Questionable Motives

October 2, 2010

Are your religious beliefs those of a simpleton or a sophisticate?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,Critical Reasoning,theology — tildeb @ 5:42 pm

Although many will be tempted to say neither, most will explain that his or her god is more along the lines of a personal loving kind that is all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere, part of yet separate from the universe and time, as well as a benevolent and loving entity. But do these poor misguided folk realize that this kind of description is considered by theological authors of sophisticated theology to be far too simplistic to accurately describe a sophisticated and modern understanding? We wouldn’t want to confuse a simpleton’s understanding – which is often the target of gnu atheists – with the much more sophisticated ones much more impervious to the drive-by criticisms thrown, we are assured repeatedly by religious apologists, inaccurately by atheists.

So let’s see if you can tell the difference:

1) The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

2) The‘orthodox’ theological view – namely, that God is an inhuman, inexplicable, intangible, unlocatable, unthinkable, pointless, non-creating, uncommunicative nonentity.

If you chose the latter to be the sophisticated one, you’d be right according to Terry Eagleton. But there’s a wee little problem with that: such a deity offers us nothing to back up questions of morality, meaning, purpose, and values. Such a deity can have no implications about how we are to tackle issues of gay marriage, female priests, contraception, and so on. Yet the religious voice on matters of ethics is granted a widespread hearing as if what is said is naturally endowed and informed by religious belief. This can only be true if god is more like #1 or the simpleton’s version.

So we have a conundrum: either Dawkins’ funny little introduction used in the first description is the god of most christian believers, in which case the criticisms offered by New Atheists are properly targeted, or the voice of religious believers on matter of ethics is based on the simpleton’s unsophisticated theological version, in which case the the criticisms offered by New Atheists are properly targeted. Either way, the sophisticated theology offered by the Eagletons and Armstrongs of the world is as much a tiny outlier in the active religion practices by the vast majorities of believers as much as it is irrelevant as well as incapable of adding anything of interest in matters of morality, meaning, purpose and values.

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46 Comments »

  1. But do these poor misguided folk realize that this kind of description is considered by theological authors of sophisticated theology to be far too simplistic to accurately describe a sophisticated and modern understanding?

    I doubt there are adequate words in human language to describe God accurately.

    Although, this does come to mind:

    Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”

    And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’ ”

    And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you:

    This shall be My name forever,
    This My appellation for all eternity.”

    According to the footnotes in my copy of the Tanakh published by the Jewish Publication Society, the meaning of the Hebrew in those verses is uncertain. But it is variously translated: “I Am That I Am”; “I Am Who I Am”; “I Will Be What I Will Be”; etc. Ehyeh means “I Am” or “I Will Be.” The name YHWH (traditionally read Adonai “the LORD”) is here associated with the root hayah “to be.”

    Ancient fairytale or not, it still contains incredible wisdom.

    God is who God is. We don’t define Him. He chooses to reveal Himself to us. That’s it.

    Therefore I think it silly for an atheist to assert that he knows enough about God to know that He doesn’t exist.

    Comment by Natassia — October 7, 2010 @ 12:33 am | Reply

    • Could it be even sillier for the average Christian to think he/she knows enough about God to know that He does exist?

      Perhaps tildeb just has a slightly different notion of what it means to exist—a notion grounded in identifiably distinct form in permanent substance (permanent not in the sense that it’s unchanging, but that changes are describable by material physics such that the energy—which gives mass to matter—is neither created nor destroyed).
      (I would disagree with him because I find it useful to think that money does exist in my bank account, among other things.)

      Comment by fakematthewtweedell — October 7, 2010 @ 1:44 am | Reply

      • Oops… that was supposed to be from the real me.

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 7, 2010 @ 1:45 am

      • I think it depends on whether God has revealed Himself to that person or not.

        If God has done so, it would be foolish to still disbelieve, don’t you think?

        I think tildeb is a materialist: that which does not exist materially, does not in reality exist.

        Such a viewpoint inevitably leads to nihilism. I’d rather believe in a fantasy than believe that nothing has purpose and meaning. Even if nihilism is true, what does it matter since truth doesn’t exist either?

        Comment by Natassia — October 7, 2010 @ 10:24 am

      • (Must I play devil’s advocate, tildeb?)

        God “reveals” Himself as “God” only if you have a definition of “God” such that He is real.
        I don’t understand how you reached the conclusion that materialism “inevitably leads to nihilism,” or that this then implies the non-existence of truth—in fact, it would seem that for the materialist, what exists materially exists as a matter of truth (truth itself existing as the aggregate of matter that truly is the material that the material of minds implies).

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 7, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

      • Sorry, MT. Been busy.

        Comment by tildeb — October 7, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

      • N writes I think it depends on whether God has revealed Himself to that person or not. If God has done so, it would be foolish to still disbelieve, don’t you think?

        Perhaps, N. And that raises exactly the point I have been trying to make: how do you know if that voice/sense/feeling/presence really is god? If you are willing to prostitute your epistemology in the service of your willingness to believe, then how can you verify it when you’ve altered exactly that you use to verify anything?

        Comment by tildeb — October 7, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

      • N writes Such a viewpoint inevitably leads to nihilism. I’d rather believe in a fantasy than believe that nothing has purpose and meaning. Even if nihilism is true, what does it matter since truth doesn’t exist either?

        I don’t think this is tenable. The myth of Sisyphus deals very nicely with this notion: we create and inform our own meaning and purpose. No god is necessary for establishing either. Nor does this lack of god necessarily lead to nihilism if meaning and purpose can be self appointed. As for truth, I care very much about figuring out not what IS true but is PROBABLY true. I can live with that and without ‘truth’ without diving into nihilism.

        Materialism doesn’t refute self-appointed meaning and purpose at all. What it does refute is that non material things exist in the same way as material things. To my way of thinking, ideas and notions and concepts exist in the sense that they are used cohesively to describe stable relationships between material things. You speaking Urdu and me speaking English may assign different sounds and markings to the word ‘three’, but the relationship of quantity between two and four remains cohesive. But that doesn’t make it ‘real’ in the sense of how a materialist will define it. There is no ‘three’ in existence as a thing but rather is used to symbolically define a relationship in quantity of real things. I don’t have a problem with that: if we removed the world from being our point of reference, would we have anything at all? My sympathies lie with the materialists who think not, but it’s too big a stretch of my imagination to pretend I can know one way or the other.

        Comment by tildeb — October 7, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    • N, as I said over at your blog, the question of how we know anything is an important consideration. My epistemology (as is yours in all things save religion) is methodological naturalism. You are purposefully misrepresenting me by suggesting that I am therefore a “materialist”.

      I never said god does not exist. I have said there is no justifiable reason to think god exists. That’s a quibble, of course, because there are lots of reasons, but my point is that none of them are good reasons… reasons good enough to replace better reasons for not believing. Obviously, you will disagree and are free to do so, but belief alone is hardly convincing evidence to replace its lack from such an all-powerful, all-knowing, always present, benevolent critter we call ‘god’.

