Thank you, thomashwalker2 for your comment on the recent post titled Ask an Atheist (or Christian) Series – Please Comment With Your Questions. I’ll write a follow-up post in a few days about what it would take to convince me (Russell) that God exists. This post is a more general response to your comment that follows:
It is not possible to prove scientifically that there is a God or that there isn’t a God to a mind that has already decided. Nobody is neutral and unbiased that has lived for even a short period of time. Trying to get an atheist to believe in God by changing their mind is an exercise in futility. People don’t become Christians because they changed their minds or were convinced by studying pile of scholarly data, but by a change of the heart. This isn’t an esoteric statement, but a simplified answer as to how spiritual enlightenment is achieved as opposed to intellectual advancements. There is a physical and a spiritual reality.
Thomas, I would like to seek clarification for a few things you mentioned and ask a question of you. I’ll start with this excerpt. Please forgive and let me know if I misrepresent or misinterpret you. A warning – I fear I’m going to be far too literal more than once in this post as I try to work out my objections to an argument that you might not even be intending to make. I hope that, if nothing else, making it through this will help you (or I) better understand the way I think. 🙂
It is not possible to prove scientifically that there is a God or that there isn’t a God …
I completely agree that it is not possible to prove the nonexistence of everything which might be considered a God (e.g. logically invalidate every God-claim). I also think it is possible to demonstrate that at least some specific God-claims cannot exist as coherent conceptual models in our minds (e.g. if said God’s nature is self-conflicting in a way that solidly breaks fundamental laws of logic as we understand them). Perhaps such a God could still exist outside of our reality, but it would be hard to justify confidence that these types of God-claims reflect something that could exist, since we couldn’t understand them (I’m reminded of Flatland). Also, depending on your meaning of proof (I will resist getting deep into epistemology here), I could think of ways to satisfy a level of certainty approaching proof that a certain type of God does exist (assuming He does and we could distinguish His actions from those of intelligent, advanced natural agents, which isn’t so clear). Lacking sufficient evidence for proof, I can think of many God-claims that are plausible – one or more of which could potentially represent a God that exists and governs the natural order. All of this assumes we have a working definition of the God-claim(s) that we can agree upon. So, I agree with your statement in general, but I thought it worth hinting at my thoughts on some of the more complicated specifics.
Trying to get an atheist to believe in God by changing their mind is an exercise in futility.
I want to spend some time trying to process this concept in words. I’m curious about what I believe is your claim here, but I may be misreading you. Perhaps you can clarify in a response. Here are my initial thoughts.
I’ve heard this sentiment on many sides of the (a)theistic divides. [Christians|Pentecostals|Muslims|Jehova’s Witnesses|Mormons|Atheists|etc.] are beyond convincing with reason because their minds are already made up. I think I understand where you are going – belief in God is often thought to ultimately be a heart/spiritual/God-orchestrated change, not a mental one. I think I understand the argument, but I’m struggling to understand how it is sound. I’m hoping you can help. We would probably both agree that beliefs aren’t always fixed and unchangeable for life. I’ve written about beliefs in many posts here, including how we come to them, how they change, the roadblocks to change, the effect that the certainty of different beliefs has on the framework of other beliefs in our mental model of reality (e.g. the crossword puzzle analogy I came up with to describe this interdependence with other beliefs – which I recently learned was already used widely when discussing coherentism), Bayes’ Theorem, my own feeble attempts at equations to represent the belief cascade, neuroscience, etc. My experience has been that my beliefs are not chosen, but are a consequence of evidences and the relative weight I put on those evidences based upon what I understand at the time.
As for the mind vs heart comments, I think we need to break it down a bit more. I believe things through a combination of factors including heart – which is really just inner/core parts of the brain – and the outer reasoning parts (that structural analogy is oversimplified and there’s a whole lot of overlap in brain functions, but I’m going to use it for this post).
Our predecessors created and repeatedly modified the rules and process of science (the modification is continuing today) as a way to train ourselves, not just to avoid cognitive biases and other logical fallacies (common traps for both the “outer” and “inner-minds,” reason and emotion, working together), but to combat our natural tendency to overly trust the “heart” parts when assessing reality because they are tuned more for achieving survival, comfort, pleasure, pain-avoidance, etc., not objective truth. Might they be right in the spiritual areas? Sure. But how do we measure one person’s subjective spiritual experience from another person’s and objectively justify a statement about who was right? There is efficacy in things like hope which are often believed to have a spiritual source. However, in almost every case, exposing testable spiritual claims to tests continually fails to objectively demonstrate that such claims lead to reliable physical outcomes (beyond the odds of chance by consistently disproving their null hypotheses) – as you alluded to in the idea that we can’t scientifically prove God.
If God can cause a spiritual change in the “heart” portions of the brain to bring about salvation, does that remove the burden of trying to convince non-believers with written words, an open breakfast invitation, and a life well-lived, as my great friend Pascal is doing? I don’t believe you think so. I’m just clarifying. It may be true that we can’t convince people who are certain in their opposing beliefs. However, “heart” changes often start from “head” changes. People think differently. Also, not all atheists are certain in their beliefs. I actually don’t know of any who are. The newest trend is for agnostics to take the label atheist, because it is more accurate and relevant (describing their belief position rather than just their knowledge position). My guess is that most people who call themselves atheists today are what you would traditionally think of as agnostic, because many choose the definition a(without)-theist(god) – which means they lack a positive belief in God claim X, but doesn’t imply that they positively believe their is no God.
