A Re-framing of Faith

After my previous post about faith, which led to a fruitful discussion, I’ve been thinking more about the importance of faith to humans and how it might be framed in a more useful way.  A couple summers ago I presented a series of posts about 8 virtues or qualities that make a good human, and faith was the last one I discussed.  I think that if I were to do that series again today I might change the word faith to “prediction”.

In the discussion we had on my most recent post about faith, we talked about the difference between religious faith, and the sort of everyday way we might use the word faith.  One of the things that I talked about as a difference between how a scientist might use faith, and what a religious person might call faith are two different things.  The most important difference being that a scientist would be willing to change what he has faith in, based on evidence.  I have always argue that while faith is important we should be willing to change what we have faith as we learn.  The other thing that I argued was that faith is built on evidence and there is a very big difference in having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, and faith that there is a supernatural divine being.  The difference there being the weight of evidence, and the quality of evidence used in building those two types of“faith”.

But I started to think about it at a deeper level and it seems to me that at the heart of faith is really something else when I started to ask, “Why do we have faith at all?”  Faith is a representation of our desire to predict an uncertain future.  When I had my son, I wrote a post called Love and the Future, about how when we love we start painting pictures of the future in our mind.  It happens in romantic relationships too.  According to a friend of mine who is a counselor, one of the hardest parts of counseling someone after a difficult breakup is for them to let go of those “future plans”.  I have also written a post before about “expectations”.  In the post, I talked about the benefits of expectations in that we rise to meet them.  By having a future goal in mind, we make better progress than none at all.  Of course, there are many who would say you shouldn’t have expectations, because they will only lead to disappointment, but I am not sure it’s possible to live a life without any expectations.  It’s natural that we’d have some, but I think that it’s true we might have limits into how many failed expectations we can shoulder.  Either way it seems to me that expectations are also a type of “faith”.  A desire to place some certainty in the future based on our desires and wants.  It is something we expect to come true, even if it doesn’t.

For the past few months I have been practicing mindfulness meditation, and it has been an enjoyable experience.  I’ve been using an app called Headspace.  It avoids a lot of the new age type stuff and really focuses on the philosophy of meditation and I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in getting into it.  The goal is to be more focused on the present, to be mindful of what we are doing in the moment.  A thought struck me yesterday when I was practicing it, as that one of the things they tell you in the guided meditation is that you want to think about “what are your goals with the meditation” and after it’s over they suggest you think about what is going to the very next thing you do.  So even in something that is supposed to be about the present, we cannot help but look forward at least a little bit in our thinking.

I have come to the conclusion that it is natural in humans to be forward thinkers.  I have had the thought before that one of the things that makes humans more intelligent is our ability to project further into the future than other species.  Now one could argue that we are also still pretty awful at it, but the fact that we try is actually impressive.  We look for patterns in the universe and we try to project those patterns into the future so that we can be less uncertain and fearful about it.  While Farmer’s almanacs would like us to believe that squirrels can predict months in advance about the severity of the winter, it is clear in an evolutionary sense life on average are poor forward thinkers.  If they were good at it, I’m not sure extinctions would happen as often as they do.  For instance, an animal can only assume a winter will lie between certain climatic norms.  Some portion of the population will develop mutations better equipped for let’s say surviving a larger range of conditions, but when change becomes to extreme large proportions of a population if not all, cannot adapt and die out.  Humans are better at it, unfortunately we are also deeply conceited and that leads to problems.  So given this human propensity to want to predict, the best thing we can do is to build value systems that allow us to be successful more often.

When we say we have faith in our partner, our ourselves, we are making a statement that there is an expectation that based on existing evidence that we will continue to handle some future situation in the same way we have before.  Making a statement like, “I have faith I will do well on my exams”.  Presumably you have taken enough exams to presume a similar outcome.  More than that, to make sure it isn’t blind faith, you have examined the patterns to your success through various study methods, getting a certain amount sleep, etc to make sure your faith is not misplaced.  Your faith is a type of prediction.  A value system that aids in this faith is your ability to be introspective and also perhaps learn from others as to how they study and learn what are good and bad practices.

So where does religious faith fit into all of this?  Hopefully by now it is pretty clear, but let’s look a little closer.  I have read several atheist and agnostic scholars speak about religion as a type of model.  This is how religion has always made the most sense to me. What is the purpose of models?  In science models are things that model scientific processes that give us more predictive capabilities.  The better we understand a process, on average, the more predictive we will be.  This is why a scientist’s ‘faith’ might be quite different than a religious person’s faith because the success of a scientific theory is its predictive capability.  The poorer it is at prediction the less certain we are about our understanding.  In my field of meteorology one of the main reasons we try to model atmospheric processes is to become better at prediction.  It is helpful to be more aware of what weather and climatic patterns are coming in the future.

Religious faith, at its root, is a kind model.  One constructed a long time ago, built largely on false patternicity errors, but given how little we understood about the universe its weak predictive capabilities (in line with empirical evidence) is hardly surprising.  Nevertheless it is an attempt to know the future.  It’s full of prophet predictions, it speaks of what happens to you when you die, how the world will end, what consequences your actions might have.  People pray or plead for diving intervention for their future endeavors.  ‘Please get me this job, please make it rain so our crops come in, please don’t let my mother die of cancer.’  These are all  attempts to give us certainty in an ever changing universe in which are predictive capabilities, especially at an individual level, are extremely limited.  The statement “God has a plan for you” is a prime example of how religion has the course of your life worked out already.  There is no need to worry about it.  Just have faith.  People find it soothing to pray, people find it peaceful to know the purpose of the universe, to know what will happen to them when they die.  In fact, on the whole, religion gives far more certainty than science, which is why I expect it is much more popular.  Science rarely claims 100% predictive capability, but religion does, and to this end religion can be easily used to exploit people.  It is a panacea to all the uncertainty in the world.  Religion pushes people to have more and more faith in times of doubt and confusion.  What they are really saying is “Be more and more certain that (religious claim x) is the truth.”  And if you’re successful, not surprisingly, you feel better.  With mental effort we can convince ourselves to be more certain of things whose outcome is uncertain.  Human history is rife with such examples.  There is no doubt in my mind that we have better models for how humans can live their lives now.  Nevertheless, we have maintained these old models, trying to ignore the worst bits of them, and developed an entire field of apologetics whose main purpose is to try to convince people that these old models still not only have value, but that they are actually superior to other models out there.

Now just because prediction is something humans do, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a virtue.  I guess I see it as a raw instinct that needs to be tamed, which is how I have approached all beneficial human qualities.  I think it’s clear that while much happiness can be found in getting lost in the moment, we need some sort of value system that gives us a direction.  We might get there and find we have to go somewhere else, but it seems beneficial to always have some sort of idea of where we might go next.  In my life it seems that the people I have admired most are the ones who can take pleasure in the moment, but also keep their eyes ahead of them as well.  It’s dangerous to get lost in times that have not occurred, just as it is unhealthy to dwell in the past.   So if I were to choose this 8th value that makes a good human, perhaps the word “prediction” doesn’t quite do it justice, but until I come up with a better word it will have to do.  There is, however, no question in my mind that a defining quality for our species is our ability think about the future.   It encapsulates our dreams for a better future and if there is any escape from the fate of extinction that most life on this planet has faced, it will be through our ability to predict, if we can remember to be humble enough to remember we aren’t perfect.

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42 thoughts on “A Re-framing of Faith

  1. I think faith is confused with trust. I trust that tomorrow morning the sun will come up. It might not, as the Earth might be destroyed by a dark matter meteor the size of Mars overnight, but I trust that it will and if it doesn’t, then not much else will be of any importance. This is not faith. Scientists trust that other scientists have done good work and that even others have checked that work carefully. That is trust, not faith.

    Faith is more along the lines of belief in something without evidence or when the evidence is to the contrary. This is not something to admire. If your daughter brought a young man home who believed in fairies and sprites, would you commend his faith? If he believed the Moon were made of green cheese? That Lee Harvey Oswald was an alien? Wouldn’t you take your daughter aside and ask “Are you serious?”

    To say someone has great faith says “he’s gullible and proud of it” to me.

