Monday, June 26, 2006

Seeking Middle Ground

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

In The Pursuit of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, Ernie responded to my invitation to clarify what I had previously written in A Scattered Review of The Pilgrim's Regress.

In answer to Ernie's question, yes, I still affirm that belief in truth is inherently good, and I agree that belief in truth is inherently possible, to the limited extent that we are able to discover it or describe it. I also agree that those who do not believe that truth exists are unlikely to discover it (assuming it does exist), and that belief of truth can reward those who find it, in the sense of providing an advantage over those who believe falsehood. What an individual does with his (incomplete) belief still may not actually be to his benefit or to anyone elses'.

As a bit of a sidebar, I might also add that belief in falsehood is, according to this view, worse than no belief at all. I do not have time to go into this too deeply here, but I was reminded of an aphorism found in Tom DeMarco's "The Deadline: A Novel About Project Management". (For those who do not know, Tom DeMacro is a sort of luminary in the software development world, a co-author of "Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams", which is something of a classic in the field.) In "The Deadline", which is a rather quick and humorous read about a project manager who is kidnapped and then given a unique opportunity to lead a number of software projects, Mr. Tompkins (the project manager) is struggling to figure out how to meet the impossible deadline he has been given. It is in this context that he discovers what he believes to be a fundamental human error:

It's not what you don't know that kills you, ... it's what you know that isn't so.

But back to pursuing truth...

At this point, I think Ernie misses my point, and perhaps Lewis' point (if in fact I have understood Lewis' point). The longing that Lewis describes is rather more specific that a general longing for truth. For instance, it is an "immortal longing". The conclusion that, because the longing cannot be satisfied in this life, its satisfaction must lie in the next (and that the next life must exist) is unjustified. Lewis has failed to admit in any real way that the longing may have no satisfaction. He also has not demonstrated that this longing is universal, and I rather suspect that it is not.

When I said:

This seems a very dangerous road, to take an intense longing and from that longing infer that a fulfillment of that longing simply must exist. "If nature makes nothing in vain, the One ... must exist." Perhaps nature does make some things in vain. And he also admits "how easily the longing accepts false objects" but claims that by following the desire faithfully the false objects will be rejected. I reject the idea that because he has some desire, the fulfillment of that desire must exist, and I am skeptical about how reliably he is able to identify what is false and what is true.

the important point was to deny the inevitability of Lewis' conclusion. Secondarily, I intended to call into question Lewis' methods of distinguishing truth from error. The example of Mr. Enlightenment was meant in part to support this, as Lewis' description of science, his caricature of it, is so distorted.

I think Ernie understood me to be making a more general claim about the possibility of distinguishing truth from error, thus suggesting nihilism. As I said above, I do believe it is possible to approach the truth, though often slowly. I do deny nihilism, at least as I understand it, though in the Wikipedia article on the subject, there are hints that Nietzsche (for instance) intended a rather different emphasis than what I normally associate with the term.

In defending Lewis, Ernie (unintentionally I think) supports a point that I have made before, which is that belief itself can have transformative power, regardless of whether or not truth underlies that belief. For he says, "The only thing that makes his journey possible is his belief that the journey is meaningful" (emphasis mine). That may very well be true. But Ernie proceeds as if he had said "The only thing that makes his journey possible is that the journey is meaningful", thus making its possibility evidence of its meaningfulness, and its meaningfulness evidence of the destination's existence.

In doing so, I think Ernie and Lewis, like many theists, go too far. They demand that either there is an ultimate meaning, or no meaning at all; Good with a capital G, or no good at all. This is a false dichotomy, a fallacy of the excluded middle. We can adopt purpose, we can create meaning, we can observe what leads to happiness and call it good. We may argue about the details, and I will not claim that any such purpose or meaning or measure of goodness is necessarily unique or necessary, but their existence provides a middle ground that lies between theism and nihilism.

Just today I came across a transcript of an interview with Steven Weinberg from the PBS show, "Faith and Reason". He addresses this very point. In reference to a statement he had made years ago in a book on cosmology about the pointlessness of the universe, he said:

I don't think this means [however] there's no point to life. Usually the remark is quoted just as it stands. But if anyone read the next paragraph, they would see that I went on to say that if there is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods of science, there is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art. And that -- in a way, although we are not the stars in a cosmic drama, if the only drama we're starring in is one that we are making up as we go along, it is not entirely ignoble that faced with this unloving, impersonal universe we make a little island of warmth and love and science and art for ourselves. That's not an entirely despicable role for us to play.