      The term itself is so loosely defined that when I take what believers say represents their definition of god, I find no evidence for such an agency. But that never seems to slow down those who make all kinds of silly truth claims based on their beliefs that god is real, that god interacts in the universe, that god is concerned with individual humans on earth, how they dress, what they eat, how they use their gonads, and even what they think! When the definition of what defines god as this interactive agency undergoes sophistication to avoid this lack of evidence (including a lack of causal evidence for affect of such an agency), it has a tendency to becomes highly nebulous. Eventually, the sophisticated interpretation under duress of non believers represents something that becomes simply unknowable. Either way, the believer holds the responsibility to prove existence of this ‘whatever’ called god if in fact the believer wishes to act on behalf of that agency with justification. And the fact is, this proof you have failed to produce. That’s not my doing. Changing definitions (changing the goal posts) is a very typical and tedious tactic often used by those who have been legitimately challenged to offer this proof. But the point is… that proof is still sadly lacking including revelation.

      I have never denied that creation myths and heroic myths contain wisdom. I happen to be a huge fan of transformative powers contained in these narratives if they are interpreted according to the signposts erected within them. The Genesis myths are no different; I just think they’ve been interpreted very badly by chirstians to be a justification for the death of Jesus as savior. That maneuver alone is an indication that the interpretation HAS to be wrong because the myths must stand on their own and still speak directly to you with full (yet layered and mutually supportive) meaning. Without Jesus, the interpretation makes no sense.

      Comment by tildeb — October 7, 2010 @ 1:50 pm | Reply

      • There are many long-held definitions of a god such that one provably exists for axiomatic systems producing practical results and never shown to err.

        The Christian myth should be taken as one whole, to stand in the fullness of time. For example, you wrote at John shore’s blog today of the seeds of compassion—what happens by the seed on the Third Day?

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 7, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

  2. An axiomatic system is a mathematical system based on those axioms. Now you are saying that a definition of god exists that can be proven using math. Okay, MT… I’ll bite. Give her a go!

    The ‘christian’ myth as a whole? Well, I’m going to have to quibble a bit here: I don’t think there is such a thing that fits the notion of a myth per se, but rather a narrative that has been compiled. It’s not the same thing, unless you define let’s say Macbeth to also be a ‘myth’.

    What happens to my metaphor’s seed of compassion on the Third Day? That’s for me to say, isn’t it (because it is my metaphor!)?

    Comment by tildeb — October 7, 2010 @ 3:59 pm | Reply

    • It is not your metaphor. Especially as you identify compassion with what John Shore and others would call love. If someone were alive today, perhaps you could be sued for copyright or trademark infringement. But you yourself have no right to claim it as your intellectual property. Your words are not your own, believe it or not.

      You are incorrect to think that an axiomatic system is necessarily mathematical! How could you conclude on the basis of your epistemology that I was saying any such thing as you attributed to me?

      Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 7, 2010 @ 5:47 pm | Reply

    • By the way, as I understand it, sacred narrative is pretty much synonymous with myth. To my knowledge, Macbeth was never incorporated into the dogma of any organized religion, nor does it appear to be held sacred by anyone I’ve ever heard speak of it. The Biblical narrative is regarded by Christians as true myth, and at that we find the perfect synthesis of mythos and logos.

      Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 7, 2010 @ 8:22 pm | Reply

    • Sure it’s my metaphor, MT, in the sense that I introduced it in my comment. That doesn’t mean I own it as intellectual property anymore than I own the word ‘metaphor’ as trademarked to me. That’s just silly. I could have used a manure spreader metaphor, but I decided it didn’t quite encapsulate my meaning. (I’m sure some might think that would have been a MUCH more appropriate metaphor.) But if you mean it in a trivial sense, then sure… I’ve borrowed it, just like I have borrowed all these words and borrowed the connection, and borrowed the technology to present it, and so on.

      You used the phrase […] definitions of a god such that one provably exists for axiomatic systems…. So what do you mean? Well according to the definition of the term axiomatic systems, it means “an axiomatic system is any set of axioms from which some or all axioms can be used in conjunction to logically derive theorems.” In this sense it is mathematical that relies on very clear, very concise, very consistent premises… each of which is capable of derivable negation. Outside of math, I don’t know how well this can be done using words that tend to possess somewhat fuzzy meanings. That understanding is what I attributed to you for using the words you did. I look forward to one of your examples of such a proof for god. And then I want to see if it still works in an infinite set.

      Comment by tildeb — October 7, 2010 @ 8:22 pm | Reply

      • That’s not a definition; that’s an excerpt from a Wikipedia article that specifically described what it is “[i]n mathematics”. Any communicable philosophy must espouse some set of axioms, whether implicitly or explicitly.

        What is this you mean about an infinite set? Do you admit of the reality of such entities?

        If you want to see some sort of proofs, why not look them up? I’m just informing you of their existence; it’s not my job to be your tutor, nor do I attempt to win your conversion.

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 7, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

      • I gave you the encyclopedia link, MT.

        Outside of a mathematical system, I don’t think you can really call an argument (a deductive one, at any rate) based on a logical group of connected premises an “axiomatic system“. Sure, any communication will involve axioms, but that doesn’t make it a cohesive and defined system. Because an axiomatic system depends only on the included set of axioms (premises), it is called closed. That’s why it usually refers to a math proof where the definitions of the specific and known axioms are exact and independent of any variability and is usually used to arrive at a mathematical theorem (or conclusion to those axioms). Think of Euclidean proofs like those of angles of specific geometric figures.

        But to translate that kind of proof into the real world to offer evidence for something not so well defined as a complete set runs into difficulties immediately because stuff does not exist independently of anything else. In addition, often the premises for such proofs cannot be negated… at least keeping inside the most usual framework of metaphysics. When the supposed set of axioms turns out to have no boundary – no known end to the possibilities of what axioms should or could be in that set, it is called infinite and no longer functions as a meaningful proof.

        Or at least, that’s my understanding.

        Comment by tildeb — October 7, 2010 @ 11:06 pm

      • Oh. Well, then, I’m sure you have it all figured out.
        Except this: “I gave you the encyclopedia link, MT.”
        And what encyclopedia were you quoting from?

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 8, 2010 @ 12:18 am

      • I apologize for being a bit sarcastic.
        Are there no meaningful proofs of numeric properties, since any formal system as complex as arithmetic is necessarily axiomatically incomplete? And if a premise cannot be negated, isn’t that what makes it self-evident—or what exactly did you mean about that? (I know for example that negating an axiom of negation is incoherent. So such a possibility is unproductive. Whether or not such fundamental metaphysical axioms are true seems to me meaningless/arbitrary; their actuality is necessitated however in just the cogitable realization of the possibility.)
        Any system of consistent propositions could have productive axioms postulated for it (reliable in all that they do prove, whether sufficient for the whole system of propositions or not). Whether the resulting system is formalized or not is whole other matter (and typically it is convenient to treat it rather less than formally).