Given all this, the notion that it isn’t possible to convince an “atheist” (read this to mean what many people think of as agnostic) to believe in God seems counterproductive. Aren’t these lost souls we’re talking about? Is the cold calculus that it is better to spend time on the low-hanging fruit (which atheists, as opposed to unreached people groups, are not)? How far does The Great Commission reach? If trying to convince atheists is futile, what physical thing other than prayer are you advocating that believers do in order to reach the skeptics? Shouldn’t believers use every possible method available to win people over? Is the solution to pray for them, but if they ask questions or try to engage, just turn away or deflect the argument? I’m honestly just curious. I’m definitely not presuming you’re saying this, but some people I know in the fold feel this way, very strongly. I hear it often in our Sunday School class. It’s anecdotal, but their approach when hypothetically finding out someone is an atheist is to say this conversation isn’t worth my time because nothing can convince the atheist except a “heart change.” They literally will stop all engagement with the person. I know this happens in all belief circles, not just Christian –> atheist. Every reader can likely think of examples.
I wish people (myself included) focused less on being right and more on the value of the process – listening, challenging and being challenged. Where most beliefs are concerned, be it spiritual enlightenment for this God or that, this political platform, that soccer team, etc., the focus is usually on getting the right answer as soon as possible, reaffirming that answer to ourselves to reduce our anxiety, and digging in our heels and holding onto it to preserve it as a system of beliefs grows up around and supported by it. In science, it’s different. The overall process of science is more important than any particular conclusion. Perhaps that’s why I’m struggling with this. I’ll press on.
Evidence shows that many people successfully reason into and out of strong beliefs during their lives (often multiple times) depending on the strength of the data at hand and how their present experiences/knowledge lead them to interpret that data. One could try to claim that it isn’t reasoning they’re using, but rather reasoning is how they describe the “heart” change after they’ve been convinced. Without compelling evidence, however, that claim is either just a change of definitions about what constitutes “reasoning,” or it’s an unjustifiable assertion of the source of complex and conflated mental processes. Either way, isn’t that very statement, that only a heart-change will convince you, an argument itself – one meant to be processed by the mind?
I was convinced that the Bible was trustworthy partially because of all the scholarly data I believed, in addition to the heart change. It came together. As a young child, that scholarly data was essentially in the form of my natural trust in my parents and authority figures who told me Christ was real (and loved me and was always with me – just what any child in similar circumstances would long to believe). If I’d been born in Iran I would very likely have believed in Muhammed, peace be upon him. In my early adult years scholarly data played a large role in convincing me about new areas of belief and faith. It also provided a buttress against doubt, as did worship music.
Worship music is still surreal to this day. It’s both compelling and haunting. I find it interesting that such a high percentage of Christian music is about reaffirming the worshipper that God is real. As a skeptic, lately I’ve wondered if He desires worship because He desires it, or if we project upon an anthopromophipsed God-figure that He desires worship partially so that we can fulfill our own need to convince ourselves through yearning, song that he is real. An evolution of faiths, if you will. The ones that had or adapted a way to fight off doubt (and won the birth rate race) survived and the others did not. Either way, worship touches the “heart” and I want to engage in it, but I can’t because the “mind” won’t be quiet about the fallacies it perceives.
Mind/heart is a nice historic analogy, but isn’t it all really just the head? The mind at work, making complex decisions based upon many arguing systems, some of which are more traditionally heart (emotion/survival) driven and some of which are prefrontal cortex/reasoning driven, but most of which have intricate dependencies and overlapping functions? Aren’t beliefs arrived at (at least in part) by the strength of argumentation relevant to the mind based on what it can process at certain stages in life? In the end, whether there’s a spirit world fighting for our hearts (manipulating the neurochemistry in our lower/back/middle-brain regions) or not, we know that argumentation is demonstrably effective and convinces people of things – and isn’t limited to just the prefrontal cortex. Chemical responses from other parts of the brain can influence, support, overwhelm and overcome it. And those parts are susceptible to the effects of relevant argumentation. When the “heart” is changed, by any means, it can rarely if ever be demonstrated that the agent of change was outside of the scope of what constitutes an “argument for the mind” (e.g. a car crash kills a friend and the emotion helps to convince someone to wear a seatbelt from now on – it’s still an argument to be evaluated, but one backed by the added power of emotion/heart portions of the brain which can tip the scales in favor of seatbelts).