Similarly, we may very well approach the truth without reaching it in this life, and this does not imply that there must be an afterlife so that we can reach it. Perception of beauty may be the result of complex neuro-chemical processes; perhaps it is an accidental artifact, but that makes it no less real, even if there is not a divine Beauty somewhere. I have also previously attempted to describe how it can be sensible to call something "good" without a reference to divine Goodness.

So, the statement "Belief in truth is inherently good" need not be a cruel mockery to an atheist. To a nihilist perhaps, but nihilism is not the sole alternative to theism. If you are looking for a positive -ism to associate with such a view (rather than the simple lack of belief implied by atheism), secular humanism is one example. This paragraph on ethics from A Secular Humanist Declaration summarizes this idea pretty well. I could also include my obligatory reference to Richard Carrier, whose "What an Atheist Ought to Stand For" also addresses this subject.

So why is truth knowable, Ernie asks. My short answer is that there is an objective reality that we can (imperfectly) perceive and which appears to operate according to reliable (at least statistically speaking) rules. While our limitations (and indeed those very rules, e.g., quantum mechanics and the finite speed of light) prevent us from knowing completely or perfectly, practically speaking there are some things that we know very well and many things that we do not. The pursuit of truth is necessary to better inform and enable our ethics, among other consideration.

I do very much appreciate Ernie's continued emphasis that Christianity-As-We-Know-It is merely the current state of a belief system that has been and will continue to evolve as its proponents seek the truth. I will have some more to say about this when I get to my intended posts describing my reasons for unbelief as well as my feedback on the second book which Ernie recommended, "Generous Orthodoxy", which I am part way through.

Friday, June 23, 2006

A Scattered Review of The Pilgrim's Regress

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

There are a couple of things I need to address in this dialog. First, I want to talk a little bit about "The Pilgrim's Regress", by C.S. Lewis, which Ernie recommended I read (along with two other books). Second (and in a later post) I want to attempt to describe the view from 30,000 feet of my reasons for rejecting Christianity. And then I will try to flesh out the details of those reasons.

So: "The Pilgrim's Regress". According to the book jacket, this was the first book written by Lewis following his conversion. It was originally published in 1933 and the copy I read contains an afterword written for the third edition, published in 1943. As one might guess from the title, the book is an allegory roughly in the style of Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress". It details the journey of John, originally from Puritania, as he attempts to find a way to The Island, which he has seen in a sort of vision. In the course of this journey he encounters a number of characters which represent different philosophical and theological positions. This journey reflects, in a general way, the progression of Lewis' beliefs "from 'popular realism' to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity" (taken from the Afterword).

I am certain that more meaning could be extracted from the book by someone more intimately familiar with the various philosophies, theologies and personalities represented in the book. In fact, without the explanatory headlines at the top of each page (like "Marx really a Dwarf; Spinoza a Jew; Kant a Puritan"), I would often have been hard pressed to recognize many of the allusions being made. Whether or not I understood enough to help me understand Ernie's beliefs, I am not sure.

Before I get to anything else in the book itself, I have to comment on Lewis' method, that is, the method by which he arrived at Christianity. (Again, this is taken from his afterword.) As I mentioned, the goal of the main character is to reach The Island, which he first glimpsed as a child. This represents "a particular recurrent experience which dominated my childhood and adolescence" and this experience was one of "intense longing". Then he says:

It appeared to me therefore that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given - nay, cannot even be imagined as given - in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience. This Desire was, in the soul, as the Siege Perilous of Arthur's castle - the chair in which only one could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist. I knew only too well how easily the longing accepts false objects and through what dark ways the pursuit of them leads us: but I also saw that the Desire itself contains the corrective of all these errors. The only fatal error was to pretend that you had passed from desire to fruition, when, in reality, you had found either nothing, or desire itself, or the satisfaction of some different desire. The dialectic of Desire, faithfully followed, would retrieve all mistakes, head you off from all false paths, and force you not to propound, but to live through, a sort of ontological proof.

This seems a very dangerous road, to take an intense longing and from that longing infer that a fulfillment of that longing simply must exist. "If nature makes nothing in vain, the One ... must exist." Perhaps nature does make some things in vain. And he also admits "how easily the longing accepts false objects" but claims that by following the desire faithfully the false objects will be rejected. I reject the idea that because he has some desire, the fulfillment of that desire must exist, and I am skeptical about how reliably he is able to identify what is false and what is true.

