lennox himself warns against the dangers of blind faith.  He would argue that no Christian (and I am sure follower of any religion) would say that they don’t have blind faith in their religion.  There is at least some evidence.  But if we, just for arguments sake, take blind faith as the extreme at one end (and I would say people who think God is just going to heal their child and they don’t give them medicine is close to that end) and that something like having faith that the sun will come up tomorrow is being at the other extreme, we can easily see that there is a world of difference between those two extremes.  So, at the outset, it is intellectually dishonest for anybody to make claims that just because you use faith and I use faith makes what we have faith in as equally valid.  As Dawkins points out in the clip and addresses in more detail in the full debate, is that the key is in the evidence.

So why do the two points of view not work out to be equivalent?  As I have argued before (here and here) and will not go into detail here, it’s because of what we consider valid evidence.  If parents who let their children die on the hopes that prayer would save them were using the same evidence as Dawkins’ uses in having faith that his wife still loves him, then both would have equal predictive capability.  And this is an important point that Dawkins tries to make is that even if we are all using faith to some extent the degree to which the work model we have of how any phenomena works must be predictive.  Given our model of the solar system, each time the sun does come up it is further reassurance that are model, which would predict the sun would come up (really the sun doesn’t come up of course we rotate on our axis), is in fact verified.  So while one could argue that it is a matter of faith that I think the sun would come up tomorrow, the evidence to which I have built that faith, is far different than those who would use faith that God will intervene on their behalf through prayer.

Of course, one might ask, “Why do people think prayer works at all?”  If that evidence is so untenable why build any faith on such things?  The answer to that questions requires a greater delving into human cognitive biases but largely it is due to our propensity to make Type I errors (false patternicity) and our cognitive bias to remember ‘hits’ and disregard misses.  And this speaks to why the scientific method is so important because it requires careful methodology, it requires replication, it requires that we be able to build off of older principles to new ones reliably.

One then often argues, well clearly you have faith in the scientific method.  And I do, but this again is because the scientific method works.  If were to use the scientific method to uncover some knowledge of the world and at every turn I was not getting reliable results, then this would be cause for me to question the very way I was trying to discover how things work.  We’ve seen the scientific method be effective so many times, that we can therefore have faith that it will be reliable again.  Once again we see how being predictive plays a role in how faith in the scientific method is different than a faith in a personal God.

Finally for as important as I think faith is to our lives, we also must be willing to change the things we have faith about.  If I do have faith that my wife loves me based on a certain set of evidence.  Even if I’m convinced that evidence is good, should that evidence change, or it’s pointed out to me that I’m not using reliable markers of one person showing love to me, then there is no reason for me to continue to have faith along that avenue.  What we have faith in, is not set in stone.  What an unsuccessful species we would be if that were the case.

74 thoughts on “Is It All A Matter of Faith?

    1. Indeed. It might be true that the simple things in life are all we need to be content with life. But understanding life, if that’s something you want to do is not so easy. People think it’s easy, because we prefer it to be easy. I used to think I was really a logical person until I took an actual class on logic. And I still might have been more logical than some, but even catching logical errors in speech is really hard. It’s really easy to fool people because of how imperfect we really are.

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        1. I do. I think this is why, in general, agnosticism and atheism increases with increasing education, particularly in fields like physics or neuroscience. When I debate with people about climate change, it’s clear they don’t really understand even low level physics about the subject. And I would say this is true for even many people who accept climate change as part of some political identity. While I’m glad to have them on the right side, the fact remains is that it’s a really complicated subject. I don’t think you really need to get a Ph.D. or anything to understand it, but if you truly want to understand it, it’s going to take reading an introduction to climate textbook. People think they can read a few articles off the internet and understand why it’s real or not real, but at that point you are putting your trust in the author. The author could be fooling you, or the author could not understand it very well themselves. That’s a dangerous situation to be in, to rely on that for such an important problem that threatens life and economies globally.

          Of course we don’t have time to understand everything at depth, so at the very least we need to have “faith” in experts of a particular field. And for that we at the very least need to have a solid understanding for how truth is derived through the process of scientific investigation. You still of course can be fooled, but as the number of scientists agree on a particular issue all using the same method of investigation, at the very least you can say, well if they are wrong, they had no other evidence at this time to say otherwise.

          Lacking an understanding of how we derive truth, I would say, you are totally open (or at least have an increased likelihood) to being conned at every turn. Perhaps I am naive, but I do think we all have the ability to comprehend, if not the actual subject matter, but at least to understand the process of how science works, but this is a matter of education. There is a reason why countries that wish to oppress its people generally don’t educate them, or use indoctrination in schools so they don’t think critically about certain beliefs. In the information age it’s harder to shelter people like this, which is why censorship is also common practice as well.

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          1. As one of your great presidents once tweeted: #Sad 😀
            If we take the Brexit debate as an example, it centred on one side presenting possible and probable risks, versus the other side making promises which were blatantly and verifiably false. So the implication is the average person isn’t even capable of making that simple distinction of categorisation?

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            1. Well I can’t speak for education in the UK, but here I would say that the average person is taught facts in school, and does not develop a deep understanding of how those facts are arrived at. That seems to be an important peace of the puzzle, because when you then get contradictory pieces of information you are more likely to side with your emotions and what you desire to be true in breaking the tie, rather than researching the information carefully. Of course it could be that there are just always a certain number of gormless idiots out there, but I try to be optimistic. 🙂 I do think that a judicious attitude about truth has to be adhered to by a wider range of inputs in society than we are seeing now. There is a lot of insincerity in the media and by politicians. As Dan Rather said, when it comes to news we have traded subjective and interesting, with objective and boring. Maybe that’s the bigger problem though. Being objective can be interesting, but it can also be uninteresting and at worst upsetting when it clashes with what you thought was true.

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  1. Hi Swarn,

    Well said here. I think you’re right on. I believe in the presence of an ineffable something in my life that I cannot explain, but I also believe in relativity theory, the theory of evolution, and the Pauli Exclusion Principle. And I think that the sort of reasoning taught to students of science is equally valuable to the territories of the heart, when used with discernment. What I mean is that I am often distressed about the quality of thought that goes into some brands of faith-in-God. For me, God is a fluid concept that has evolved over my entire life, based on evidence.

    “God” is a pretty useless word I think, and it pains me to see bright minds tilting over the existence of an untenable concept. I read Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” six or seven years ago (I think) and to me it felt very much like the equivalent of a religious person debunking the science of the Greeks. I realize that Dawkins’ target crowd are people unwilling to examine their faith in light of reason and evidence, but I find it a bit silly that there is no admission of the possibility that we might be related in ways we do not presently comprehend, and that we may experience that relatedness in ways for which we do not possess a very sophisticated vocabulary as of yet.

    My faith is substantially based on evidence and experience, but because personal experience is often inadmissible in debates of what is and isn’t so, I must say that it is faith. I’m content with that, to be honest. But I think it is just as intellectually dishonest to set up juvenile, straw-men “gods” and knock them over as it is to equate the two ends of the spectrum of faith that you described. So while it may not serve his cause, or the cause of his colleagues, I do think it is intellectually dishonest to suggest there are no valid ways of experiencing one’s own relationship to existence, to others, and to oneself that both square with known scientific theory and the library of experiences a person accrues over the course of their life.

    Some forms of prayer are obviously a little foolish, as you point out. But the deepest wisdom of prayer is that we rarely, if ever, comprehend the deepest desires of our own hearts. Mostly what comes out in the words and images we offer is a proxy for the desire to experience connection and peace. When an image is not fulfilled, the suggestion is made that prayer does not work. Too often what is called prayer is a plea, stemming from fear of loss or lack or struggle, for a particular condition the person has equated with being better. And yet the true prayer, the clarion content at the core of each being, is seldom unearthed. The reason, in part, is the lack of willingness to modulate one’s thought based on evidence and experience. As you say, we must be fluid particularly about the ideas in which we have placed our faith.

    So I’m agreeing strongly with you here, Swarn. I also think the territory is wide open for a great many intellectually honest paths through the mystery.


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    1. As always Michael, I thoroughly enjoy reading your comments and hearing your perspective. As beings who see things that we don’t understand and feel things we don’t understand that we reach beyond our grasp to explain things. What is God, but something beyond our grasp. I think that more people would enjoy having more open conversations about the possibility of a supernatural consciousness and it’s nature. Personally I’ve found more peace in seeing the universe is indifferent, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t aspects to their being a creator that I couldn’t find comfort in as well. I think what prevents these discussions from happening more is the fact that so many aspects of laws and culture are built around these religious notions. I think if we could be assured that no religious belief was going to define law in a pluralistic society and that there wasn’t this feeling like religious ideas are protected, that they aren’t like other ideas that we evaluate and are skeptical about everyday. I think that such freedoms haven’t been around for that long, and there are plenty of countries and even communities within in our own countries where being openly critical of religious ideas can be costly.

