Questionable Motives

December 4, 2009

Can we broker a deal between reason and faith?

Filed under: Argument,Atheism,belief,God,Skepticim — tildeb @ 7:06 pm

Faith has to overcome resistance, or it doesn’t count. If God just comes right out and tells us, beyond possibility of doubt, that God exists, that’s an unworthy shortcut, like a sprinter taking steroids. No, we have to earn faith by our own efforts, which means by believing God exists despite all the evidence indicating it doesn’t and the complete lack of evidence indicating it does.

In other words, God wants us to veto all our best reasoning faculties and methods of inquiry, and to believe in God for no real reason. God wants us not to do what we do in all the rest of life when we really do want to find something out – where the food is, when the storm is going to hit, whether the water is safe to drink, what medication to take for our illness – and simply decide God exists, like tossing a coin.

I refuse. I refuse to consider a God “good” that expects us to ignore our own best judgment and reasoning faculties. That’s a deal-breaker. That’s nothing but a nasty trick. This God is supposed to have made us, after all, so it made us with these reasoning faculties, which, when functioning properly, can detect mistakes and obvious lies – so what business would it have expecting us to contradict all that for no good reason? As a test? None. It would have no business doing that.

A God that permanently hides, and gives us no real evidence of its existence – yet considers it a virtue to have faith that it does exist despite the lack of evidence – is a God that’s just plain cheating, and I want nothing to do with it. It has no right to blame us for not believing it exists, given the evidence and our reasoning capacities, so if it did exist and did blame us, it would be a nasty piece of work. Fortunately, I don’t worry about that much, because I don’t think it does exist.

Read the whole article by one of my favorite authors, Ophelia Benson.



  1. Even when we engage in the most logical of methods, like science, it still requires a modicum of faith for us to apply our findings. And, in the Bible, it says that we should “test the spirits,” that we should demonstrate some discernment when considering propositions of faith. From both sides of the spectrum, faith and reason complement each other.

    I understand this article is from an outside source, but there are two points that I find disagreeable.

    The first is: “God wants us to veto all our best reasoning faculties and methods.” The author derives this from the inability of ration to grasp faith: “beliving God exists despite the complete lack of evidence.” But even at extremes, one cannot exist without the other.

    There is very little room for faith in the simplest forms of logic: One + One = Two. But faith is applied when discerning whether there exists a One to begin with. On the other end of the spectrum, faith that there is an immutable truth can be grasped by ration, and only barely so, by our inability to find descrepancy in the universe.

    In fact, our pursuit of science is the evidence of our faith that our universe is governed by a discernable set of laws.

    The second disagreeable comment by the author is “God wants us not to do what we do in all the rest of life,” implying that God wants us to ‘use faith’ to feed us, heal us, and protect us from storms.

    To extrapolate this assertion, the author believes that a person living solely by faith will cease breathing; trusting that their faith will sustain them. This view is outrageous because it neglects the very purpose of life.

    I did not read the whole article by Benson, but I also think she does a good job of expressing herself in a compelling and readable manner.

    Do you view faith and reason as complements? I understand the author was speaking specifically of Christianity, but what do you believe is the role of ‘faith’ outside of organized religion and in daily life?

    Comment by bencrayton — December 4, 2009 @ 8:24 pm | Reply

  2. How can we discern what by definition is not discernible? By not discernible, I mean the notion of god as something beyond the natural – somewhere out there in the supernatural – and therefore not subject to the kind of reasonable validation we use and rely upon for everything else. That notion of something beyond nature alone describes god as unknowable and incoherent.

    But does that stop people from assigning actual traits and behaviours and preferences to this unknowable, indiscernible, unnatural and incoherent thingie called god? Nope.

