philosophy

A Challenge for Atheists and Believers – Will You Accept?

Hello friends,

I am inspired by Pascal. While I do not share all his strengths, I do recognize his character is an image that my best self desires to reflect. If that sounds like high-praise, it is. As an oncologist, his compassion is regularly exercised and deepened by his engagement with others in their time of suffering. He fights for them and his hope and solicitude are a bedrock in the face of their own mortality. If you’re on the fence about Pascal, please get down and embrace him. Even in his disagreement, he’s respectful because his understanding of other people and their reasoning is immense. The genetic parts of his personality have been cultivated by years of actively struggling to learn about those who differ from him – and that foresight and sacrifice is what I value so deeply.

A model to follow

A few years ago, Pascal invited my family into his home. When he found that my faith did not match his own, he invited me to breakfast. When I couldn’t afford to go, he paid for my egg and cheese burrito. When I avoided faith conversations, he waited patiently, week after week, growing a friendship over hours spent in the enthusiasm of shared interests. The bond formed quickly because he’d already taken the time to strengthen his knowledge in areas that I enjoy, and he continued to do so over time. It took months, but eventually I opened up to him about my lack of faith and he accepted me. He challenged me, he listened, and we communicated. I read some books he like, and he read some books I liked so we could understand how we each think. Through the investment of time and the effort to understand one another’s point of view – especially where we didn’t share it – we grew from our opposing poles and related to one another in a stronger way. That transition was easier to the degree that we already respected each other. He had that respect from me from the beginning, because he’s a human just like me. This blog is a continuation of some of those discussions in a way that encourages others to join in the respect we already share.

Pascal and I still meet for breakfast, but we rarely spend much time on shallow things. Our topics often meander, but they’re usually quite deep and earnest. This isn’t a recipe that will work in every situation for every set of two individuals with opposing views – but it worked for us. My point is, it wasn’t easy, but he hasn’t given up yet and I’m much better for it. His actions are the inspiration for the challenge to come. I believe that everyone needs at least one person like Pascal in their life, and needs to be a Pascal for others. Ultimate, that will raise the bell curve. So…

The challenge

1) Think of someone who disagrees with you on some world-view issue (especially if they do so strongly) and schedule a time and place to meet with them this week.

Right now, give them a phone call, voice mail, text, email, Facebook message, Tweet, or something, and let them know you want to meet over a meal in your home or at a restaurant this week or next (include some dates/times). Confirm the meeting and then leave a comment letting us know your meeting is scheduled and anything you want to discuss with us before you meet with them (don’t forget to use good judgment if it’s someone of your gender-attraction).

2) Meet with them and work on your friendship (don’t try to convert or de-convert or tackle the issue(s) you see as extreme right away).

Try to understand them and see the world through their eyes. Find some shared interests to work on for next time. Feel free to refer them to this blog (or a specific post) or any other blog or information that may lead to mutual respectful conversation. Try to talk about something deep before you leave to set that precedent. Be honest, authentic and humble with them when you do, recognizing that you don’t have all the answers and that at least some of your closely held beliefs, statistically, must be false in some way. Their position is worthy of respect because they’ve had different experiences than you. If you were born in their circumstances with their parents and environment and DNA you might believe exactly as they do. If you see their view as extreme, they probably see yours the same way, so try to get to understand theirs in the same way that you would want them to try to understand the legitimacy of your own. So try to understand their views that you think are extreme, but don’t force the topic at the first meeting if the timing isn’t right. Schedule another and another until your friendship builds the needed respect. If you’re a believer, pray for them. Also, whether you’re a believer or not, spend time thinking about how you can prioritize friendship and respect with them rather than the issue you want to understand. That will come with time.

Remember that your goal through all this is to genuinely understand your opposition by seeing the world through their eyes. Don’t count what your group says about people who think the way they do as “knowledge” about how they actually think. There are likely more straw men than true representations of your opponents arguments in the impassioned cries of your in-group, because straw men are easier to knock down. Go with an open mind and a heart that seeks to connect with the heart of a friend.

Don’t wait to respect them until what you hear what they have to say. Respect them now, because they are you in a different set of circumstances, and you are them. As they speak, listen to how your life might have been if, outside of your control, you were born in their circumstances instead of yours. Find a way to legitimize them as a person and to help them grow through your shared time and your shared humanity. Love them as yourself. It’s likely that meeting them on this level, with this heart, will bring them closer to you as well. If so, encourage them to use this model as they engage others.

3) After your first meeting, comment back here in a response to your first comment and let us know how it went. Try to set a follow-up meeting if possible and appropriate.

I’m immensely grateful that we have the ability and privilege to unite together in this blog and others to discuss theology and world-views, but if those ideas never turn into action, we’re stopping short of achieving the level of potential improvement we seek in the lives of our friends and perceived enemies. If we rise above differences and focus on humanity, and if we commit together to act in the world, we really can raise the bell curve.

I’ll start the challenge in a comment below. If anyone else joins me I’ll do something unique for them in a future post. 🙂

Have a great week!

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

Challenge Extremism by Raising the Bell Curve

Hi Pascal and friends!

This post is a set-up for the following one which will be a challenge to atheists, christians and everyone in between.

I often mention my desire to make the bell curve taller. Some may understand that intuitively while others may benefit from a bit of an explanation. I’ll try not to let this get too dry for too long. 🙂

A bell curve is a statistical model that can be representative of most sets of sufficient complexity and size, be it a set of heights in a population, grades on a mid-term in English class, or political ideologies. If you’ve had statistical training you’ll be thinking of standard deviations from the mean, but the specifics of that terminology are more advanced than we need for this illustration. What we’re focusing on is the ends of the curve (at the tails or the poles – “polarization”) which represent the less common entities in the set being modeled – the outliers, the extremes. When we talk about extremism, this is literally what we mean. Here’s an example of a bell curve…

bell_curve

The existence of extremes is a statistical certainty in most types of data of sufficient size. In things like height or grades, there’s little or no harm to the population as a whole due to the presence of the extremes. In things like world-views, political ideologies, or most germane to this topic, religious ideologies where a percentage of the population believes a divine agent wants them to act a certain way towards the general population – extremism can be very bad for humanity. It can quickly lead to impassioned conflict, loss of dignity, injustice, inequality, violence, war, and death. Gone are the days when the most harm a person with extreme views could do is the actions he or she could perform under his or her own power. Today we have unlocked many powers in nature (biological and atomic to name a few) that can greatly augment an extremist’s ability to affect a wide percentage of the population as their views dictate. This is one of the greatest threats to humanity today and in the foreseeable future.

But aren’t differences in opinion inevitable? Yes, but there is a difference between a disagreement and an extreme disagreement. That’s when those standard deviations from the mean are relevant. I’ll skip that and just say that some topics lead to wider bell-curves than others. Consider legalizing marijuana vs abortion rights. Also, in reality the threshold between healthy argument and extreme disagreement is often much more fuzzy when it comes to ideological issues.

So who decides what’s an “extreme view”? We each do. We believe things that, given our experience and way of reasoning, we think are most rational. Therefore, when we evaluate the beliefs of others, we tend to place ourselves in the middle of the bell curve and place their views somewhere in relationship to ours at the middle. What I see as extreme, you may not, and vice versa.

Sometimes this tendency to compare other’s beliefs to our own “right ones” leads us to place theirs at a wrong place on the curve. For example, if you’re an LGBT-equality proponent and you hear that Pascal is a Christian from the south, that may lead you to wrongly assume he’s anti-LGBT rights (thus holding a potentially extreme view in your opinion). Similarly, if you’re a believer, there may be some beliefs you think I hold that, to you, may border on extreme. If I admit that I’m an atheist you may naturally think I believe that God does not exist (I do not think that). That assumption may force you, consciously or subconsciously, to place me into an area of the bell curve concerning “how we got here” or “why we exist” that is “extreme” in your view (given Romans 1:19-21). Such cases are often the result of a misunderstanding based on the frequent reliance upon assumptions when information is lacking. Assumptions are often necessary, but we should remember to recognize assumptions and hold them in low confidence, since they can easily be false – driving a wedge between us unnecessarily.

The further tendency to draw lines around those we see as different from us in some vital way and then to view them as less (less logical, rational, moral, compassionate, educated, etc. – less fully human) is really an “us vs them” survival mechanism to help us justify using means we normally object to (e.g. hatred and/or violence) to dominate what we rationalize as a “lesser being.” Seeing others as sub-human is how we justify wars and every other injustice. There is a tool we can use to fight these tendencies, and Pascal wields it well.