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 8, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

  3. tildeb, you are limiting what “justifiable” means. If something cannot be proved by your method, then there is no “justifiable” reason to believe it exists.

    Again, you’re defining the box. What makes your method of determining the existence of something supernatural the correct one?

    The very fact that we have scientific evidence that our cosmos had a beginning means that our laws of physics also likely had a beginning (and not just in Sir Isaac Newton’s head.) The natural laws by which our universe is bound must have begun somewhere, somehow.

    If I defined God as “the Eternal One” behind the making of order from chaos, would that make Him any less justifiable? God is that which is eternal. Is belief in eternity justified? We cannot measure it. It is a metaphysical concept. But does that mean it doesn’t exist?

    And that raises exactly the point I have been trying to make: how do you know if that voice/sense/feeling/presence really is god? If you are willing to prostitute your epistemology in the service of your willingness to believe, then how can you verify it when you’ve altered exactly that you use to verify anything?

    If God is immeasurable and supernatural and eternal, would it be impossible for Him to be able to make Himself known in such a way that I would just know?

    But, let’s assume we need real evidence. What about the evidence of the gospel transforming someone? Making them a new person? Changing the very desires of their heart? Seeing that happen in someone, and experiencing that in oneself could be taken as metaphysical evidence. You can’t test it in a lab. You can’t scientifically measure it. But when it happens, you know it.

    If God could be easily proven in a lab, no one could disbelieve in Him (without being incredibly irrational and unreasonable)…and we would be living in a very different world indeed. For one thing, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. 🙂

    And another thing, without knowing what my choice of epistemology is, how are you to know if I am “prostituting” it or not?

    Comment by Natassia — October 7, 2010 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

    • Hang on, N. I explained what I meant by justifiable reasons to be better reasons rather than poorer reasons. When one’s reason for thinking something comes across a better reason for some other opinion, then I think one is justified to switch opinions and unjustified to hold the inferior one. That’s all I meant by the word.

      You’ve identified a problem about the supernatural: how can we know if some claim about some supernatural whatever may be true if we have no way to verify it? Well, I don’t think we can. I like the maxim that if we can’t know if we’re wrong then we can’t know if we’re right, which can only be done by verification or some means to test the claim. But we need evidence of something to exist or show effects in our natural universe to do so, plus we cannot access this other ‘realm’. It’s beyond our reach if it’s there at all. We know nothing about it whatsoever. We’re just not built for some other realm; we’re built for the one we inhabit. Plus, our intellect has no way to define what this other unknown realm may entail, what the forces are in operation and how they function, and so on. In other words, we cannot know anything about this realm over ‘there’… wherever ‘there’ may be. But we CAN know about cause and effect in this ‘natural’ universe, meaning the one we inhabit in the here and now. And it is here that our methodological naturalism shines. We really can link cause with effect with a mechanism. We have the means and the intellectual capacity to do so. This is how we ‘know’ what causes what effect and by what naturalistic method it happens.

      When we apply these tools of inquiry that work, isolating variables and determining cause and effect, we still need a mechanism… some method by which one links to the other. Let’s take revelation. Is there any qualitative difference between the person who insists god talks to her and another woman who insists she’s the reincarnation of Joan of Arc? What we do know is that if we alter brain chemistry in a variety of ways, we produce a variety of effects. There are many studies that do just this – from lesions and stroke studies to meditation and magnetic helmets – and we really can duplicate the religious transformative experience by these means. This tells us that our perceptions are a brain based thing and not necessarily an accurate reflection of some exterior supernatural force. In other words, we can figure out a naturalistic explanation that links cause with effect and determine the mechanism by which this is done when we talk about divine revelations. If we pay heed to Occam’s Razor, we can discard the convoluted complicated supernatural realm in favour of brain-based explanations that can be tested and duplicated, that work consistently well, and provide practical and dependable knowledge. To throw away this evidence in favour of some untestable, unknowable assertion about the nature of some supernatural god who hides so well from honest inquiry is… well, not very well justified.

      If you thought your keys were on the counter and you wanted to pick them up before leaving your place, how do you go about it? You go to the counter and look. If the keys aren’t there, what kind of explanations come to mind about finding them? What epistemology do you follow if the goal is to actually find the keys? That’s the epistemology that works in this world, but it is all too often discarded when one substitutes god for the keys. If the goal is to actually find god, the epistemology should remain the same. If the keys are never found, then we claim them lost and move on. One is not arrogant to come to that conclusion nor strident to think all of us should just get over the lost keys and move on.

      If I thought for one second your explanation of the missing keys revolved around them being invisible but present, that they had some nature that demanded our faith in order to locate them, and so on, I don’t think I would be out of order to say that your epistemology was out of whack. If you insisted that the keys possessed supernatural properties so that they were actually present but disappeared when looked at to avoid detection as some kind of personal test of our worthiness to be made aware of them, I don’t think many people would find the notion reasonable. And they would be right because infusing supernatural explanations in no way serves honest inquiry: it excuses us from actually doing the hard work of looking in a comprehensive and detailed way. That’s why I say that this kind of skewed supernatural epistemology is widely allowable only within the confines of religion. And it works because what you’re describing seems not to exist nor cause effect because there is no evidence for it. So we can stick all kinds of wacky claims into the notion of a supernatural deity and never be proved wrong. But that doesn’t inform the wacky claims with anything knowable and i think inquiry into the universe to earn knowledge about its workings is better off rejecting the wacky epistemology altogether.

      Comment by tildeb — October 7, 2010 @ 7:28 pm | Reply

      • Good idea. Let’s just abandon the notion that tildeb exists, Natassia. I’ve never actually seen him—have you? There’s a bunch of text that certain websites purport to be his word, but I see no justifiable reasons to believe them. It’s an unknowable, untestable assertion. The words could easily come from a thousand other beings, and it all can be easily shown as a natural result of merely biological and physical processes. There’s no evidence for any sort of “tildeb” at work in these things. We could determine a mechanistic chain of cause and effect to explain it all, without any need of such a concept when we speak about what might appear to others to be his work.

        Is there any qualitative difference between the person who insists tildeb wrote this and another who insists someone with the username Joan of Arc did? Our perceptions are a brain based thing and not necessarily an accurate reflection of some exterior personage. If we pay heed to Occam’s Razor, we can discard the convoluted complicated interpersonal realm in favour of brain-based explanations that can be tested and duplicated, that work consistently well, and provide practical and dependable knowledge.

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 7, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

      • Great idea, MT. So how are you going to test for whether or not I exist?

        Comment by tildeb — October 7, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

      • “…unknowable, untestable….”

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 7, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

      • No it’s not, MT. My existence is both. If you really wish to know, then you are quite capable of determining it.

        Now try an experiment: send off an email to god and ask him to answer a specific question and then do so on this site. Let’s see which entity is more likely to exist based on the evidence of an answered response.

        My inference from your comment (no doubt I will be told I am wrong because you never said as much) is that you are suggesting that because there are difficulties in establishing the veracity of existence of tildeb does not mean that that difficulty is similar to establishing the veracity of god. The two tasks are not equal, nor are the difficulties. Of course, I enjoy the double benefit of being real as well as responsive. But just because there may be some difficulty does not mean that each are somewhat equally unknowable and untestable except by faith. That is a huge leap which you can overcome by your own testing. That’s why I sense that you’re getting miffed.

        Comment by tildeb — October 7, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

      • No, I’m not “quite capable of determining it”—in the sense that you seem to understand determination—though it really does seem to me that you exist. How can I know though? Well, you’re right, the tasks are not equally difficult: no need to send an email with God; God is right here with me. As for you, so what if I’d get a meaningful response (as I often do from my Lord and Savior)? It still all can be explained, as I said, through biological and physical processes without need of any “tildeb” hypothesis; I’ve no need to aggregate together related phenomena, or whatever might be at work behind the scenes (beyond the limits of my perception and testing, which limits exist even if I have your supposed body in front of me and the equipment to do every test materially possible), and to label it “tildeb”. In fact, doing so would be intellectually dishonest of me if I want to understand what’s behind the email responses I get. Furthermore, this could all be in my own mind—the mind can create some pretty vivid dreams—and certainly everything about how and why you seem to me to exist could be explained through the natural physiology of my brain. But you know what? It all comes down to what tildeb means to me and others with a similar such conception and what we will admit under the notion of existence.

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 8, 2010 @ 12:14 am

      • correction: email responses I ^would^ get

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 8, 2010 @ 12:22 am

      • Sure, MT, we may all be brains in a vat, but of what practical use is such an admission? Sure, there may be a god, but of what practical use is such an admission? When we begin to base actions and policies on such a claim, then we are bound to run into problems of what actually informs the possibility that such an agency may exist… something more than tautologies, that is.

        And I beg to differ about your capabilities to ascertain at least reasonable probabilities about testing and knowing. You will always go to the extreme of certainty in any dialogue about knowing and ignore likelihoods and probabilities and then claim that ‘knowing’ must be the single state of certainty, which is itself extremely unlikely to ever happen about anything other than – as mentioned previously – in some closed set with a full list of properties like in an axiomatic math proof.

        But you cannot function in the world this way. You must make decisions and act on them whether or not certainty is reached. You incorporate probabilities into your daily activities and are even willing to base your life on them. Don’t pretend that the likelihood of defying gravity is somehow equally likely as succumbing to its force by stepping out a second floor window. Although you can’t know for certain what will happen if you do so, the likelihood of falling far surpasses the likelihood you will not. And you act accordingly because it is reasonable to do so. You have ample evidence to back up this reasonableness. What is unreasonable is to insist that gravity can be negated or is simply another kind of belief similar to religious belief by our inability to be certain about its effects. Such a position is both unreasonable and dishonest even if it is philosophically palatable. You really can know to a very high degree of probability the likelihood of some notion is correct and accurate. Don’t dismiss this capability on the alter of thinking only in terms of dichotomy. That’s not the way the world works. The world interacts. Our thinking should, too.

        Comment by tildeb — October 8, 2010 @ 9:22 am

      • You don’t seem to get it. First, I believe I’ve always maintained that my knowledge is inherently uncertain. Yet I never imply that I am at all very uncertain about what would happen if I stepped out a second story window. Of course, neither were the ancients; yet they didn’t need any theory of so-called “gravitation” to tell them that. As I’ve been telling you, I can recognize that as gravity because that’s what I know that it is. I can also recognize it as the power of God. Now, I can’t expect an ancient goatherd to understand the great usefulness that you might see in precisely formulated law describing the action of gravity. Neither can I expect you to understand the practical utility in the admission of the supernatural. But I can assure you that many—indeed, most—people do.

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 8, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

  4. Out of curiousity, where do you stand on the regress argument?

    Comment by Natassia — October 7, 2010 @ 4:16 pm | Reply

    • It’s a terrible argument because it uses a metaphysical framework (First Cause). In other words it’s a really bad way to inquire. It’s a case of special pleading.

      Let’s shift gears for just a moment and apply the framework closer to home: what causes your next breath? Where does your next breath reside before you breathe? Where was it before you were born? Is your breath really part of the nature of air? You see the problem? Throughout all of this so-called inquiry, we are avoiding looking at what constitutes – what defines – a breath. We are mislead by the word ‘breath’. And that’s where the real answers lie – a naturalistic process of cause and effect by a knowable mechanism. We can understand the role and function and processes of breathing so well that we can create non-biological machines to do exactly this. We can understand and treat medical issues about breathing to the extent that premature babies can still develop outside the womb by building the means for machines to do their breathing for them. And so on.

      We have no way of knowing what existed prior to the Big Bang, but how often do we have to deal with the insertion of god into what we DON’T know (yet)? How does this insertion add anything to the honest inquiry of what came before? We don’t know if there is a multiverse. We don’t know if the universe expands and contracts in a cycle. Our ignorance is vast but sticking ‘god’ into the gaps and claiming that therefore this god is a tripartite god that came to earth, was born of a virgin, who rose from the dead, and walked on water, and whose name was Jesus, leads us nowhere in cosmology except into answers that aren’t really answers, and certainly aren’t knowledge.

      What we do know is that if there was a external creative energy inserted into Big Bang, there should an energy imbalance. There should be evidence of this imbalance. And there isn’t. We have what we should have if the process was strictly natural based on what know is actually there. But we wouldn’t even be looking to further our knowledge about cosmology if we all assumed that the theological explanation was adequate.

      Where is the beginning of circle? Where is its end? The question is based on linear thinking – thinking that involves a beginning, a middle, and an end. But sometimes linear thinking doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s the wrong framework so we need to be flexible in how we approach problems of the unknown and be very careful how we define the terms we use so that we at least understand what it is we are asking.

      There are really good reasons why the overwhelming majority of scientists are not religious believers, in spite of the overwhelming majority of citizens in the US who are. We need to honestly investigate why these reasons are so persuasive to those who provide us with practical and workable and reliable knowledge.

      Comment by tildeb — October 7, 2010 @ 8:02 pm | Reply

      • I think life itself is a pretty good indicator of a God. The very idea of life…we still can’t explain how it came to be. Now, I’ve heard some pretty wild ideas, but so far everything is highly theoretical.