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    1. Thanks Steve. Well I do think that meanings of words sometimes take on different shapes over time. I would agree with you to a certain extent. To say I trust myself to do the right thing, or that I have faith in myself to do the right thing, to me, mean the same thing. In look at the definition of faith in various dictionary definitions, trust does seem to be a synonym to a certain degree, but then there is also the idea of belief without proof. We might ask, well what is meant by proof. If we are talking about proofs in a mathematical sense, many scientific theories are not proved in such a way, but through the collection of evidence we can be increasingly certain about the theory. Whether trust or faith get confused though doesn’t deviate from the central thesis here in that all these are an attempt to predict outcomes based on prior evidence. Whether or not we think there is evidence for God or not, most religious people feel their faith is built on some evidence. The fact that it might be an observation based on false patternicity, doesn’t change the fact the person doing the rain dance feels that it will worked, and has convinced that it has worked before. It could be because the elders said it would work (appeal to authority fallacy, but one humans make often), or the cognitive bias to remember times it did work and forget the times it didn’t, or reason them away as someone not doing the rain dance correctly or something to that effect. This was the outcome of Skinner’s experiments with feeding pigeons. So I don’t think it’s true to say that faith is built on no evidence, only that we would question the validity or the scope of that evidence.

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      1. The … “Whether or not we think there is evidence for God or not, most religious people feel their faith is built on some evidence.” … seems to be the core of the issue. Faith is built through instruction, trust through evidence. (One can learn to trust or not on one’s own, from trial and error experimentation; what is the likelihood one would become a Christian without instruction?) Faith in a non-religious situation is a rough synonym for trust and I have heard some religious people liken faith to trust in their god. That religious people feel that their supernatural belief is based upon evidence has to be compared with any other supernatural belief, none of which hold up to much scrutiny. I guess what I am saying is that trust can be rational or irrational. The irrational can be made to sound rational but is almost always flawed, like the idiot who claimed a banana is a sign of Intelligent design (capitalized to distinguish it from real intelligent design) because it fit in the hand so well, and peeled so easily, and had no seeds, etc. surely this is a sign of God’s munificence. (The fact that it had no seeds was an indicator that that yellow banana was a hybrid and made by man, not their god.) They claim their faith requires no proof while others scurry around and shout “see, see, and see here, this proves the existence of God.” I trust they are wrong.

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        1. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you for the most part and am not trying to defend religion. But I think we have to separate the teachings of the institution of religion from what faith means to humans in general. Faith seems to be a cross cultural trait and my goal with this piece was to talk about what the purpose of having faith is all about.

          What’s interesting is that when you search the bible for the word faith, the word rarely appears in the old testament, except as “faithful”, “faithfully”, “faithfulness”, “faithless”…in context a lot of the use of the word is synonymous with trust. A lot of times God himself is described as faithful, which I assume to mean that God has a pact with his creation which he honors. In the new testament faith does appear a lot, but what’s interesting is that there are many versus for which Jesus notes a lack of faith in someone or a group of people and then performs a miracle as evidence. So I find it interesting that the way faith is taught to followers today, is not the kind of faith that Jesus seemed to expect. It seems he thought it important that they have some evidence that he was divine. So I think when we look at how faith is instructed, as you describe, this is the workings of an institution that has in interest in growing it’s flock probably for less than wholesome purposes overall. Denominations and followers who are less than accepting of doubt and questioning, are usually the most nefarious, and least moral.

          And I agree that the sort of “evidence” a Christian might use is not very good evidence, and this can be demonstrate through principles of logic, but I would simply argue that many of the logical fallacies and cognitive biases we have are not obvious. Which is why it’s important to understand them. Take Appeal to Authority. Such arguments are certainly fallacious in of themselves, but why? I mean as children, appeal to authority is pretty much how we survive. Without us defaulting to the authority of adults most of us would not survive. Of course children are also little scientists as well, but I see my son constantly making false conclusions based on false patternicity. The scientific method also takes quite a bit of instruction, and there are lots of ways we can demonstrate it’s superiority as a way of knowing, but I don’t think it’s completely intuitive what is good evidence and bad evidence.

          In my blog series I mention in this post where I talk about 8 values that I think are important to be a good human (don’t worry no need to read it unless you don’t want to enjoy the rest of your life) I talk about the dangers of letting any one of these qualities become to extreme. And as I mention here, if you are too preoccupied with faith and make that the most important value, when we think of it as prediction, we essentially are saying that “we know the future”. Saying you are 100% sure of the future is clearly a fantasy and you would very much be living in a fantasy world. You would also have no need of curiosity at that point. Curiosity is one of the 8 qualities I mention. And I think we can both agree that curiosity is our way of growing and being more certain of some things and maybe being less certain of others. And I think we can also agree that a preoccupation with faith tends to quash curiosity. Why asks questions when all answers our known? Sound like any fundamentalists we know? lol

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    1. LOL… Luckily the usual suspects have never been to my blog, and if they did want to comment then they must wait to be approved… As God of this blog I’m not sure how worthy they are… So who knows what I’ll decide. Lol

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  2. An excellent read and subject Swarn. Bravo! I really like your word: “prediction.” It’s precise, at least in my mind. It has a psychic quality about it! 😉

    There is, however, no question in my mind that a defining quality for our species is our ability think about the future. It encapsulates our dreams for a better future and if there is any escape from the fate of extinction that most life on this planet has faced, it will be through our ability to predict, if we can remember to be humble enough to remember we aren’t perfect.

    There is another highly evolved human quality that I think is quite useful and connected to your/our best virtues here: complex cognition, a sort of time-traveling scenario-builder of ideas. This is closely related to theoretical science, in my mind a MUST in human learning and evolution. If I may please elaborate on this Swarn… Harvard Professor and evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser points out four distinguishing modern human traits:

    1. Generative computation — Humans can generate a practically limitless variety of words and concepts. We do so through two modes of operation recursive and combinatorial. The recursive operation allows us to apply a learned rule to create new expressions. In combinatorial operations, we mix different learned elements to create a new concept.

    2. Promiscuous combination of ideas — allows the mingling of different domains of knowledge such as art, sex, space, causality and friendship thereby generating new laws, social relationships and technologies.

    3. Mental symbols — our way of encoding sensory experiences. They form the basis of our complex systems of language and communication. We may choose to keep our mental symbols to ourselves, or represent them to others using words or pictures.

    4. Abstract thought — the contemplation of things beyond what we can sense. This is not to say that our mental faculties sprang fully formed out of nowhere.

    And so with these advanced cognitive traits, theoretical sciences thrive (or SHOULD thrive!) in a neverending soup of exciting ingenuity, invention, “prediction”, ontology, and progress! Not clinging desperately to the past and a predetermined doomed future! That’s my personal opinion anyway. 😉 😛

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    1. Thank you Professor!

      Definitely important cognitive abilities. I would say though that it’s not so much that other creatures don’t have it, they just don’t have it to a lesser degree. For instance I am sure when you look at the results of Skinner’s experiments where a pigeon mimicked a certain behavior that he thought was responsible for food being delivered, couldn’t this be a simple form of abstract thought? It’s not through the senses per se…but rather a connection that defies their normal way of making sense of the world. I don’t know. I think other species are also predictive, just not to the same degree. I think we probably invest more time in thinking about the future than most species seem to do. It’s interesting to think about for sure!

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  3. Hi Swarn,

    A couple thoughts about what you’ve said:

    You talk about faith as a “representation of our desire to predict an uncertain future”, which from the rest of your post I understand the purpose to be to reduce anxiety and allow planning for the future. I think there’s also a practical aspect of faith as well, which you didn’t touch on. Faith allows us to not spend time constantly asking the same questions enabling us to get stuff done. I don’t need to spend time wondering if the sun will rise tomorrow, if my wife loves me, or if I’ll still be alive next week. I can just live as if those things are true, which works very well (until, of course, it doesn’t) and frees me from endlessly pondering the same questions. It’s not unlike a field of science that is based on first principles, then layers of understanding built upon that, each predicated by the layer before. I think we do this in life, layers of faith, beliefs, and values that build a tower or a framework or a model that allow us to achieve something greater at the top. The problem is that when what’s at the bottom is found out to be wrong, then the whole thing collapses.

    You assert that a religious person would not be willing to change his faith in light of new evidence. This is not necessarily true (and I would hope not typically true), but I can see that given the choice between allowing an entire moral/purpose/lifestyle framework to collapse (and re-building from the ground up) and ignoring an inconvenient truth, but continuing with something that functionally works, many people would choose the latter. At the end of the day, it might be more important for most people to believe something that is functional rather than what is true.