One of the first characters that John (the main character) meets is Mr. Enlightenment, a "big man with red hear and a red stubble on all his three chins". The headline describes this character as nineteenth-century rationalism, and Lewis evidently has a rather low opinion of him. Naturally, Mr. Enlightenment rejects the idea of "the Landlord", who represents God. But Lewis puts some interesting words into his mouth:

"Well, as to that... I see that you have a very crude notion of how science actually works... Hypothesis, my dear young friend, establishes itself by a cumulative process: or, to use popular language, if you make the same guess often enough it ceases to be a guess and becomes a Scientific Fact."

Really? This is a gross mischaracterization of science. While science may not be able answer all of the questions that Lewis would like answered, the fact that he does not understand how it does answer what questions it can answer does little to inspire trust in his own approach. And later, while speaking with Reason about what science says about religion, she says "They pretend that their researches lead to that doctrine, but in fact they assume that doctrine first and interpret their researches by it." Even if that were true (and I take it as a skewed description of methodological naturalism), I think the same charge could be leveled against some religious thinkers, and Lewis' statement that "the One ... must exist" comes immediately to mind. That is, he starts by assuming what will be found.

It is my understanding that Lewis saw in various pagan mythologies precursors and foreshadowings of the story of Christ, which was a sort of archetypal fulfillment of those mythologies. The Hermit describes something like this (but not exactly like this) to John. While there are many similarities in the stories of Jesus to the stories in other religious/mythological traditions, one coud just as easily say (and most skeptics do) that this is merely a reflection of recurring themes that people find compelling in these stories. Some Christian apologists (but not Lewis) have claimed that these others were in fact demonically-inspired stories intended to cast doubt on the true story of Christ. Who assumes their doctrine first, again? No more the skeptics than the believers, at least.

I do not disagree with all that Lewis writes. He critiques a variety of beliefs and I think some of those critiques, like those of Freudian wish-fulfillment and of Fascist and Communist revolutionaries, are well-founded. John's conversation with Wisdom about the source of moral rules contains what is essentially a description of The Euthyphro Dilemma. While John encounters Wisdom relatively late in his travels, and while the character is given a name that is generally "positive", Lewis does not agree with all that he has Wisdom say, so I am not absolutely sure how Lewis himself felt about this issue, whether God is the author of morality or simply an advocate of it, but when the topic came up later as John was speaking with the Man (Jesus), the Man does not contradict Wisdom.

You heard from Wisdom how the rules were yours and not yours. Did you not mean to keep them? And if so, can it scare you to know that there is one who will make you able to keep them?

From Ernie's description of Psi and Omega, I would guess that he views moral rules as intrinsic to the fabric of reality and as inseparable from divinity. I am not sure if that is an accurate description of Ernie's beliefs, nor am I certain that I have correctly understood Lewis. Perhaps Ernie can clarify, it it seems important.

Since Ernie and I spent a fair amount of time talking about hell and Ernie has expressed his general agreement with Lewis' view of hell as explained in "The Great Divorce", I was curious to see how Lewis treated the problem of hell in this book. Hell is represented by the Black Hole. John first hears of the Black Hole from a Steward.

However, it all ended with pointing out that the Landlord was quite extraordinarily kind and good to his tenants, and would certainly torture most of them to death the moment he had the slightest pretext.

Of course, the Stewards represent a sort of Christianity that Lewis believes is quite mistaken. After John crosses the chasm (becomes a Christian), he has a conversation with the Guide about the Black Hole. According to the Guide, there is a black hole and he offers up the free will defense.

"... The Landlord has taken the risk of working the country with free tenants instead of slaves in chain gangs: and as they are free there no way of making it impossible for them to go into forbidden places and eat forbiddden fruits. Up to a certain point he can doctor them even when they have done so, and break them of the habit... You must not try to fix the point after which a return is impossible, but you can see that there will be such a point somewhere."

"But surely the Landlord can do anything?"

"He cannot do what is contradictory... it is meaningless to talk of forcing a man to do freely what a man has freely made impossible for himself."

"I see. But at least these poor creatures are unhappy enough: there is no need to add a black hole."

