On Evidence and Faith

old fashioned scale

Dear Russell & Friends,

I hope this Saturday morning finds you well.  Yes uncleE and other friends in Australia, I realize it is almost Sunday.  This has been a week like all others.  One fiftieth of another year elapsed.  I do not know what proportion that year represents of my supposed middle aged life.  A treasured work colleague one year younger than me died suddenly yesterday.  His partner, our community, and I grieve.

Because I don’t know if I’m in the middle or a day from the end, the conversation here means more to me.  You mean more to me.  I’m sorry for doubting it.  No — that’s not true.  Doubt is part of who I am and a reason I feel drawn to you.  Reason.  That’s what I’d like to address this morning.  I’m grateful to Mike for his guest post and the respect that he showed in our home here.  He is a thoughtful atheist who is willing to talk.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)

Mike quoted this scripture in a dialogue with Eric (uncleE) about evidence and faith.  It started with a comment that Mike offered in his guest post.  I’d like to provide the paragraph before as well for needed context.

I’m all about secularity and think people should be free to choose religion or non-religion. If anyone tried to take religious folks rights away to choose a religion, I would be in the front lines with them.

However, I will not pretend that I agree with religion – Christian or otherwise, and I’m certainly not adverse to sharing my views and doing my best to convince others to embrace evidence based thinking instead of faith.

The first paragraph is important to me because I need to emulate it.  I need to stand for people whose convictions I do not share.  I live in America, an imperfect place.  But one blessing that I should not take for granted is the ability to speak without being stifled.  How can I realize that blessing without defending it for another?  That was the core of Mike’s first paragraph and I appreciate it.

The second paragraph is important to me because Russell and I have often reached a point of impasse here.  Is the word instead correct?  I feel that it is the pivot of the sentence at least, likely the paragraph, perhaps the thesis.

Back to Mike’s scripture reference.  It is one of my favorites and I chose to use the King James Version because I remember it from childhood and it has the words evidence and faith in close juxtaposition.  As a Christ follower in a scientific vocation, this verse has meant the world to me.

Is faith blind?  Is it always required?  The text in Hebrews says that faith is the substance of things hoped for.  Is faith needed for things already realized?  Probably not.  I do not have faith for a table.  I’m sitting at it.  Is faith the substance of my hope for my children to follow Christ?  It is.  Is faith separated from hard work?  By no means.  My favorite epistle is James.  Martin Luther called it the epistle of straw.  I don’t particularly like Martin Luther.  James said that faith without works is dead.  So, if my faith that my sons will follow Christ is to have life, should I lead an authentic life worthy of imitation?  I argue yes.  I have faith – – belief – – in what I hope for but have not yet realized.  That faith is coupled with effort.  I can not have faith that Mike and I can continue respectful dialogue.  I have to be willing to write letters and to carefully read his.

Faith is the evidence of things not seen.  Allow me to be clear.  I am an old earth creationist.  I believe that God created the universe by authoring natural laws and allowed us to evolve to sentience.  I don’t think he directed every mutation.  He could have, but the scientific evidence does not point that way.  I don’t believe that Genesis is literal.  I do believe it is completely true.  As a student and lover of language, allegory has never bothered me.  In biological science, I have some degree of expertise.  In physical science, I have enough knowledge to plumb the depths of my own ignorance.  In social science, I have compassion, but not Mike’s degree of professional knowledge, expertise and practice.  As an aside, social workers are some of my favorite people on earth.  How is faith evidence?  Did I take on faith the existence of Pluto?  It could have been another light source that we didn’t understand.  In a thin way I did before the photos came back, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  I take on faith that my life will continue if it ends tomorrow.  That is a bold claim that I can’t prove.  My personal version of Pascal’s wager is this:  if I’m wrong I won’t know it  — the can’t lose position for an egotist like me.  That is a statement of faith.

Faith is my belief in the things that I have not witnessed, accounting for the fact that even what I witness, experience and remember are constructed in a brain so complicated we barely comprehend it.  Is faith required for history?  To some extent.  Only modern history is recorded verbatim and one first run movie or internet meme will convince you that future generations may believe nothing that we so confidently record.  But I don’t really consider it faith to believe that Jesus Christ existed.  That is a consensus amongst historians just as the existence of the third Roman emperor Caligula is.

Do I need faith to believe that Jesus was God incarnate?  I do.  Scripture claims that he was.  I can question the veracity of that Scripture.  I can rightly question the legitimacy of eye witness accounts.  I can rightly question even the existence of a supernatural.  I can rightly ask why some claims of deity survived and others did not.  There are few active temples of Zeus remaining.  At every point in my chain of logic for belief, there are legitimate questions that skeptics ask.  I don’t have answers for them all.