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    1. Thanks for reading Chris. I am not sure that what you say is necessarily a lot different than what I have said. There is certainly evidence to support your point here that in general, changing our beliefs is hard given that some things we belief are so foundational that to tear it down can be a traumatic thing. I have read the stories from many Christian and Muslim fundamentalists and what they’ve gone through in deconverting away from such fundamentalist beliefs and they experience many symptoms similar to PTSD. One has to remember that beliefs in the brain forge neural pathways which when reinforced, release dopamine. Thus, in many ways, beliefs can become somewhat addictive. So my assertion that many religious people do not change their beliefs based on new evidence, I don’t feel is a baseless assertion. There are certainly many people like that. However it could be rather a matter of how that evidence is presented, who presents, or perhaps how much ownership they are able to feel over the change in beliefs. And of course this doesn’t only extend to religion, but can also extend to political views as well. All of us are somewhat resistant to changing our minds. This is why having some humility is important to the process.

      Faith allows us to not spend time constantly asking the same questions enabling us to get stuff done.

      This is true, but does not fit in with my thesis here. If faith allows us to not ask questions, then curiosity has been snuffed. And if we aren’t curious then we assume we already know, and that this knowledge is immutable. Thus the future is known. But I don’t disagree with your pragmatic view here in terms of being able to get things done. Many argue that it is a matter of privilege, a matter of having lots of leisure time that allows one to wrestle with these questions deeply, whether through the field of apologetics or science. I certainly can’t deny that my job and education allows me more free time and perhaps more time free from physical labor to expend the mental energy on these topics. So coming up with a value system so we don’t have to spend our time predicting and can do other things makes sense. One of the impacts of poverty is that when you are poor and live paycheck to paycheck or perhaps even meal to meal, your ability for future planning diminishes, and it’s harder to lift yourself out of poverty should opportunities arise to do so.
      For a lot of reason poverty is the most important thing that those with means can fight for, because giving people more leisure time to think seems quite important to human contentment.

      However, the problem comes when the one you’ve chosen as definitively true, because you’ve wanted to “get shit done” now must become the one that other people believe in to. And history is full of that sort of imposition of value systems, and it’s still going on today. That being said, it’s not obvious to me that we can’t become comfortable with uncertainty, by simply accepting the fact that things are going to be uncertain. I remember reading a comment on Facebook one time where a guy was so upset at science because the Brontosaurus wasn’t a dinosaur anymore (actually I think it’s back now, I wonder how he feels). lol These seem like weird things to get bent out of shape by. My point being is that perhaps it is a matter of conditioning through education that you get used to having a certain level of skepticism, critical thinking and doubt, and be okay with that.


      1. Hi Swarn, I always enjoy reading your blog. It’s one of the few places I can have a thoughtful argument with someone and nobody cries.

        To be clear, I wasn’t disagreeing with your main point, what you said got me thinking about the pragmatic side of faith and then I started more or less thinking out loud. Excellent point about the manner in which evidence is presented. That’s a hard lesson, for me, anyway. I often tell people that humility is my greatest quality, so you get the picture.

        I don’t think that faith should stifle curiosity, it should free you to be curious about new things, but I could see that some could have the attitude of “I’ve got it all figured out”. Likewise, there’s no necessary reason to impose a belief system, but history if full of examples nevertheless.

        So the question I have is, if people are more functional with a belief system, from a societal point of view, would it be better to attempt to tweak what someone believes rather than try to show them that it isn’t true? So rather than arguing with someone that Christianity isn’t true, would it be better to help them to be a better Christian? You had a blog post a while back about pro-life groups not supporting programs that would provide resources for single moms, etc. I thought that was a great argument and potentially something that could be used to affect change. Personally, I’m not all that keen on abandoning truth in favour of pragmatism, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about and I though I would put it out there.

        Excellent point about poverty.


        1. I often tell people that humility is my greatest quality, so you get the picture

          Me too! lol

          I was just thinking about your first comment today too and was thinking that I do think prediction is largely for practical purposes. I mean everything we do kind of does, although I think some things have some less that practical side effects which can for good or ill. Why predict the weather? Well presumable it also saves us time from having to try and make it ourselves, but even if it was our personal endeavor it would certainly impact our decisions, on how to dress, whether we should travel, how we should travel, whether we should make sure we have enough sandbags, etc. It certainly allows us to invest our energy in more useful ways.

          Well I’m not saying faith in general stifles curiosity completely, but as you said, if faith pragmatically allows us to expend our energy thinking about something else, then we generally aren’t driven to go down particular paths of knowledge compared to others. Given that we can’t know everything, there is some logic to that approach, but I think you could agree that we could say…well what am I most interested in trying to understand better, and simply pursue that and not worry too much about all the other questions that are out there. I mean we sort of already do that. We know there are lots of things we don’t know and the questions we might have about those subject areas don’t even come up. I do think there is something about the questions of “why are we here?”, “is there a purpose to all this?”, “How can I be more in control of my own destiny?”, these things seem to preoccupy people cross-culturally.

          if people are more functional with a belief system, from a societal point of view, would it be better to attempt to tweak what someone believes rather than try to show them that it isn’t true? So rather than arguing with someone that Christianity isn’t true, would it be better to help them to be a better Christian?

          I would say yes, but with a few caveats. I think when you look at how mainstream Christianity has evolved over the years it has been tweaked into, in general, producing better people. I mean you’ve read my blog enough now, you know that I spend very little time trying to convince everybody that there is no God. At it’s heart it’s a nice idea, although since no empirical evidence exists for God it’s not something that can really be disproven either, so it’s not a very fruitful discussion. However on the question of whether it is worth our time to show that Christianity isn’t true, I think there is some value to that. Not just Christianity, but Islam and probably a few others. I mean I could say all religions, but all religions aren’t equal in terms of the impacts they have on society. But let’s use Christianity as an example, and why I think there is some value in disproving Christianity:

          1) When you start believing in a religion you take on the entire doctrine. Now some denominations have different interpretations, but in general religion doesn’t let you just take the parts you like and leave out the parts you don’t. Personally I think that’s a fine way to live life. Hang on to the good beliefs and throw out the bad ones…but then are you really Christian anymore if you started doing that? I mean a year or two ago, you tried to tell me witches weren’t in the Bible. You never responded when I linked all the verses that have witches and necromancy in them, but it’s certainly there. There is a lot of stuff that’s still in the text that most Christians don’t much pay attention to, but a shift in economic conditions, reduction in education, change in a geopolitical climate and who knows what people might think is a good idea to get angry about now that they live in a greater amount of fear, and anxiety about the future.

          2) For Christianity (especially Judeo-Christian religions), I think there are some harmful tenets that you see any many if not most denominations:

          Eternal Damnation: I don’t know about you but when grandma told me that sinners burn for eternity this was a big problem for me. Knowing that all my Indian relatives, children, your mom, Auntie Lorna, I mean who did I know that followed the bible exactly to the letter? For something that nobody actually know exists, it’s a harmful notion, and should it be true would in my mind paint God as somewhat of a psychopath. I mean 80 years of life is a short span of time to determine what you’ll be doing for eternity. Now some denominations don’t preach the fire and brimstone as much, but it’s there.

          Indoctrination of religion to children: This is more for religion in general, but when you start planting fearful ideas about devils and people burning in lake of fires to children, to me this is child abuse. Given how I mention before that beliefs form in the brain, when the brain is developing, teaching a child a religious faith as being true is problematic for me. Maybe Christianity is true, but I feel that religion is an adult decision.

          Being born a sinner When grandma told me we were all born evil, I thought it was horrible, which is why I thought it was horrible that God punished people to hell. To teach people the true nature of humanity is evil, is…for want of a better word…evil. Have you noticed your children being evil? I mean they are certainly in need of guidance, and they push their boundaries, but I have never seen Dhyan express a desire to murder someone such that I needed to bring the 10 commandments in there.

          Being born again through Christ: Again I don’t know whether this is prevalent in all denominations, but even my mom’s which was pretty benevolent taught that the only way we can be good is by having Jesus work through us and that we have to give up the self. I see this is as a harmful tenet, because basically it goes in line with the last one, that we are by our very nature evil and can only be good by not being ourselves, and letting Jesus Christ into our hearts. Well at the very least I think I am living proof that I can be genuinely kind without the help of JC.

          Without God you can’t be moral: This is common to many religions as well. Part of the reason why I tell people I am atheist is because I think it’s important for people to know that God isn’t a necessary condition for moral behavior.

          That we have free will: Again this is common for many religions. Neuroscience is showing us that free will is largely an illusion, and that ultimately our choices are limited to our genetics and environmental conditioning. The idea that we have an equal chance to choose from an absolute range of choices simply isn’t true. The assumption of free will and the assumption that the nature of mankind is evil, strongly impacts how much we dehumanize others in society. Particular criminals and addicts (some overlap there). There are lots of ways we can rehabilitate people and we know various genetic and environmental conditions that increase the likelihood of deviant behavior. All of those people are human…we should start treating them as such.