    People love to assign all kinds of intention, meaning, purpose, and agency to the thingie and then call belief in the veracity of this mental creation ‘faith’. To then assert as you do that this kind of faith and natural evidence are on the same spectrum but opposite yet equal distance to the fulcrum of that scale requires more evidence than the assertion you make to be a meaningful scale. You assert that one cannot have meaningful evidence without balancing it by this kind of faith – without regard to its reasonable coherence. You then offer up a mental construct that defines a quantity of one as the same kind of faith. I think this is an abuse of the language because the mental construct needed to compare and contrast quantities is coherent across time and place and culture, whereas the kind of faith necessary for belief in god remains incoherent and vastly different across time, place, and culture. If you ask (in the appropriate language) anyone anywhere to show you what the concept of 1 looks like, you will be shown a single item. Hence, the mental construct of 1 is revealed as a comparative quantity or amount. If you ask (in the appropriate language) anyone anywhere to show you what god looks like, the answer will not yield a comparative god. You are talking about two different kinds of mental constructs. One is a descriptive relationship of various quantities useful in measurements while the other remains an imaginative projection of a powerful being with human-like attributes, often used as much as a source for unnecessary conflict and division between people as a rationalized source for altruistic behaviour.

    Unsurprisingly, you misconstrue Benson’s meaning with your second point. She asks why should we give up our ability to critically reason (even if it happens to be God-given) in order to believe in that which for excellent critical reasons reveal ought not to be believed? It’s a good point, I think.

    You have asked a serious question if I view faith and reason as complimentary so I will give you a serious answer: maybe. And I’m not being facetious.

    I view faith as a kind of belief. In our language, the meaning of faith is very nuanced and people often argue over it by assuming incorrectly that the other person shares the same nuanced meaning. To attempt to mitigate or avoid this problem, I replace the word ‘faith’ with belief – a more common and easily understood word to describe the probability of a hypothesis being accurate, correct, and true. I then differentiate between unjustified belief at one end and justified belief at the other.

    The quality and veracity of the reasons that inform a specific belief in my model are crucial, I think, in determining where on this scale a belief of any kind may fall. A belief informed by good reasons is a justified belief, and is of a higher truth value than a belief informed by poor or no reasons. Also, when discussing beliefs with another, it is very handy to retreat from such open-ended and vaporous words such as ‘faith’ and go straight to specific and key reasons upon which a specific belief in question has been built. No matter what the belief – whether religious or medical, interpersonal or scientific – we choose certain beliefs over others because we have reasons to do so. Nobody believes anything without some kind of reason(s) to do so. But being human with all the foibles that comes with the package deal, we tend as individuals to favour some reasons over others and sometimes we make really poor choices.

    If the intent of a discussion is to check out and test our reasons for believing what we do, to ascertain if what we believe is probably true, probably accurate, probably correct, that is to say well informed, then an essential ingredient must be doubt – wiggle room to be able to alter the belief if it turns out to be not as well informed as another. We must have enough doubt in our beliefs to be open to change, to better inform our beliefs if the reasons for doing so are of a higher probability to be true, accurate, and correct. I may believe I left my keys on the table because that is my habit, but I should not be certain of that belief if another family member tells me that they found my keys still hanging in the door lock. Belief in something does not make that something true; the reasons that inform that belief are of central importance if we care about our beliefs being true, accurate, and correct.

    In other words, on the one hand if the belief we hold is impervious to change, closed to honest inquiry, our reasons protected from an honest and fair examination, then I think that this kind of belief is a great evil. It doesn’t matter to me what the subject of this kind of belief may be – religious, medical, interpersonal, or scientific; this kind of belief is a kind of false certainty that allows otherwise good people to do the most atrocious things in the name of that belief. To me, this kind of certainty of belief is the sanctification of a terrible and willful ignorance where the belief is to be held in higher esteem than what is true, accurate, and correct. Truth in this case simply no longer matters. It is the kind of belief that is a danger to all of us and needs to be exposed by all of us for the lie it is.

    On the other hand, if the belief we hold can be changed, open to honest inquiry, our reasons revealed for an honest and fair examination, then I think this kind of belief is a great good. It doesn’t matter to me what the subject of this kind of belief may be – religious, medical, interpersonal, or scientific; this kind of belief is a reflective and critical one that allows good people to choose to live a responsible and integrated life. To me, this kind of belief is the elevation of a wondrous human curiosity and a willingness to learn and change and grow as a compassionate, earnest, and honest person. It is a benefit to all of us and needs to be nurtured as the path to wisdom it is.