        So, we have living creatures and we have no idea how they came to be. We just don’t know. LIFE is here and we don’t know how and we definitely don’t know why. What we do know is that there is NO evidence that it came about through random (spontaneous) generation. People might hope that’s how it happen. They may genuinely believe it. But they certainly can’t know it. So, why do they assume it?

        And if we simply observe the natural world, we see that life only comes from life. Therefore, is it so unreasonable to believe that the first life on earth came from something ALIVE? Call it what you will, but I call that something “God”.

        What we do know is that if there was a external creative energy inserted into Big Bang, there should an energy imbalance. There should be evidence of this imbalance. And there isn’t. We have what we should have if the process was strictly natural based on what know is actually there. But we wouldn’t even be looking to further our knowledge about cosmology if we all assumed that the theological explanation was adequate.

        You are assuming that the laws of physics were the same before the Big Bang as they are now.

        Where is the beginning of circle? Where is its end? The question is based on linear thinking – thinking that involves a beginning, a middle, and an end. But sometimes linear thinking doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s the wrong framework so we need to be flexible in how we approach problems of the unknown and be very careful how we define the terms we use so that we at least understand what it is we are asking.

        We have to be careful that our epistemology does not depend on circular reasoning. 🙂 Or if it does, we at least need to be honest with ourselves about it.

        Comment by Natassia — October 8, 2010 @ 12:42 am

      • All the evidence overwhelmingly supports evolution to the extent that this theory underlies modern biology and we use it successfully to produce technologies and medicines that work. We can trace our common ancestry through genetics to pre-Cambrian blood worms. Unless you are suggesting that god went Poof! to create the first microbes, then we really do know where life on earth today came from: life on earth yesterday. And we can trace that lineage through common ancestry far into deep time to simpler and simpler biological expressions of life. We share a full third of our genes with carrots, for crying out loud. What you are referring to (I think) is biogenesis: the very first life form. And yes, we can only surmise what it might have been. But that is not evidence for any outside interference or infusion: it’s a biochemical event that will one day be duplicated in a lab, I have little doubt, but we will never know if the creation of life we bring about is the same as what actually happened. But we safely assume it would be similar if we use the same building blocks.

        What evolutionary biology does is put to rest the notion that people were created by divine intervention or came from a single male/female pairing. The evidence simply does not back this up. We evolved like every other creature and plant on the planet, and we are all related to each other. If god did interfere with the process in any way, it did so only at the earliest of stages. And that kind of belief is innocuous because it simply doesn’t matter. After all, there is reason why 96.5% of biologists do not believe god or gods exist: they find no biological evidence in its favour. Sure, that’s disappointing for the believers, but it’s based on where the evidence leads us. And there’s no evidence of any kind of divine intervention.

        And yes, we do have to be careful about our reasoning. We have to be careful upon what epistemological framework we ask our questions; after all, if they are unknowable, then we’re asking the wrong kind of questions. For example, the question “What kind of physics existed prior to the big bang?” is unknowable because we have no evidence upon which to base our assertion and no way to verify whatever answers we come up with. But because some questions are unknowable does not give us license to insert whatever we wish for an answer. The honest answer is “I don’t know.”

        Comment by tildeb — October 8, 2010 @ 9:02 am

      • The data I know of have 41 to 80 percent of biologists not believing in something supernatural (although I’ve also seen that over 70 percent believe in free will, which is by many definitions supernatural)—this depends heavily of course on how you gather your data and what exactly you ask. So I’m curious as to the source of your statistic. And by the way, it’s not so much that scientific training/education has a such a profound effect on religious belief as that the sciences tend to attract individuals from less religious backgrounds.

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 8, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

      • Sorry, the stat is 94.5%. I was a percentage too high. I read it originally at the NAS website a while back.

        Comment by tildeb — October 8, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

  5. I don’t like to equate better with justifiable. Just because something sounds “better” to someone, it doesn’t make it correct.

    You’ve identified a problem about the supernatural: how can we know if some claim about some supernatural whatever may be true if we have no way to verify it? Well, I don’t think we can. I like the maxim that if we can’t know if we’re wrong then we can’t know if we’re right, which can only be done by verification or some means to test the claim. But we need evidence of something to exist or show effects in our natural universe to do so, plus we cannot access this other ‘realm’. It’s beyond our reach if it’s there at all. We know nothing about it whatsoever.

    You’ve just completely invalidated the spirit (soul) despite the fact that most of the people on this planet believe they have one.

    Now, I’m not one to appeal to popularity, but isn’t it remotely possible that perhaps the average human simply knows he has a soul? I remember wondering as a young child, before I ever truly grasped anything about religion, “what would happen when I died–where would I go? Would I go into something else?” I knew there was more to me than just my physical body. And I was just a child, and yet I was able to sense that. Able to know it. I didn’t have a label for it. I never called it “my soul” or “my spirit.” It was just me. “Where would I go when my body died?”

    Maybe that’s what we call “common sense”–stuff even a child just knows.

    When you talk about the difference between divine revelation and delusion, I guess it just depends on whether the person is speaking the truth or not. But in order to determine that, you have to hold a basic belief that truth exists and is somewhat knowable.

    Delusion typically leads to a functional breakdown. And I don’t necessarily mean that in terms of the physical. Delusions prevent someone from functioning normally. It’s hard to hold a steady job, maintain a healthy relationship, etc. while suffering from delusions.

    So, what is it when someone claims to have a “divine revelation” and their entire outlook on life turns around in less than a minute? And you see that change positively manifested in their daily lives? Was that a “delusion”? If so, I’d take more in a heartbeat. 🙂

    If you thought your keys were on the counter and you wanted to pick them up before leaving your place, how do you go about it? You go to the counter and look. If the keys aren’t there, what kind of explanations come to mind about finding them? What epistemology do you follow if the goal is to actually find the keys? That’s the epistemology that works in this world, but it is all too often discarded when one substitutes god for the keys. If the goal is to actually find god, the epistemology should remain the same. If the keys are never found, then we claim them lost and move on. One is not arrogant to come to that conclusion nor strident to think all of us should just get over the lost keys and move on.

    Where’d I get the idea that I had keys in the first place? Did someone tell me that I did and I simply believed them even though I’d never seen them before? And if that is the case, how did that person come to believe that I had keys? Did he see them or did someone tell him that I had keys? And we can continue in this search for justification ad infinitum…or you conclude that someone at the beginning of the chain actually saw the keys or someone at the beginning of the chain simply made up the idea of the keys and other people simply believed they existed without seeing them…but that would be an odd sort of mutation to successfully evolve, don’t you think?

    Comment by Natassia — October 8, 2010 @ 12:27 am | Reply

  6. All the evidence overwhelmingly supports evolution to the extent that this theory underlies modern biology and we use it successfully to produce technologies and medicines that work. We can trace our common ancestry through genetics to pre-Cambrian blood worms.

    Now, that is not true.

    We can trace our common ancestry to a single woman through the study of mitochondrial DNA. That’s it. We have no genetic evidence that homo sapiens evolved from something non-human.