          Proselytizing: Islam and Christianity, and many of the denominations have at as part of your duty to convince others that your religion is the truth. And if you don’t, well the consequences range anywhere from killing the infidels to getting that disappointed look in their face, “well shucks I guess that means hell for you.” If one’s belief system is going to be pushed onto others, then it better stand up to some scientific scrutinization.

          But you’re right that often just telling people that Jesus was just a guy, or ridiculing them for having an invisible friend, isn’t very productive. Ultimately, I believe unless you can demonstrate you have a superior morality, nobody is going to be terribly interested in listening to what you have to say. Most of my posts I try to argue things from a humanist point of view and look at qualities and virtues that are beneficial to us all as humans. Sometimes those don’t fit with one’s belief systems, sometimes they do and that’s great.


  4. I like. I like a lot.

    one of the things that makes humans more intelligent is our ability to project further into the future than other species.

    This is a numbers game, a game dependent on how much processing power we have up top. Now, strictly speaking, prediction of the near future based on evidence in the present or even near past is a talent possessed by all higher order creatures; critters marginally more complex than a lobster with all its 100,000 neurons busily firing off, constantly trying to work out which way is up and what is and what’s not food. It takes about another 70,000,000 or so (a field mouse) to actually be in a position to link something like, say, a bloodcurdling roar to a possible or even probable future event like, say, being eaten. It takes a further 760,000,000 (a cat) to completely understand the source of the sound without seeing it, predict the future event, then deploy some type of timely and remembered response like, for instance, running like hell in the opposite direction or even up a tree. And it takes somewhere in the region of 100,000,000,000 more neurons to put the source of the bloodcurdling roar behind a 20cm thick Perspex glass wall and call it an exhibit to be marvelled at while enjoying a sandwich and checking the lottery numbers.

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    1. Thank you John!

      It certainly makes some sense that there would be a link there between processing power and the ability to project in the future. The fact that we have reached an ability to have some reasonable things to say about where comets will be, where solar eclipses occur and general trends of climate up to a 100 years in the future is to me a fairly impressive feat, that no other species could hope to accomplish (at least in their current state of evolution). Of course projections based on poor knowledge tend to be horrible. It’s kind of a “with great power comes great responsibility” sort of scenarios, where I think our conceit can get the better of us when it comes to predictions. History is full of failed predictions and not only from whackos like Nostradamus but from highly educated people as well. In a book I read (which I can’t remember the name of) that looked at examples of our predictive abilities (and the many failures), experts who were least sure of their predictions turned out to be more often right than those who were the most sure. That should give us some inkling of how humility needs to play a role in this ability.

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  5. Sorry I didn’t mean to imply I knew it… Or rather I knew the correlation… But seeing it by the numbers is interesting. I was just listening to a podcast interview with Geoffrey West who is a physicist who is trying to apply physics to how life works… Why we age, why we grow, and why we die… And he looks at relationships across all types of life to find general relationships between energy usage and size… Things like that. Your neuron numbers made me wonder whether there is a mathematical relationship to be found there as well.


    1. You misread me… I was apologising to you for being lazy and putting down info you would already know 🙂

      You might want to look at Duke University’s Professor Adrian Bejan’s Constructal Law of Design and evolution in nature; an entirely new Law of Physics which, said as simply as possible, accounts for the phenomenon of evolution organisation (the configuration, form and design of inanimate and animate systems together) throughout nature. According to Bejan, when viewed as a whole there exists a historically unambiguous universal tendency of design to evolve in a specific direction, and that direction has faithfully produced entities that can move more current farther and faster per unit of useful energy consumed.

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      1. Clearly we aren’t American with our apologizing back and forth. Sorry about that. 🙂

        I’ll check Bejan out. It definitely seems like something I would enjoy learning about. One day of physics is worth it’s salt it needs to also be able to explain life… I think it’s cool that we are finally taking some stabs at it.

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  6. Hi Swarn,

    Enjoyed reading your follow-up thoughts here. I’ve written some statements below and am curious. Would you say these are all examples of faith (meaning a person who endorsed the statement would be doing so on faith)? Do you see any as more or less valid than others? And lastly, does a given statement’s current relevance to increased predictive utility make it more true than another statement, which may have a lower predictive utility?

    The fundamental laws and constants of the universe do not change in time.
    The future does not exist yet.
    Forgiveness has benefits that extend beyond my personal sight.
    Two organisms with identical genetics, and identical encounters with their surroundings, would develop identically.
    Two organisms with identical genetics, and identical encounters with their surroundings, would develop uniquely.
    All forms of creative inspiration are algorithmic.
    People are physically connected to one another in ways science has yet to discover.
    All aspects of an organism are explainable in terms of information physically present in the organism’s body.
    Only the physical universe we behold is real.
    All beings partake continuously of, or exist in relationship to, a singular, unified and eternal state of being.
    The existence of each thing depends on the existence of each other thing.
    Nothing timeless exists.
    Thought has no effects except for those expressed through a body.
    Only the physical dimensions we can prove exist, are real.
    The State Oracle of Tibet is a fraud.
    The properties of the universe derived from observations on or near Earth are valid everywhere.


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    1. Alright, let me see if I can address these efficiently. What I’ve done is numbered them, and I think instead of addressing each one individually I will describe the criteria that I used based on the thesis of my post here. I am also not going to concern myself with the truth of any of your examples, but take all of them as statements that are possibly true. I guess you could say I’m taking them on faith. LOL

      1. The fundamental laws and constants of the universe do not change in time.
      2. The future does not exist yet.
      3. Forgiveness has benefits that extend beyond my personal sight.
      4. Two organisms with identical genetics, and identical encounters with their surroundings, would develop identically.
      5. Two organisms with identical genetics, and identical encounters with their surroundings, would develop uniquely.
      6. All forms of creative inspiration are algorithmic.
      7. People are physically connected to one another in ways science has yet to discover.
      8. All aspects of an organism are explainable in terms of information physically present in the organism’s body.
      9. Only the physical universe we behold is real.
      10. All beings partake continuously of, or exist in relationship to, a singular, unified and eternal state of being.
      11. The existence of each thing depends on the existence of each other thing.
      12. Nothing timeless exists.
      13. Thought has no effects except for those expressed through a body.
      14. Only the physical dimensions we can prove exist, are real.
      15. The State Oracle of Tibet is a fraud.
      16. The properties of the universe derived from observations on or near Earth are valid everywhere.

      Basically what I am saying is that faith falls under a human desire to know things, but more than just know things, but to be able having a working model of the universe so that we can also predict. For instance, a historical fact like Lincoln was assassinated in a theater is a fact that we can either disprove or prove, the knowledge of which doesn’t give us any useful information about the future in of itself. Unless of course it is part of a larger hypothesis or theory (hypothesis being a relatively unsupported guess at how things work, where is theory is a well supported explanation at how things work) that says something like “It is unwise for presidents to go to the theater.” Now you might say, well what if your history teacher just tells you what happened to Lincoln, aren’t you accepting this fact on “faith”. Then yes you are, but your faith is in your teacher. You are using faith that your teacher is an authority on the matter of history and things that he or she tells you about history are things that you can accept as true. The fact about Lincoln itself is not predictive. The bible has lots of historical stories (true or not true) but it is faith in the authority of the bible that leads one to believe in that collection of events has something to say about the nature of the universe. i.e. that there is a divine consciousness with a certain nature. So this is what I have done with your statements is to look at each one to determine whether the knowledge allows us to predict how things will work in the future.

      So for me, not a matter of faith are 2, 9, 14, 15. Statement #2 simply define what the future is. So that statement itself isn’t predictive, just descriptive. Statement #15 is a fact (assuming it’s true) and makes no prediction in itself. Although there is an implied prediction, because we could say now that everything the oracle predicts from here on out is incorrect. Now 9 and 15 you might disagree with, but I don’t consider them matters of faith simply because of how we define “real”. The word real is by definition something that is not imagined or supposed. If God is real, this would certainly imply that there are other planes of existence or perhaps other dimensions where we might find God that we have not yet discovered, but in my mind 9 and 15 are once again simply descriptive and not predictive. Now if you said, physics will discover new dimensions and uncover unknown realities. That would be a matter of faith. Something that is built on some evidence however, because physics has in the past uncovered more about the nature of reality, and at least mathematically through their work on string theory demonstrated the existence of new dimensions.