Phrased in this language, it sounds like your stance is that in order for something to be convincing, it must originate from a change in the structural arrangement of the specific neurons in the emotional sections of their brain (what we call the “heart”). I know you’re not being this specific. Haha. I’m just getting it out. I’m unclear of how one could elicit such a thought from those areas of the brain without also involving at least some of the physiology in the non-emotional areas (since they overlap so much and are so interdependent). The traditional theistic thinking is that’s where the spiritual element steps in and tweaks the neurochemistry to make such a thought or belief occur. I don’t even have a problem with that. It might happen. However, it seems clear to me that unless someone is pulling my spiritual strings consistently at the right times, my beliefs are highly correlated with the arguments I hear. As such, it’s hard for me to say that rational argumentation isn’t a valid means of effecting and emotional/heart position. I’m of the view, and my guess is that you would agree, that we should not dismiss discussing facts and evidences just because they sometimes don’t work. That doesn’t make them futile.
Also, your statement sounds like you’re advocating giving up. Again, it’s very possible I’m misreading you. I apologize for that. I don’t want you to give up on me. I want to have faith and be able to believe as you, Pascal, and the other believing readers do. If you are giving up on engaging with atheists, I urge you to reconsider. Successful argumentation of any form results in “planting seeds.” You can’t know what argument will be effective for an individual until you make it. I’ve heard many stories of atheists who turn to Christ (and people in other belief circles that moved to still others) based largely on the information and arguments they heard. The “heart” probably changed along with their change of mind, but many of them describe decisions that were based upon the arguments. They were convinced.
It’s also not about proof. Science doesn’t prove things, only disproves them. Just because things can’t be proved doesn’t mean evidence isn’t helpful in justifying belief for or against them.
Consider engaging non-believers in these issues, or at least be supportive of and promote those believers who do. At the end of the day, the fisherman will bring home more fish than the ostrich. Yes, I thought that line up myself. Yes, you can use it. 🙂
This is what I’m asking myself based on some possible implications from similar comments I’ve heard. Why would we want to put trust in something that is immune to challenges against its veracity? What does it say about a belief system if it can’t be swayed by evidence? How much confidence should we have in a set of beliefs that we can’t be reasoned into, but must be convinced of by our most untrustworthy brain regions (those that constitute the “heart”) until we believe strongly enough to push past the doubts of our more trustworthy regions – just long enough for pattern matching, confirmation bias, argumentum ad populum (among many others) to kick in and keep it going? If science and the philosophers of science through the ages have told us that we should avoid these logical fallacies if we want the best chance of finding answers that accord with both transcendent logic and physical reality, should we ignore their warnings and give our mind free reign to follow our “heart” just because the topic is related to the supernatural? The supernatural is a philosophical realm that is technically unknowable by definition. I’m of the opinion we should bring to bear all the tools we have acquired over the last 2500 years for keeping our beliefs in proportion with the evidence, especially when it comes to unknowable things. If not, we may find ourselves committing murder and suicide with a bomb in order to demonstrate that our beliefs are worthy. Or we may end up with the strong opinion that those who think differently aren’t worth the effort it takes to learn from and reason with them.
There is a physical and a spiritual reality.
Almost certainly and maybe. We can be most certain in the existence of a physical reality of some sort (if only conceptual depending on your philosophy, e.g. solipsism, some forms of rationalism, etc.). I think most people would agree with high confidence that there is a physical reality. What we consider the spiritual reality may exist, and some or all of it may even be definable under the umbrella of physical reality if we could understand it. There are many ways to define it, so I don’t want to assume too much on your meaning. This is getting very long so I won’t get into examples. If you count transcendent reality as spiritual reality, then I agree that there is a spiritual plane of existence (though I wouldn’t call it that). If you mean something beyond laws of logic, numbers, etc., (and I think you do) it seems a tough subject to have high confidence in. It seems to be, by definition, something we can’t grasp, or can’t learn enough about to understand and that which is very difficult to distinguish from the imagination. It’s also unfortunate that beliefs or actions that are claimed to have been spiritually influenced have failed to be demonstrably different in nature from beliefs or actions that are perfectly explainable by natural, non-spiritual influences. If the only way it communicates with us is through our heart – which is an inner, older, and less-trustworthy part of our mind – and if that just happens to be the same exact way our subjective imaginations, dreams (literally sleeping dreams and waking aspirations), fears, loves, hurts and hopes manifest to our conscious/thinking outer reasoning brain – how are we to distinguish the bad taco from the numinous?
Just because the thought that bubbles up to our conscious mind is in line with scripture doesn’t mean we can trust it is from the spiritual realm, right? I’m suspicious when the information claimed to have been given to different people from the spiritual realm doesn’t seem to agree. The physical reality, at a base level, is very likely real. Without a good understanding of what is from this spiritual realm and what isn’t, it’s hard to have high confidence that the spiritual reality you’re speaking of is a real thing, possessing authority and handing us certain thoughts or beliefs. It might be. I have hope, but unfortunately, not enough confidence for belief.
Thomas, after writing all this, my guess is that we actually probably agree on most points, but I got caught on some specific wording that confused me. You didn’t even ask a question. Haha. Thanks for reading all this, if you did. 🙂
My question for you, Pascal, and anyone else who made it this far is this:
How do you confidently distinguish the spiritual from the imaginary?
If you can share a simple way to do this that seems reliable, it might be the beginning of an argument that could convince an atheist to believe.
Gentleness and respect,