    Unless you are suggesting that god went Poof! to create the first microbes, then we really do know where life on earth today came from: life on earth yesterday.

    That was my point. Life comes from life. If life today came from life yesterday, and life yesterday came from life the day before, if we continue with that basic common sense assumption, eventually we get to the point of the “first life” on earth. So, where did that come from?

    And we can trace that lineage through common ancestry far into deep time to simpler and simpler biological expressions of life. We share a full third of our genes with carrots, for crying out loud.

    Okay, now you are being unscientific and illogical. We have similar building blocks to every other living thing on this planet (proteins, cells, etc.) This does not mean that we share a common ancestor.

    Also, the Cambrian explosion puts a wrinkle in that idea that we evolved from single cell creatures. A cartilaginous fish of the Cambrian era was just as complex as the sharks swimming in our ocean today…and we have NO IDEA how that fish suddenly appeared in the waters.

    What you are referring to (I think) is biogenesis: the very first life form. And yes, we can only surmise what it might have been. But that is not evidence for any outside interference or infusion: it’s a biochemical event that will one day be duplicated in a lab, I have little doubt, but we will never know if the creation of life we bring about is the same as what actually happened. But we safely assume it would be similar if we use the same building blocks.

    Don’t you see how much faith you are putting in your belief that life came about through abiogenesis? You assert, as if it were true, that the generation of original life is a biochemical event that will one day be duplicated in a lab…and you make that assertion as if it would prove that life does not need a creator. What would that make the researcher and his specially designed lab?!

    What evolutionary biology does is put to rest the notion that people were created by divine intervention or came from a single male/female pairing. The evidence simply does not back this up. We evolved like every other creature and plant on the planet, and we are all related to each other.

    Again, there is no evidence that “we are all related to each other.”

    If god did interfere with the process in any way, it did so only at the earliest of stages. And that kind of belief is innocuous because it simply doesn’t matter. After all, there is reason why 96.5% of biologists do not believe god or gods exist: they find no biological evidence in its favour. Sure, that’s disappointing for the believers, but it’s based on where the evidence leads us. And there’s no evidence of any kind of divine intervention.

    Would it be so unreasonable to believe that life itself has been given the capability to evolve “intelligently”? That life itself has a creative force? That maybe environments compel that creative force to mutate DNA in order to promote the survival of a species rather than through random, spontaneous mutations?

    And yes, we do have to be careful about our reasoning. We have to be careful upon what epistemological framework we ask our questions; after all, if they are unknowable, then we’re asking the wrong kind of questions. For example, the question “What kind of physics existed prior to the big bang?” is unknowable because we have no evidence upon which to base our assertion and no way to verify whatever answers we come up with. But because some questions are unknowable does not give us license to insert whatever we wish for an answer. The honest answer is “I don’t know.”

    Then why can’t people just say, “I don’t know what was before the Big Bang or what caused the Big Bang or how life formed on earth or the origin of species” ?

    Wouldn’t that mean that the LOGICAL and HONEST thinker would admit that he is an agnostic rather than an atheist? It seems arrogant to admit that you don’t know the answers to those questions and yet deny the possibility that God could be the answer.

    Comment by Natassia — October 8, 2010 @ 10:57 am | Reply

    • Why do I hear the creationist tome in your words? That’s theology speaking and not science. That’s the lack of knowledge speaking and not knowledge. I’m not going to attempt to explain why evolution is as much fact as gravity and germs. That’s your job. And it’s a fantastic undertaking that will enrich your life immeasurably. To deny evolution is just silly when every avenue of honest inquiry reveals mutual support for its veracity and applicability. Only certain theologies attempt to refute it and those that do spectacularly fail to offer up some other, some better explanation except more unverifiable theology. It’s a fool’s game.

      An atheist does not believe in any deities because there are no good reasons to. You’re not agnostic about Muk Muk of the Volcano or Zeus. You simply have no good reason to believe any of these deities are real and interact in the world. That’s honest. If you suggest that you don’t know for sure if Muk Muk is real and therefore will hold out the possibility that he may be real and interactive in the world, then I think you are being dishonest. You are not agnostic about any god except the one you believe in. Oh, sure, you can claim to be agnostic to win Muk Muk friends, and influence Zeus believers, but without good reasons to believe in the likelihood of Muk Muk’s existence and interactions, for all intents and purposes you are an atheist about Muk Muk as much as you are about Zeus. That’s why an agnostic is really nothing more and nothing less than an cowardly atheist. By all means hold open the possibility that you can change your mind if you have good reasons to do so, but you are not being honest if you think it is shows intellectual integrity to say I don’t know when there is zero evidence to suggest that there is some compelling contrary evidence to the default.

      We don’t believe a pink invisible elephant will drop from the sky on your cat today because there is zero evidence that it is a reasonable possibility. It is an entirely unreasonable possibility. If someone were to ask you if you thought such an event were likely, you would be honest in reply of “No, I don’t believe so.” If you were to answer “Gosh, I really don’t know,” because the possibility is always present, then I don’t think you are being honest. A slim possibility for the claim does not equal the lack of evidence against the claim. Overwhelmingly, a lack of good reasons is not a feature of a balanced approach to intellectual integrity and honesty but a highly skewed perspective where nothing can be known and nothing can be dismissed. And then we’re all equally likely to be living brains in a vat as people with lives to be lived.

      Comment by tildeb — October 8, 2010 @ 12:03 pm | Reply

      • “We don’t believe a pink invisible elephant will drop from the sky on your cat today because there is zero evidence that it is a reasonable possibility.”
        I believe I’ve explained to you before that the reason is that we understand those words in such a way that this is so. Pink, invisible whatever is incoherent. (But if someone is telling you that you’re about to get hit on the head by a kindonner, you may want to be on the lookout for what he might be referring to before disregarding such a possibility.)

        “And then we’re all equally likely to be living brains in a vat as people with lives to be lived.”
        But what you don’t seem to understand is that then that could be neither what we call brain nor what we call vat.

        Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 8, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

      • Okay, let me try to make my stance clear.

        I believe that evolution happens. I believe that species change over time. I believe that within a species, natural selection plays an incredibly important part in determining the changes that develop. I’m sure natural selection played a part in the various skin colors of homo sapiens, the various genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia among black Africans to deal with malaria, etc.

        But what I do not believe — because there is no evidence for it — is that the human species has evolved from the ancestors of apes through natural selection of RANDOM mutations.

        It’s the RANDOM part I have the hardest time with because it just doesn’t make sense and there is no evidence for it.

        P.S. I saw a picture of a pink hippo.

        Comment by Natassia — October 8, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

  7. Natassia, you write You’ve just completely invalidated the spirit (soul) despite the fact that most of the people on this planet believe they have one.