"The Landload does not make the blackness. The blackness is there already wherever the taste of mountain-apple has created the vermiculate will. What do you mean by a hole? Something that ends. A black hole is blackness enclosed, limited. And in that sense the Landloard has made the black hole. He has put into the world a Worst Thing. But evil of itself would never reach a worst: for evil is fissiparous and could never in a thousand eternities find any way to arrest its own reproduction. If it could, it would be no longer evil... The walls of the black hole are the tourniquet on the wound through which the lost soul else would bleed to a death she never reached. It is the Landlord's last service to those who will let him do nothing better for them."

This does seem consistent with what Ernie has described. But I still do not buy it, as there remain a number of problems. Those I am saving for my own story. I did find it amusing that Lewis would attempt to turn the existence of hell into a demonstration of God's mercy.

I suppose that so long as one views this work as a description of Lewis' journey and as an explanation of some of his views, it did passibly well. (Lewis himself says it was needlessly obscure.) As Ernie expected, I do not find it convincing. I am not sure how much it illuminated my understand of Ernie's beliefs. Ernie, is there anything to which you would draw my attention, or wish to clarify?

Monday, June 19, 2006

CAWKI: What Is Wrong With Those People?

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

Finding the energy to blog has been rare lately, but Ernie has put up something today that deserves comment, What I Hate About Christianity (As We Know It).

Ernie lists these "gripes" about American Evangelicalism, aka "Christianity As We Know It" (CAWKI):

  1. Non-consequential ethics: defining 'good' and 'right' by adherence to some abstract intellectual principle or social structure, rather than by how well we love our neighbor.
  2. Non-empirical speculation: differentiating theologies on the basis of unobservable assertions about the afterlife and end times.
  3. Pseudo-gnosticism: starting from the assumption that "our group" has the unique ability to properly interpret scripture, and thus (alone) surely discover transcendent truth.
  4. Impotent evangelism: defining Christianity primarily in terms of nominal (in-name-only) or notional (in-intellectual-belief-only) membership in a club, pretty much as an end in itself.
  5. Power politics: defining truth --in practice -- in terms of who's strongest, or at least most adept at wielding the levers of power.
  6. Unquestioned authority: placing absolute, uncritical reliance on a particular person, structure, or interpretive method.
  7. Exclusionary paradigms: an empirical method that justifies dismissing contradictory evidence using platitudes, rather than directly grappling with them (e.g. "all Buddhist religious experiences are of the devil").
  8. Convenient agnosticism: the attitude that since we can never know inconvenient truths (e.g, the age of the earth) with absolute certainty, we are justified in not believing them
  9. Worst-case comparisons: demonstrating our superiority by comparing the best of our tradition with the worst of someone else's, rather than vice versa.
  10. Nostalgia: seeking to recreate an imagined golden age of the past -- including those very flaws which led to its downfall in the first place!

That is a pretty good list. I am not exactly sure what (4) is getting at, but then I am not likely to get too worked up about impotent evangelism at this point.

As with any list describing a set of people, the statements will not apply equally to all people. Please keep that in mind as I continue, because as I suggest some additions and modifications, I am not at all intending to paint all Christians with the same brush. Some of these apply only to a significant minority, where "significant" may be measured either by numbers or by influence. These are additional observations, not intended to replace or diminish Ernie's list. Some are fairly specific to contemporary American Christianity.

  1. Insufficient skepticism: failing to appreciate the uncertainty associated with their beliefs, both core and peripheral.
  2. Inappropriate skepticism: rejection of well-established (usually scientific) facts and theories (evolution, age of the earth)
  3. Political entanglement: inappropriate injection of religious beliefs into governmental policy and legislation (e.g., Plan B, gay marriage)
  4. Political complicity: facilitation of corruption and incompetence through uncritical support of public figures (e.g., Tom DeLay, Pat Robertson and yes, George Bush) that abuse that trust
  5. Strawmen: incorrectly ascribing beliefs and motivations to non-Christians (no morality without God, disbelief is rebellion)

Now, Ernie pointed out that the problems in his list are human flaws, not problems with Christianity itself. In fact, as I look more closely, I see he already made the point I was about to make: that these problems are not specific to Christianity. They are "people problems". The problems in my list are likewise problems with people. None of them have anything to do with whether "Christianity As We Know It" is true or false. And if we could wave a magic wand and remove all trace of Christianity from the earth, these problems (or others very much like them) would remain.