    As to your second question about what I believe is the role of ‘faith’ outside organized religion, I think its role is much better described as more of an agnostic spiritual quest; we feel unsure yet compelled to make our lives meaningful, to find purpose, pursue wisdom, to become more today than we were yesterday, to live well and make a difference. I don’t think belief in the supernatural aids this quest one bit; belief in the continual development of our self, our capabilities, our dedicated efforts, our varied abilities to enrich the people of our concentric rings of our personal community, this is the kind of global belief that can and does make each of us an integrated part of the whole, working towards not local compromise but global consensus, one that allows each of us to celebrate what’s best in human culture and become living examples of its enriching qualities. This is the kind of belief that drives human creativity and ingenuity, to build and fix and make better, to be resilient from but reliant on failure to teach us anew, to determine our own morality and be responsible for how we behave, to own our ethics and be willing to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, and to do all this and be all this for the right reasons… the kind that have gone through the cauldron of critical reasoning in the natural world of our day to day lives to make who and what we do, who and what we are, matter not to some incoherent supernatural thingie for a reward in some unknowable and imaginitive hereafter but to ourselves and others in the here and now.

    Comment by tildeb — December 5, 2009 @ 1:46 am | Reply

  3. Thanks for responding. This is a well crafted response too. I am sorry, I was unaware of a response until now.

    I may have misconstrued or misunderstood some of Benson’s points. Part of the reason was probably, like you said, a misuse of terms such as “faith” which can be used to mean different things by different people.

    If someone said that the universe began when the Flying Spaghetti Monster sneezed it out, I would say that that was a very unlikely statement and would invest zero energy pursuing it any further. You would probably say something very similar concerning the claim that God exists. But, if a third person said that Earth was seeded by extra-terrestrials, then we would both consider that more likely than the first propositions we were respectively given.

    This is because of our knowledge of biology, example cases of extra-terrestrial bacterium, and the vast possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence. It is a scientifically viable theory. Science itself is based on the theory that the universe follows physical laws and is not governed by chaos. It is not a large step from this belief to say that that order could be extrapolated and applied to moral and inter-personal activities. And it is only a step further to say that the laws of the universe would exist even as an abstract without its embodiment within matter/energy.

    Those are beliefs that not everybody will hold, but they are not “incoherent” beliefs either. And it is little more than personal choice to attribute to this order the term God. The further extrapolations into the metaphysical realm may take people to beliefs that may seem wholly debased from reality in the eyes of one who sticks close to empiricism. But that does not mean that they are untrue, unfounded, or cannot generate functional social interaction by people which hold these beliefs.

    And, really, social interaction is the crux of any pursuit into what is Truth. You highlight some of these desirable social characteristics yourself in someone who has “a willingness to learn and change and grow as a compassionate, earnest, and honest person.”

    And I completely agree that in our beliefs, either of reason or faith, there should be wiggle room, room for improvement, room for overhauling great segments of our belief structure. I know some people do not like this because it can be seen as a betrayal to previously held beliefs, or more practically, a betrayal of friends who likewise held these old beliefs.

    If our beliefs prevent us from learning, prevent us from growing with each other, then what good are they? That is why I defined God in this post not as an extrapolation from verses, but as an extrapolation from nature. The two may be the same and much of the leg work of defining God may already have been started, but if one is inconsistent with the way the world and the universe actually function, then it is a fraud.

    Comment by bencrayton — February 17, 2010 @ 5:27 pm | Reply

    • Science itself is based on the theory that the universe follows physical laws and is not governed by chaos. It is not a large step from this belief to say that that order could be extrapolated and applied to moral and inter-personal activities. And it is only a step further to say that the laws of the universe would exist even as an abstract without its embodiment within matter/energy.

      Let’s take your first sentence and ask ourselves how do we know this? What evidence is there that the universe seems to follow physical laws? Well, quite a bit actually. These laws seem to work very well in applications of space travel, moon landings, fuel loads for orbits, as well as everywhere in the various geographies of our terrestrial home. To put it another way, so far there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. These successful applications imply to us that there is indeed an order based on the apparent constancy of these physical laws rather than disorder which you classify as chaos. Order, then, is implied as a substitute noun that replaces the phrase ‘the constancy of physical laws’. That is what we commonly understand by your use of word ‘order’.

      Now to the first part of your second sentence that claims the first conclusion about physical constants is a belief, which I would clarify as a justified belief. So far as we know, there is constancy of physical laws throughout the universe, which supports the justification of the ‘belief’ as reasonable. You then take quite a turn in your line of reasoning jumping from evidence based belief about constancy of physical laws to asserting that the same kind of order – meaning constancy of physical laws – also happens to be just as present and real as physical laws in “moral and inter-personal activities”.

      Wait a moment. How can we apply physical laws to moral activities presumably by humans and presumably to exclusive activities that fall under this term versus activities that do not? This just doesn’t make sense.

      Activities of any kind are just that, activities. When we apply moral principles of right and wrong to judge these activities, we are adding something. We are adding our sense of morality of right and wrong to an activity. Our morality is not like a solitary force we find in physics that acts equally on all matter throughout the known universe. We are adding a concept in which to judge, not measure, the consequences of an act. That’s a different kettle of fish altogether. So how can we treat morals as if it were as constant and testable through application as the physical laws?

      Well, if you think we can, you’ll have to explain why and then show evidence that this ordered moral activity actually exists in the same way that all mass exerts a gravitational field.

      I don’t think you can do this, which means that to assume as much is not “not a large step,” as you assert without any apparent justification, but a huge leap in a completely different direction. I don’t share you ‘belief’ that there is any such thing as a universal moral law, but rather, that what we describe as morality is really an expression of middle world biology (in reference to Dawkins’ notion of humanity as a middle world kind of creature versus those of the comparative extremes of very small and very large). Be that as it may, this kind of belief in moral law is not anything like the kind of original belief you ascribed to science. Already we have diverged from a justified belief – the constancy of physical laws – to an unjustified belief – that there is the same kind of constancy to moral activities.

      The first kind of belief – the justified kind – is coherent because it is informed by evidence and successful applications. The second kind of belief – the unjustified kind – now must turn to new words to help define what we are talking about and, lo and behold, here comes our all time favourite: god. I have no idea what this word means but I do know one thing for sure: there exists no coherent definition of the word ‘god’ that can be ascertained by the use of physical laws. And why apply a term like ‘god’ to describe gravity when already have perfectly useful word like ‘gravity’? But you don’t actually mean that, do you? You slide into the use of the word ‘god’ as if it encompasses the constancy of physical laws without a shred of evidence to suggest that this kind of belief is justified. But you have the cleverness to call it a ‘choice’ as if choosing to believe it to be true is as reasonable as keeping in mind the constancy of gravity is true no matter where we are or what we are doing. But it is not equal in the matter of what is true, is it? The constancy of gravity can be tested by anyone, anywhere, anytime; the constancy of moral activities cannot. Choosing between them is not an exercise in democracy nor free will nor informed choice: the former kind of scientific belief is true because it is informed, the latter kind of belief is assumption because it is uninformed by anything other than assumption.

      Finally, your third sentence states one side of the equation without stating the other: if it is true “that the laws of the universe would exist even as an abstract without its embodiment within matter/energy,” then it is equally true that all abstractions would exist because we have nothing to ascertain any abstraction’s validity. If the universe collapsed tomorrow and all humanity with it, would the abstraction of the constancy of physical laws still exist? I don’t know and you don’t either. That’s honest. In other words, we are no further ahead with this final sentence than without it. What we do have access to is the kind of universe that contains the constancy of physical laws. That’s this universe and only this universe, and that’s the one we have to work with.