    Right. There is no evidence that we have a ‘soul’ in the sense it is a discrete entity. What we have is a word that describes a sense of something more than its constituent parts, something that seems to be separate and distinct. But is it?

    You know, N, what you hear is not actual, what you see is not actual, and what you feel is not actual. All of sense data, all of our pattern recognition, all of our models we use to explain our selves and the world are brain processes. What you hear as music, for example, is what you have after your brain processes the signals. What you see as a colour is what your brain assigns to that wavelength of radiation. We assume (understandably so) that our brains and perspectives accurately reflect the world in which we are immersed. That assumption is wrong. What our brains do is interpret input and processes into meaning.

    For example, once upon a time we believed that the nature of the eye was to see, that we saw through our eyes, and that what we saw was in actuality really there. We gave the eye all kinds of properties that allowed us to see and, conversely, understood damage to the eye was damage to our ability to see. Now we know better. It is our brains that see. We can alter the input device that collects data and still be able to see. We can see in real time three dimensionally with only our skin (how cool is that) and interpret the input to produce stunning and accurate visual images in our brain! Vision is a brain process.

    In the same way, we have to be careful when assign properties to a soul. It may seem reasonable to explain what we are experiencing, but is it actual? Do these properties actually belong to a soul? The mounting evidence is that there is no such thing; the feeling we have seems to be another interpretive brain process because we can alter and create and remove these feelings using stuff that affects very specific parts of the brain.

    We have two hemispheres in our brain that ‘talk’ to each other. The affect of this bicameral brain seems to be particularly relevant in religious experiences. We can duplicate what many report as a religious transformative experience by impeding the electrical functioning of a certain spot of the brain in the right hemisphere. Subject reports are striking: a disembodied voice that is both deeply familiar yet separate, a voice of a knowledgeable dead person, a separate presence that is both comforting yet intimately aware of one’s self, and so on. Stroke victims with damage or interference to a certain spot in the left hemisphere lose any ability to discriminate between the body and the world beyond, self report powerful feelings of peace, love, tranquility, happiness, contentment, being in the presence of a universe that loves you – being part of it but slightly removed, encumbered by a body, but having a spiritual presence that flows and ebbs and infuses with a universe that embraces one with love, and so on.

    It is understandable that people who have these experiences find them powerful and transformative. It is understandable that what these people have experienced they want to share. But we have to remember that even first hand accounts are an interpretation carried out by the brain. If the person assigns a religious meaning to the event, then the event is presented as a religious event. The key here is to appreciate just how central to our interpretations is this notion of meaning. By changing that perspective, we can alter the conclusions derived from the event. The event is the same but how we interpret it tells us more about ourselves and what is meaningful to us than it does the event itself.

    If you want to know what’s true (for MT’s sake I’ll change that to read what’s probably true, probably correct, probably accurate) then we have to reduce, and not rely on, the subjective interpretation as much as possible.

    Comment by tildeb — October 8, 2010 @ 11:15 am | Reply

    • “If you want to know what’s true… then we have to reduce, and not rely on, the subjective interpretation as much as possible.”
      Then how are we to determine if a stoplight is red, yellow, or green? Whatsoever is commonly accessible to subjectivities of our world, such determines the objective truth of world (hence the expectation in the scientific method that results be reproducible)—does it not? If not, how do we actually know what’s behind anything? What we see as a brain is made up of cells and intercellular interactions, and cells are made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms, which are made of a nucleus and electron shells, and the nucleus has protons and usually neutrons, and these are made up of quarks, and God only knows what might lie beyond. It’s possible, yes, but not at all practical, to describe things this way. Just let me call you tildeb, for Pete’s sake.

      Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 8, 2010 @ 2:20 pm | Reply

    • “What we have is a word that describes a sense of something more than its constituent parts, something that seems to be separate and distinct.”
      Exactly! (And the orthodox position regarding the relation between matter and spirit is distinct but inseparable. And it is by discernment of the spirit that I’ve recognized there to be the soul “tildeb”, and in the same way do I know my God lives.)

      Comment by Matthew Tweedell — October 8, 2010 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

    • Right. There is no evidence that we have a ‘soul’ in the sense it is a discrete entity. What we have is a word that describes a sense of something more than its constituent parts, something that seems to be separate and distinct. But is it?

      Well, I think that’s what we use the term “human being” for as opposed to just “human.” One insinuates a soul–personhood. The other simply expresses our particular species. Like when we find a body part at a murder scene: “That leg is human. It belonged to a human being.”

      Care to define being? 🙂

      You know, N, what you hear is not actual, what you see is not actual, and what you feel is not actual. All of sense data, all of our pattern recognition, all of our models we use to explain our selves and the world are brain processes. What you hear as music, for example, is what you have after your brain processes the signals. What you see as a colour is what your brain assigns to that wavelength of radiation. We assume (understandably so) that our brains and perspectives accurately reflect the world in which we are immersed. That assumption is wrong. What our brains do is interpret input and processes into meaning.

      You know, you’re not making a whole lot of sense to me, tildeb.

      First you tell me that I must use methodological epistemology to gain knowledge, and yet you tell me that I can’t really gain knowledge with my five senses since they don’t actually tell me the truth as it really is but only as I perceive it to be.

      At that point, how can you logically prove anything is true or untrue?

      IS the sky really “blue” or does it just “look blue” to us? Are we the ultimate judge of what is or what is not?

      First you tell me that we are, at least it seems that way when you charge that we must use some sort of man-made method in order to justify our assertions…and then you tell me that we aren’t, since what we perceive is not necessarily what is actual.

      So, what is THE truth, tildeb?

      For example, once upon a time we believed that the nature of the eye was to see, that we saw through our eyes, and that what we saw was in actuality really there. We gave the eye all kinds of properties that allowed us to see and, conversely, understood damage to the eye was damage to our ability to see. Now we know better. It is our brains that see. We can alter the input device that collects data and still be able to see. We can see in real time three dimensionally with only our skin (how cool is that) and interpret the input to produce stunning and accurate visual images in our brain! Vision is a brain process.

      I suppose it depends on what you mean by the word “see.” Sometimes see just means to literally visualize something. Other times it means to know. A blind man can “see” something with his hands as in “to know it”, but he will never be able to see color. That requires an eye. But, what does this have anything to do with simply KNOWING one has a soul without actually detecting it with the five senses?

      Stroke victims with damage or interference to a certain spot in the left hemisphere lose any ability to discriminate between the body and the world beyond, self report powerful feelings of peace, love, tranquility, happiness, contentment, being in the presence of a universe that loves you – being part of it but slightly removed, encumbered by a body, but having a spiritual presence that flows and ebbs and infuses with a universe that embraces one with love, and so on.

      Okay, but does that such things don’t exist just because that person can no longer perceive them? Just because that person can no longer feel love, does that mean that they are no longer loved?

      I’m not really sure what you’re trying to prove here.