I’m open to the possibility that I live a dichotomous life – – evidence in my professional pursuits, faith in personal.  But that doesn’t feel quite right.  I see the effects of faith as evidence.  There was a call to comfort when our professional friend was taken so quickly.  There was an impromptu memorial at our place of work.  We remembered his life.  There was an urge to pray – – a hope that there was someone greater who cared about our grief.  Is that urge evidence?  It could be.  All human societies have displayed the behavior of worship.  Is that behavior evidence?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps it is an accident of our genes that made the paranoid and delusional more likely to survive.  But it could be.

Time to close this James Joyce style post.  I’m not even sure that I’ve asked or answered any good questions and for that I apologize.  I suppose I just needed to write, and in a time of sudden loss this post took a different flavor than it would have otherwise.  I do have one question that may be useful.

 embrace evidence based thinking instead of faith.

How would the meaning change if “in addition to” replaced “instead of”?

Pascal – – 1:16

 

photo credit:  “Bascula 9” by L.Miguel Bugallo Sánchez  – self made, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Bascula_9.jpg.

33 comments

  1. Hi Pascal,

    I’m very sorry to hear about your friend’s passing. J was pretty shaken up about it as well when she told me yesterday. I only use the word “hate” for 3 things. The extreme suffering of conscious beings, death, and hatred itself (a bit of a recursion there). I mourn with you. Please let me know if I can help in any way.

    I do have thoughts on the Evidence and Faith topics, but I’ll save those for another time.

    Gentleness and respect,
    –Russell

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    1. Don’t hate death my brother. In some ways it is the only thing all humans have in common. I remember him with joy and want to practically reach out to those he loved in comfort. I will say that death reminds me of the value of friendship and refocuses life away from the tyranny of the urgent. Your care means a lot to me. Thank you.

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      1. Hi Pascal,

        We should talk in person sometime about our feelings concerning death. In brief, death unites all known life and increases urgency. I’m looking at it from both the hypothesis of eternal life after and the null of that hypothesis. Paradoxes in logic arise when we begin discussing focus and urgency within both frameworks.

        In this life, accepting death as inevitable (and therefore not worth fighting) is the expected behavior for the vast majority of the human bell curve. Perhaps it’s embedded in our personality differences, but I cannot give in to the inevitable in this case because I have hope for a future where consciousness is not extinguished before those involved are ready.

        It’s about more than death. Change is constant (I love that phrase). Out of the random noise there arose a mind that we call Pascal. That arrangement of particles is intrinsically valuable, probably at least to the extent that it is unique and to the level of its depth of understanding and potential. Every voice that accepts death as inevitable equates to fewer resources we have for solving senescence and disease in general.

        You and I may not have much chance of being the first 1000 year-old men. However, I love my potential great great grandchildren. Our apathy on these subjects may rob them of centuries of healthy, productive life, or more. Resources are not the limiting factor. There’s a universe of planets out there and as far as I can see, the magnitude of the universe is a test for life. Planet-hop and asteroid mine or kill yourselves off on your home-world, over and over gain until one species is able to unlock intra-solarsystem travel. If we don’t hate death, we take our species out of the running for the ones who will make it to more resources. This is another collision point between faith and naturalism – not that I’m a strong naturalist. The rub is this. If we focus on the afterlife, we have less motivation (on average) to put in the extra resources to extend and improve this life.

        I hate death because doing so, even if it’s just in my own mind, fuels progress toward deeper, less painful, more meaningful and longer life. If not for us or our children, then for those who come after. I believe that our attitudes can affect the lives of millions of our descendants. Every death is a tragedy, but for more than the reason we commonly feel. It’s tragic because in some set of possible futures, the death could have been avoided. As your Switchfoot album lyrics remind me, we’re making our world. I want to bring out the set of possibilities that leaves a future accident like your friend’s with a dinged exoskeleton rather than a permanent loss of consciousness in this life and no digital brain to reboot from.

        I have great difficulty facing death and I would find it extremely challenging to do what you do for a living. I know you have a much different perspective than I do and I defer to your experiences in everything surrounding this topic. With that said, please understand that I honestly believe that it is within the ability of human exploration and discovery to render death avoidable in the vast majority of cases. Seriously. I can go into details about why and how some other time. On top of the pain caused by the difference between what could be and what is, I tend to naturally empathize with every death I hear about by imagining the death happened to my own child. In that moment I always know, I hate death. I used to be more accepting of it as a strong believer with assurance in the final act of eternal life – which removes the need to balance our evolutional drive for survival by doing something about it (e.g. “sciencing it”). Now, I can never be apathetic about death.

        I am very sorry for the loss of your colleague, dear friend.

        –Russell

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        1. ^INTP.

          I knew this was coming and laughed to myself when I read Pascal’s words telling you to not hate death—knowing that this response would soon follow. How many times have we argued about this? Still, this is SO you, and I love it—even if we disagree.

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  2. Grieving with you. I only officially met him in June and we only worked closely together on one patient—but after knowing him for only a few weeks, I adored him and felt like he must be one of the most talented in the world at what he did.

    It does make this whole conversation so much more precious and important.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you J – – we met nearly 20 years ago. He was talented, kind, and friendly – – someone who made our team better. Several friends in reflection think about the last time that they talked to him. He, like us, was an inveterate stair taker. It has been encouraging to see support here and inspiring to not neglect the garden of conversation.

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  3. Hello Pascal,

    First off, I would like to express my condolences on your loss.

    It sounds like in this post you’re trying to figure out the boundary between evidence and faith. Is it a blurred line where things can move to one side or the other depending upon context? Or is evidence in one category whether we like it or not? The implications of deciding either way have further effect on one’s worldview. It’s a rabbit hole with many different turns.

    Perhaps you might wish to start by taking a look at what you consider evidence, and then try to find a definition that fits the commonalities between the different bits. Sometimes getting perspective on what you’re looking for helps.

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    1. Sirius – – thank you for your condolence and also for your question. I do think that context matters. Evidence often points to things realized (not hoped for) or things seen. So faith is not really needed. If faith is needed at all we would picture a world where not everything can be seen or realized. That world would still contain things hoped for and things unseen. And that is the world I find myself living in. Faith in a compassionate God is the substance of my hope for a friend who died before anyone expected. Faith is the evidence that he will be alright. Scientific evidence fails me there. I can’t honestly devise a test to the hypothesis. And that’s alright. Scientific evidence did change my views on evolution. Francis Collin’s book, The Language of God, was a gift to me in that it allowed me to reconcile my love of scripture with my love of science. So, I think that there are areas in life where we should be driven by empirical evidence (thoughts on presence and mechanisms of evolution) and areas where faith is the evidence (hope for an afterlife – – an untestable hypothesis). Still rambling, but your questions and curiosity help me focus. Thank you.

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  4. My deepest condolences and I’m sorry to hear if your friends passing.

    I’m typing this on my phone so I’m going to try and keep it short.

    I hope to read Russell’s take on the evidence angle. And thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to post on your blog. It was a lot of fun. I hope we can exchange posts again in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Mike. Yes, Russell will join in soon and you’ll have a kindred spirit. That has been a joy in writing here with him – – exploring with someone who thinks very differently. I’m so thankful that you’ve joined in. I fear sometimes that the theistic viewpoint could be overrepresented. One reason I’m here is to help Christians understand that there are reasonable reasons to not believe as well and that many of the atheists I have met are the world’s nicest people.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for this beautiful post. May I also offer my condolences for your friend? I’m so sorry for your loss and pain.

    I’ve been wondering whether, as an atheist, I do still have a sort of faith or not. It all boils down, I think, to whether or not faith is the same as a necessary guess. I don’t have faith in any supernatural phenomenon, but I do struggle with some moral questions that I don’t have a complete answer for. For example, I was raised to believe abortion kills an actual person and is an abomination (and I’m sorry to bring up such an incendiary issue, but every other good example I thought of was equally incendiary). I no longer believe in the existence of the soul, but I do acknowledge that the human brain is a mystery, that consciousness and sentience are largely unexplained but do seem to arise from the brain, and that, along with all the other organs, the brain develops in utero. But to what degree? Maybe to fully develop consciousness, a fetus needs to experience the outside world; to have a “not me” to compare to “me.” On the other hand, maybe they do become self-aware and capable experiencing of pain at some stage late in pregnancy. Or maybe it even varies between individuals. As a result, I’m struggling to take a moral stand on abortion, because I don’t know at what point any given fetus can experience thought and pain. However, I’m also uncomfortable not taking a stand, because, well, I don’t want to make this a comment all about abortion, but suffice it to say I need to write a fuller post on my own blog about this soon. Sorry again to ramble on about something off topic, but I felt like I needed an example.