      Comment by tildeb — February 17, 2010 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

    • From this faulty comparison of kinds of belief – the scientific and the metaphysical – you attempt to build a reasonable case that nature/god mean the same thing. They don’t. Nature is everything within the natural world; god is apparently everything in both the natural AND the supernatural, and this is where we get into incoherence. I don’t know what the supernatural is. By definition the supernatural is beyond and/or outside of nature. I do not come equipped to interact with this supposed realm, but I am well aware of the idea’s history. It is based on dualism, the notion that the body and mind are two separate and distinct ‘things’. They aren’t. They are both physical and can be understood and known. The idea of a separate realm of reality – the meta-physical – was meant to apply to concepts that had no corporeal body but nevertheless had effect, notions like ideas. Now we know that these concepts are not nouns or thingies in and of themselves but adjectives that usually describe relationships. The number four does not exist in some secret realm of reality as a separate entity but as a description of quantity. Language itself is a symbolic representation of meaning and not a thingie that exists in the aether. Because the early church absorbed – or should we properly say ‘stole’ – its science from well known scholars like Ptolemy and Aristotelian, it came with this notion that things were what they were because they possessed the nature to be so. The eye could see because it came equipped with the nature to see, the rock was heavy because it expressed the property of heaviness. This was cutting edge science a few millennia ago, but we’ve since (thanks in large part to Galileo) come to understand that things don’t have natures but properties. Plato may have argued that a chair we use on a day to day basis is but a poor facsimile of the ultimate metaphysical chair from which we mysteriously draw our comprehension of the most important attributes to the thing we sit upon and thus call a chair, but there is not a shred of evidence that such a realm exists. There are much better explanations today and much of it has to do with using language carefully.

      I feel you have been rather cavalier with your language describing god as a metaphysical concept to be a descriptive choice some people make to define the universe. This is bunk. Does god exist is a scientific question that has no evidence to back it up unless we allow certain words that are equally mysterious to define the concept. But words alone are not enough to establish universal constants as if these constants were a part of the natural world. And if people kept their notion of god from interfering in the daily goings on of the natural world we wouldn’t be having this exchange. It is not some metaphysical notion that people bring to their day to day life honouring their god: it is a host of ideas that to a larger measure than most cause significant damage to the potential positive evolution of humanity as a species. And the most significant factor is false certainty, which I’ve already discussed. Some of the other levels of negative influence is a kind of sanctimonious ignorance and anti-science that is breath-taking. Young earth creationism heads that list, I think. But the most profoundly disturbing effect that belief in god carries is an acceptance on theological grounds active hostility against some people’s basic human rights, freedoms, and dignities of personhood. Justifying these negative effects by appealing to the righteousness of some meta-physical supernatural deity is folly and it is a kind of folly that keeps on taking for sustenance. If everyone stopped believing in Muk Muk of the Volcano, few people would notice. If everyone stopped believing in Jesus as god, christianity would evaporate into nothingness. It is only the belief in god that is made manifest by people in the natural world, not god. In addition, a universe with a supernatural all powerful and knowing and loving creator would look significantly different according to our moral standards, and we just don’t see evidence that aligns with a universal creator that intervenes in the natural world.

      You suggest that social interaction is the crux of truth. I don’t understand what you mean here. If two people are able to interact, is the result truth? I don’t see the causal connection you are trying to make.

      If god is an extrapolation from nature, then you and I are in agreement: god is a man-made mental construct. I suspect you may not mean it that way.

      Comment by tildeb — February 18, 2010 @ 12:24 am | Reply

    • Finally, let’s take a quick look at what you mean by order: the constancy of physical laws. The scientific term for this is ‘parity’ and it is a really interesting inquiry. For example, in The New York Time (Feb 15, 2010) is this piece titled In Brookhaven Collider, Scientists Briefly Break A Law Of Nature. From Sean Carroll’s blog comes a reply here, with the conclusion:

      This new result from RHIC doesn’t change that state of affairs, but shows how quarks and gluons can violate parity spontaneously if they are in the right environment — namely, a hot plasma with a magnetic field.

      So, okay, no new laws of physics. Just a much better understanding of how the existing ones work! Which is most of what science does, after all.

      So the physical laws usually maintain parity, but I hope you can understand that broad and sweeping generalizations like the implication that because there appears to be constancy of physical laws – allowing for a false dichotomy of meaning that they are immutable examples of cosmic order rather than chaos – is hardly a sound foundation upon which to build an argument of a cosmic designer because as you can see from our experiments these laws are not immutable. And that’s why quantum mechanics is all about calculating probabilities to a very high degree of accuracy: certainty has no meaningful place in the universe or the mind.

      Comment by tildeb — February 18, 2010 @ 3:07 pm | Reply

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