      And I agree with you that our own personal experience have enormous value, but I find that value limited to truth with a little ‘t’ and not a capital ‘T’. It seems like you are okay with it being a little ‘t’ and not a capital ‘T’. Not that it couldn’t someday be a capital ‘T’, but you don’t seem overly worried about it. Your beliefs serve you well, but you seem to be at least cognizant of the fact that they might not serve other well, even if they have their own beliefs that serve them well. This to me seems a healthy attitude. For me I have always been more interested in capital ‘T’, but I certainly admit to having my own little ‘t’s as well. Big T’s are hard to capture, and it’s no easy game. However I do feel the scientific method is a valuable tool to get at them. I tell my students that our own personal observations are own personal experiences link to bigger truths by driving us to test, by driving us to take journey’s down paths we might not have traveled in hopes that we gain some better understanding of how things work and get to a big ‘T’. I think we all should be treading those water, but for many they feel that they’ve simply decided, that there is no need to look any further, and I find that hard to understand. Perhaps taking that journey is a privilege that I can have because my basic needs are met, or I’m not working 3 jobs, but it seems that if I don’t have the time or energy to keep moving forward i that journey I still should be humble enough to admit I don’t know all the answers and that I probably know considerably less answers as somebody else. Of course that doesn’t mean that I don’t have value or that my struggles don’t matter, but whatever your religion, I’ve never seen one that punished you for being kind to other people. That really should be all that matters in the end. 🙂

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      1. Hi Swarn,

        I’m with you completely on the need to ensure that laws are note defined or manipulated by any group with an elitist agenda, particularly a religious one. At the same time the scientific method is not exactly geared towards such needs, so it would seem that such matters require discussion of our ethics. I would prefer an approach similar to humanism I think, or at least with major elements of it.

        And I don’t want to leave you with the impression I’m not interested in the truth. I only meant to suggest that I admit and understand the scope of evidence I include in my truth-seeking methodology may not be the same as another person’s, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean I think I live in my own Private Idaho and have no interest in consensus realities, discoveries or truth. What I would say is that I don’t think I hold any beliefs that are in direct conflict with scientific findings, or that are disprovable by known scientific findings–as I understand them. Nor do I believe any code, creed, book or idea that suggests one culture, race or philosophy is better than another’s, or has any right to intrude on another’s right to live and think independently, in a society free of both physical and psychological violence.

        I hope you understand I was reaffirming your stated value of the scientific method, and wishing some of its principles were applied further afield.

        An interesting discussion to have sometime would be this idea of “taking comfort” which comes up a lot in these discussions. It seems this is used a lot to explain the utility of view points, as if it is the motive needed in the court trial. He/she needed comfort… and as such, his/her views are compromised. As if, in a moment of panic, I chose to believe in the existence of Love.


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        1. And I don’t want to leave you with the impression I’m not interested in the truth. I only meant to suggest that I admit and understand the scope of evidence I include in my truth-seeking methodology

          I certainly didn’t think that. Rather I was affirming that you, like the rest of us are on that journey for greater truths, and if right now they are only personal truths you are content with that, in the hopes that perhaps one day that will change. Having the wisdom to recognize personal truths and universal truths are important for both religious and secular alike.

          At the same time the scientific method is not exactly geared towards such needs, so it would seem that such matters require discussion of our ethics.

          I guess I wonder how true this is. I am not saying we could always get the empirical evidence we need, but I don’t think it’s completely beyond the scope of the scientific method. For instance let’s form a hypothesis about the impact of nuclear physics.

          Hypothesis: Understanding of how to capture the power released by atoms through nuclear reactions would be harmful to life on Earth.

          This is a hypothesis in that it asserts something about how something might work. Namely the impacts of a discover on life on the planet. Now is this is a testable hypothesis? How might we design such an experiment?

          We could analyze the possible impacts of what technology might be produced with this new discovery. We might look at past discoveries when we’ve been able to release massive amounts of energy and whether this had a net negative or positive effect. We could like at how law and policy might have helped make impacts more positive.

          So I think we can collect data as well as make some predictions about the future as well, and then make our conclusions. This to me seems like the scientific method at work does it not. Sure it’s not collecting measurements in a lab or anything, but it’s methodical research. It’s much like a lot of areas in social science. It’s more qualitative than quantitative, and our conclusions aren’t guaranteed to be 100% sure, but it seems like a more informed way to make a decision ethically. The fact that we haven’t always posed these questions before doesn’t mean necessarily that science has nothing to say about ethical questions, just that perhaps we’ve let our curiosity for uncovering truths about the universe overtake critical thought about the consequences of that research. It’s also simply possible that, at the time of a discovery, we just don’t know enough to determine whether it will be bad or good. Certainly nobody thought during industrialization that the burning of fossil fuels would lead to the problem we had today. If we now form the hypothesis:

          Burning fossil fuels is an unethical choice for the future health of the planet. We can test this hypothesis I think fairly easily.

          An interesting discussion to have sometime would be this idea of “taking comfort” which comes up a lot in these discussions. It seems this is used a lot to explain the utility of view points, as if it is the motive needed in the court trial. He/she needed comfort… and as such, his/her views are compromised. As if, in a moment of panic, I chose to believe in the existence of Love.

          This would be an interesting discussion because I think more elaboration is probably needed. Let me just say that I don’t see it as all of a sudden choosing to believe in something like love, rather we are already aware of love, but there might be times when we choose to make that a priority over other things. We also tend to simply resist things that make us uncomfortable. What we already know ultimately makes us feel safer than what we don’t know. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that comfort doesn’t influence our behavior. And I think for many things it’s not some conscious decision made at an important moment rather a series of smaller decisions along the way that rationalize ourselves into thinking such that it’s not always obvious how you got there. Given that we also know, physiologically we resist changing our believes and giving up the dopamine release we get when we reinforce our believes, the idea of comfort does seem relevant.

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          1. On the ethics front, I had a version of my reply in which I said an ethical discussion informed by our scientific understanding, which I think is basically what you’re advocating. I agree very much with that, and with what you’ve described. I was trying to suggest science is not a complete system for making societal decisions, though I know I didn’t say this clearly. Science is the best tool going for evaluating scenarios, as you mentioned, but the ends to which societal decision-making are geared are choices which lie outside of the scope of science I think. I think that is straightforward, right? As a very lame and extreme example, a scientific study could easily prove that reduced human population would improve the average standard of living for the remaining persons and probably improve our species’ chance of long-term survival, and such a study could even tell us whom to remove from the population equation if we gave it a set of evaluation criteria. This is, at the current time, an unthinkable use of science–at least as a means of culling the currently living, perhaps it would be more accepted for making decisions about reproductive rights. But this is what I mean when I say there is more to the equation of collective decision-making than science. There quite simply are value decisions to be made, and while neither of us wish them to be made by religious zealots, I also do not wish them to be made by algorithms alone.

            Perhaps these decisions are self-evident. Perhaps they are not. Maybe viewing a river as a living being, with the rights of other persons or of corporations, is an unscientific choice in some senses, but overall beneficial to the quality of the environment and the health and well-being of the river communities. Or maybe it is not. I don’t really know, of course. I just know, and I’m guessing you would agree, that a human element must be involved in these matters.

            Comfort of course is important, as you note. What I think, along the lines of what you’ve written, is that because it is in a sense a universally applicable phenomena, its role needs to be understood in evaluating any decision-making process.


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            1. Thank you for clarifying Michael. I agree Michael that the human element must be taken into account. I guess the way I look at it, is that incorporating the human element doesn’t seem overly divorced from science in the sense that our curiosity is a human trait, our intelligence is a human trait, our ability to cooperate to solve problems is a human trait. So we should never be divorcing humanity from our scientific discoveries. Other primates survive rather well without building a telescope there is no reason why we should have to even get that far to simply survive. While I don’t think humans are more important than any other life on the planet, I don’t think there is any doubt that we know we are capable of more than simply surviving. Cognitively we have the ability to uncover far more about the universe than any other species here. Perhaps the source for our conceit, who knows, but my point is simply that there seems to be no avoiding ignoring human concerns when we do science, only in the past we haven’t either had a holistic view of humanity. Although you admitted it was a lame example, although digressing, I wanted to talk about it a bit more, because this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this example. Also there was a recent article about how to do something about climate change – Have Less Children.

              a scientific study could easily prove that reduced human population would improve the average standard of living for the remaining persons and probably improve our species’ chance of long-term survival, and such a study could even tell us whom to remove from the population equation if we gave it a set of evaluation criteria. This is, at the current time, an unthinkable use of science–at least as a means of culling the currently living, perhaps it would be more accepted for making decisions about reproductive rights. But this is what I mean when I say there is more to the equation of collective decision-making than science. There quite simply are value decisions to be made, and while neither of us wish them to be made by religious zealots, I also do not wish them to be made by algorithms alone.