Ernie asked three questions about his list:

  • Do you agree that these are legitimate gripes, or do you think some of them are unfair/invalid?
  • Would you agree than any proposed replacement for Christianity needs to do better in some or all of these dimensions?
  • Where do you feel I did not go far enough? What additional gripes do you have that I may not have sufficiently addressed here?

As I said earlier, I generally agree with Ernie's list. I would not call any of them unfair or invalid. Regarding replacements for Christianity, I am not sure that Christianity needs replacing based on these problems, because as Ernie said, it is not Christianity that has or requires these characteristics in the first place. Maybe Christians need to be replaced. :-) Or maybe some or many Christians (like some or many non-Christians) need to replace some of their attitudes, views, epistemologies and everything else that is wrong with them.

Ernie says that "there is more to Christianity than this ... [and] it is precisely that 'more' which provides the basis for this critique." Yes and no. Certainly there is more to Christianity than a list of flaws that characterize some believers. But neither does Christianity hold an exclusive position in being able to criticize itself. That is, there are other foundations that can provide these same critiques of Christians, and also to provide the same or similar critiques of those that rest on those other foundations. In other words, I disagree that it is "precisely the 'more'" that provides the basis for the critique, at least not for any exclusionary sense of "precisely".

Ernie had previously suggested I read three books, which he kindly offered to buy for me. As it happens, all are available through inter-library loan and I finished "The Pilgrim's Regress" by C.S. Lewis this weekend. However, I may need to re-read parts of it before I can comment. Both of the other books he suggested were checked out, but were due within a week or so, so I should be able to read them soon.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

(In)coherent Mumbling

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

At the end of my last post I left unanswered a set of questions that Ernie had posted. Tonight I intend to clarify some of what I said toward the end of Practical Truth as well as answer those questions.

First, I need to clarify this paragraph:

Ernie also asks "on what basis can we assert that science is really correlated with truth, as opposed to just a 'comfortable myth, held by a self-selected group, which seems to work much of the time'?" My answer is pragmatic: who cares? If a theory works (and that is the crucial qualification), it is useful and if another theory works better, it is more useful. I do think that science is correlated with truth in the realms it can address, simply because it works so well, but there is not a necessary causal relationship between "works" and "true", a point that came up yesterday in relation to the historical success of Christianity.

The question "who cares?" was a little too superficial, too flippant. Instead, the point that I failed to communicate is that we can never be sure that we have discovered the truth. We are fallible, both in observation and in rationality, and often we operate with incomplete information so that even if we observed and reasoned perfectly, we still could not be sure of everything. Rather than get all worked up over that limitation, we do the best we can, and for science the best we have done (so far) is to figure out what works, that is, what theories correlate with observations and which make verifiable (and verified) predictions.

That was science, though. What about other areas of inquiry? What about history? What about theology?

In history, it is still possible to make predictions, for instance about the nature of as yet undiscovered evidence. Beyond that, or rather, below that is the idea of coherency. We expect our historical assertions to be mutually compatible as well as compatible with that evidence we do possess. Coherency is more than logical compatibility though; to me it implies a kind of parsimony and abstraction. It "compresses" the relevant data into a more succinct form.

When there are conflicts among our assertions, we know that something is wrong, but not necessarily what. There may also be gaps, subjects for which no assertions are yet made. We can easily reduce the conflicts by allowing the gaps to grow; the challenge is to reduce the size of the gaps without increasing the conflicts, or better yet reducing the conflicts. This explanation is getting pretty close to what I described in Belief Optimization several months ago. One thing that I touched on at the end but must emphasize here is that so far as coherency goes, there may be multiple partially coherent (but not perfectly coherent) belief systems that assert different things. Which one is closest to the truth? How can we know? Coherency (or at least compatibility) is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being confident in the truth of our assertions.

For one example, consider the question of the resurrection. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Can we know that? Without going into any significant detail, let me contrast two different positions. First, to a theist the possibility that Jesus was raised seems not at all unreasonable, so given some reports that he was raised and the lack of any contemporaneous contradictory reports, a belief in the resurrection is not incoherent. On the other hand, to one with no prior belief in the supernatural, the possibility that the accounts of his resurrection were fictional is likewise compatible with the lack of any contemporaneous contradictory reports, so this (dis)belief of the resurrection is likewise not incoherent. There is, of course, much more that could be said about this example. The point here is simply to illustrate that there may exist multiple sets of beliefs, each of which is internally coherent, but which are mutually incompatible.