So what can we do? We can follow Pascal’s example of making an effort to understand our opponents. Pascal and I have long realized and embraced the lesson from Ender’s Game that knowing your enemies makes them your enemies no more (knowledge often turns into compassion and love). I tend to think in sweeping mathematical abstractions, so I summarize all this as “making the bell curve taller” or “raising the bell curve.”

Making the bell curve taller (a buffer against extremism and a bridge to understanding and love)

raise_the_bell_curve

What does it mean to make the bell curve taller? It allows actual information directly from another person to supplant the often faulty assumptions we’ve made. It also lets people connect, relate to one another, empathize, de-propagandize, and generally care about another person, which makes them seem less extreme to you and you to them. It humanizes our opponents and breaks down the stereotypes our monkey-brain erects for our protection. It involves individuals investing time and interest into the concerns of other individuals with whom they have a fundamental disagreement, to the point that they can understand that person deeply enough that they respect them, despite their differing opinions.

The more often this happens in the society, the fewer people on average are assumed to belong (and over time, the fewer actually do belong) in the extreme ends, or tails, of the bell curve. As people see their former ideological enemies as fellow humans worthy of respect, the society begins to move in towards the mean (the center, tall part of the curve) but the number of people under the curve doesn’t change. As a results, the curve gets narrower and taller. That’s raising the bell curve (see the image I just made above).

It’s depolarizing humanity (at least the ideological extremes of humanity) to safer levels that are more conducive to peace and shared concern. It’s “bearing one another’s burdens,” “knowing them by their fruits,” “loving your neighbor as yourself,” and other such commands, but it transcends religious ties.

Question

It’s likely that there are many specific ways to raise the bell curves in our respective cultures. Do you have any suggestions we can try which will unite hearts across spanning ideological distances?

I want to highlight one approach to honor Pascal’s efforts with me which led to the eventual formation of this blog. I’ll do that in the form of a direct challenge to myself and to you in my next post. Stay tuned…

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

Morning Person

1200px-Ermita_de_la_Virgen_de_la_Peña,_LIC_Sierras_de_Santo_Domingo_y_Caballera,_Aniés,_Huesca,_España,_2015-01-06,_DD_08-09_PAN

Dear Russell & Friends,

As usual, I titled my post before visiting Wikimedia Commons to find an appropriate photo.  This was the photo of the day and it was perfect in every way but one.  The sun is setting.  I think and write the best before the sun rises.  I pray best while running trails or climbing stairs.

Here is the story that accompanied this image:

Sunset view of the Ermita de la Virgen de la Peña (Hermitage of the Virgin of the Rock), province of Huesca, Spain. The village of Aniés is seen on the left. The oldest parts of the sanctuary date to Roman times, while much was built in the 13th Century. The hermitage is only accessible on foot, via a steep path in the forest and through caves in the mountain.

A hermitage.  In a mountain.  Overlooking a beautiful valley.  Accessible only by foot.  Through a forest. Sigh.  I can relate to the hermit and to her temptation to allow solitude’s reign.  But a hermitage is something else.  Alone together.  Isn’t that the motto of an introverted friend?  We are so happy to see you, to listen, to radiate your warmth back to you.  We just recharge alone.  My favorite saying about love and marriage comes from Rilke as I describe my bride in his words, “the guardian of my solitude”.  I’m in the mood for quoting, so to do it justice, from Letters to a Young Poet:

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

So, this morning and in my mind, I hiked that path, jogging here and there and approached that hermitage in the civil dawn.  Coffee was brewing as I arrived and I sat to a rough hewn table to eat simple bread and drink a clear, cold water.  Thirsty parchment and an old pen waited as I sat to write you.  Morning in the hermitage, awaiting the rising of the sun.

Why do I like the mornings so much?  It may be my neural wiring.  It may be the training in my profession that required long hours deep into the nights and shallow into the next mornings.  But everyone works long at times.  Some prefer to work and talk and play deep into the star dotted night.  I find night is best for sleeping and dreaming and recharging a body that is frequently depleted.  But morning!  Morning is my best time.  So that is the time I give to God, and will be the time I give to others.  Don’t run for exercise if you don’t love running.  It will never stick.  And don’t read or write in the morning unless it is your best time. You won’t have the same joy.  The internet is gleefully asynchronous and the world so small.  My dawn may very well be your dusk.  Let’s just find each other in the infinite space between, and enjoy our fellowship alone together.

Pascal – – 1:16

 

photo credit:  “Ermita de la Virgen de la Peña, LIC Sierras de Santo Domingo y Caballera, Aniés, Huesca, España, 2015-01-06, DD 08-09 PAN” by Diego Delso. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Live Your Faith, Live Your Atheism, Grow Your Compassion, Teach Your Children, Save A Life

Pascal and I use this blog to partially identify, work though, and record for posterity our individual and evolving ways of approaching life and discovering (and rediscovering) its meaning for each of us. We welcome each of you into this discussion and every thought you contribute joins us together and improves our unified experience. Thank you.

As I hinted through Pascal’s post called Russell Unplugged, I’m often a little disappointed that my approach consists largely of criticizing the logical soundness and resulting confidence-level in conclusions that some of the faithful maintain despite (what seems to me) less-than-iron-clad reasoning. I don’t like being that guy, and expressing where I differ and why often leaves me feeling like my posts are missing the point of what my process of reasoning is all about. I’m not a cold, calculating robot. I’m a deeply compassionate human, and I believe that you are too. The nature of our discussions – where we spend our time – often leaves the appearance that I’m only interested in the strength of rhetoric, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, I focus on avoiding being “confidently wrong” and holding as many true beliefs and as few false ones as possible, but ultimately I care about living well. That means identifying with my fellow conscious minds out there (that’s you), understanding cognitive psychology, why and how we decide and feel as we do (each equally valid in our different opinions), and how we suffer well despite the differences in where our hope is placed.

Meaning matters. Pursuing it matters. Life matters. Love matters. Justice matters. You matter.

I want to step back from the technical and philosophical tone of many of my posts and give you a glimpse into the real Russell. And I want to invite you to join in a movement that we can all share together, across the theological divide. It’s a movement of compassion and love. If you only read one of my posts, I hope it’s this one, because it’s tangible. It does what none of the reasoning can do on it’s own – it leads to actual changes, now, in the lives of those who suffer.

Join me…

That’s a long intro to two simple apps. Yes, smartphone apps. If you have a smartphone such as an iPhone or Android phone, I really hope you’ll do two things.

1. Download each of these apps and use them at least once.

2. Leave a comment that you did it and what you thought, and tell me if you can think of any other apps or charities we can get involved in.

Please consider doing this. Not for me. For yourself, your children, those who suffer, and for all of us (our societies are made up of individuals).

Here are the apps and how we use them in my family.

The “Charity Miles” app

Charity_miles

Every time you go on a jog, bicycle ride, or even just a walk around the house, to the grocery store, on the treadmill – basically any sustained movement you make under your own power – open the Charity Miles app first. You can pick a charity and corporations will sponsor you, just like they do when people run marathons, and donate money to the charity you picked based on how far you moved! The donations aren’t exorbitant but they add up over time.

Our 5-year-old, Ella, and I both use this app to raise money for a charities – just by moving under our own power. I keep it on while working from my home-made treadmill desk – which I set up this way specifically for this purpose (thanks again for the treadmill, Pascal!). Ella has it on our old WIFI-only iPhone 4S and runs around the house with it or walks on the treadmill to raise money while watching a show on the iPad in front of her. We also turn it on when walking to and from her school. As I write this I’m earning money for a charity called “water” which provides clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.

Well over 500,000 people die every year due to inadequate drinking water. Many of these and similar deaths are preventable. Every minute a child dies due to a water-related disease (often in their parents’ arms – parents who are often desperately pleading to God for an intervention). You and I, working through such charities, are the only physical intervention people in their situation are likely to receive. According to the charity description, the continual state for some of those the charity supports includes digging in the sand with their children to find water. Others who benefit from their charity would normally have to walk 5 miles to fetch water which they then carry home in yellow fuel cans (80 lbs in total) after waiting in line for 8 hours. Water is only one of many amazing charities available to you. Get this app and improve lives around the world (and definitely involve your children if they’re old enough). 🙂

The “Donate a Photo” app

Donate_a_photo

The second app is Donate a Photo by Johnson & Johnson. Open this app, pick a charity from the list, and then take a photo (or select one from your photo library) and upload it. Johnson & Johnson will donate $1 (each day you donate) to the charity you select that day. That’s up to $365 per year to save and improve lives – from this app alone – and it only takes a few seconds each time. 🙂 I’ve been targeting Nepal earthquake survivors recently.