              Even if there was some objective way to determine who was less valuable than others (although I am not sure that’s possible given that even someone who might be ‘less valuable’ now might have children that are more valuable) would we really be taking into full account what a human is? IF we are answering the question of how to better humanity, killing off a portion of the population would certainly help in some regards…but it would also come at a great cost. Presumably some authority is making a decision on who is less valuable. What if they change their criteria and I’m next? What happens when we start denying a whole bunch of people the right of self-determination, even if we can say that it will increase human happiness for those who remain? To allow that degree of dehumanization seems like it couldn’t help but impact who we are as a species. I think the very fact that as humans we are empathetic and compassionate creatures would prevent some policy like that to ever be realized. I was moved to read stories about old men in Japan who agreed, after the Tsunami to go and deal with repairs of the nuclear plant because they were old and didn’t have much life left. Should a portion of humanity volunteer to have themselves euthanized to increase the quality of life for others, I think we might be okay with that, but this to me seems an essential part of who we are as a species. And this might be a very different set of ethics we’d develop if we were intelligent creatures that evolved from a different ancestor. If you’ve never read Endar’s Game it’s a good example of that.

              I guess it can still be argued that if our evolution governs our ethical decisions that this lies outside of the purview of science, but the line between ethics and science is at the very least not a solid one, and it also doesn’t necessarily mean that religion is the better system, and even if it was a better system it’s still just a system. I thought your river analogy was a good one. I’m actually quite a fan of the Gaia hypothesis. The Earth may not be a living system but it is useful to think about it as one for purposes of understanding how it behaves and how we can live in harmony with it. But just because something is useful doesn’t mean it’s more than a tool. I know this is going to be a long comment but I want to share with you a cool story by Douglas Adams in a speech he gave:

              There’s a very interesting book – I don’t know if anybody here’s read it – called ‘Man on Earth’ by an anthropologist who use to be at Cambridge, called John Reader, in which he describes the way that… I’m going to back up a little bit and tell you about the whole book. It’s a series of studies of different cultures in the world that have developed within somewhat isolated circumstances, either on islands or in a mountain valley or wherever, so it’s possible to treat them to a certain extent as a test-tube case. You see therefore exactly the degree to which their environment and their immediate circumstances has affected the way in which their culture has arisen. It’s a fascinating series of studies. The one I have in mind at the moment is one that describes the culture and economy of Bali, which is a small, very crowded island that subsists on rice. Now, rice is an incredibly efficient food and you can grow an awful lot in a relatively small space, but it’s hugely labour intensive and requires a lot of very, very precise co-operation amongst the people there, particularly when you have a large population on a small island needing to bring its harvest in. People now looking at the way in which rice agriculture works in Bali are rather puzzled by it because it is intensely religious. The society of Bali is such that religion permeates every single aspect of it and everybody in that culture is very, very carefully defined in terms of who they are, what their status is and what their role in life is. It’s all defined by the church; they have very peculiar calendars and a very peculiar set of customs and rituals, which are precisely defined and, oddly enough, they are fantastically good at being very, very productive with their rice harvest. In the 70s, people came in and noticed that the rice harvest was determined by the temple calendar. It seemed to be totally nonsensical, so they said, ‘Get rid of all this, we can help you make your rice harvest much, much more productive than even you’re, very successfully, doing at the moment. Use these pesticides, use this calendar, do this, that and the other’. So they started and for two or three years the rice production went up enormously, but the whole predator/prey/pest balance went completely out of kilter. Very shortly, the rice harvest plummeted again and the Balinese said, ‘Screw it, we’re going back to the temple calendar!’ and they reinstated what was there before and it all worked again absolutely perfectly. It’s all very well to say that basing the rice harvest on something as irrational and meaningless as a religion is stupid – they should be able to work it out more logically than that, but they might just as well say to us, ‘Your culture and society works on the basis of money and that’s a fiction, so why don’t you get rid of it and just co-operate with each other’ – we know it’s not going to work!

              Like money, fictions have their uses. But if barter and trade works better for a group of people. That should be fine too. I think part of the problem with society today is that money has become all to real and is the new fiction that too many of us bow down to.

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  2. Ugh. Once again, we’ve trudged down to the lake of faith for our bathing. It’s as persistent as it is tiresome. Apologists have really co-opted faith and belief to their seeming advantage. The subtext of conversations with them is that their belief and faith is a virtue and atheists just muddle along believing the wrong things. For some reason we accept the framing they push at us. We argue our points in the context they provide. And yes, it’s possible to rebut their fallacies which you’ve done very eloquently Swarn, but I’d like to see an intellectual shift away from over reliance on the philosophical ideas that are useful mostly for framing questions more difficult for Empiricism to tackle and simplify things away from the fog of sophistry necessary for apologetics.

    Things are either objectively true or they aren’t completely independent of faith and belief.

    Belief/faith is not a reliable mechanism for determining truth.

    Therefore inquiry and reason should not rely on faith or belief.

    That being said, it’s a wonderful article and you do affirm the need for balance and justified belief. So there’s that. 🙂

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    1. Thank Persed for your kind words. I agree, which is why in the conversation on Nan’s blog I have been very frustrated and needed to simply focus on one aspect of the conversation and write it out in a little more detail.

      And you’re absolutely right, I’d love to see that shift away too, because ultimately religion is a very human thing, and the fact remains is that there are millions of species on this planet of which we are just one, and life without God is good enough for 99.99% of them and no one questions their morality. It’s simply human conceit that allows apologists to ignore the fact that the discoveries of science aren’t truths just for us, but are truths even without us. They are true for other species, they are true on the other side of the galaxy. They are true now, in the past, and in the future. They do not depend on belief. We may not be 100% sure how phenomenon A works, but we can say a lot about how it doesn’t work, and we can say that even if we weren’t here, however it works, would still work. It’s objectively true and does not depend on our faith. That is a very important distinction.

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    1. Perhaps SD, but I fear what ever word we decide to use instead, they will claim that their faith is on the same grounds. In the end it constitutes different understanding of what actually constitutes evidence. A blog post I wrote and I linked in this piece, but didn’t go into a lot of detail.


  3. As Pink and Michael point out, it is all too easy to equivocate between faith as reasonable expectation and faith as efficacious expectation.
    I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow; that is one thing.
    I have faith that Jesus answered my prayer that the sun should rise tomorrow; that is another thing altogether.

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    1. Well said. That goes along with false patternicity errors I mentioned. Is there another explanation to the pattern we see that is more reliable, that has higher predictability? Faith can only take us so far.

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  4. Dropped this comment on Kia’s blog the other day about faith and evidentialism, and it seems just as appropiate here

    Let’s be perfectly frank: If religion were true there’d be no need for faith. Faith is religions (necessitated) self-defence mechanism and without it belief would simply crumble under the fallacy of its unsubstantiated claims. Religion knows this and that is why faith is promoted as a virtue whereby the faithful are rewarded for enduring what is called, “tests of faith.” That is to say, the faithful are encouraged to remain ignorant, for without ignorance belief would be impossible. Faith and evidentialism cannot coexist. If something can be believed based on evidence it cannot also be believed on faith, and yet faith is the cornerstone of all religion belief. They are antithetical. The minute evidence appears faith is cast aside in favour of evidence. Belief based on evidence is rational; it follows from the evidence and is justified by it. Conversely, belief without evidence (faith) is irrational and cannot be legitimised by reasonable human beings. Faith, therefore is purposefully regressive, anti-intellectual, obstruent, and is set up in such a way to work against reason… and in the final analysis it will ultimately end with a grown man sitting inside a giant condom.

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    1. As always you have an eloquent way of putting things. I think the most poignant thing you’ve said here is the way religion elevates faith as a virtue. Where as I would prefer to have as little faith as possible even while knowing that it’s unavoidable to not have some. As our certainty increases about something knowing that faith becomes less and less of a factor actually becomes helpful. It means that here is something we can predict reliable and it opens the doors to knew questions.