So while coherency is important, it is insufficient to provide certainty. As I mentioned in Belief Optimization, evaluating the coherency of our beliefs in an accurate way is difficult enough, and by practical necessity we cannot independently assess all of the relevent evidence; we must rely on the work of many others. That, however, introduces beliefs about the trustworthiness of those others into the belief system.

Now, I do think that Christian belief systems are less coherent than some atheistic or even deistic alternatives. Possibly I am wrong -- anybody could be. I have previously spent a fair amount of time advancing the claim that eternal consequences for decisions made under such uncertain conditions is unjust. Rather than get into that again, let me raise several other considerations. First, could the uncertainty be reduced? Is there anything that God could do (if he exists) to reduce the uncertainty? Some Christians like to claim that those who do not believe would reject him no matter what he did, but that is presumptuous. It may very well be true of some people, but there are those of us who have taken a measured look at the available evidence and attempted at least to make a reasoned decision. We are willing to consider new evidence, but what we have so far is insufficient. Any explanation that Ernie offers for why eternal damnation would be considered just needs to explain as well why God is unwilling to make our situation clearer and more certain.

Second, while what I have said so far in this post may make it seem like there is very little hope for finding the truth, practically speaking we do reasonably well. For some harder problems, with enough eyes looking and enough time, we often arrive at answers that are "good enough". Sometimes we are wrong; sometimes people die for those mistakes, but we can then learn from those mistakes. Sometimes what we learn is wrong too, but slowly we make progress. Medicines are developed with unforeseen side effects, but eventually the pattern is recognized and medical practice changes. As sad as we may be over the mistakes we make, and as horrible as the consequences sometimes are, we can make progress. Compare this, however, with heaven and hell: we have no observational capabilities that can help us with that. We have no way of verifying the existence, let alone the character, of any kind of afterlife, and certainly no way of correlating any eventual disposition with actions or beliefs during this life. Yet we are told the consequences are beyond anything we can imagine (in duration if nothing else). And this same lack of verifiable progress plagues various aspects of theology.

Whether or not it happens to fall within the context of this dialog, my thought is to explain more fully the variety of reasons that I find Christian beliefs untenable, what preferable alternatives exist, and why they are preferable. I think we have had too many claims and too little explanation and support of those claims.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Practical Truth

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

As I noted last night, Ernie had gotten two posts in and I only replied to the first. Tonight, I will tackle the second one, Of Truth and Trust.

As often seems to be the case, Ernie is worried that I committed an category error in my comparison between the Standard Model of physics and any "Standard Model" of Christianity. But I think it is Ernie that has misunderstood my point. In describing the Standard Model of physics, I was not referring to all of physics but to a specific theory, a theory that Ernie brought up and described as "wildly successful and universally believed". My contention is that there is no corresponding theory in Christianity. Yes, there are a variety of orthodoxies, but not a single universally believed orthodoxy, a point the Ernie acknowledges and indeed emphasizes. His mention of string theory and the dispute among physicists as to whether or not it is a valid scientific theory is irrelevant to the universal acceptance of the Standard Model.

(As I re-read the paragraph Ernie quoted, I can see why he might think I was conflating Christianity with orthodoxy, as I was not careful to distinguish throughout that I was intending to compare the physics Standard Model with any theory of Christian orthodoxy, rather than with everything that is labeled Christianity. I started well, but ended poorly.)

The main point of Ernie's post seems to be this:

I assert that the ultimate test of "justified belief" in physics -- and, I wager, everywhere else -- is not formal or empirical, but social. In the sciences, the strongest test we can devise is being published in a peer-reviewed journal; mere experiment by itself is hardly sufficient (remember cold fusion? :-).

I agree that there is a social element here, but I think Ernie has undervalued the experimental evidence. Granted, the initial cold fusion claims were based on experiments, but the eventual consensus of the scientific community was based not just on the experiments described by Pons and Fleischmann, but on numerous failed attempts to replicate those results in experiments performed by other scientists, as well as criticisms by the community of the execution of the original experiments.

Ernie does ask a good question when he asks, for the purposes of peer review, who counts as a peer? And what do we do when there is not universal agreement?