      I would consider the rest of your statements a matter of faith. Something that is based on at least some evidence, and would give us information that in the future we would expect to find the same thing to be true. I submit that #7 might be a statement of blind faith depending on what you mean by “physically connected”. The statement itself also sort of implies that science has not found any connection yet, but will in the future. Thus if no connection is known to exist at all, this is a statement of faith based on no evidence.

      If you’d like to discuss any of them individually in more detail, I’m happy to. Given the amount of statements I am not completely sure I was able to address your question coherently, but I figure more discussion was to come. lol

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      1. Hi Swarn,

        Thank you for taking this time to respond. Much appreciated. I realize I got carried away with the statements, which you’ve taken exactly as I’d intended: as suppositions, or statements that are possibly true.

        I would say they are all statements based on faith, and the reason I would say that is because I think there is evidence for the veracity of each one, albeit incomplete. Taking Statement 2, which you described as a definition, there are scientific theories (see Julian Barbour’s work, among others) suggesting all times already exist as points in a map of possible states, like snapshots. I understand the notion that by definition we could get around this by saying the future is what we haven’t experienced yet, but will eventually when we flow down the stream of causation, but if such states do already exist I think it is possible that it would open up predictive opportunities for exploration that another definition would not.

        Our definitions are a matter of faith as well, I think. Perhaps they are the biggest articles of faith we have, as we are very creative when it comes to packaging what is unknown or not explicitly provable inside of definitions and axioms.

        I would argue Statement 15 is at most an opinion. I would wager neither you nor I have had any direct experience with the State Oracle of Tibet, while some who have, such as the Dalai Lama, have gone on the record to say that advice of the oracle has proven very accurate over time. This is like the history teacher example that you gave. It is a question of where we assign authority, and while assigning authority is never predictive in and of itself, the information from various authorities can be useful in framing new hypotheses. So to dismiss one authority over another can also be a matter of faith, even in the sense of predictive utility.

        Statement 9 is sort of meaningless really, since new observations have a tendency to change the definition of physical over time. Scientists today have no difficulty discussing “virtual particles” in the EM field of the vacuum in quantum electrodynamics (I think that is the right field), for instance. In your response here you mention string theory, for which there is no physical evidence, unless we simply accept that the world is evidence of string theory, e.g. every prediction of string theory that matches established theories becomes evidence of it, and we ignore the fact that it has made no new testable predictions (as I understand it). If you wish to define real as excluding that which is “imagined or supposed” then string theory must go by the wayside, at least for the time being. Mathematics is a powerful tool, but it is still a language, and string theory is mathematical imagination and supposition at the present. We might argue though, that science goes nowhere without imagination and supposition. Ultimately what is proven real are relationships, or correlations, between electrical signals (or manual measurements in some cases), and concepts that we have imagined.

        This makes Statement 14 a statement of faith as well. I think it is just about impossible to state that what we know today completely defines the boundaries of reality.

        I think perhaps to your earlier point, we’ve all got to move forward with faith of some sort or another, because there are a great many unknowns. Despite our progress, we live with a great deal of mystery regarding our existence and the nature of the world, and I think recognizing we all have faith of some sort is important to maintaining a certain humility in our dialogues with one another. It also allows us to keep in mind where we have implicit assumptions, and acknowledges that one day those assumptions may well be overturned.

        As to the question not answered, I don’t think the predictive utility of an idea at any given time has a whole lot of bearing on whether or not that idea is in accord with what is ultimately true, or ultimately accurate to say it another way. Ultimate truth in science is probably the barest minimum set of physical laws that describe the universe, but if the laws change in time or location, then can there be any sort of ultimate truth in science? I think it’s an open question. In most fields of engineering the work is done using theories known to be incomplete or inaccurate, but they work fine for the task, and are efficient. They are quite efficient predictive tools, but they are wrong when it comes to providing accurate understanding of how the universe actually appears to work.

        I’m also not convinced all forms of faith are ultimately forms of the desire to make predictions, just as I would be unconvinced all desire for knowledge is purely functional.


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        1. I fully admit that something proven mathematically has little value until proven empirically. My point is that the statement itself didn’t seem to be predictive. Nobody thinks strings are real, to my knowledge, only that there is a logical framerwork in which they could be real. But the word real has a specific definition, which is why I felt the statement was descriptive and predictive. Certainly we can make the argument that everything is faith to a certain degree. How do we know tomorrow that 2+2 = 4, and that it might not be 2+2 = 5. So should we argue that mathematics which is the short hand of logic is thus also a matter of faith? Perhaps, but I don’t think that weakens my thesis. Again we rely on mathematics because it has demonstrated that it works for many applications. But for me the statement 2+2 = 4, is not in of itself a statement of faith. It is a description within the framework of math and logic. The idea that the logic we know today will also work tomorrow is a matter of faith. One of which we have a large volume of evidence for. The scientific method we could also argue as a way of uncovering knowledge is faith, but again we know that it has been extremely reliable compared to other ways of knowing, and so we continue to use it until something better comes along. Again, I was analyzing your statements as written, in the language that you used, not what they implied. The fact that the Dalai Lama finds the oracle to be reliable is a different statement. As I said, the statement that the oracle is a fraud I am assuming to be true (as I did all statements you wrote). So in the logic of the sentence. It’s just a fact which doesn’t require us to have faith. It’s like saying, I had two apples and then someone gave men 2 more apples and now I have 4. That’s a fact. If I said, “If I have two apples, and someone gives me two more apples, I will always have 4 apples.” Now this is a matter of faith.

          Can you give me an example of something that you actually have faith in, that doesn’t allow you to make some sort of predictive behavior about how something will behave in the future, or doesn’t impact how you might behave in the future?

          I agree that the desire for knowledge isn’t always functional. There is bound to be by-products of our desire for understanding in the world, but from an evolutionary standpoint, the function of curiosity is to try to understand so that we improve our chances of survival. And our survival depends on increasing the odds that we will live until an age we can reproduce and that we can successfully take care of our offspring so that they can survive to a point where they can take care of themselves. There are plenty of traits that have evolutionary functionality, but we can utilize them for non-functional purposes as well.

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          1. Hi Swarn,

            In reading your reply I see a few places my own bias crept in to my response. First, having written those statements with the intention of creating statements that would be a) more complicated than 2+2=4 and b) all require faith of some sort to be taken as valid at the present time, I lost track of how you had treated them. So I understand your point regarding a statement of fact. I was not trying to suggest an ultra-cynical approach leading to questioning the validity of 2+2=4. (At the same time, many mathematically correct statements are posited in science all the time that are proven incorrect, simply because nature doesn’t work in the manner modeled. The math is right. The hypothesis is wrong.) Also, I think even in the terms you described the State Oracle of Tibet statement may be valid when attempting to predict the behavior of some Tibetans. This relates to the next paragraph.

            I was all set to offer some statements of faith I didn’t think were excessively predictive, but you threw me a curve ball in your response as I read it again, which is that rather than faith being a prediction about how natural systems behave (as I had assumed you to mean the term), you also asked that I suggest a statement based in faith that wouldn’t affect the way I personally behave in the future. I had a bias about mapping the statement onto external phenomena like the way crops might respond to differing conditions, or the way a laser would behave when transmitting secret messages to the moon, or how far a car would travel with its anti-lock brake system engaged before coming to a stop in certain road conditions. So, when you ask me to come up with a statement of personal faith that doesn’t affect how I may behave or act in the future, I have to agree with you I’m not sure that I can do it. Which is the point, right? Because if we’re placing our faith in things not rooted in some sort of evidence, we can have real problems.

            I was going to say that I believe Love is a dimensionless aspect of being integral to all phenomena. I was going to say that I believe timelessness is as real as time, and that it is possible to experience moments of insight or inspiration that reflect moments of contact between time and timelessness. But it is impossible for me to say these ideas wouldn’t affect my future behavior or choices. Certainly they would. I just didn’t seem that sort of faith as having tremendous value in terms of making predictions related to survival and reproduction.

            My personal feeling is that materialism is an orientation that requires faith. So while I see materialism as having a certain high ground when it comes to some specific religious beliefs, I don’t see it as having any sort of high ground overall. I agree, for instance, with all the points you outlined to Chris above about religious beliefs, and don’t see the Bible as having any particular authority, but at the same time I don’t see a logical connection between those notions you outlined and the logical implausibility of the idea that the root of all existence is Love. Meaning, the fact that we are not all eternally damned or born into sin, and the fact that consequential proselytizing is harmful to society and independent thought, does not imply that Love could not possibly exist at the heart of all things.