A joint calling

We can’t all share Christ or Muhammad, peace be upon him, with conviction and honesty, but we can all share love with honesty. Tell your friends about these apps. Get involved and get your children involved. There are few better ways to raise a child to be compassionate and empathetic of the plight of others than to involve them in community service or charity work. There are many ways to donate and many charities to get involved with, many religious, many not. Prayer should lead to action. We are involved in some religious ones as well, but the point is to act. To do something. Apps like these lower the barrier for involvement and action, so please pass them along.

Whether you, like me, are more skeptical of that traditional faiths, or like Pascal, are affirming of a specific higher-power, I hope we can all agree about many lessons from the Christian Bible (encouragement to have compassion and be a good Samaritan, etc.). The following two verses from the New International Version sum it up well:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. – 1 Corinthians 13:1

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:13

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

Russell Unplugged

2003_Faith_Saturn_electro-acoustic_guitar

 

Dear Russell & Friends,

Good morning.  I’ve been thinking about this post for nearly a week and the coffee is just right.  Perhaps this will serve as useful background for those new to our blog.  It will certainly serve as therapy for me.  Most of the activity on the blog lately has been on Russell’s post The Problem.  It is one of his most important posts.  He might (would) put iMultiverse in the short list too.  A few miles away from here, perhaps in his sleep, Russell just smiled.

The comments have multiplied on The Problem as Russell has found a new interlocutor, unkleE.  I am 43 years old.  Russell is 7 years younger.  unkleE is twice Russell’s age and is doing, I think, what I want to do when I grow up.  He is reading, writing, engaging those who do not share his perspective of belief.  However, he is doing it in a way that I can’t – – from the personality type of INFP (81%) or ISFP (76%).  If I take the former it is only 1 letter away from Russell – – INTP.  So, from the perspective of age and from the perspective of a similar engineering-type personality he can engage Russell in ways that I can’t.

So what happened?  They both went out of their way not to offend.  That’s what I’ve been thinking about.  I have Russell’s permission to share our text stream as some of the comments unfolded.  One thing you’ll notice is that these texts had something I’ve never seen before – – an arrow at the bottom designed to reveal the words incapable of display on the largest of iPhones.  For an introvert, Russell has a lot to say.  That belies one of the misconceptions about introverts.  We have plenty to say.  Its just more comfortable in writing or with people we know well.  Russell has posted some of this in his own reply, but I’d like to give you a flavor of the text stream and what it means to know someone.  Concluding at the beginning, it takes time.  Russell and I are 2 1/2 years into a friendship that I hope will last.  It has not been easy to listen well or to be heard.  But it has been worth it.

 

R:  The unkleE comment was focused on one thing… why I’m not highly convinced that fine-tuning is a problem. He things I haven’t read enough, don’t understand the science, don’t understand large numbers, and am too biased against the evidence. That didn’t seriously hurt my feelings. I responded with more details, that’s his punishment for being critical. Haha. Gotcha’ unkleE! 🙂

P:  you two are quite a pair

R:  Indeed. I think we should Skype and hang out. I bet we’d get along great! That reminds me, are you still interested in trying a podcast, hangout-on-air youtube video with just our logo up, or some other type of audio-only conversation sometime?

P:  I actually am.  I’m interested in more than i’m successfully executing right now which is a deep and constant frustration

R:  I ran it by Howie and he’s interested. He’d join us.

I can see it being huge benefit for me for at least two reasons. Communicating ideas will, once the kinks are worked out, hopefully be done more efficiently. And it’s helpful to communicate tone of voice which adds important inflection and other vital information to the topic being discussed. It’s not very search engine friendly, but most of our hits probably don’t come from that and we have plenty of other written content on the site. I’d really like to see a comment on the blog, hit a button, record a response and paste it as a link. Haha. It would also be great to take someone’s question or point and invite people to a round-table discussion via hangouts-on-air, etc. I’d rather not do it live until we polish up a bit, though. 😊

I think I’ve made a mess of things on The Problem. In my very rushed responses I’ve done a poor job of taking the time to be as gentle as I’d prefer to be while disagreeing. Sigh. This is a rough time for me for multiple reasons. I need to learn to deal with those who challenge and criticize my form of reasoning without helping me understand and improve it by explaining exactly where it’s wrong and why. When I feel criticized with nothing to back it up, apparently, I push to hard to delineate my steps and get them to explain, but the only thing that gets discussed are the irrelevant details that aren’t part of the reasoning. I write so much that it’s hard for anyone to focus and I usually make a mistake or two that gets us further off topic. Then I get behind on work and rush my comments even more and, without taking the time to polish them, they sound more confrontational than I’d like. I now have two people saying what you’ve said (I require too much evidence). It’s not lost on me that more than one should sound alarms. Evidently, this is a hot-button issue for me. Not being told that, but being told that without an example to help me learn from. When I list the steps in my reasoning and show where I doubt and why, those specifics are avoided as if I didn’t say them (at least so far). I’m really looking for the place, exactly where my folly resides, but nobody seems to be pointing to it. I’m really beginning to feel like I’m just a very poor communicator. Maybe I am just blind to it and they’ve been pointing all along. But that doesn’t help me. 😟 I fear this is the central issue of the blog. People in camp A think people in Camp B require too much evidence. People in Camp B think people in Camp A are failing to express that they been aware of and properly considered all the assumptions and counter-evidence (often, like you, they have considered it). I don’t think anyone is believing things that are unjustifiable to them, and very few are believing things that don’t make sense. It’s almost always a communication problem where we don’t see everyone else’s evidence. So when other people think my standards are too high rather than assuming, as I do, that I’ve just seen different evidence, I want to either see what they’re seeing and fix the holes in my reasoning or ask them to tone it down a bit. But getting to the point where they point out flaws that are actually there rather than ones they assume because I didn’t clearly state everything in my comment, or getting to the point where they are willing to say it’s just different evidence rather than a high bar for evidence – both seem equally unachievable. Thousands of words later I don’t feel much closer to a resolution and I’ve likely offended people, which is the opposite of what I want. I have learned how to better express my argument for why I don’t have high confidence in fine-tuning, but I don’t think it’s helped. I think I’ve learned a lot of things not to do. No argument or point is worth being anything less than gentle and respectful, even when I feel continually misrepresented and as though almost all my key arguments are ignored, and even when time is short. This was a great lesson. Sigh. Thanks for the advice here. This helped a lot! 😊

P:Talk to your wife and ask her opinion.  She knows your heart better than anyone and will have insight here.  I think you are right about the central issue.  I can’t process the cognitive burden of 5,000 word comments and I accept different evidence in addition to empiric evidence.  The Hume quote bothered me because it was simplistic.  How much of your text do I have permission quote in a post of my own?

R:  Good advice. You can quote anything. I feel misunderstood when people think I only accept empirical evidence. Another sigh. I read interpreted his quote differently, as proportioning the level of certainty we hold to the level of evidence (pro and con). Non-empirical evidence counts, but empirical often should count more, so it’s a balance thing. I think most people agree with this, but we all tend to interpret things, at least initially, the way we’re primed for. That’s why I think the real difference tends to be that some people are comfortable staying in their beliefs if they seem right and feel good. Others have more of a tendency to actively seek out other potential explanations that could also account for the evidence (all kinds) and then hold back certainty a bit in the hopes that they don’t confidently believe false things. That’s why I try to learn about the assumptions and biases and examine them all for most claims. I can see that it’s unusual. But that seems to be the real difference. I don’t require empirical evidence or more evidence for confidence. But if I see other potentially equal or better explanations after actively examining everything, I’ll withhold certainly that my favored or initial explanation is definitely the right one. Does any of that make sense?