When peer review is done for scientific journals, the reviewers are generally supposed to be scientists with expertise in the subject of the paper under review. Chemists do not review physics papers, and in fact, solid state physicists do not review plasma physics papers. Still, this review is only one step in the process and papers must withstand the scrutiny of skeptical experts and further experiment.

Ernie asks us to consider what effect non-believers and heretics should have on our own beliefs. Should disbelief by non-experts give me reason to disbelieve? Ernie says no, and I fully agree. What about a (small) minority of experts that disagree with the (vast) majority? Should their disbelief mean I should also disbelieve? Again, I agree with Ernie that we should consider their case, but that justified belief can remain in the face of such disagreement. On the other hand, continued skepticism by a significant minority would likely cause me to withhold belief. In all of these cases, belief remains contingent. Even the vast majority can be wrong.

There will always remain, then, the possibility of being wrong, of believing something untrue, even in science. In other venues like history, there will often be substantially greater uncertainty because the available information is usually incomplete, biased, sometimes fraudulent or otherwise inaccurate and imprecise.

Ernie also asks "on what basis can we assert that science is really correlated with truth, as opposed to just a 'comfortable myth, held by a self-selected group, which seems to work much of the time'?" My answer is pragmatic: who cares? If a theory works (and that is the crucial qualification), it is useful and if another theory works better, it is more useful. I do think that science is correlated with truth in the realms it can address, simply because it works so well, but there is not a necessary causal relationship between "works" and "true", a point that came up yesterday in relation to the historical success of Christianity.

Am I being inconsistent then to disbelieve Christianity in the face of its historical success? I think not. It has been successful in the sense of surviving and even growing, but I believe it has had and continues to have significant failures in the sense of promoting the welfare of humankind. I think there are alternatives that work better.

Ernie finished with a few questions about what, who and how I trust. At this point, I'll have to postpone answering them until I have more time.

On the Evolution of Religion

At the end of my last post I briefly discussed why we should expect religions that have lasted and even flourished for thousands of years to improve the viability of the communities that embrace those religions. The reasons are analogous to the role of selection in biological/ecological systems. Today, I happened to come across this in a blog comment:

The doctrine of the fall of man was one of the greatest religious ideas to ever be put forth. It "explained" why man was no longer aware of God, able to communicate openly with God, and that everything absurd about God was really just man's "fallen mind". Looking at religion from an natural standpoint, it is retrospectively easy to see why the major religions survived as they did -- according to Dennett in his new book, a new religion is born every single day, as a seed of speculation. The effect of selection (like evolutionary biology) is that only the best ideas, the most viables seeds, have taken root. Those ideas which did the best job of explaining the history and present situation of the cultures they developed in lasted longest. Furthermore, those religious frameworks which developed around the most stable of economies, or had the most "societally-friendly" beliefs and practices, tend to spread and further themselves the fastest. I would quote a friend of mine here, concerning a particular anthropological phenomenon:

My favourite example of relative morals is the pre-Christian religion of Fiji. Under this religion, people had a moral obligation to cook and eat their enemies. This was not simple savagery - it was an aspect of their religion. By eating an enemy, you denied them entry to the afterlife. Hence, it was a moral duty - a sacrament.

The Old Religion was finally exterminated with the conversion of the King Cakobau in the mid-19th century, and I think that today most of us (including me) would feel that this was a good thing. The Old Religion was not a stable strategy for a civilisation, as evidenced by the fact that before the Christian missionaries arrived, Fiji was a melange of warring petty kingdoms with no structure or history that we would recognise. Hence, although they survived, they did not thrive. Today, although there is a huge number of different Christian, Moslem and Hindu sects represented in the population, they have a "civilised", progressive government and economy, thanks to the Judeo-Christian moral complex.

It is, as John pointed out, a question of "cart or horse first?" Do we assume the truth of the Bible, and work outwards from there, saying, "the reason Christianity has thrived is because it's true and God is good," or, "the reason is because it works, and other religions work too, but some not as well, at explaining various aspects of the world?" John proposed what he called the "outsider test" for Christians to follow: treat your own religion, just for a moment, as you treat others -- as untrue. Approach your deepest-held convictions with skepticism, ask what Ockham's razor does to the "explanations" you erstwhile simply took for granted. And see if you cannot easily reject Christianity for the same reasons you reject Islam and Hinduism and the other thousands of religions: because there is no good reason for you to believe it.

Daniel Morgan

Comment at Debunking Christianity

How apropos.