    In any event, if I take a stance while there is insufficient evidence to say for certain whether I’m right, is that a kind of faith? Or, if I acknowledge that I’m just making a guess because I have to decide, is that different?

    I am somewhat inclined to think that a necessary guess is different from faith, in that a guess acknowledges human limitations. A guess more readily changes in light of new evidence. A guess puts the guesser in a different frame of mind about the question.

    But I’m not sure. What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that I like you and I’m glad that you’re here. Necessary guess. That helps me. My father used to talk about the necessity of sometimes making a SWAG. A SWAG is a Scientific WAG. A WAG is a wild ass guess.

      I hear you saying that not all of life’s important questions will have evidence based answers. Yet important questions deserve answers if only for our own sense of reflection and humanity.

      I do think that faith can and should be held with humility. I hold an untestable view that life continues after death. That is a hope of mine. I desperately want it to be true. If the issue of life’s brevity or extension is important to someone’s philosophy as it is to mine then a guess is necessary. Faith then is substance of my hoped for thing. Is it blind and random? Hopefully not. I hope that I’ve taken the same care that you’ve taken in thinking about the sentience that could divide a fetus and a baby.

      I like the frame of mind that a guess requires. I’d like to have that same humility with faith. Rambling with you 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Your off-topic ramblings interest me, and I’d like to see you write more on this. I suppose I disagree that sentience divides a fetus and a baby. I think any division I would accept would have to be genetic, and genetically, they are the same from the moment of conception—one simply more mature than the other. It is the genetically programmed potential for sentience that leads me to value a zygote.

      That’s actually how I approach much of my life. I saw potential in my dad and loved him when he was an addict. I saw potential in my brothers and loved them when they didn’t love me back. I see potential in my children—otherwise I wouldn’t waste my time teaching them.

      I see potential for eternity and for an understanding that I currently lack. I see potential for intimacy with a God who often seems far away. That potential for what could be gives me hope for this moment, just as potential for a child I will hold in my arms makes me passionate for an embryo, sentient or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. My deepest condolences, Pascal. May you find peace in your community.

    On the matter of faith and reason, I don’t think the two are not mutually exclusive – one person can be both reasonable and religious. However, I see little to no overlap of the two. There are sound reasons to be religious, but I can think of no reasonable explanation to have faith. The details are debatable of course, but in the end faith and reason are diametrically opposed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Madalyn. I hope to be a part of that peace for others.

      I do think that you’re on to something. Have I told you that I often think in Venn diagrams? I’ve even titled a book that I hope to write – – Venn Christianity. So, what is the Venn overlap of faith and reason? Reason compels me to accept cosmology and evolution as the mechanism of the creation of woman. Faith allows me to accept Genesis as an allegory of God’s authorship of those mechanisms and compels my fealty. It is a slender intersection I’ll admit. But it has allowed me to reconcile two important areas. It has allowed me to leave young earth creationism but still have a deep love for those who have not. Reason and the arguments of the reasonable has also changed my mind on the issue of same sex marriage. Faith allows me to prioritize compassion and accept that there are some things I just don’t understand. Perhaps at times diametric opposition provides the tension necessary to do work.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Pascal, I too am saddened to hear of your (and many others’) loss and grief. I pray that you receive comfort and peace.

    I’m not sure I have anything much more to say on this topic. I think uncertainty is part of life for all of us, and humility is an appropriate response. But I also think we all have to live our lives, and that requires making choices about what we do, even if we are uncertain about what we believe, as Lane says. Whether the decision to act regardless of certainty is “faith” or something else, I think we all have to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. CC you wrote: “[…] It is the genetically programmed potential for sentience that leads me to value a zygote.”

    Out of curiosity, where do you see the soul in the zygote CC? The moment of fertilization?

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    1. I won’t pretend to know when a “soul” (if we choose to call it that) or consciousness sparks into being. I only know that a zygote is genetically human at the moment of fertilization.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The words a few verses later in Hebrews came to mind:

    And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

    If as Paul says faith is a gift from God:

    For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8)

    Then it makes faith quite a perturbing thing indeed. Our friend Martin Luther who has been referred to in comments seemed no great friend of reason though:

    “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.” – Martin Luther

    Luthers definition of faith is one of the most challenging I have heard. My brother is a Pastor and was intending to give some talks to his Church on Martin Luther. I suggested to him that if he gave Martin Luther’s definition of faith it might cause some pastoral challenges.

    So if faith can only come from divine work in the human heart what is one to do if you don’t have the sort of faith Martin Luther describes?