Also, I think the more someone is aware of and understands other alternate explanations and is aware of and fearful of their own biases (fear they made lead them confidently away from truth), the more they tend to reserve certainty in more things.  If someone has a personality that isn’t interested in such things, or hasn’t been made aware of both the flaws in our reasoning and alternative explanations, they tend to see people like me as being too critical. They just don’t think the same way. So I completely get where they’re coming from, I just think that sometimes they assume I just require too much evidence so that science won’t even lead me to confidence. What I really do is balance my confidence against all the factors I see, which isn’t usually what everyone else sees, because more than wanting to be right, I really don’t want to be confidently wrong. I think you and unkleE are somewhere in the middle on that spectrum (believe what feels right vs actively search for better alternative explanations and the modifying weight of our own biases) and I’m just closer to one end. I don’t like being on the end. 😦 Making the bell curve taller is my goal in all of this.

Wait, there are some people who do require empirical evidence and hold strong beliefs against the supernatural, etc., so am a little closer to the middle than I feared. 🙂 I need to be emphasizing caution to them more. We don’t see many. Instead I spend my time taunting biases and other possible explanations to well behaving believers in faith. Anytime I mention bias or MR I cringe. I really don’t like my position. There are very few situations one can feel like they’re being accused of bias and not feel criticized and defensive. It’s like you’re position of discussing sin. It has to start with us. I am biased too, etc. Everything on your side rests on our sin and need for a savior. Everything on mine rests on the flaws in our reasoning and alternative explanations that should keep us cautious of too much certainty. At the same time, you seem to get by just fine without talking about the points that offend people (sin) nearly as much as I talk about my offensive points. Of course, that’s largely because much of your audience doesn’t believe in it. 🙂 Some don’t believe bias applies to them either. Still, I need to learn from you. I feel my position is the more critical. 😦

P:  Wow.  Just read the last comment exchange.  IMO it would not have hurt your position to wait before responding.  IYO there were compelling reasons to respond promptly and perhaps the processing was already complete.  Hmmm…

R:  Haha. I know. I would have liked to have waited. 😦 On the other hand, I’m with family this weekend and have to drive tonight and get an early start tomorrow. I’m so far behind on everything that I really need to not have this dragging out during the week. If I didn’t respond this week I fear I may never respond. Losing momentum would have made it much harder to get back into the process and I likely would choose that over a post or two. I know you think he thinks like me, and in some sense he does because he can be technical, but in many other major areas I can’t see it. He and I process things as differently as you and I do. I wanted him to continue a few posts ago by addressing my responses to the actual argument he had made about fine-tuning rather than his opinion of my reasoning, unless he was willing to provide specifics that were related to the arguments. That’s not what’s been happening. He says it will happen in a future post on his site, but not in these comments, so they’re aren’t very helpful. The current cycle or avoiding those assumptions about his argument has gone through too many loops without being addressed and it’s dragging me down. It’s cut into my workout time more than my work time and that’s eating away at me. I wanted to wait, but more than that I wanted to be done so I can refocus. I caved. 😦 I feel bad about it. There is a lot of pressure from various areas at the moment and it was a huge relief to see something resolve. I realized this morning that what I pasted into the response was not my final draft but my first draft, which wasn’t softened. 😦 I do feel bad that I ended it on that and it was too offensive. Thank you for your follow-up, that helped a lot. 🙂

I just listened to that comment from last night. I wish I could delete it or edited it. But that wouldn’t be right. I really should have waited. 😦

Or at least checked it over to make sure it was the final version I had in the clipboard before I posted it. 😦

I will learn from this. Have a great day, Pascal.
kant_spinoza

R:  The last two points on each seem quite relevant.

Out of the block quotes and back to the coffee musings.  The last two points didn’t move me as much as the third and fourth bullet of the second section.  When I read how Spinoza handled the work of his predecessors and logical contradictions it resonated.  Did Russell feel the same way about Kant’s views?

So there it is – – a text exchange long enough for a post.  Why?  Because I sit across the breakfast table from this friend of mine and want to understand him better.  I like the way his mind works and want to discuss things on his terms, but I get in my own way.  I’m more like Spinoza (not a theist if I recall).

I do think that unkleE and Russell need to take a break.  I honestly agree more with unkleE in his way of processing.  But I won’t be able to communicate that well in writing.  I’ll need to communicate that in person with body language and tone of voice included.  That should happen Thursday night and in the many breakfast tacos that will follow.

If you have ever had the feeling of talking past someone or being talked past (Russell and I have both done that to each other then reconciled in person) how do you proceed?

Pascal – – 1:16

*photo credit:  By Tim Walker from United Kingdom (2003 Faith Saturn electro-acoustic guitar) [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The faith of Hebrews vs the logic of Aristotle

Hi Pascal,

This is a response to some things that jumped out at me from your Digestion post. I loved it! I did want to clear up some things and hopefully get some clarification from you as well. I’ll jump right in… 🙂

Trusting David Hume on wisdom?

Then you quoted David Hume on wisdom.  David Hume – – I had an ephemeral response that I did not consider David Hume to be wise, but I couldn’t remember why.

For reference, here’s the quote I used in the post your responding to called Faith – is it good or bad? Why do we disagree?

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. – David Hume

To be honest, I’m not surprised you’d object to the notion that Hume was supremely wise (though I’m not promoting that idea), but I am a little surprised that you’d object to the point of the quote. Perhaps you’re not but I was uncertain. Maybe you can clarify? I actually think you do try to proportion your belief to the evidence.

I saw the video you linked and I’ve read of Hume’s ideas in several philosophy books and YouTube videos. The Science Wars – What Scientists Know and How They Know It covered his philosophy pretty well and I researched him in the group of potential past thinkers that I was considering using for my blog name before we started. There are reasons I didn’t pick him. I’m also curious about why, specifically, you don’t consider him wise. I will probably agree with you. I don’t see him as any kind of authority on wisdom but I wouldn’t reject something he said because I don’t agree with all his views. While I’m not putting him up as an authority, it seems like your rejecting him as someone who could have any truth in what he would say about wisdom. I’m wondering what specifically you disagree with concerning the quote, not the man. If you imagine someone else saying it (the Pope, your pastor, Paul, a 15-year-old anti-theist), would it change how much you accept or reject the quote? For me, it would not (1 Thess, 5:21 in light of the belief that it is we who interpret what we believe is good). If it would for you, would you mind trying to explain why? If not, why does it matter whether or not you think he’s a generally wise person?

The faith of Hebrews vs the logic of Aristotle

Was Paul aware of Aristotle?  Likely so. … Did he present his reasons to believe in full view of the impact, then 350 years old, of Aristotle.  I argue yes.

I agree. I was trying to point that out in my post. I think we’re on the same page here, with some caveats I’ll add in a moment. 🙂 Maybe I failed to accurately represent concerns on this point.

The tension between Aristotelian logic and faith is neither contemporary nor insoluble.

Contemporary only, no. Though this isn’t just about Aristotle’s logic. Some logic dealing with reasoning is contemporary and also poses a conflict with faith.

Insoluble, yes (as I see it), with some definitions of faith, at least.

Aristotle formed explanations using his logic and those of his tutors. We now know some of his conclusions were wrong, but it isn’t the conclusions I’ve been pushing for, but rather, the best process of reasoning. His process is superior for finding true beliefs than that of some faith-based processes because he essentially said, “This is what I think is going on, but I don’t really know. When trying to understand the world, we should consider theories. But, really, it’s the facts that matter; and if the facts change, our theories should too.” The modern versions are even better than Aristotle’s, but his views represented a better version for obtaining truth (in my opinion) than those promoted by the author of Hebrews. As I mentioned, I heard you react by stating you don’t trust Hume on wisdom (I’m not promoting his wisdom one way or the other beyond the word “wise” which was in his quote), but I’m not sure if you actually disagree with the point of his quote or not. If so, what part do you disagree with? Is it bad to do as you seem to try to do, i.e. to proportion our beliefs to the evidence (to not believe things more strongly than the relative weight of the evidences call for)?

While Aristotle’s methods are not incompatible with the versions of reasoning we sometimes call faith (e.g. trust, confidence, hope, etc.), they are incompatible with the versions of faith-based reasoning that promote confidence in things we desire to believe in order to preserve other strongly desired beliefs which are based on weak evidence – especially since faith doesn’t promote passing those beliefs through a fallacy filter. Do you agree or disagree? Remember that I’m not saying this is the type of faith you hold. Only that it is the type of faith promoted by much of scripture. For example, the author of Hebrews promotes a view of reasoning based on faith (confidence in things we hope for even if they can’t be backed up with more substantial evidence) that is in opposition to many of Aristotle’s 13 fallacies. The Bible promotes this form of reasoning as a virtue and makes it the basis for salvation. It’s a key part of the central dogma of the Gospel and most other religions which essentially say, “reason this way.” But that way seems opposed to modern critical thinking, does it not?