      I would still say that faith as espoused by religion isn’t so much belief without evidence but rather an ignorance as to what constitutes good evidence as I mentioned in my piece. A person who claims Jesus spoke to them will say, Ahh…well Jesus must be real, because he spoke to me and all else must believe in his reality too, because it’s real to me. This evidence is of course poor evidence. There is the possibility that Jesus didn’t talk to you because you were hallucinating through a variety of physiological conditions that can cause that. You must also ask yourself why doesn’t Jesus talk to others? How do I know it was Jesus, and not just how my own cultural experience in a Christian society translated this supernatural message? And there are other foibles of misplaced understanding of evidence one can get into. Why bible verses aren’t actually evidence that your religion is true, is another good example. lol

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        1. Haha, indeed. But as I said to Michael I think faith can play it’s part. I can observe something in the world, and I can, based on personal observations say, “It seems to me that there is a connection between daily temperature and the occurrence of thunderstorms.” In the formation of a hypothesis, you might have faith on a particular outcome. I might say if the temperature exceeds 25 C, thunderstorms will occur. So personal observation has led me to a certain belief, and it leads to an investigation. It’s the science, the data, that proves or disproves the faith I had. Once I’ve proved it, I don’t need the faith anymore. If I’ve disproved it then I should probably no longer have faith in that connection being true. I think scientists use faith like this all the time to drive investigations, and I would say though if anything the strength of their faith causes more problems than it helps, because it is more likely to lead to bias in favor of gaining a particular outcome. Nevertheless we can at least argue that faith may play a role as the spark for investigation, but I would agree that it’s not uncovering truth.

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  5. I know it got mentioned above, but I do think that using synonyms for an issue at hand does help with false equivalencies. For example, Lennox is not arguing against blind faith; he’s arguing that blind faith can be justified as a reliable conclusion. Reliability is the operative idea there, and it’s more than fair to call it out for what it is.

    One distinction I must make is that I’m not talking about habitually using a different word to frame the discussion. I think you’re right that religious proponents would make an attempt to take that word and simply bastardize it for their own ends. David Barton, William Lane Craig, and many other charlatans come to mind as champions of this.

    Still, I think you hit the nail on the head with your initial assessment of SC. He’s a fast talker and clever, but he’s got nothing of substance. In a lot of church circles, this is perceived as actually being right. This is the opposite of scientific or even logical inquiry into a proposition. Sadly, it will take time to convince people that they’d get more use out of science and logic than verbal rejoinders.

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    1. You might be right about Lennox. I don’t know a lot about him. In the full debate at about minute 25 he says that he agrees that blind faith can be dangerous especially when coupled with blind obedience. He says this is true of religious and secular people. Then he goes on to say that faith is only as good as the evidence for it, then he makes a comparison to faith in general relativity is different than faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which is what I’ve done here, but he waves as his hands and starts using the Bible as evidence that Christianity is true. Lennox is more crafty than most, but not anymore intellectually honest…although I guess he would think he was being honest.

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      1. Lennox’s use of the bible is what SC is finding frustrating over on Nan’s blog right now. I do agree he feels he’s being honest, but there’s a blind spot with regards to the notion that all they have is some ancient proponents’ words for it. Take that out of the equation, and they’ve got nothing.

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  6. That men think an infinite creator needs them to speak on its behalf is the height of arrogance. That an infinite creator would require praise, adoration, and blind faith; count that faith as righteousness, and being all-knowing, needing to test this faith, has charlatanism written all over that belief system. Even more so when eternal punishment is tossed in the mix.

    Swarn, I could relate to your frustration, and I’m glad you wrote this post. Very well said, as are the following comments.

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    1. Yes, maybe we should be thankful that it’s just faith that keeps it alive. Imagine if it were all true, how meaningless life would be. I would have no need to learn anything or discover how anything works. Follow some rules, be nice to people whether I wanted to or not, just to avoid eternal torment. A lifetime of drudgery to bathe in God’s presence for eternity.

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  7. The claim that we all have faith can, I believe, be tested using a child, a tree and a blindfold.

    Take a small child (preferably one of Lennox’ or SC- the thought of them entering the gene pool makes my skin crawl) ) put her a little way up a tree and get one of the above to stand underneath and instruct the child to jump as ”Daddy will catch you!”

    Although the kid will likely be nervous, scared even, she will probably allow herself to fall sure in the knowledge her dad will catch her.
    I imagine as parents, or having some sort of guardianship over a child, we have all been in a similar situation at one time or another.

    Now repeat the scenario and ask the kid to put on a blindfold.
    If she can still hear the adult, having seen him stand in the same position as before, she may still allow herself to fall from the tree confident dad will catch her.

    Now, remove the blindfold, send the kid up the tree, and hide a small remote tape recorder with a recording of dad’s voice encouraging the child to jump in the long grass at the foot of the tree and while she is climbing run off and hide.

    When the kid reaches the same position active the tape recorder.

    How strong does anyone think her faith will be this time?

    And let’s see if either Lennox or SC will be willing to participate in this test, using their kid(s).

    Because, let’s face it, this is more or less what they and every other Christian expects non believers to do, and apart from the actual jump, this is exactly what they do every moment, only in lieu of the present physical injury they would incur there is the continual threat of future injury if they do not comply.

    Oh, and for the record, Lennox is a disgusting, disingenuous individual.

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    1. Now wouldn’t the last example, using the tape recorder, be an example of blind faith? Or faith with the least amount of evidence? In the other two cases you can be convinced more fully that your father is there, that he’s present, that he’s close by (either visually and/or audibly) thus providing sufficient evidence for your faith. In the latter case you have audio evidence, but there is no interaction, it wouldn’t respond to your questions, it wouldn’t act like it was observing you, just approximating that it’s observing you. In such a case blind faith would be dangerous. So I do think we all use faith in our lives, but I completely agree with you is that what believers ask us to do is to have a large degree of blind faith. We can verify all the names of kings, countries, cities, cultures in the bible, but at the end of the day it doesn’t change the fact that evidence for the supernatural simply isn’t there. It would seem that if I wanted people to believe that the supernatural was real, this would be the single most detailed part I would write about. If creation were to be taken literally, then it should have a great deal more details than it does. The fact that most of the detail is about material things, and stories that teach moral lessons seems to me sufficient evidence that the bible was a man-made venture.

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  8. Our interpretation of faith is based upon past experience.
    We have ”faith” the aircraft will stay in the air based on rigorous testing. But we was also accept that the plane may fall. Scud missile,engine falling off, flock of geese, mid air collision at xmas with a bloke and some flying reindeer, or having Bruce Willis on board.

    That degree of faith is enhanced if you know that the plane has never been involved in an accident or reduced if you just happen to be reading a Wiki article citing the aircraft in question has had more accidents than any other!

    But it is all based on evidence.

    The girl hears her dad’s voice but does not see him.
    Only a bunch of sadists would encourage the girl to put aside her doubt and jump.

    Such as Christians for example!


  9. I got a little confused in the first paragraph. I’m not sure what it is that you’re refuting. Is this essentially arguing about the definition of faith? Or are you saying that all faith is not equal?


    1. The second part. That if we take the definition of faith as defined by Lennox in the clip that all faith is based on some evidence then we both have to evaluate the value of that evidence and how much evidence we have. Equating faith in the theory of relativity is not the same as faith in the supernatural.


      1. Yes, of course, but the process is essentially the same insofar as evaluating the evidence and determining an appropriate amount of faith. Of course, for natural phenomenon it’s a bit easier since I can devise and administer tests and have others do the same to validate my results. If I want to gather evidence, say about how much my wife loves me, the act of testing that love will likely affect her love for me, invalidating my results and probably ruining dinner.

        The clip was fairly short and had a bit in the middle that was snipped out, so it’s hard to know what point Lennox was trying to make, but I don’t think he was saying that because everyone uses faith to some extant, God exists. I expect his point was that requiring faith doesn’t make something false.

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        1. Well I linked the full debate further down. But actually that was the point that Lennox was making. That a religious person’s faith is based on evidence just as our faith in scientific principles. So there was an equivocation there, and Dawkins tried to make the point that it is the volume and quality of the evidence that’s important.

          THe short clip was presented simply because that was presented to me by someone I was debating with on another blog, and that was the point the person was trying to make with me, that science uses faith, therefore faith based thinking is valid.