      Good grief, with this kind of line of thinking, it’s as if nothing truly is KNOWABLE. Things are only perceivable.

      Comment by Natassia — October 8, 2010 @ 2:39 pm | Reply

      • You’ve written a lot here and I’m not sure where to begin with my response. So I’ll just pick a spot about trying to make sense.

        I am attempting to show why it is so very difficult to assume there exists some absolute truth.

        We are biological interpretive machines. That’s what we do. We assign meaning; we don’t ‘discover’ it so much as we are constantly trying to fit the data into making cohesive sense. We seek reliability from the patterns we detect make them useful. So we create something similar to road maps in our minds to account for the patterns, to account for the data. And all this takes place in our heads. That’s what our higher cognition is constantly doing: trying to make sense through assigning meaning. When that works for us, we think we have interpreted correctly but then we make a very common mistake: we assume that our meaning that works for us is an accurate reflection of what exists out there. We assume the music we hear exists as we hear it out there when it in fact doesn’t. We assume the sights we see exist as we see it out there when in fact it doesn’t. What we are hearing and seeing is the processed data – the final product, so to speak. The raw data exists out there in a form unrecognizable as music or a thing that has reflected the part of the visible spectrum we can biologically detect. But what we hear and see doesn’t exist as we hear and see it in the real world. What we hear and see is interpreted data made into a recognizable pattern to which we have assigned meaning.

        I say all this to reveal why our assumptions about what truly exists out there is so heavily influenced by what goes on in our brains. But our brains are ever subject to environmental influences… some emphasized more than others by our care givers. When we adults create a template or a road map that we think helps this interpretive process and successfully pass that on to our young through something we call education but is experienced by the child as learning, we adults are laying down a neural framework in our young that we tell them has meaning. When the young begin to fit data into their borrowed road map we have helped them to build, we hope it proves useful. When we instruct the young to create a framework based on certain ideas, certain notions, certain underlying structure, we help them to scaffold data into ever more complex and meaningful map, which we take to be evidence that the ideas, notions, and structure accurately reflect what’s out there. We adults do far more, of course, but in a nutshell we affect how our young think. I hope I have adequately explained how what we are teaching isn’t just about the stuff we are teaching; I have tried to explain very quickly what we are actually doing is influencing how that young brain develops. THAT is what is carried into adulthood: neural pathways developed over time that interpret data in this most familiar way.

        Now along comes ‘higher’ education where our road maps are directly challenged. We are taught to think about how we think. We are taught to refine our thinking and use criticism to intentionally challenge the supremacy of these pathways, to create environmental stimulation by unfamiliar resources that forces us to build more efficient, more diffuse, neural pathways. The plasticity of the brain allows us to build and scaffold different road maps – different ways of thinking – and to learn how best to utilize the ones we think are most meaningful in a given situation.

        All of this, of course, is more of an idealized role of education, where upon graduation the student has learned enough to become the teacher. And all of us are, to greater and lesser degrees of effectiveness (excuse the pun).

        Now we come to the part of this lengthy comment about ‘knowing’ and how that fits into how well our brains interpret what’s really out there. This is the part about epistemology.

        In the various ways to think (and there are many different ways to think, different frameworks we can use) we have developed certain methods that have proven their effectiveness through consistency of results that are both practical and reliable. There are many such methods, but the one I wish to clarify is the one we call the scientific method. When it comes to developing an understanding (an interpretation to be sure), we have found that strict adherence to this method produces remarkable results that are not only consistent, not only effective, but that stimulates and scaffolds even more productive routes of inquiry that yield ever greater consistent results. And this is really important when it comes to reducing the variables that accompany each interpretation we have. By this I mean the interpreted results of, say, a chemical interaction in one place is identical to the interpreted results of that chemical interaction in another. No matter who is doing the interpretation, the method is such that it all but eliminates the subjective element by means of recreating identical results. A cohesive interpretation not dependent on any one person’s interpretation is developed that yields consistency about revealing what is out there. We call that knowledge. No matter what road map you may be using, this method works, works reliably well over time, and consistently yields practical knowledge not dependent on the person using the method. This method reliably produces explanations of cause with effect along with the mechanism necessary to link the two that can be repeated by anyone, anywhere, at any time and yield the same result. That’s a huge achievement for any species.

        If you really want to find out what’s out there, then the more you rely on subjective interpretations, the less likely it will be to produce cohesive, reliable, consistent, and practical results that stimulates even more inquiry. These subjective interpretations may be highly meaningful on a personal level, and they may match up beautifully with what feels to be the most comfortable and satisfying route to take on our cherished road map passed on to us from our care givers, and the subjective interpretations may agree with whatever method of thinking we feel best suits us, but what these subjective interpretations of what is out there won’t do is produce cohesive, reliable, consistent, and practical results that stimulates even more inquiry.

        And that’s exactly the result we would expect to find in a method of thinking like religious belief dependent on self revelation about what’s out there.

        Comment by tildeb — October 9, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

  8. In other words, we can’t really know anything.

    And the scientific method only works for things that are of the natural world.

    Do you believe the natural world is the only thing that exists?

    I mean, isn’t a “miracle” by definition something that defies the natural world? Or do you not believe miracles happen?

    Have you ever heard of someone having a brain stem stroke (a thrombosis in the artery that feeds the brain stem), going unconscious and into respiratory arrest, requiring the ventilator, and then recovering and waking up the next day without any medication or surgery? And then walking and feeding himself that same week? And 95% normal within a matter of months?

    And you know what the doctors had to say?

    Uhhhhhhh

    They couldn’t figure out how the stroke happened, and they didn’t know where the clot went, and they couldn’t understand how he recovered so quickly.

    But I’m sure that could all be duplicated in a lab via the scientific method. 🙂

    See, what brought me to the point where I considered that maybe there is more out there than nothing were the questions left unanswered by science. And the biggest question of all was “What’s the point?”

    Comment by Natassia — October 10, 2010 @ 12:07 am | Reply

    • We are talking apples and oranges: I am talking about a method to come to know about what’s out there and why that method works and how we know it works. You are talking about believing in forces of oogity boogity without any method to establish what that means.

      Filling in unanswered answers with goddidit doesn’t mean anything, other than create a false sense of having an answer. But the problem is that such an answer doesn’t answer anything. And the Big Clue is that you keep arriving at the same answer for different questions, leading us to recall Douglas Adam’s brilliant and satirical equivalent answer of “42”.

      As for your deep fear of a ‘pointless’ life if the answer isn’t Goddidit, for your own sake you will have to cope. I suggest you read Sartre’s short essay on the Myth of Sisyphus and appreciate what he means by ‘absurd’ and I will be glad to have an intelligent discussion about creating meaning and purpose in life without feeling that oogity boogity is a better ‘guide’ than our selves.

      Comment by tildeb — October 10, 2010 @ 10:30 am | Reply


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