I found this dialogue from 3:25 to 5:32 in the video relevant to the topic of the flaws in our senses and reasoning about objective truth and the best way to get there. I’m doubtful about his later conclusion that all reality might be accessible through experimentation, but I agree that we shouldn’t give up pushing the limits of discovery by assuming there are limits that may not actually be there if we look harder. I think you’ll like David Brin.

And this quote is from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fallacies/

Being able to detect and avoid fallacies has been viewed as a supplement to criteria of good reasoning. The knowledge of them is needed to arm us against the most enticing missteps we might take with arguments—so thought not only Aristotle but also the early nineteenth century logicians Richard Whately and John Stuart Mill.

So, Aristotle valued the process of reasoning more than any conclusion, distrusted his senses, and promoted steps for reasoning that at least tried to identify and account for logical fallacies or biases (the non-intuitive flaws in our reasoning). Since most faith-based systems of reasoning lack at least one of these steps, I still believe the religious-faith descriptions usually quoted are not based on what we currently believe to be the best form of reasoning if we prioritize true beliefs. We can’t know how much the author of Hebrews knew about this process of reasoning. It’s speculation, so it wasn’t my point. The degree to which we believe that the author also likely had exposure to this process of reasoning is the degree to which we cannot excuse the author from unknowingly promoting a less-accurate method. If the author did know it well and understand it, he rejected it intentionally, preferring faith-based reasoning.

The author likely had reasons to believe in Jesus’ resurrection which he thought were sufficient evidence for his confidence levels. But he promotes that others without the same level of experiences still believe it with a confidence that is out of proportion with their experiences because he believes doing so can begin to sanctify them. It doesn’t matter how one arrives at the belief (what process of reasoning one uses or how flawed it is), only that the conclusion is confidence in Jesus. The conclusion matters more than the processThat’s the problem and that’s the conflict I’m driving towards. It’s why faith systems promote high confidence in that conclusion to children from an early age, and why the steps of reasoning that work this way are less likely to lead to true beliefs (the crossword puzzle framework is already set and life experiences are interpreted within that light, constructing a world view based upon that foundation whether or not it’s true). It also justifies the beliefs of all religions who follow the same faith-based process, right?

Wisdom vs Intelligence – a future topic

…would I listen to Hume about wisdom?  Wisdom is something different.  Wisdom is less predictable.  So I can not only disagree with Hume’s philosophy, but challenge a quote where he points the path to wisdom.  That would be a delightful topic for future posts – – the difference (if there is one) between intelligence and wisdom.

Yes, it would be a good topic. I have some ideas that come immediately to mind but I’ll keep this response short(ish). I do think it’s wise to keep confidence in proportion to the evidence and it wouldn’t matter to me who the concept came from. Do you actually disagree? To be clear, you know I count subjective experience as evidence, right?

The argument from authority – science vs religion

No, I’m not arguing from the authority of a person (qualifications are always debatable, especially when we disagree with the person in a significant way), but the application of the concept. I used to do this much more before I learned about the argument from authority and still took all Bible concepts as divine and objectively authoritative.

When I present and idea, it’s the idea I’m ultimately standing on, not the opinion of the person who communicated the idea. The idea and it’s application are much more relevant than the authority of the people that spawn it (and Hume wasn’t the first to use the concept I mentioned). There are no true authorities in science (to me) in the same way we typically mean it. The reason I say this is that the authority-weight assigned to a scientist only extends as far their ability to accurately interpret the data. We may sometimes trust interpretations from people that we can’t easily verify, but only proportionally to the degree for which it’s been tested by other people, peer-reviewed to remove some bias and mistakes, etc. Essentially (as you know), it is constrained and the body of science seeks to retest, re-interpret, and revalidate that data, so there is self-correction baked into the process (unlike a long-dead “authority’s” voice in an ancient sacred text).

Biblical faith did not always acknowledge reasoning that could have helped people like me

My thesis is that the scriptures were constructed in full view of Aristotle’s epistemology.  They were not breathlessly awaiting a three minute lesson to correct their stark ignorance.  There is nothing new under the sun.

It’s not my thesis that the author of Hebrews did or did not fully understand Aristotelian logic. I don’t know the degree to which the author did and we can’t really say with confidence how much understanding was there. The description of faith doesn’t seem to have been the best way to come to true beliefs even then (because they could have known better at that time due to the socratic philosophers that preceded them). Either they knew of it and rejected it, or they didn’t understand it properly and rejected it, or didn’t know it well (ignorance). I don’t know which of the three is right, but I think it’s likely one of the first two options. I was just hoping to point out that the concepts of Aristotelian logic were not used when promoting faith-based reasoning.

My point was not about why the author didn’t use Aristotelian logic (due to ignorance, rejection, etc.), That was close to two millennia ago and we can’t know. We’ve learned much more since then about better methods for plugging some of the holes in our reasoning, but we still promote the view of faith as offered in Hebrews, primarily based on that argument from authority. My thesis was that there is now a better way of reasoning if we hope to increase our odds of reaching more true beliefs and fewer false ones – and we can each choose to use it or not. Those of us who come to confidences based on Aristotle’s and now science’s methods of reasoning cannot get to the same place as those who use faith-based reasoning unless we have a strong personal experience or see other compelling objective evidence. Faith-based reasoning leads to certainty in any belief that we believe comes from divine authority (see other religions). So a larger percentage of people achieve certainty in necessarily false things. Our belief about the origin of a belief being divine is subject to our flawed reasoning and almost always has a simpler explanation, so we shouldn’t hold high confidence that it actually does have a divine cause (faith says otherwise).

Clearing up other potential misconceptions

Switching gears a bit, I disagree with there  nothing new under the sun. New arrangements happen all the time. New and novel concepts are formed. It’s just far less likely than most of us commonly imagine.

Perhaps by my understanding of why your hope to live hundreds of years is misplaced.

I think we all would like to live longer, and that desire isn’t the problem. I don’t have an expectation to live hundreds of years, which is what I think your correcting here. I’ve said I believe it is within our capacity through scientific exploration to allow some of our descendants to live hundreds of years, and the degree to which we stop searching now is the degree to which they continue in extreme suffering and earlier death that could have been avoided by our attitude toward science now. I know your aware of senescence and you very likely agree. Some worms may outlive us due to our tinkering.

I do love science.  And to me, science unfolds the mechanisms that a creative and caring God used to delightfully construct the reality that we live in. Cosmology and post-translational modification equally awe me. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Amen (with a maybe, I hope so, on the God parts)! 🙂

Sign-off

The kids are available to play now (movie is over) so I’m going to enjoy them. Please forgive the redundancies (that’s what happens when I don’t have uninterrupted time) and typos. 🙂

It’s always a pleasure discussing these things and I truly can’t wait to hang out again.

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

 

Digestion

Illu_stomach

Dear Russell and Friends,

For the past week I have been a reader.  I read every word of your last post Russell – – twice.  The context of my reading was heightened by a strong sense of self preservation.  I was riding shotgun as my 15 year old with a learner’s permit drove back from Colorado.  Thankfully, fear can enhance learning.  I also read most of the dialogue that you and unkleE conducted.  You are birds of a feather.  Each of you looked like you were concluding the discussion with tacit apologies for length, then kept going.  [insert good natured smile here].

One thing that struck me as I read your discussion about faith and reason was the nature of your replies to each other.  You respectfully asked unkleE if he minded a point by point reply and he answered that he rather preferred it himself.  It worked well and disciplined you both to visit and revisit each other’s arguments and to protect against the erection of straw men.  I got to thinking – – why do I rarely reply in this manner?  Is that related to the way I differ in my view of an evidence driven life although I work in an evidence driven field?  Perhaps so.

Although I rarely answer line-by-line, I hope you do know that I always want you to be taken in context and I overtly want the majority of readers here to realize that you are among the best of men.  Why do I answer like this?  What is this?  This, for me, is digestion.  You always get me thinking.  That is one of the things I value about you most.  I live in a land of thought and you provoke new thoughts, different angles, and novel chains of reaction.  So, when you write an epic on a topic that means much to me – – I think, digest, then reply.  It is analogous to the replies of hand-written letters – – a mode that I still cherish although employ too seldom.  It is diametrically opposed to the immediate communication of text message, IM or telepathy.