          1. I didn’t have time to watch the entire debate since I coincidentally (ironically?) have to leave to go to church, but from what I could tell their disagreement about faith boiled down to semantics, Lennox defining faith as believing something that can’t be proven (preferably with good evidence) and Dawkins defining faith as believing something despite evidence to the contrary. Dawkins seemed to have a strong aversion to the word faith, which may be explained when later in the debate he talked about people who hide behind their “faith”, maintaining it as a virtue and have the attitude that faith should be protected from criticism somehow. (which is a fair objection)

            Overall, I agree that religious faith and scientific faith are not the same, but that doesn’t mean that religious faith is unreasonable, and I expect that was the point that Lennox wanted to make, that reasonable and even scientific people employ faith regularly and so faith is not a reason in and of itself to discount something.

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            1. Hi Chris.
              If I may?

              but that doesn’t mean that religious faith is unreasonable,

              Christian faith demands that for non belief, one is condemned to eternal damnation and torture in Hell, a place created by Yahweh/Jesus of Nazareth, the god that supposedly loves us.

              Could you show us, please, how this is not unreasonable?

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            2. Well perhaps not unreasonable in the sense that it has some personal value, but there are some things that we are meant to have faith about that seem quite unreasonable.

              I suspect for Dawkins and Lennox there is a difference in what faith means to them. I think Lennox is intentionally obfuscating things to put them on more equal footing, because he talks about this evidence for God and Christianity but then never delivers. For Dawkins I expect that for him faith is more in regards to the promotion of faith to fill in the gaps of knowledge rather than a faith built on knowledge. As you alluded to, the fact that people rely on it when evidence is not president is problematic in terms of determining universal truths. When we put religious faith on the same footing with faith in the sun coming up or general relativity, another important difference is that the faith is not necessary, we can simply prove it again, over and over, and this can be done by a person from any culture or any religion.


            3. Did you intentionally state that in the abstract form?

              Yes, I was intentionally general because I see a lot of arguing about the specifics without agreement on the presuppositions and the definition of words. There’s no sense arguing about faith if everyone has a different definition of what it means and there’s no sense talking about evidence if you’re restricted to what is measurable and reproducible (the best kind, without question).

              …specific claims made by Abrahamic religions do indeed seem exceedingly unreasonable. Light a candle, pray before a football game, or to win a war- how about to get a lung transplant?

              I’m more of a fundamentalist, so I’m not familiar with what claims are made about the examples you’ve given. Candles are used for various ceremonies, but I’m not aware of anything prescribed. I don’t know what you would pray before a football game, perhaps not to get brain damage after intentionally using your head as a battering ram. Jesus said to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. If you’re already in a war, you’ve probably done it wrong. By a lung transplant, do you mean praying for someone to die so you can get their lung? That’s not nice.

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            4. There’s no sense arguing about faith if everyone has a different definition of what it means and there’s no sense talking about evidence if you’re restricted to what is measurable and reproducible (the best kind, without question).

              I’m not sure if this is strictly true. I mean when we are trying to solve problems it’s as important to sort out what we are trying to actually solve. So if we want to know the value of faith it seems worthwhile having a shared definition. Similarly if we are trying to decide what is evidence and what is not. In fact there is quite a lot of work done at least in the area of evidence and what isn’t and even what evidence carries more weight than others. While it does get frustrating to argue with people who don’t seem to know that.

              When you say evidence that is measurable and reproducible as being the best kind, what then is the value of including evidence that is not the best kind? Shouldn’t truths that are universally true be of the best kind always? What other kinds of evidence can speak to what is objectively true?


            5. Christian faith demands that for non belief, one is condemned to eternal damnation and torture in Hell, a place created by Yahweh/Jesus of Nazareth, the god that supposedly loves us.

              Could you show us, please, how this is not unreasonable?

              Well, I was talking about reasonable in a rational/logical sense (not a moral sense), that a reasonable person could look at the arguments or evidence for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity and have faith that they were true.

              However, you ask a good question. In the Bible, hell is only described figuratively (although always extremely unpleasant), so we’re left to our imaginations as to what it would be like (likewise heaven, which is hopefully not thousands of years of uninterrupted corporate singing). On the most benign end, hell is a big atheist convention where everyone talks about how happy they are not to be in the other place singing Amazing Grace for 100 years at at time. On the other end of the spectrum, God has contracted Satan to endlessly torture every damned soul by dipping their head in the lake of fire every five minutes while holding them by their toenails. On the atheist convention side of things, it seems reasonable to me that the people that reject God will be separated from him in the afterlife. Now that leaves out suffering, which seems to be part of the deal of going to hell. Is the suffering due to the way the inhabitants of hell choose to govern themselves or is it prescribed by God as a punishment. The latter does seem unreasonable, but I don’t believe the Bible teaches this necessarily. It’s also possible that there is no undue suffering in hell, only that in comparison to heaven, it’s quite unbearable. Jesus said that anyone who does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and even his own life cannot be his disciple. Since he also told us to love our enemies, and we love all those people and ourselves more than our enemies, we understand that to mean not that we hate our family but that we should love Jesus the most. (You might think that’s unreasonable, but one thing at a time). So, there is a precedence of Jesus using hyperbole.

              Overall, I don’t think hell is described well enough to determine if it’s reasonable or unreasonable. If I assume that God loves us, I can find a path that I think is reasonable. However, I think it’s fair to say that if I imagine a hell that most closely matches the literal descriptions found in the Bible that would be difficult to reconcile with God’s character as it is described. but I’m hesitant to take that approach and I’m usually quite suspicious of anyone who is too certain as to what hell is like. They tend to also walk around with cute signs that say things like, “God hates fags”, and do other things that are the exact opposite of what Jesus said to do.


            6. For Dawkins I expect that for him faith is more in regards to the promotion of faith to fill in the gaps of knowledge rather than a faith built on knowledge.

              I finally had some time to watch the full debate. It seems clear to me that Dawkins views faith as something like belief in spite of the evidence, since when Lennox talks about there being evidence for Christian faith he replies that it could just be called evidence then, it wouldn’t need to be called faith. It’s interesting that he proposes the multiverse explanation for the apparent fine tuning of the physical constants, when, as far as I know, there is no evidence to support it. Although I don’t think he strictly believes that there is a multiverse, he certainly has faith that there will be a natural explanation for the origin of the universe in the same way that there is a natural explanation for the arrival of humans and other species. He refuses to call it faith; however, when I can’t see what else it could be called, so it’s hard to believe that he isn’t being disingenuous.

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            7. Well this is the reason for the post. Of course when there is a long history of finding natural causes for previously unexplained events, I think the faith is more warranted since the supernatural has yet to be proven as an explanation for any event, but I do agree that, to me, we could call it faith. I think the point Dawkins is also trying to make in positing scientific explanations for the origin of the universe is that the argument is often made for the “organization” of physical laws and constants as being evidence for their being a divine creator. That of course isn’t true in itself, but he’s also saying that being in the universe that “Seems to work” is of course going to be the case, but we have no idea what other possibilities might be out there. At the very least there are natural explanation on equal footing to the possibility of creator, with the added bonus that we have a long history of finding natural explanations to questions we don’t know the answer to.


            8. I would like to see Dawkins admit that he has faith and then move the discussion on to the evidence instead of wasting time arguing about what words mean (when dictionaries exist). Even you said that you “could call it faith”, when I don’t see how it can be called anything but faith. I understand the concern that some will try to then equate the two positions, but that doesn’t justify changing what words mean, in my opinion. When we talk about the total energy/matter of the universe existing as a singularity, and where did that come from in the first place, and is there a multiverse, these are questions of faith. That’s not to say that there aren’t natural explanations, but as of today, there aren’t, and to believe that there will be takes faith.


  10. Just have to insert something here — isn’t is nice that although not everyone agrees with each other, the conversation demonstrates intelligence, open-mindedness, and respect for others’ opinions (rather than what takes place on some “other” blogs). 🙂

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      1. I wasn’t pointing the finger at anyone in particular since there are several that find it extremely difficult to carry on an intelligent discussion of Christian doctrine/beliefs/faith when the “other side” points out obvious fallacies.

        I think many of us would actually enjoy an in-depth discussion, but as soon as we put forth a researched and/or educated comment, it’s back to the same-old, same-old. I have a hunch this will be on full display if SC answers the Professor’s latest comment related to the “paradigm.”

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        1. Haha…yeah. And I know you weren’t point fingers. Honestly I didn’t even bother reading SC’s latest reply to me. It wasn’t fruitful. I actually enjoyed debating with Seth more. lol

          Yeah I’ve been pleased with the discussion going on for this piece. It makes me happy. 🙂


  11. Hi Swarn,

    I am starting a new reply here as our thread was getting squeezed, and my only reply option was that little window in the upper right corner of WP that I don’t enjoy using all that much. Hope that is alright!

    I did enjoy that story. And knowing I can have a tendency to take the other side of some discussions just because I like examining multiple perspectives–(I’ve been accused of defending Trump by suggesting there may be a reason people are dissatisfied in America, and it might not be terrible to try and understand what that is)–let me just be clear that in suggesting science cannot be expected to make policy decisions in the absence of values that are derived outside of the sphere of scientific inquiry, I’m not suggesting that organized religion is my preferred alternative.

    That said, I wasn’t quite sure what you were suggesting here about science and the nature of what it is to be human, other than you agree it matters that our humanity be relevant. I think you were saying it is pretty much impossible for it not to be, but that felt like a pretty sweeping statement. I mean, it seems that a great many things have appeared historically under the rubric of what it is to be human, and many of them violent. And some of them justified, at least temporarily, by bad science. It’s not even worth calling it science really, but it was something ugly trying to claim the legitimacy of the mantle of science to justify hateful actions. I don’t intend that in any way as a ding against science–science simply is a human institution, and humans behave badly sometimes. But I do think there are cases where scientific authority is abused and has been abused, and is abused today as leverage opposing movements that could benefit many people. It is all in there in what it is to be human I guess, so this (very enjoyable) conversation is moving sideways now, but I don’t see the necessary link between scientific inquiry and the ethics of our decision-making.

    In fact, and to your well taken point about the god of money, the sorts of hypothetical questions that intelligent persons could study with the scientific method are asked and answered all the time about matters related to economics and social policy. Were money not so valued, or not ranked as it is amongst all other concerns set before us, we might ask and answer different questions. So how the scientific method of inquiry is brought to bear seems highly dependent upon factors at work in our skulls–values, predispositions, norms, etc.–that are not informed by scientific inquiry so much as something else. By our sense of who we are perhaps? By our cultural norms?

    How do you see this?

    I think it is a very interesting question.


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    1. I apologize that it has taken me so long to reply to your thoughtful reply. And yes no problem on starting a new comment, I’ve had the same thing happen before. lol

      Yes after re-reading my comment to you last time I can see I didn’t make my point very clear. I think what I am trying to suggest is two things. First I don’t think that any scientific discovery is divorced from what we value as humans. That doesn’t mean that all of those have been good values. When talk about values we usually talk about the good ones, but one has to accept, I think, that power can also be a value. Curiosity is also a value. This can simply drive some discoveries without asking broader questions about whether this is something worth being curious about given the ramifications of what I might find. So I think you’d be hard pressed to find any scientific discovery that wasn’t driven by some aspect of humanity. So, secondly, and going back to the main topic here of what science can and can’t do I don’t see anything science can’t provide an answer for if we are asking the question correctly. And perhaps in looking through what we perceive as bad decisions through the lens of history (some of which may simply be unfair hindsight evaluations) we can see that perhaps we simply should have been asking different questions.

      Science can tell us about what humans value. We can study humans now and through history, we can study other primates and other animal species for similar behavior, and we can identify values and then we can identify how those values benefit survival. Whether they might have short term gains for long term losses or vice-versa. We can analyze the environmental conditions that promote certain values over others and we can see whether those conditions still apply and if they don’t perhaps these aren’t values we need to give priority to. This seems to be in line with the example you gave about getting rid of a certain percentage of humans. There might be short term benefits to such a solution, but the long term impacts of devaluing individual rights of self-determination might be deleterious. Furthermore can we be sure that 7 or 8 billion people is too much? We better make damn sure we can’t support everybody before we make such a decision.

      I guess its simply not clear to me that science can’t be used to evaluate moral and ethical concerns, and while we might not get as concrete answers as Force = mass x accelerations, I am not sure what other realm ethics and morals might lie in that are better suited than science. Perhaps you could go into some detail about what you mean here.

      In regards to your questions concerning the god of money I thought it might be interesting to look at two of those questions in particular: By our sense of who we are perhaps? By our cultural norms?

      So perhaps this is more what you mean by things lying outside of science. I guess I would see these things do lie outside of science, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that is necessarily good. Although I would argue at least these things aren’t completely separate from science but are still observationally based. We simply haven’t gone through a rigorous methodology to make sure we understand our observations. This is why quite frequently we get it wrong. I am not sure if you read a post of mine a few posts back about whether multiculturalism works, but I think we can at least agree that there are some parts of culture that are simply intolerable to freedom. Things like female genital mutilation, things like systematic oppression like slavery or the caste system. So if we’re making decisions based on culture, and those cultural decision cause harm to a group of people, I would say culture is not a very good way to make decisions. I think science has a lot to say about what are inherently harmful cultural practices and which ones are not. If we all want to have secure lives with meaning, then we are probably better off with cultural values that give everyone in society not only the ability to strive towards that goal but share in it. Science would definitely demonstrate that any cultural value that systematically practices oppression is not an optimal one in terms of human well-being for all participants.

      In regards to “who we are”, I wasn’t clear whether you were talking about at an individual level or as a group. Suffice to say that it is difficult to even define “who we are” at any scale without looking to others for some basis of comparison. Given that the larger context is always important for defining ourselves the notion of identity or self, I find to be largely illusory and not all that helpful in the grand scheme of things. I would at the very least favor having some scientific input so that I can better understand “Who I am”, because it’s possible to be wrong about this question. Interestingly the same speech by Douglas Adams gives a very good perspective of who being incorrect about who we are can lead to constructs that aren’t necessarily true, just best guesses. Which is why in a way I don’t find who we are, or cultural norms completely unscientific, but conclusions based on the best going data we have.

      Where does the idea of God come from? Well, I think we have a very skewed point of view on an awful lot of things, but let’s try and see where our point of view comes from. Imagine early man. Early man is, like everything else, an evolved creature and he finds himself in a world that he’s begun to take a little charge of; he’s begun to be a tool-maker, a changer of his environment with the tools that he’s made and he makes tools, when he does, in order to make changes in his environment. To give an example of the way man operates compared to other animals, consider speciation, which, as we know, tends to occur when a small group of animals gets separated from the rest of the herd by some geological upheaval, population pressure, food shortage or whatever and finds itself in a new environment with maybe something different going on. Take a very simple example; maybe a bunch of animals suddenly finds itself in a place where the weather is rather colder. We know that in a few generations those genes which favour a thicker coat will have come to the fore and we’ll come and we’ll find that the animals have now got thicker coats. Early man, who’s a tool maker, doesn’t have to do this: he can inhabit an extraordinarily wide range of habitats on earth, from tundra to the Gobi Desert – he even manages to live in New York for heaven’s sake – and the reason is that when he arrives in a new environment he doesn’t have to wait for several generations; if he arrives in a colder environment and sees an animal that has those genes which favour a thicker coat, he says “I’ll have it off him”. Tools have enabled us to think intentionally, to make things and to do things to create a world that fits us better. Now imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day’s tool making. He looks around and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: behind him are mountains with caves in – mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can’t get you; in front of him there’s the forest – it’s got nuts and berries and delicious food; there’s a stream going by, which is full of water – water’s delicious to drink, you can float your boats in it and do all sorts of stuff with it; here’s cousin Ug and he’s caught a mammoth – mammoth’s are great, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can use their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean this is a great world, it’s fantastic. But our early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, ‘well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in’ and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says ‘So who made this then?’ Who made this? – you can see why it’s a treacherous question. Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’. And so we have the idea of a god. Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’ Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.

      Now you may disagree with Adams’ interpretation here, but I do think he’s on to something,and I do think it make a bit of sense why evolution was such a hard pill to swallow for many theists, because evolution changes the very essence of who we think we are.

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      1. Hi Swarn,

        Thank you very much for taking your time to give this response. I enjoyed it very much, and I can understand where you are coming from I think. On the first question I can certainly appreciate the idea that sheer curiosity—the desire to know—is a human value that drives science. Power, too, of course. And I can see what you mean about science being inseparable from our humanity in this sense. I consider science to be a form of creative expression, meaning that science, in its practice and expression, reveals a great deal about who we think we are and what we value.

        Though this is true, it doesn’t speak to the ethical tangent I lobbed into the mix, and which you also addressed. You wrote: I guess its simply not clear to me that science can’t be used to evaluate moral and ethical concerns, and while we might not get as concrete answers as Force = mass x accelerations, I am not sure what other realm ethics and morals might lie in that are better suited than science. Perhaps you could go into some detail about what you mean here.

        You also wrote: If we all want to have secure lives with meaning, then we are probably better off with cultural values that give everyone in society not only the ability to strive towards that goal but share in it. Science would definitely demonstrate that any cultural value that systematically practices oppression is not an optimal one in terms of human well-being for all participants.

        Regarding the latter statement, I think you’ve offered a good example of my semi-original point, which is that science doesn’t determine what should be maximized. Science may suggest what leads towards or away from a world that provides security and meaning for everyone, but it cannot say that such a world is the one that should be sought. What would the hypothesis be? We, as people, have to make a choice about what sort of world we desire, and what sort of people we wish to be. Then we may learn a great deal by focusing the lens of science on what does and doesn’t support our aim, but I don’t see how science can tell us what sort of world to choose.

        Science doesn’t have any real redress to discussing meaning, for instance. Isn’t meaning an individual and subjective thing? Can we come up with a good scientific definition of meaning, by which I mean (excuse the pun) an objective quantity we can measure in one another. I’m not trying to be facetious here, because I do understand and appreciate your point. As I said at the outset, I agree that the application of the scientific method can be a powerful tool for understanding many things, and for helping us make good decisions. I even said in my very first response to your post I wished the scientific method—or the logic it embodies—were used by more persons in evaluating their inner lives.

        But that said, returning to the second quote I took from your response, it is not at all clear that humans think it is possible for all members of society to share in lives of meaning and security. In fact, I would say we behave as though very, very few of us think this is actually possible, or rather, we behave as if the only way it would be possible was if more people thought like we did, derived meaning as we do, and described security as we did. But this is quite a gargantuan task, so we do the next best thing we can, we behave as though we may be able to obtain a modicum of security and meaning for at least those persons we love. Or we become advocates of a particular view and fight our way ahead, accepting progress in lieu of true success.

        So let me turn this around and approach it from the opposite direction. Do you think science could tell us what set of principles, collectively endorsed and embodied, would lead to a world that allowed each and every person to share in a life of security and meaning? What would the experiment be? What would we measure and how would we know the principles were being properly enacted? And how would we test this? And if we had some principles at the end of the day, how would we reduce them to rules of behavior that could guide our actions in every situation? Or would we even take it so far? And if we didn’t, then how would we implement the findings?

        Because you’ve asked me a similar question, about what other realm ethics and morals might lie in, let me try to answer. My opinion is that the answer is in the human heart—not in the absence of reason—but in its rightful place as reason’s true partner. Not subservient to reason, or explained by reason, but standing with reason to provide what reason cannot. It’s a tough answer. I could say philosophy, or ethics, but I don’t think either would provide an answer as complete as the answer alive within us.

        I daresay you feel strongly about a world that works for everyone, as I do—a world in which people feel secure, free to express themselves and to develop lives of meaning. I don’t think you arrived at the conclusion such a world is desirable by sitting down with a room full of actuaries and calculating our chances of survival were we to value such a world. You simply value it. Correct me if I am wrong because I know I’m dangerously close to putting words in your mouth, and it is not my intention. I’m not trying to set you up with a clever argument. I just think, honestly and simply, we know and value what is good. You noted kindness in one of your replies. Does kindness require a reason?

        I recently read Anna Karenina and I didn’t really know all that much about it, so when Tolstoy spent 800 pages working up to this same conclusion I thought it was marvelous! Here it is, from Tolstoy, through his character Levin:

        And I and millions of people who lived ages ago and are living now, muzhiks, the poor in spirit and the wise men who have thought and written about it, saying the same thing in their vague language—we’re all agreed on this one thing: what we should live for and what is good. I and all people have only one firm, unquestionable and clear knowledge, and this knowledge cannot be explained by reason—it is outside it, and has no causes, and can have no consequences.

        If the good has a cause, it is no longer the good; if it has a consequence—a reward—it is also not the good. Therefore the good is outside the chain of cause and effect.

        I don’t believe we’re saying different things here, really. Except, perhaps, that it is not the sphere of science to make the one choice we must make as human beings: the choice to determine what we value, and what is good. I don’t think science can tell us who to be.


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Of course the problem with these long comments is that we’re bound to miss some point we wanted the other to address, so I will try my best. LOL

          I daresay you feel strongly about a world that works for everyone, as I do—a world in which people feel secure, free to express themselves and to develop lives of meaning. I don’t think you arrived at the conclusion such a world is desirable by sitting down with a room full of actuaries and calculating our chances of survival were we to value such a world. You simply value it.

          You are exactly right. 🙂

          Now let me make one assumption about how you seem to feel, because I think it is relevant to my future answers (which I will do anyway resting on this assumption, but it certainly might weaken my argument if we differ here). It seems I can assume that the possibility of an afterlife can be removed as relevant to the discussion on building that better world? It seems one of the possibility that many theists discount is that there could be a God but still no afterlife, or not one that it so punitive or reward driven anyway. So I guess even if you don’t agree with this, I am going to remove it as an impetus for making this better world. It seems safe to do so since God or no God, a better world in this plane of existence is still a better world.

          So I am not sure what order to start in, but let’s take a look at meaning. I would agree with you that science can completely define meaning for me or for any individual. However it can tell me that meaning is important. We know that meaning increases life expectancy, we know that improves health, we know that it has a lot of value. Science can also tell us what are nutritional needs are. But we know that there are a lot of combinations of meals we can have to give us our nutritional needs. Our heart, as you put it, might say we are in the mood for food X or food Y, but it doesn’t really matter what X and Y are as long as we are meeting our nutritional needs. We could even describe meaning as part of our nutritional needs as well. So it matters not if meaning is your family, your art, your science, your activism, whatever it might be. Science doesn’t need to tell us every specific details, but it does need to narrow the parameters. It tells us certainly what is not good for us, beyond that we are free to choose what we want.

          So in regards to building a better world it’s quite possible that there are numerous possible worlds where “people feel secure, free to express themselves and to develop lives of meaning”. So I don’t think science is necessarily there to give us the one right answer, but I think it has a lot to see about what’s the wrong answer. It might not tell us always what’s best to maximize, but it might give us a lot of clues on what to minimize.

          Does kindness require a reason?

          Well I appreciate the poetic prose of Tolstoy there, I’m not sure I agree with him.

          Kindness absolutely has a reason. And I think this might be true for any successful intelligent species, because it does seem like it would be difficult to be truly successful without being able to work together, but as I said before, it may simply be that whatever range of possible better worlds there are out there, they might be good for humans. An intelligent species that evolved from tigers, arachnids, or clownfish might look completely different. At the very least for us, kindness is the way we bond with each other. It develops trust, it develops love, it ensures a more productive relationship. Now certainly there are other ways to get people to work together such aggressive, threatening behavior in which I find a way to force you and others to do my bidding. Or manipulate you into a common cause by dehumanizing others. There is certainly a lot of that going on, but ultimately, and I think science has a lot to say about it as well, is that ultimately people being kind to one another increases productivity over the long term, doesn’t lead to power struggles, rebellion, it is stable. Tribalism is a very strong trait for primates like us, and in the sizes of hunter-gatherer tribes we evolved in, you knew everybody, and were more likely to work together, and had a strong impetus to resolve conflicts in ways that minimizes hurt feelings that could lead to more feelings of mistrust and anger. Crossing the bridge to seeing us all as one big global tribe seems to be the challenge. The fact remains that science does show us all to be rather similar in what we want out of life, even if we might get them in individual ways. Again, we all need to eat, but what we might prefer to eat can be left up to the individual providing we are getting proper nutrition.

          Our heart, our compassion. This is also a trait of humans. We might all express our compassion for different things. Some people fight oppression of race, some gender, some cruelty to animals. And I think it’s true to say that we all have different levels of empathy. This is probably genetic and environmental, but we know that empathy can be practiced and can actually increase as we practice. It makes kindness not only important but also a skill that should be practiced. To me, kindness is only a tool that improves chances of survival for a social species.

          Of course we might ask overarching questions like why survive? Why is there is something rather than nothing? These are things that perhaps science can’t answer…these might be questions that we will never get an answer for. Religions can make claims about what they think a creator wants, but it’s all guesswork even if there is one. ALl I know is life survives. Different species have different ways of surviving, and they’ve been doing it quite well and quite a bit longer than we’ve been around. Survival, one could argue is a moral imperative for each species, and the methods to which each species does that varies. Some spiders eat a few of their young as they give birth to 1000s to regain some energy in an energy expensive process. No one things twice about such a moral decision, and one would hope that if an intelligent life form developed from a spider than this would rarely happen if the spider people could find other ways to satisfy nutritional needs besides eating their young, but I would imagine the best world for spiders might look a bit different.

          In the end that good world, whatever possibilities of good worlds we are building towards I am not sure that we could come up with a good hypothesis to tell us what that world is, having no existing worlds to look at, but we can look to see what worlds won’t work…we might find microcosms of communities that work well that we can apply to a larger model. I think science can only take us incrementally in the right direction, so I am not sure I could formulate a hypothesis to that utopia, only ask questions that move us in the right direction.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Me, too, Swarn. Enjoyed this very much. I think a little bit of difference is necessary to make an enjoyable dialogue; otherwise we just sit around and agree and we don’t learn very much from that. Let’s do it again sometime! 🙂


            Liked by 1 person

  12.’s because of what we consider valid evidence.

    Mmmm, so very true Swarn!

    “And this speaks to why the scientific method is so important because it requires careful methodology, it requires replication, it requires that we be able to build off of older principles to new ones reliably.”

    And I’d throw in at the end there… “then widespread peer-evaluation for accuracy and plausibility based upon that cumulative consensus for the best possible accuracy.” 🙂

    And Swarn, like you and the methodology of sound science, I am PERFECTLY FINE with saying “the results are presently inconclusive” — wait for more data and theorems for ANY amount of time necessary! I guess that would be my/one form of “faith“… but it certainly isn’t superior and exclusive to any others. It is exactly because of endless diversity — on many macro- and micro levels — that Homo sapiens and thousands of other species have NOT gone completely extinct, yet. Hahaha. 😛 However, reduce or extinguish that endless diversity and adaptability, and a species so vulnerable, so exposed, goes extinct, perhaps in a matter of just decades or a century.

    Great post Sir. Sorry for my extended delay here — just finished up this morning my one-on-one discussion/debate with Scientific Christian over on Nan’s blog. That’s partly why. :/


  13. ….result I guess.
    I’m not a Christian or an Atheist, but I’d like to address the ‘blindness’ of Christian faith that has been argued here, in that to have faith as a Christian is to wholly believe in the divine actions of a Savior without applying reason on our part. Which is wrong. Actually, I think the faith without action quote was by the Apostle Paul. I think, don’t hold me to it.
    Christian faith might warrant belief in Spirits and God(s?), but it also demands individual action. Pray, have faith in the power of God, and act towards the achievement of your purpose. Empty hands cannot be blessed after all. Which is quite similar to Scientific Faith; we believe in facts and the wonders of Science to achieve a particular goal that does not always go our way. Trial and error, and what not.
    I guess what I’m trying to put forth is this: atheists and Christians practice faith in similar ways. Which I find to be pretty hilarious. I honestly don’t know why 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this comment PK, your thoughts here are a fresh voice to the discussion. I agree that actions in the end are the most important but I would say that there are important differences that I think are worth recognizing.

      For one our thoughts do definitely make a difference in how we act… So regardless of whether there is a God or not, regardless whether Christianity is true or not, we need to form some moral system, some value system that guides our actions. It is a problem when people claim good values but don’t act on them, just as it is bad when people have poor value systems and do act on them. So I think having discussions about how we derive our values is an important discussion to be had.

      What also is relevant is that many believe that good values can only be derived through a belief in the supernatural. As an atheist this is an assumption that others have made about me, and I know other atheists have faced this as well. We often face the question, “What is the point of doing good things if there is no final judgement on those deeds?” As if causing suffering in this existence was meaningless other than what happens to you after death. So having a better understanding of how we derive values without faith in the supernatural has value.

      Finally it seems also important that we, as humans, have a shared value in how truth itself is derived. While we might argue that both scientists and theists have their faith, as has been said in other areas of this discussion, theism promotes and celebrates faith as a virtue, where as science seeks to minimize the need of faith as evidence becomes available and changes what it has faith in, when evidence counters our assumptions. To ask people to continually love their lives in accordance to what an unprovable deity wants seems wholly more dangerous than a system of truth finding like science which is inherently self-correcting. It’s also important to note that science isn’t just about experimentation but also explanation. Logic also plays a role, and there are certain rules to logic which religion has typically been allowed to circumvent for no other reason than societal convention to sanctify faith as a virtue.

      So indeed actions matter… But if I were trying to bake a cake… I would need to know how to do it before I could take actions… Otherwise me, ingredients and a hot oven is just a situation that is at best just an inedible cake, and at worst an inedible cake and me getting burned by a hot stove! And if we think of the Bible as a cookbook on how to make cake it’s so full of contradiction and horrible as well as wonderful verses that I might make a delicious cake or poison everyone in the room. That’s concerning.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do agree with you Swarn; such discussions are imperatively important, and I would never try to discount their purpose.
        I was, however, not regarding to Faith in the denominational sense (or lack there of) but in the way both opposites of the the spectrum use it to allow hope, regardless of the actions taken.
        Should the Bible be the only moral compass we all subscribe to? Should we be trusted to only apply logic in our lives? I feel like both avenues are quite extreme.
        The cake analogy is quite tricky, isn’t it? Just as it would be unsuitable in a lot of cases to let the Bible direct our lives,the same could be said of solely expecting such from Science and Logic. There’s this expanse of gray area that leaves much up to debate/uncertainty/controversy.

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        1. Certainly I would never argue that any of us individually utilize logic and science solely. Certainly such things have no place when it comes to many aspects of our lives. What movies we enjoy, what foods we like to eat, what music we listen to, what we consider beautiful whether it’s art, flowers, or fashion etc. These are common things across all humanity. I don’t think there is an atheist alive who doesn’t see these things as important if not essential to who we are as human beings. But all of these thing represent personal truths. If you like vanilla ice cream and I prefer chocolate, science has nothing to say about that. But science does have a lot to say about how the universe works. Faith in the divine or supernatural certainly has value to individuals, but it’s of the personal truth kind. If Christianity is true for someone, I am perfectly happy with that, but too often such people expect it to be true for others. This is what secularists, agnostics, atheists are fight against. A society in which someone’s religious personal truths attempt to determine truth for other people who don’t share their faith. Religion permeates many aspects of society in an unhealthy way. In some societies it is worse than others. For instance, laws that govern who should get married have been defined by a religious definition. Segregation was a law justified by religion. Much of the justice system here in terms of punishment is guided by biblical principle and not what science has shown to be more effective means of rehabilitation of criminals. While none of us can live our lives entirely by logic, we also can’t deny it’s existence. We can’t say human-induced climate change isn’t happening, evolution isn’t real, GMOs and vaccines are bad for you. When we do so, we do so to our own detriment. And at its heart it stems from the idea that one person’s opinion is sufficiently equal to an evidence based conclusion through scientific investigation. Science does attempt to give us universal truths and I would disagree that I would say I derive my hope from it. In fact there are a lot of things that science finds that make me lose hope, or make me uncomfortable, or that I wish were untrue. Things science reveals about the universe simply are, regardless of my personal opinion of it. And that’s a very important difference between faith based thinking and thinking based on science.

          As I linked in the piece to an earlier post of mine I actually think faith is essential to being a good human. I actually wrote a whole series of 8 essential qualities that make a good human, faith being one of them. But at no time do I think that faith and stubbornness should intertwine. While faith has a lot of value, when we maintain faith despite evidence to the contrary this can lead to more harm than good.

          Since I in no way could every provide evidence to you to convince you that my favorite ice cream is better than your favorite ice cream, I see no reason why one person’s religious beliefs should dictate what my worldview should be. As a social species we need to have some shared values of truth finding. You’ll find most human misery occurs when one person’s belief system is forced on to others.

          I can’t speak for all atheists, but at least for me I can say, that I don’t care what religion one believes in, but once it starts bleeding out into laws and politics that impact the rest of society then I’m going to have a problem.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Separating the Church from the State: definitely agree on that.
            Can I ask you a somewhat personal question?

            As an atheist, do you believe in the superiority if your own faculties ie you are fully responsible of your life, your luck, good or bad?
            I think living like that must be really beautiful. Despite denouncing religion years ago, I still charge my good luck to a Higher Being and my bad luck on myself. It’s pretty fucked up; that I only have control of the bad, but the good is way out into the cosmos, only to be granted when I’m worthy.

            Ps: I really enjoyed conversing with you, Swarn. You have a beautiful mind 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            1. PK I have responded to you via your yahoo e-mail registered with your WP account. I hope you do not mind, but I felt I would be straying too far away from the subject of this post so thought it better to respond that way. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: A Re-framing of Faith – Cloak Unfurled

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