    As James says, the one who doubts can expect nothing from God:

    But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:6-8)

    So what is one to do when faith crumbles? People tell me just trust, believe and obey, but once faith has crumbled you can’t do it.

    Sorry for this rambling response.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tis the season for rambling Peter – – and your ramblings are welcome.

      The comment that you mentioned about Luther was mine. I really don’t like the man. He wrote a scathing diatribe against the Jews called On the Jews and Their Laws in 1543, he called James the Epistle of Straw and he wrote the quote you mentioned above calling reason a whore. I could not disagree more. I realize that he did good things too and that he stood up to corruption within the Roman Catholic Church. Then again, so did Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, in 1541.

      I think Luther is wrong about reason. God gave reason and asked us to worship him with all of heart and mind and soul. The faith I cherish is that which has been informed by reason to the extent that reason is possible. I find other areas where I must decide – – a necessary guess in Lane’s words – – without the benefit of full evidence. Are those decisions reasonable? I would argue yes. Then again, reasonable people will differ.

      What do you do when faith crumbles? You surround yourself with those who will help you make the rubble into concrete. Or with those who will love you no matter what. Preferably, both.

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      1. I suppose the biggest issue I have with religion is that the stakes are so high if one accepts the possibility of the immortality of the soul. With eternal consequences seeming to come from misunderstanding the ‘evidence’ I puzzle why it is not made clearer.

        In the past we touched on Pascal’s wager. The idea that one should believe because the potential downside from not believing is so serious. This runs into one problem of what to do when there are multiple religions to chose from. Dan Barker, the former Pastor (now Atheist) suggested logically you chose the religion with the worst Hell. Which happens to be Islam, where Allah, not only burns the skin off people , he keeps causing the skin to be grown back so it can be burnt off again for all eternity. Of course if one did believe in the Islam version of Hell then it would be impossible to maintain that that version of God was good, more a deranged bully!

        Part of my problem is that I have not told my friends my faith has crumbled. I really don’t know how to raise the matter as I fear it will more cause a lot of hurt to people and damage their faith. I have not even told my brother yet.

        As I have said to Russell in the past, if the Bible is divinely inspired, why did God make it look so human?

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        1. I think that CC could relate to your dilemma of not telling loved ones about a loss of faith. I think that I can too. For what it is worth, may I offer three things?
          -I do not understand hell and it perplexes me, but ultimately trust the character of my God who is far above me.
          -If God speaks to humans at all, the Bible should look human.
          -You could have friends here no matter what your reason and heart decide in concert.

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  10. Hey Pascal,

    I’m really sorry to hear about your friend. By the descriptions in the comments it sounds like he was a great man. I hope you have many good memories of him from the 20 years that you knew him.

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  11. Sorry if I’m a bit slow on the uptake, but I’ve been a bit preoccupied lately. I am sorry to hear about your friend and colleague; we had something very similar happen here at the library just a couple of months ago, and it is always a shock. I’m not quite as far into “middle age” as some, but I’m not far behind, so I understand the questions that these events bring to mind…

    My friend Madalyn and I have argued about the “faith” question before, and I understand the associations inherent in the word make it a no-go for many non-religious folks. But I will say this: to argue that there is no overlap between faith and reason is, to me, to suggest that reason will one day answer all our questions, if only we follow its tracks long enough (as in Russell’s hope that reason will one day eradicate death). So, in the end, to say that faith and reason is to have faith IN reason.

    I have faith in people; I do NOT have faith in reason. Rationality has proven, again and again, to lead down utilitarian roads that, while in the long run making things better, often do so by way of making things worse (can we say Industrial Revolution?). In order for people to be truly humane, I think they must to some degree overcome reason, step beyond it, from what is to what could be. And anytime you do this, you are stepping into the territory of faith. Even if you insist that what I’m describing is imagination, you have to have faith in your imagination–that it can be realized.

    I am not a Christian, and I do not have faith in “God.” But I do have faith in myself. I have faith that I can make the world a better place. But I fail repeatedly to actualize my potential. If I base my belief on reason, which stems from the observed, then the logical conclusion would be: I haven’t done it yet, so why expect I ever will? I would simply give up, because past experience rationally suggests it will never be. So, I have faith in myself. Without it, I would have no “reason” to keep trying…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have faith in you too. I’m thankful that you don’t dichotomize. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for life in the real world. Faith (belief in something not realized) and reason (linear, testable or self evident) have a place in the life of all. The object of faith or the conclusions of reason are, of course, open to rich discussion.

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