Digestion.  What were the results of my digestion so far?  First, let me offer that the topic we chose could populate a PhD thesis or even a life of study.  This digestive process will represent first pass metabolism alone.

Arguing with Dead People

If you forced me to choose between writing and the wheel as the greatest contribution to human progress, I would choose the pen.  What an honor to explore the thoughts of Aristotle and Hume.  What we read now and the links that we click are the honored descendents of that humble stylus, brush or quill.  You spoke of Aristotle and I summoned the best from my memory.  Disciple of Plato.  Tutor of Alexander the Great.  Father of observational science.  To make my joy complete, I found this – – well worth the 3 minutes.

Then you quoted David Hume on wisdom.  David Hume – – I had an ephemeral response that I did not consider David Hume to be wise, but I couldn’t remember why.  The internet and a short attention span to the rescue again.

You are more aware of logical fallacy than most.  It was one of our first studies together.  So, I know that you were not using Aristotle or Hume to argue from authority.  After two years of conversation with you I know that for sure.  My point is this and I know you will not argue.  It is okay to argue with, preferable to argue with dead people.  We have the greatest intellects of all time (Aristotle would certainly represent the 1% of the 1% of the 1% ad infinitum) available through writing, commentary, and the internet wayback machine.  How foolish for me to argue with Aristotle on the details of science which he got wrong when he essentially invented the scientific method and would freely acknowledge that his views should be revised when evidence accrued.

Was Paul aware of Aristotle?  Likely so.  In Acts, Paul presents to Greeks in Athens at the Aeropagus (Mars Hill) adjacent to the Acropolis.  Was Paul, who wrote his epistles in high Greek, unaware of Aristotle?  Unlikely.  Did he present his reasons to believe in full view of the impact, then 350 years old, of Aristotle.  I argue yes.  The tension between Aristotelian logic and faith is neither contemporary nor insoluble.

What of David Hume?  He also stands with the 1% of the 1% in terms of human intelligence and impact.  That there will be 1 of 10,000 people in that category is mathematically predicted and constrained.  But would I listen to Hume about wisdom?  Wisdom is something different.  Wisdom is less predictable.  So I can not only disagree with Hume’s philosophy, but challenge a quote where he points the path to wisdom.  That would be a delightful topic for future posts – – the difference (if there is one) between intelligence and wisdom.

I know that Russell was not arguing from authority, so I won’t walk down that path.  He knows that I can freely argue with Aristotle and Hume and that they, the giants, would welcome a challenge from an ant.  My thesis is that the scriptures were constructed in full view of Aristotle’s epistemology.  They were not breathlessly awaiting a three minute lesson to correct their stark ignorance.  There is nothing new under the sun.

The Possibilian Brain

You and our good friend Howie were the first to turn me on to David Eagleman’s Possibilianism philosophy.

I did like I usually do.  I watched it, thought about it, then ordered and read one of his books – – Incognito:  The Secret Lives of the Brain.  It is on the 2014 reading list – – and I’m barely caught up with the 2015 posts.  One thing that I liked about Eagleman was his call to humility.  I think that the 20 minute video is worth the watch, but I will spoil my favorite part of it.  He walks to one end of the stage and represents the strong atheist view, then walks to the other end of the stage and represents the young earth creationist biblical literalist view (I’m summarizing from a 1 year constructed memory).  Then he calls for gentility and arbitration in the middle.  And what is the mediator in the middle?  Science.  That is what moves him, what convinces him, and what he has and will continue to contribute to.  Science.

I have heard some fellow believers say, “I love science, and here is why I believe the earth is young.”  That is a non sequitur to me.  If I claim to love science to you and our readers, then how would I justify the statement?  Perhaps by the time I dedicate to reading science.  At least as much by volume as my annual reading list.  Perhaps by the time I dedicated to studying science.  Ten full years after a university bachelor’s degree in biochemistry.  Perhaps by my understanding of why your hope to live hundreds of years is misplaced.  Perhaps by my willingness and craft in caring for more dying people in the last ten years than I could ever personally know outside of my profession.  I do love science.  And to me, science unfolds the mechanisms that a creative and caring God used to delightfully construct the reality that we live in.  Cosmology and post-translational modification equally awe me.  We are fearfully and wonderfully made.  I get just as excited as you when I study, although I rarely offer to send a family recipe or jump up and down.

The Supremacy of Science and the Interaction Problem

I have not forgotten that I owe Victoria a reply on the video about Miracles and Televangelists.

Many here have already visited her excellent blog on neuroscience (also Eagleman’s area of expertise).  She is smart, funny, and compassionate.  She also explains beautifully how the human brain can construct the emotional experiences of joy, sorrow, and yes – – religion.  I found the video about miracles and healing to be especially relevant to my journey as I was raised in the charismatic tradition and I’ve actually been to a Benny Hinn service.

I have been digesting the video for quite some time and look forward to posting about it in the future. Apropos to current discussion is this – – what if the experience of religious devotion is mediated by neurochemical interaction?  Does that make it less believable or more?  For me it makes it more believable.  I am thankful to understand the biochemistry of reward, punishment, fear, and hope.  In a way that addresses the interaction problem.  Will we be able to locate the soul via functional MRI or PET?  Quite unlikely.  Do we really want to argue about angels on heads of pins.  I hope not.

I appreciate the explanations that science can give.  I love studying science.  It does not threaten my faith.  I hope that is not fatally conflicted.

Writing Russell Off

Russell did not wish to be written off as a

post-modernist strong-rationalist steeped in scientism

Dammit Russell.  Not only did you force me to quote you, but you packed three precise terms requiring definitions in seven words, hyphens excluded.

I’ll never write you off.

The Products of Digestion

Digestion provides two things:  nourishment and excrement.  I realize that this line of thought may be the former to some and the latter to others.  The point is this.  I love my brother Russell.  We think very differently.  This is a place where we encourage you to think differently and to realize that you are among friends.

What do you think?

Blessings,

Pascal – – 1:16

 

 

photo credit:  via WikiCommons, public domain

Faith – is it good or bad? Why do we disagree?

Hello Pascal and friends! 🙂

There’s been some renewed discussion about faith and evidence in the last few posts and comments. I’ve touched on my issues with “faith” in previous posts like Is Love a Good Reason to Believe?, including why the word makes me uneasy as a non-believer. It’s been a while, though, and this is an important topic and we should try to come to an agreement while we’re covering it.

Pascal, in the last post you quoted Mike who had said the following:

… I’m certainly not adverse to … doing my best to convince others to embrace evidence based thinking instead of faith.

Thank you for the guest post, Mike! Very well done! 🙂

After this quote, Pascal, you highlighted that faith and evidence may be an acceptable approach for you and not an acceptable approach for me. You said:

… 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.

Let’s reason this out and clarify our differences. They may not be as stark and opposed as it seems. I have the floor while you’re hiking a mountain with your amazing family, so I’ll explain what faith means to me and you can tell me where you find disagreement.

At the risk of being far too long winded and spending too much of my limited time on this post (it’s already after 11 PM and I have an early start to a busy week tomorrow), I’ll try to keep this much shorter that I want to and save details for follow-up comments. Who am I kidding. That just means it will be 4k instead of 10k words. Haha. Onward.

Whether or not Socrates actually said this, I find it both cliché and extremely relevant.

The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.

What do we mean by faith? If communication is a transference of an idea from one person’s mind to another person’s, and if information theory (I’m almost finished with The Information and it’s one of my favorite books) cares about how accurately that idea is replicated, it seems essential that we cancel out the confusion and noise caused by potential meanings we don’t intend when we use words like “faith.”

Here are a few of the many, many potential things that will come to someone’s mind when one mentions faith. This is all off the top of my head, and I’m sure each of you can add many more. The point I want to make is that they tend to fall into three basic categories. Some definitions put faith in a positive light, some a more neutral, and some are more negative.