            I guess in a way I’m just raising my hand and saying that there are many more roads out there besides the two obviously polar opposites of materialism and fundamentalist Christianity, and that I don’t think those “middle roads” are all irrational or implausible given our current scientific knowledge. I also think once you get past the difficulties with fundamentalism, materialism is a sort of fundamentalism in its own right. In the end, I’m inclined to believe the ground in the middle is the most fertile. We may find over time that future ideas in science bridge the perceived gaps between these middle roads and materialism. Or we may not. I don’t really know. But I do think it is possible. I also think it will be difficult to do so when materialism is viewed as the only rational approach, despite the fact it has foundations that also require faith.

            I don’t want anyone to believe they’re damned, or to teach their kids they are sinners. I don’t want anyone to believe Love is real if they don’t feel so inclined. I think the theory of evolution makes an awful lot of sense. I just think in the spirit of true and complete intellectual honesty, such “middle road” perspectives as I have described them, which cannot be disproven, should be considered acceptable.


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            1. Michael, thank you for your thoughts here. Although somehow you’ve made me feel I’ve used trickery to make you concede some points. lol I assure you it was not intentional. As a quick note about the oracle of Tibet, I honestly didn’t know what it was at all, so I simply took the statement by itself without looking at any implications of who might be using it for guidance. Certainly if the oracle of Tibet is being listened to and thus impacting people’s behaviors than whether it is a fraud or not is irrelevant to how people are using it. But I would still say that a statement about whether it is truthful or a fraud is again descriptive. We would need to say something like “The oracle Tibet provides guidance for people’s lives even though it’s a fraud”.

              So yes, certainly my argument here is about how we use faith. It is a guidance system on how the universe works, based on evidence (good or bad), and I feel that it is a natural evolutionary mechanism that helps us navigate our lives and serves a function. To alleviate the stress of uncertainty, but also for practical purposes.

              I certainly didn’t mean to imply that there aren’t other paths. Faith provides us with many possible paths to take, my argument is that we must be flexible in what we have faith in. Should evidence reveal that one path is doing a good job at predicting, we should probably take another, but the direction you go in after you find out you’ve been going in the wrong direction is up to you. Some paths we might never find whether they are wrong are right and so we may stay on those paths at no cost if they are functional, as long as we recognize that they may only be functional to us.

              I am not sure I see fundamentalism and materialsm as the two sort of polar opposites you make them about to here. One can be fundamentalist about many things, not just religion. For me fundamentalism is a rigidity in thought that does not allow one to move into new frontiers of knowledge. Materialism, at least to me, is placing more value on the physical than the spiritual…so I don’t see materialism and fundamentalism as the points to navigate along or between. In terms of prediction we might have faith in systems that have both spiritual and practical value. In fact for me science has tremendous spiritual value for me. Discovering how things works fascinates me in an emotional and inspirational way. So to say that my love of science isn’t at least party wrapped up in aesthetic and emotional qualities would be dishonest.

              In looking back at what I said to Chris, I certainly don’t think I said that love being at the heart of everything wasn’t a possibility. Only that I am not certain that this is what Christianity is saying at least in terms of what’s actually in the Bible. I certainly have no problem on a belief system based on that. The “middle road” philosophy you espouse is certainly one I espouse. As I said before we do have to wander down paths of what might possibly be true, and science is the art of testing if that path has more or less truth to it…it certainly doesn’t test whether that path is impractical or practical for an individual person. Not all systems are practical to an individual, however, are practical to the society in which they live, and we are a social species. It seems also possible to choose paths that are not easily falsified within one’s life time so aren’t particularly costly. Like believing love is the root of all existence is fine and even one could demonstrate to you empirically that wasn’t the case, it might still be preferably for you to continue to believe what you believe, and might even be harmful for you to lose that faith as it may actually benefit you in a social sense. Of course one could argue that if you so strongly believed that love was at the heart of things and no evidence could sway you away from that position, then you too would be a fundamentalist in part of what you believe. And I still think that we must have a willingness to be flexible. Because the problem is that there is no reason why one might not also believe that malevolence is the root of existence. A terrible notion to be sure, but just as plausible from an evidentiary standpoint. We would certainly hope we could convince somebody away from such a position and we would have a good practical reason to do so, but both are valid positions to take in that they might serve a practical purpose (maybe such a person has been tortured as a child, observed a warp sense of justice, etc), yet such a person is likely to cause harm to others or themselves. And that’s the problem when we live too strongly in a world of what might be and not let evidence change our navigation. Because Christianity is just as plausible as Islam, or Hinduism, and yet the beliefs that one holds influences actions and it’s quite possible those different belief systems produce different behavioral results. And of course there are belief systems that may have nothing to do with any religious texts at all…crystals might have healing properties, but relying on such things for your child’s leukemia might not be wise. String theory might be in a similar stage of physical evidence as Christianity, but nobody is suggesting that we use string theory to determine abortion rights, or that not believing in string theory has consequences to your eternal soul. Now certainly scientific principles do get applied at some point, but I don’t think physicists would advocate using string theory for any practical decisions. So I think there is some value in re-evaluating what we have faith in for its reliability, which is what science does all the time. As long as one is willing to do that re-evaluation, I think that’s a healthy form of faith. A world without “what might possibly be true”, looks exactly the same as one in which truth is determine by the weight of empirical evidence, the only difference is that the latter world is filled with people saying “I’m not sure” a lot more often. 🙂

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            2. Hi Swarn,

              I enjoyed your response and clarifications. I should clarify that I didn’t think you were trying to pull a fast one at all. Also that I should have said religious fundamentalism and materialism are sort of opposite poles. I see the one as sort of close-minded belief in a particular form of the supernatural, immune to any contradictory evidence whatsoever, including the experiences of other Christians, while on the other side I see a close-minded belief in the implausibility of what I’ll call “deep relatedness”, or as a proxy, the idea that Love is the basis for all existence. That said, I agree completely that fundamentalism can be applied to most anything in a dogmatic fashion.

              I really don’t know how you perceive me, Swarn, or what you think I’m truly and deeply advocating for, but if you perceive me as a person who doesn’t say “I don’t know,” or who doesn’t reflect deeply on his experiences as well as the experiences and ideas of others, or who doesn’t consider his beliefs in light of scientific discoveries, then I’d like to somehow suggest that isn’t the case.

              In your closing paragraph of hypotheticals, it is difficult for me not to interpret your response as suggesting my belief in benign unicorns is fine, if not misguided, and that even if disproven it may actually be best for me to hold onto pragmatically speaking. I don’t know if you really meant that or not. In general I think a sincere shift in perspective based on evidence would be beneficial for most everyone, except (possibly, and only temporarily) for the case in which the shift is incomplete, and internal psychological conflict arises. Such a person can be left stranded, in a really difficult position. But even then it may be advantageous to fully make the leap to a new position, and this both reinforces the need for faith—or trust perhaps, to traverse that difficulty—as well as your point about the benefit of flexibility in our approach.

              Your point about the potential fundamentalism of a person unwilling to revise their faith in light of evidence is spot on, and I certainly appreciate your concern that one not-disprovable belief is the same as any other. How are we to discern? I also agree with all of your concerns about social policy, the preventing of access to healthcare in minors, etc. As to the possibility that malevolence is the root of existence, I think you’re right there as well. It is impossible to make an objective determination about the benevolence or malevolence of the universe. Objectively, I think we must say it is neutral.

              But having said all of this, it is not impossible for me to know my own heart. It is not impossible for me to consider the voices of those who offer various ideas, to consider their lives and their actual practices and whether or not they speak of what is so, or of what they wish, or of what they do not actually embody or understand, and to make decisions about the validity of various sources of wisdom, perceptions and ideas. It is quite possible for me to test and evaluate ideas in the laboratory of my own life. I see this as a practical form of science, or if not of science, then of reasonable discernment. I have the life that I have, and I have had experiences that lend a very strong credibility to the notion that the universe is a loving place.

              I understand and respect that for you the evidence for such a conclusion does not exist. I appreciate that you have discomfort with the idea because given the evidence you have, such a conclusion is not defensible, and thus is a little dangerous. In your closing you chose to bring up notions such as denying a child access to modern medicine because of a belief in crystals, or of denying women’s reproductive rights because of a religious teaching, and these are very far removed from where I heart rests. I’ve tried to establish that you don’t need to make these arguments with me concerning the validity of science. I agree with you. I place a great value on science and attempt to be reasonably well-read given my time constraints.

              The challenge I see us left with, Swarn, is that it’s not clear you are willing to give my position equal standing. I think it was the perception on my part of a particular hierarchy of faith that brought me to respond here initially. I chose to express myself. I’m not asking you to change your own stance, or to adopt mine. I’m not even asking you to accept ultimate equality of our two views where you find there to be none. Your view is right and good for you, as I feel mine is for me. At another level, I’d just like to suggest there is a difference in seeking to change an opinion, and seeking to understand and to be understood. I’d much rather the latter.

              So I don’t know if you understand me or not yet, or vice versa. It’s fine if we don’t get there. I want to say before I close here that in reading your pieces and responses to others over time I’ve come to admire your enthusiasm and support for others, your gift with creative writing, your expressions of love for your family, your passion for science, and the way that you think. It was this attraction that led me to try and engage here. My fifteen statements were probably foolish in hindsight. Instead of being interesting as I had intended, I feel I may have set us up for a digression into points. But that was not my intention.


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            3. I am so sorry Michael that you have taken some offense here at my response. I was attempting to have a philosophically based discussion and not make any judgments about you as an individual. So let me say this:

              You appear to me as an intelligent thoughtful individual who thinks deeply about scientific issues and also about himself through personal introspection. I am quite certain you do not have harmful views, and if all people approached spirituality and belief in your manner the world would most certainly be a better place. It’s quite clear to me that you are a good human being and I enjoy conversing with you quite a bit. It pains me to think that I have not communicated that clearly. In fact it is because I feel so free to discuss these philosophical points with you that I feel really no need to change your mind about anything, but merely want to offer up points of general philosophy for consideration to see how you view them. I honestly feel like I could talk ad nauseum with you about faith, belief, and science and not get tired. Although you might. 🙂

              If I have come off as not seeing our two stances as equal, I guess that’s probably true, but that’s not because your position isn’t a good one for you, I’m just not sure it’s one that many can take. Although you are modest, I am sure even you recognize that your approach to faith as being less dogmatic and more flexible is not a common one, and so whatever set of genetics, and environment made you the person you are, I am not sure it’s a recipe others could easily follow. You are a rather remarkable human being. I am not sure many others could arrive at the same conclusions as you have for a variety of different reasons. For me science is a path that all have a chance to follow, where as the individual evaluations we might make in our own lives on right and wrong are so subjective to our cognitive biases that there is little chance that the die could be rolled reliably and come up Michael more often than not. 🙂

              Yes, it is true that if I were to look at my own personal experiences I would not find the universe a very loving place, although it’s fair to say I have had it far better than most, and all and all I have nothing to complain about. I love love. I love talking about it. I love thinking about it. I think it’s beautiful. But for me to think that it pervades everything just isn’t realistic knowing what horrors and tragedies people face. We are creatures who apply intention to things. Other people, other living creatures and even inanimate objects. It is the curse of the social creature, but I simply came to a point where either there were equal and opposing forces of good and evil, or there was indifference. Given my understanding of evolution and how we are bound to look at the world given the kind of organisms we are, indifference made the most sense. In fact I found it extremely peaceful to think about the universe that way, because it freed me personally to make my own meaning out of my life, and strive for my own purpose. This is what allowed me, like you, to look at the things that I believed and evaluate them and decide what works best for me. For instance I am someone who chooses to be optimistic, because I know it works for me, it’s helpful. Yet I know there is no law in the universe that says “Everything is going to be alright”. And that’s okay.

              Anyway, I’m afraid of making things worse now, so I won’t go on too much. But I want you to know that I really enjoyed going through your list, and loved the way you approached this conversation, and I am so sorry to have given you offense, it was not my intention. I really do enjoy our conversations, and I would hate for them not to happen again.

              Liked by 1 person

            4. Hi Swarn,

              Thank you so much for this reply. Truly. I did have an emotional reaction to our discussion, but it wasn’t quite a feeling of being offended so much as being frustrated. And I really sat with it for a couple of hours on my couch, believe it or not, trying to figure out what it was, at its most essential, and it boiled down to what I tried to describe–the simplicity of my desiring a more intimate exchange, as friends perhaps, rather than philosophical debaters, and I also felt that what I was trying to say wasn’t coming through. Your response here was beautiful and I feel my faith in the evidence I witnessed of you previously has been repaid many times over.

              Your response somehow renders all our previous discussions in a warm light, which I wished I could have sustained in the absence of this most recent exchange, but which I admit was difficult to do so. Our pasts tend to occlude our present. So my note yesterday was an attempt to be as honest as possible about what I sought. Really the real joy is in getting to know one another think, and how we’ve become these people that we are.

              I can relate to the peace of indifference you describe, and have tried to seat myself in that position numerous times. I think it is a really good spot because there’s an aspect to it, as I perceive it, that is about letting things just be what they are. Not trying to paint them in a certain light, or have them fulfill a role in some cosmic conception we want to validate internally. Believe it or not a similar practice is at the cornerstone of the spiritual beliefs that I have. In the practice that has been most helpful to me, the opening portion of the work involves deconstructing our invested ideas, preconceptions, beliefs and the like. One of the mantras is “Nothing I see means anything.” So when I’ve seen you write before, and here, about this indifference, but also with your wonder about science and the natural world, I feel a sincere resonance, or proximity, with feelings that I have too.

              So anyway, you’ve not made things worse. Quite the opposite. You’ve caught my emotional difficulty quite gracefully and allowed me to move through it, which is a great kindness. And I don’t think I’ll tire of your love for science, having established as I feel we have here a clearer basis for what may follow.

              Thank you–

              Liked by 1 person

            5. I thought about just e-mailing you privately because it’s probably about to get more sappy, but I figure what the hell, the world could use some sappy right now. lol

              I too went to bad feeling bad, and became even more worried that I had made things worse when I hadn’t heard back from you yet. Not that I don’t understand you have a life and all that, but I was deeply concerned about how I had made you feel.

              If the philosophical debate felt impersonal, please know that I don’t type 50 page responses for just anybody. lol These are the conversations I like to have. Original ones. Where new perspectives are shared. It tells me I’m talking to a person who has done their own thinking on matters of science, spirituality and faith and not just spewing out tired arguments that have been heard over and over again. You are the best type of person to have a conversation with. You can’t really see my excitement when I get a response from you, but it’s there. Perhaps I should have made that clearer. lol With your initial comment here with your itemized list, I was thrilled, because I thought here is a person who is challenging the way I think, but also has the grace and respect to make it feel like we are just sitting down having a beer and smiling while we’re having a serious conversation.

              With a child now, my time is limited for responses, and that may make my responses less personable than they should be over the content I want to get out there, but given that limit and time, as I said, the fact that I write things at length with you should tell you something. For me, I don’t want to give your points and your arguments less than my full attention. I guess it’s weird though how we get to know each other through blogging. We never sit down necessarily and just ask those usual questions you might ask when you meet someone for the first time. We just sort of jump into conversations. Maybe we should. lol You seem like the type of person who is constantly searching and has the courage to incorporate new things into your belief structure. Perhaps you do call yourself Christian, but I would say you seem less interested in finding a doctrine that precisely matches you, but rather building your own set of religious principles that you can express yourself with, that if you wrote your own set of scripture, somebody could look at it and say…”yep…that’s Michael.” I went through a similar journey when I felt that many of the doctrines of Christianity just didn’t make sense to me and I said maybe no religion has nailed down this God thing yet and so I went in search of a God that made sense to me. Nobody else might have believed in that God, but it didn’t matter. Why should I have to fit into a category? If one is going to have a set of spiritual beliefs shouldn’t they be ones that inspire you to grow and be a better person? Shouldn’t they be ones that represent the best of humanity? Shouldn’t they be ones that don’t see us as born evil and that we should just put up with our Earthly burdens and instead try to do something about it? I’m not saying this is necessarily quite you, but you definitely seem to have that spirit about you. Eventually I came to realize that I had just made it all up and that I didn’t really need their to be a divine to aspire to grow and to try and make the world better. I guess that’s not necessarily disproving the divine in anyway, but it just seemed that if there was a God, just like an actual father, might actually be proud that I was standing on my own two feet and didn’t need him anymore. Perhaps that was the wrong attitude to take, but recently I have wondered what would a religion look like if it was written today? Knowing what we know now about the world, should someone like yourself Michael who sees love everywhere, and sees value in science, and who sees beauty in the world, what words might such a person write to inspire a religious belief? I suspect it would look much different than the old and new testament. Regardless of whether it is true or not, I suspect it would be a tremendous upgrade. So let me know when you complete it. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

  7. Wasn’t sure where to put this comment, so I’ll put it here 🙂
    Regarding our last discussion which touched on freedom of speech- both the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), and the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution (1791) lay out a system of rights founded on basic principles (such as equality). So is there not a hierarchy of rights? At what point does one supersede another?
    Is entirely unrestricted speech more important than, for example, equality? Consider it in the context of not just the Dawkins debacle but of this “religious liberty” movement.


      1. Not necessarily, because free speech with no limits whatsoever guarantees the right to misinformation and disinformation. Goebbels, Kosovo and Rwanda are all examples where the right to free speech was used to take away the basic right of citizenship.
        And as a gay man, I can say I’ve seen it my entire life. Under the guise of free speech religious groups have spread all manner of falsehood, and very successfully.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Pink I don’t your examples are ones of free speech. I am less familiar with Kosovo and Rwanda, but certainly Nazi Germany was not a state in which free speech was allowed. Countering the propaganda was your own free speech was extremely dangerous. Not to mention the fact that the state censored and hid information so that people didn’t have access to facts that would counter the propaganda. Censorship is not free speech. Living under the threat of violence should you exercise your own free speech, is not free speech. And the religious rhetoric against homosexuality is precisely a case of free speech suppression. For a long time you could not openly challenge religious ideas. You still can’t in some places without consequences. Free speech is chilled anytime you are worried about losing your job or being cut off from your community. The only way homosexuals have been able to obtain any equality at all is through the ability to speak freely about what homosexuality is and challenge suppression of that right under the first amendment here in the U.S.

          Would I love to see harmful ideas not get spoken at all? Sure I would. But can you design me a system that prevents that without the possibility of good ideas getting suppressed? Do you want the government to make that decision? Can you guarantee that we will always have a government who is judicious in making sure what ideas are good and bad, and what should be allowed to be said or not? If you can I am all ears. It may be a slippery slope argument, but we know it can happen and has happened in the past.

          Liked by 1 person

            1. I believe you are attributing false cause as to why hate speech was effective. Ignoring socioeconomic causes as to why certain speech was more effective than others. Also I find it hard to believe that Goebbels allowed equal free speech from other groups and as an arm of the government used his power to suppress other groups. Does Western Europe really? I thought German itself had a neo-nazi party. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/17/world/europe/german-court-far-right.html

              The type of government that would spread propaganda is and censor free speech, is not free speech. It is the exact opposite. I came across this article just 20 minutes ago:

              But you cannot destroy a value in order to save it. Nazis — like terrorists — hope that we will abandon principles and fundamentally change who we are out of fear. Assault is assault, threats are threats, murder is murder, and all of them should be vigorously investigated and prosecuted. The allowance for self-defense by those threatened by Nazis should reasonably be generous. But despicable speech is protected by the First Amendment, and should remain so. Our present circumstances show why it is sheer terrified madness to entrust a broad power to prevent or punish speech upon a fickle state. We’ve flirted with that madness of abandoning rights in pursuit of safety for our nation’s whole life. The flirtation has turned sordid and degrading during the War on Crime and frankly self-destructive after 9/11. It would be philosophical suicide to hasten it now by giving a government — a visibly terrible and amoral government — the power to regulate speech. This is the final hypothetical come to pass: if the state asked you to give up freedoms in exchange for a dubious promise it would make you safer, would you do it? Would you convince yourself that the state would only use the power against Them, and not you?


              Liked by 1 person

            2. I wasn’t referring to the period following the Nazi election victories, but to the time before. The time where antisemitism and nationalism really took hold. Goebbels is an activist using hate speech from the early 20’s.
              And yes, I think Western European laws on hate speech function reasonably well. People can be prosecuted. That doesn’t mean hate groups don’t exist, they do, but their effect can be limited.

              I find the US-centric approach interesting because it presumes there’s only one model for successful democracy, when that’s really not the case. Are people really less free in France or Sweden? Oppressed?


            3. Well you certainly know more history than I do, but I suspect that anti-semitism, which had been prevalent in Europe for centuries wasn’t a hard card to play at that time.

              I certainly don’t think the U.S. is more free than other countries, and I am a huge critic of so many things about this country, but I do think they got the first amendment right. What I don’t like is the 2nd amendment. For me, when you show up with shields and guns that are more advanced than what the police have, this is not evidence of a peaceful protest. While guns were not used this time, it could have very easily gotten worse. For me, any side that feels they their message requires either a gun to spread their message is speech that incites violence. And as I have said before that is where I draw the line.

              It’s also not clear to me that it’s working in Western Europe. Sorry, isn’t white nationalism on the rise there as well. If things are so excellently controlled their why did Marie Le Pen come so close to winning? Would you still be as happy that there was legal precedent for suppressing free speech if she had become president? Western Europe has a fairly homogenous population compared to the U.S. where 1/3 of the population is either black or Latino. Compare that to France which is almost 90% white. Not surprisingly these countries when now faced with actual ethnic diversity are seeing growing white nationalist movements within the country. And these are dangerous movements, I think both you and I agree there, so why isn’t the government stopping it?

              Liked by 1 person

            4. I’m not sure what the best model is, that’s why I think this is an interesting discussion.

              I think Spain has got it wrong by going a step too far and protecting “religious sentiment”. The standard in France for free speech is in essence what you can prove. If you can back it up, you can say it. That has, a number of times, gotten Marine Le Pen into trouble. Is verifiability itself not a good standard for free speech?

              Liked by 1 person

            5. I would say that might be a good start, but this seems hard to enforce. I mean you make a speech…spin facts, you certainly can’t stop a person from making that speech. You can challenge that speech with actual facts. Which is why free speech is important. As book link you provided in the previous thread shows, most people are well accepting of a speech that conforms to what they already believe, and they will feel persecuted for a suppression of that message. It seems the most reasonable thing to do is to counter that speech with your own presentation of facts. Because even in science, people get it wrong, and the whole process for working out what is right and what is wrong involves battling out those ideas in an open marketplace with anonymous “fact checkers” who aren’t perfect either and let bad science go by, or at least say that the conclusions are reasonable based on what we know. Then new information can render an older paper irrelevant.

              But again, is this type of reasoned speech something most people want to hear, especially when most people are not aware of their own cognitive biases and ignorant to logical argument fallacies. Maybe in the future if we make a point in education to teach people about this, show them how easily we can be swayed by appeal to emotion fallacies, appeal to authority fallacies, etc.

              The problem is to get a better system of ensuring people don’t have their rights infringed on, to come up with better laws, to come up with a better education system we need free speech to get there. Academic freedom, and the ability to speak these ideas in public without some group saying they don’t like a particular idea and thus it can’t be heard. And if free speech is what allows us to allow the good ideas to rise to the top, and bad ideas to be shown to be bad ideas, I worry about limiting the right that got us to the more enlightened future. For me harmful ideas can grow in the dark, and often do, and only the light can expose them for the bad ideas they are. And the only way to challenge those bad ideas is free speech. If we don’t have the intellectual ability and weight to show people why white supremacy is bad, then we’re doomed anyway, and I don’t think free speech is the reason why fascism returns.

              Liked by 1 person

            6. I agree with all of that, but I do think there’s room for regulations that prevent/stop what is in essence fraud; which in the US are protected by free speech. In France fr example Trump would not have been legally allowed to say Ted Cruz’ father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. It seems reasonable that free speech shouldn’t be a cover for actions designed to harm another citizen, with no basis in fact.

              Liked by 1 person

            7. Trump has certainly changed the game in a lot of ways. Before he appeared on the scene I wouldn’t have even expected such nonsense to go unpunished. Identity politics are so strong that even the media plays and so you don’t even have the entirety of the media shunning him for the outrageous lies he tells, which I think would be different in other countries. It is disturbing. That is what is so dangerous about Trump and why I transcribed part of Sam Harris’ podcast a couple months ago. I won’t make you read it again. lol But some of it is so well said it’s worth quoting a part of it:

              “All politicians lie sometimes, say…but…even in their lying they have to endorse the norm of truth telling. That’s what it means to lie successfully in politics (in a former age of the Earth). You can’t obviously be lying. You can’t be repudiating the very norm of honest communication. But what Trump has done, and the people around him get caught in the same vortex, it’s almost like a giddy nihilism in politics, you just say whatever you want. And it doesn’t matter if it’s true. “Just try to stop me”, is the attitude. It’s unbelievable…Trump is, by all appearances, consciously destroying the fabric of civil conversation, and his supporters really don’t seem to care. ..Every time Trump speaks he’s saying, “I don’t have to make sense. I’m too powerful to even have to make sense.” That is his message. And half the country, or nearly half, seems to love it. So when he’s caught in a lie, he has no face to lose. Trump is chaos.”

              Liked by 1 person

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