Neutral definitions of “faith”

1. Hope

2. Desire or expectation

3. Belief, confidence or trust in a person, object, religion, idea or view. (Dictionary.com)

Anti-faith definitions non-believers tend to hold

4. Blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence (Richard Dawkins)

5. Believing something for no good reason (Matt Dillahunty)

6. Only needed when there is insufficient evidence to hold a desired belief

7. Wishful thinking – I hope it’s true therefore I have complete confidence

8. A bias, especially special pleading, that is thus less likely to lead to truth

9. That which is required to move one in a desired direction from a position of non-belief to a position of belief

Religiously-based definitions of “faith” that believers tend to hold

10. The substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)

11. Complete trust or confidence; based on spiritual apprehension rather than truth (Google or Siri grabbed this from somewhere)

12. An educated decision about a personal religious conviction, based on evidence, and not blind

13. A virtuous quality (something worthy to be desired, the more faith you have the more righteous you are) that makes one right with God

14. That which is granted by God to some, in varying degrees, in order to fulfill his plans.

See the Christianity section of the Wikipedia page on Faith for more interpretations.

What follows is my take on these definitions and some recommendations to readers that might help more of us increase our understanding of one-another’s perspective. Let me pause here and say that my view is not “the right view.” People come to this from different angles and my goal is not to convince anyone that X is how faith “should be interpreted.” What I hope to do here is clarify “why,” in many cases, there is disagreement between believers and non-believers about the virtue of faith. This comes from my own limited perspective, so add it to yours only if it helps. 🙂

Why the neutral definitions of faith (1-3) should be avoided

Recommendation #1: Don’t use “faith” as a substitute for a better word with a clearer meaning

If we mean something like #1-3, we should consider using words other than “faith” unless we are certain that everyone in the audience is on the same page. When we replace perfectly good and appropriate words like, confidence, trust, belief, etc., with nebulous words like faith, we risk causing some to misunderstand our meaning due to the ambiguity of “faith.” For example, if you believe in Young Earth Creationism and you tell an atheist she “has faith in Evolution or Darwinism that is no different from the faith you have,” you’re conflating two different definitions in the mind of your audience. I’ll explain why in a moment. If you use the word “confidence” instead of faith, you remove this ambiguity. You also reduce the chance that a non-believer will assume you mean “religious faith.” There is a strong difference between confidence, or trust, (terms where “faith” is often inserted) and religious faith. It’s this key difference that is usually being conflated in most of these scenarios. So, if you mean confidence, say confidence. If you mean trust, say trust. Save “faith” for religious faith, unless you really know your audience and “faith” fits what they’ve expect for the context, or unless you’re willing to take the time explaining what you mean in more detail.

Why non-believers should be cautious when using the anti-faith definitions (4-9)

If we choose to assert, like Dawkins did (#4), that the trust girding faith is blind, we are erecting a straw man. Perhaps you can think of a belief that isn’t based on some evidence, but I cannot. The question is not whether evidence is present, but whether that evidence is of the caliber that warrants the level of belief a person is assigning to it. Dawkins does have a point that some faith, particularly some religious faith, is held in spite of what should be compelling evidence in opposition. However, the pivot is here: compelling to whom? They have sufficient evidence in their mind, or, by definition, they wouldn’t believe what they have faith in. Is their manner of reasoning about their evidence grounded in a mechanism that is more likely to lead to objective truth? That is the key question.

Definition 5 also turns on this point. What is “good” evidence? That is where the believer and the non-believer tend to differ, and it is the real heart of the issue about the meaning of faith. I just made up definitions 6-9 but most of them probably came form my subconscious after being reconstructed from something I previously heard. As a non-believer, I should be careful before thinking of faith this way because each use of the word requires it’s own evaluation. People often don’t mean “religious faith” when they say “faith,” and even religious faith doesn’t always meet the criteria listed in 6-9.

Why non-believers tend to distrust the religious definitions of “faith” (10-14)

First, let me say that I have immense respect for faith. I know that statement won’t sit well with many of my fellow non-believers, but I must be honest. I know the indwelling presence of joy and strength that comes from faith first-hand. It is a confidence, an assurance, an acceptance and a love like no other. Neuroscience might note that it can act like an addiction and a high like any other positive endorphin trip. That doesn’t change the experience. I just wanted to start by identifying with the believers before I explain why the feelings, while deeply treasured, are still subject to the assessment that follows.

The first definition in that set (10) makes faith sound like something to be avoided – at least that’s what the rational parts of my conscious mind say (some believer’s may call that the devil). Paul sounds poetic and it’s in the Bible so a vast number of people take it to be God’s definition and wholly accurate. This is just the KJV but please look up the possible meanings of the words in the Strong’s concordance. I use this almost every time I look up a verse in the Bible. Here’s the link to Hebrews 11:1 where this faith verse is recorded. Click the words to where else they’re used in the Bible. Click the Strong’s numbers to see the possible meanings that the words may have.

The problem I’m seeing with Paul’s definition is the same problem many non-theists probably see with most religiously based definitions they hear. Non-theists, this is my personal assessment so please let me know whether or not you agree with the following. Religious definitions of faith are in opposition to the best tools of reasoning we have for determining Truth.

I experience the sublime, but at the end of the day, the substance of hope is really best described as just “hope.” “Evidence of things unseen” is either no evidence or weak evidence, in my opinion. So, in a sense, it seems as though he’s defining faith to be hope, courage, conviction, etc., that is based on non-testable and weak evidence. That sounds very much like poor reasoning that doesn’t take advantage of what we’ve learned about coming to true beliefs since Aristotle (before Paul) and in the scientific revolution in the last four hundred years. It was written before modern philosophy of science so we can’t expect it to have taken that into account, right? The two problems that keep that from being convincing to me are that it was written post-Aristotle, and it was supposedly divine. It could have used Plato/Socrates/Aristotle-like reasoning as a basis for determining which beliefs to hold with which level of certainty, but it did the opposite and left the door open for almost all the fallacies and biases of human reasoning to enter what we accept as true. Despite 1 Thessalonians 5:21 which tells us to test all things, we aren’t given any tools for testing that will have a high chance of leading us to truth. Testing them against the Bible is circular and thus shouldn’t be believed with full-confidence. In addition, Biblical faith makes predictions that are testable and don’t pass the test when measured (e.g. the average success-rate of prayer).

Please don’t write me off as a post-modernist strong-naturalist steeped in scientism. I’m actually none of those things, by my interpretation of them. I have reasons for believing what I do about epistemology and the good brought about by the modern philosophy of science. I don’t believe it’s the answer to every question, but I know what it’s strengths and limits are. Coming to “true beliefs” is a strength it has over “reasoning without it.” More on that in a minute.

Definition 11 isn’t any better. If complete trust is to be based on spiritual apprehension rather than on truth, this highlights the problem neatly. It’s about what we value more – a false belief that feels excellent out of the box or a true belief that we have to work at before it will feel good after leaving the false belief.

Please note that I’m not saying anything about the truth or falsity of the beliefs the Bible relates. All these arguments are equally applicable to any religious, political or other ideology. The question is not whether the Bible’s claims are true or false, but whether or not the mechanism it outlines for belief is one that is more likely to lead to True beliefs. As Matt Dillahunty has pointed out, our goal should be to minimize the number of false beliefs and maximize the number of true beliefs we hold. We should all strive to hold as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as possible. If that’s our goal, we must recognize the following.

Promoting certainty of belief in concepts that we hope are true, but for which we have little evidence, is a poor method of coming to objectively true beliefs. It may make us feel good, but even if it leads to a belief that is true but non-demonstrable, we can’t relate that knowledge to others because it’s subjective by nature. In that case it is indistinguishable from the follies of our bias reasonings and logical fallacies which, when discovered, leave many of us either deeply questioning our faith or deeply opposed to what we see as the “religion of science” or “liberal intellectualism.” Any angle I examine it, I can’t find Paul’s definition of faith to be more virtuous, righteous, or valuable in terms of leading to truth than evidence-based reasoning. If truth is individual, given by God, and steeped in a web of flawed human reasoning that opposes the order or critical thought, then I still want to know it but I can’t get there.

Definitions 12 through 14 don’t make religious faith sound any more desirable, to me personally, as a path to truth. I made them up anyway. Saying a decision is educated also makes it more prone to the the MR thing I wrote about in Why I respect Pascal (I won’t write the words here since I told some important people that I’d stop mentioning it :)). Definition 14 is actually the one I’m the most okay with because it has a clear meaning within the religious context and doesn’t prescribe anything directly about how we ought to reason. I find it dubious, but I don’t take umbrage with it. I used to believe I had it and I miss it.

Why else do non-believers feel uneasy when someone says they have faith (and don’t clarify that they don’t mean religious faith)

I want to wrap this up quickly but there is a lot to cover here. I’ll try to make it quick and save most of what I was going to say for a later time. The short answer, in my opinion, is that religious faith tends to demand a level of certainty beyond the level for which it can justify good evidence.

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. – David Hume

When I say good evidence, I do mean evidence that can be tested and falsified. In Paul’s time, personal conviction may have been “good evidence.” I don’t think so, because he had Aristotle who’s principles would have led to much better evidence, but then again, Plato’s logic include “forms” and was more of an armchair philosophy compared to the modern empirical sciences which are significantly more accurate. Either way, it seems undeniable to me that, by today’s standards, Paul’s definitions of religious faith do not qualify as good evidence today. Why?

First, listen to this audio lecture. Seriously. If you do I’ll celebrate your awesomeness in a post and email you a secret family dessert recipe. Pascal listened to it. 🙂 I know you’ll like the course because you read this far. If you made it this far you definitely have what it takes to make it through that awesome audio.

Second, briefly, science is a subset of reason. Life forms have been reasoning about the world, their environment, themselves, each other, etc., for millions of years or more. Humans for hundreds of thousands. That reasoning power is great at self-preservation, but not engineered for finding truth. There are many flaws in our reasoning. For an idea, read The Problem, and skim the Wikipedia pages for cognitive biases and logical fallacies. The vast majority of these effect each of us every day and we are completely unaware. This is another excellent audio book on the subject. The bottom line is that if there is an objective reality (and I believe there is), we do not observe it. We construct our reality as we experience it. I’m not even talking about quantum physics here. There are several layers of processing that occur between what IS, and what we consciously experience. Those layers are faulty at many places and lead us away from the truth of what IS. Worst of all, we aren’t even aware of it most of the time. For a taste to demonstrate the principle, look at the famous dress photo (blue and black or white and gold?) and these others I got from a TED talk a while back. There are many more such images. You can find similar images by googling “optical illusions” but Neil Degrasse Tyson says we should call them “brain failures” because that’s what they are…

dress

black_dots

straight_or_curved

Okay, so our human reasoning isn’t perfect at seeing things, but we can still trust our non-scientific reasoning about things, including the supernatural, right?

probabilities

Not so much. 🙂

The philosophy of science has evolved over centuries as the most effective means of stopping poor reasoning that plagues all humans. A good scientific theory provides explanation, prediction and control. We can justify belief in many concepts, but confidence should be reserved (in my opinion) to a more moderate level when dealing with things that fall outside of what we can test. The appropriate level of confidence almost always falls below the threshold of what would be considered righteousness in a religious tradition. Religious faith demands a level of confidence that is at war with the best processes we have for searching out truth today. I am not saying that science is the only way to “know” something. I am saying that we must acknowledge that our non-scientific reasoning should be distrusted to a greater degree than our reasoning that follows the scientific process accurately. Science embraces methodological naturalism which means it doesn’t say anything about the supernatural one way or the other. While it won’t tell us what God’s nature is, it can attempt things like determining which clearly defined hypotheses are less likely than others based on the predictions those hypotheses make (assuming they interact with the world in some way).

We can believe X about God Y, but if we have the same level of confidence about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin than we do about whether the sun will rise tomorrow, we’re placing as much confidence in our demonstrably far-less trustworthy evolutionary reasoning as we are in our reasoning based on science, which is encompasses the latest advances in thought throughout history (with a demonstrable track record of high-success).

The real issue is whether or not something is falsifiable. If it isn’t, we can still believe it and potentially justly so. But we can’t call it science. Popper helped solidify that with his problem of demarcation. Science which encompasses mathematics, statistics, probabilities, confidence intervals, margins of error, peer reviews, efforts to disprove hypotheses, checks against personal biases, double-blind trials, and the formidable advantage of formulas and logic to weed out the ambiguous nature of human reasoning and language – is far more likely, on average, to lead to true beliefs (beliefs that accurately reflect the reality that is) than using non-scientific processes based on flawed reasoning and circular logic about how we feel about a given subject.

If you disagree, I’ll be happy to dedicate a post to defending that position. Before doing so, consider that most religions require an ante of belief upon conversion. You must believe X and Y to be a true follower of religion Z. Once there, the balance between eternal bliss and eternal torment due to apostasy often hinges on your level of religious faith. With that in mind, consider Bill Nye’s answer at the end of the Creation vs Evolution debate about what would change his mind. A single piece of evidence (paraphrase). His opponents answer was “nothing.”

Please don’t think I’m saying that all believers hold faith “in the teeth of evidence” or that Ken was not right to do so. Perhaps he does have the proper belief or perhaps he would change his mind when the right pieces of evidence appear, but he just can’t imagine it yet. What matters is not whether faith in X or Y is warranted, or even whether idea Z is true or false. I’m asking you to consider which process of reasoning, on average, is more likely to yield more true beliefs and fewer false beliefs. Regardless of your answer, know that non-believers tend to think that the methodology of reasoning is different for religious faith than it is for science (yes, they conflict), and that religious faith is far less reliable. That is why they tend to define it differently and why it makes them uneasy to hear someone say they are using “faith.”

Conclusion

The word “faith” means so many things, many of them very polarizing, and there is almost a certainty that people with opposing theological beliefs are not going to accept the same interpretations. We all have flaws in our reasoning, naturally, from birth – especially me. No matter how much we try to overcome them through learning about them or studying logic, biases, meta-cognition, etc., none of us are completely immune to the hidden biases that creep in. For this reason alone, we should be cautious of the types of reasoning that make us certain about untestable claims. We should also be aware of when we think we’re testing claims against our experience but we’re really failing to take account of confirmation bias, or other biases for which we are often unaware until we learn about them and examine our beliefs against them.

Is faith good or bad? I may be largely a personality thing. Evidence seems to support the idea that some personality types (mainly “feelers”) tend to be more likely to land on the pro-religious-faith side than their opposites. I don’t know if that’s true, but the Myers-Briggs profile analyses seem to say so.

In some sense it depends on how important truth is to you. Faith feels wonderful. Oh how I miss it. But is the quality of evidence in religious faith sufficient to warrant the level of belief we hold in our religious tenets? Those who reason by faith usually say yes. Those who don’t tend to say no. Who’s right? As a general principle, my assessment is that religious faith is less trustworthy than scientific reasoning, so I trust it less. I do not completely distrust it but I’m a little more skeptical of it. I think this is good because wanting something to be true means we should be even more cautious of it, examining it even more, because our natural tendency is to do the opposite (another blind spot).

So Pascal, if we’re talking about how we reason as humans, I think we should focus on evidence-based reasoning over faith-based reasoning. I actually think that’s not the best way to consider the conflict. I still want there to be faith-based reasoning because the things that come to us through our faith are a kind of evidence. It’s all under the umbrella of human reasoning. We just need to subject our faith-based thoughts and intuitions through the same two filters that we subject every other kind of thought.

Filter 1: a list of all the biases and logical fallacies we’re subject too.

Filter 2: evidence-based testing (e.g. scientific method, testing, repeatability etc.).

We shouldn’t necessarily disbelieve it if it fails one of these filters, but the degree to which it passes both filters is the degree to which we should trust it, wherever it comes from (faith-based reasoning or elsewhere). This is where I support the “and” over the “instead.”

To me, “faith” is a red-flag warning of potential belief that exceeds what’s warranted by the evidence. I see faith as a potential multiplier that takes what we should believe based on evidence and boosts it some degree with confidence from what we want to be true. Evidence always informs faith, but faith has a tendency to go further than good, fallacy-filtered evidence warrants. If we hold up the white-flag of humility alongside the red-flag of hope (e.g. if we say, “I think and hope this but I don’t know”), then I’m much more okay with faith and evidence rather than limiting to just faith instead of evidence. Of course, you have this quality in spades. Go climb your mountain, you awesome dad. 🙂

Next week, let me know if we’re at an impasse with faith and where I made things more confusing or more clear. I know you already knew the vast majority of this, but I’m putting it down for posterity and the off chance it might help someone. Sorry you had to wade through it. Please forgive the typos. It is very late now.

Questions

Readers, did any of you make it this far? If you’re a non-believer are you uneasy when people say you “have faith in X?” If you’re a believer are did this post irritate you? Do you disagree? If so, I apologize. Want to add anything?

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell