Sunday, January 27, 2008

Atheism: a question of faith?

Alister McGrath, in The Twilight of Atheism, outlines the fascinating history of modern day atheism. I really enjoyed the book, but the main issue I had with McGrath's account is that, although he covers the cultural trend of atheism in detail, he fails to examine the philosophical merits of atheism itself. When examining a specific worldview, it is important to explore the cultural aspects of that worldview, as McGrath has done with atheism. But if one needs to examine the merits of a worldview, additional questions have to be asked. Can the worldview be adequately defended? Does it make philosophical and logical sense? Is it probable that it is true? This line of questioning is absent from Twilight. I understand that this is not the real scope of the book, as it is primarily an historical account. If this was McGrath’s only reason for not including philosophical discussion, I would have left it at that. However, on page 180, McGrath writes:

The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God. If 'faith' is defined as 'belief lying beyond proof’' both Christianity and atheism are faiths.

According to McGrath, any philosophical or scientific argument about the existence, or non-existence, of God leads to a stalemate (page 182); the matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith (page 179). In other words, discussing the philosophical merits of atheism is a fruitless exercise.

I will, in a number of posts, unpack my reasons for why I disagree with McGrath on this point, but in this post I want to focus on the claim that atheism is simply a form of faith. I agree with McGrath that one cannot prove with absolute certainty that God doesn't or does exist, but does this mean that atheists make their choice based on faith alone? I offer two comments in response.

There is a lot of faith going around
Firstly, one can argue that there are many things of which we can conceive, but for which we don't have ultimate proof. Invisible trolls, ESP, UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, to name a few. Can we prove or disprove each of these things with absolute certainty? I would think that we can't. The list of improvable things is endless; does it make sense then to claim that I'm exercising faith when I decide to not believe in all these conceivable things? Would it make sense for a friend of mine to argue that I'm using faith when I don't believe in his claim that he recently witnessed a stray cat talking Spanish? After all, I can’t prove, with ultimate certainty, that the cat in question did not speak.

Is faith involved here? When I come across a claim as incredible as a speaking cat, I ponder the following questions: (1) are the characteristics of the claim logically co-herent, (2) does the claim agree, more or less, with our current knowledge of the universe, and (3) does the claim correspond with our experience of how things work?

If the general answer to these questions is no, then I would think it rational to not believe in said claim, unless evidence, more than the usual amount, is presented to me.

The Bible is full of events and claims that seem incredibly improbable. It is only rational, in my own mind at least, to not believe in these claims until good evidence is forthcoming. I'm not making a decision that lies beyond the proof, but rather making a decision based on what I currently know. No faith seems to be involved in this process.

Does lack of belief = faith?
Secondly, I guess if every atheist declared “I believe that there is no God”, then McGrath would have a point, but as I’ve explained before on this blog, my own position is somewhat different. I would not claim that “I believe that God doesn't exist”; rather my position would be best described by the statement: “I don't believe in the existence of God”. The first statement denotes belief, while the second statement denotes lack of belief. If faith is about having belief, without sufficient evidence, about the existence or non-existence of an entity, then the position of lack of belief cannot, by definition, be a product of faith.

Atheism thus has very little to defend. McGrath, on the other hand, believes that the creator or the universe has entered time and history in order to communicate with us, and he claims to have a personal relationship with this creator. It is true that we cannot prove, or disprove, the existence of God with absolute certainty, but surely the burden of proof is more heavily placed on those who claim, or even believe, that such a god exists.

To summerise: I don’t agree with McGrath’s claim that atheists in general use faith to reject the existence of God. Firstly, most atheists would claim to have used a rational process of thinking when evaluating, and eventually rejecting, the claims of Christianity, Secondly, most atheists do not make a positive claim of belief regarding the non-existence of God. Their very lack of belief rules out faith by default.

Your thoughts?

Return to Twilight of Atheism index page

56 comments:

Drew said...

Looking at this critical statement: "I would not claim that “I believe that God doesn't exist”; rather my position would be best described by the statement: “I don't believe in the existence of God”."

The latter is still grounded in belief. Faith is a form of belief but we can believe that certain statements have a probability of being true such as the Big Bang, the existence of super-strings, branes, etc. If I say that I don't believe in ghosts and address the reasons why I make that statement, it is because I do not believe the evidence satisfies the null hypothesis here which would be "I believe in ghosts". So there is a belief legitimating the claim either way.

But because faith is a certain kind of belief, not all beliefs are therefore of a faith kind. Faith is an aspect of belief that contains a relationship of trust. To this degree, atheism therefore becomes a kind of faith when we make statements like "Atheism will solve the problems of the world" in as much as a Christian saying, "Through God all things are possible". I think that with McGrath you always have to read it through the imaginary interlocutor to whom he is writing. It is part of his rhetorical style. I think that is is this kind of atheism to which is responds in other books. Now I have not read this book, but so I could be wrong, but it seems on balance with other statements he has made like it.

Cori said...

I like what Drew writes here. I think a lot comes down to definition and clarification of terminology. Terms like 'faith', 'belief' and 'atheism' remain quite contentious and are often used to mean different things to suit our arguments. The way we use terminology can often have a reductionist effect on someone else's view, and perhaps caricature their view.

For example, 'faith' in this post of Kevin's seems to have quite a negative connotation (a blind leap, irrational, slightly absurd) whereas Drew defines it as 'a relationship of trust' which has quite a positive connotation and is far further reaching in terms of the range of things it covers (not just absurd, irrational, blind leaps into the dark).

I think McGrath's definition of 'atheist' is also different from Kevin's definition of 'atheist' which already makes discussion around that word difficult.

But some interesting thoughts, Kevin!

CyberKitten said...

Firstly I disagree that Atheism is a world view or even a philosophy. Atheism may be contained within a persons world view - that the Universe and everything in it is a natural product of natural processes - or a persons philosophy - that a certain level of proof, evidence or convincing argument must be put forward before a default position of scepticism is put on hold at least temporarily.

My 'take' on Atheism is that it is simply a sceptical position with regard to the question of the existence of God. To me that seems a fairly good working definition. Saying that it is obviously not a faith position. It is just saying that belief in God has not reached a sufficent level of proof/evidence/argument to cease being sceptical.

As has been said before on several Blogs I frequent calling Atheism a belief is like calling baldness a hair colour. As Kevin rightly pointed out for many/most Atheists their Atheism denotes a *lack* of belief rather than a belief in the non-existence of something - which is rather difficult to prove!

Marie said...

I prefer to refer to Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation with the fewest assumptions is probably the best. Can you really say that an atheist who assumes nothing about the way things are in the universe has the same faith as a religious person who comes up with quite an elaborate explanation (with many assumptions that aren't refutable). I think the atheists are just chosing what seems more logical and simple.

Sam Norton said...

You say: "Firstly, one can argue that there are many things of which we can conceive, but for which we don't have ultimate proof. Invisible trolls, ESP, UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, to name a few. Can we prove or disprove each of these things with absolute certainty?"

By saying this you show what sort of thing that you think God is, ie something with a discrete existence along the lines of trolls and UFOs etc. Have you thought about trying that thought experiment with other terms that may or may not be proven to exist with absolute certainty?

Love for example.

Sze Zeng said...

Ockham's razor works with the assumption that rationality is foundational and universal, which itself a claim that has been repudiated in our current post-world-war, post-9/11 era.

Atheism to some might be simple and easy, but not to others.

I think this definition of 'faith' boils down to the position of the inquirer, like Cori mentioned.

And I always emphasize that it is alright for people to take whatever stance they prefer for themselves, it be atheism or trinitarianism. But keep that within the four walls of your bedroom.

Because once you proclaim that your stance as the true/right one, then you should expect disagreement. And when that happens, you will find that there are alot of uncertainties in your stance, be it be against or for you. And it is impossible for a person to have a certainty on every foot hold that support that stance. So here come the little place for 'faith' to enable the person to hold on to his/her stance. Though such stance is not irrational, but it does have place for 'faith'.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Um.. All statements of belief apply to the real world. Come to think of it I don't know how you think a belief that isn't about the real world-maybe fiction would fit that criteria. So people's beliefs are never private because they influence their action.

Love can be proven with absolute certainty. I have a feeling- I call that feeling love- therefore love exists. Proven it is the same feeling as everyone else requires a few assumptions, a Cat Scan and some volunteers.

Atheism might not come easily, but it is simple- if you don't believe in a god than your an atheist. It is that simple. Explaining things that god was traditionally used to answer is what is hard. But what did you expect- thinking to be easy?

By the way Marie there is a book called An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism that uses the same arguement- the minimum amout of assumptions about the world is the best way to understand the world.

CyberKitten said...

sam norton said: Have you thought about trying that thought experiment with other terms that may or may not be proven to exist with absolute certainty?

Love for example.

I think that's called a Category Error. You seem to be comparing an idea/concept like 'love' with an object like God - if God *is* a distinct object of course.

But... if God *isn't* a distinct object then what is He/It? If God is simply an idea/concept then I would say that its effectively impossible to prove He exists - because He wouldn't except in people's minds (which I actually agree is the case).

Sze Zeng said...

>Atheism might not come easily, but it is simple- if you don't believe in a god than your an atheist. It is that simple.

It is as simple as believing in God. First, we have data such a religious scriptures, religious experience, and religiosity of humanity to explain. The atheist thinks God doesn't exist while trinitatirian thinks otherwise. Both based on their own experience and exposure.

Thus, it is not a matter of whichever is 'simple' or 'easy'. But the issue is deeper than just that, especially during our time where we are bombarded by information from everywhere. Unless one becomes an ascetic, be it believer or not, exclude oneself to the mountain and believes whatever the person wants.

So it is our obligation to find out the truth. And we can't excuse ourselves from that by choosing a 'simpler' system of thought.

Just in case, I am drawing distinction between 'simple' thoughts and 'suffice' thoughts. Sometimes simple thought is not suffice, and sometimes, suffice thought is not simple.

CyberKitten said...

sze zeng said: It is as simple as believing in God.

*Not* believing in God is *much* simpler than believing in him - it make the Universe & everything in it much less complex for one thing. You don't have to be concerned about things like intentions and plans or offending someone and so on. It also makes much more sense.

sze zeng said: First, we have data such a religious scriptures, religious experience, and religiosity of humanity to explain.

None of which proves in any way the existence of God - just the existence of religion. Do tales of the Gods of Olympus *prove* that they existed? No, of course not. Do the Norse sagas *prove* the existence of Thor & Odin? Of course not. So why should the Bible & millenia of religious 'experience' *prove* the existence of the Christian God? They don't.

sze zeng said: So it is our obligation to find out the truth. And we can't excuse ourselves from that by choosing a 'simpler' system of thought.

The way you find truth is be asking questions such as "What can explain this particular thing" and "What evidence do we have to support that idea" You make theories and test them. Eventually you arrive at a close approximation to reality. Personally my reality doesn't have (or need) God in it to provide an 'explanation'.

Christoff said...

To tag onto what cyberkitten wrote.

When asked "Do you believe in God", the question is loaded. Firstly, the questioner assumes that God exists and just wants to find out if YOU believe / don't believe in him.

Secondly, what is MEANT by "God" in this context? The question needs to be clarified first before it can be answered. For instance:

"Do you believe in a Personal God, as defined by the Christian Religion?" In which case any atheist will answer NO, meaning exactly the same as NO when answered "Do you believe in Mother Goose?"

If the question was "Do you believe in a being which created the universe, but doesn't interfere in it?", atheists will probably answer "I doubt it" and would come across more agnostic to this definition of God. If you STILL answer NO however, you are strictly speaking an ADEIST, instead of an ATHEIST.

This distinction in HOW the question should be asked in the first place, unfortunately doesn't occur to most religious people, because within their frames of reference God exists (that is, HIS/HER version/definition of the term!), it's just YOU, the atheist, who doesn't believe in him!

This is exactly why religious people also can't see how they are atheists to all other (interpretations of) gods, we "real" atheists just go one god further...

Sze Zeng said...

Hi cyberkitten,

My basic point is that we can't have an agreement on what is 'simple' and what is not. To you, absence of moral judgment it is simple, but to an ethicist, it is not that simple. And I'm not here drawing that simple is better or otherwise. My *basic* point is just that to favor a stance based on simplicity is irrelevant.

cyberkitten> None of which proves in any way the existence of God - just the existence of religion.

I didn't contend that existent of these religious scriptures prove the existent of god. There is a gap in between and I'm aware of that. That is one end.

On the other, no one should lump all religious artifacts (scriptures, for eg.) to be on the same level of acknowledgment. For eg. just because the artifacts of Zeus and Jesus come from almost the same ancient period, that doesn't mean both of them are the *same*. If one mistaken both of them as the same, then it is like a person who lives in 4100 AD says that Winston Churchill and Frodor Baggins as the same. Unless he/she examines the artifacts *individually*, one cannot dismiss them out of ignorant and commit a categorical mistake.

cyberkitten>
Eventually you arrive at a close approximation to reality. Personally my reality doesn't have (or need) God in it to provide an 'explanation'.

N.Rescher contends for an 'estimation of reality' rather than an 'approximation'. But that's not the point, anyway. You doesn't need e=mc2 to live. In fact, one can lives one's life regularly without knowing the explanation of this equation. But that doesnt negate the validity of the formula which serve the interest of others who are interested in deeper things. Just that the formula make no impact to regular folk (i assumed you dont need the understanding of e=mc2 in your life)does not mean it is not a valid explanation of reality.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi christoff,

Yes, I'm aware that questions and answers are all loaded with presumptions/presuppositions. Oxford's R.G Collingwood expounds this on art and philosophy early last century. American Christian philosopher C. VanTil expounds on this same sort of thing around the same time. N.Rescher discuss a bit of this in his recent work on meta-philosophy. But, what's your point?

CyberKitten said...

sze zeng said: To you, absence of moral judgment it is simple, but to an ethicist, it is not that simple.

On the contrary I think ethics is quite complex. I always thought that theists were the ones who see ethics/morality as simple. It's all do's and don'ts isn't it? Just follow these simple rules (backed up by Gods authority) and everything will be OK. I think there's a bit more to it than that.

sze zeng said: On the other, no one should lump all religious artifacts (scriptures, for eg.) to be on the same level of acknowledgment.

But how are we expected to tell the difference? If such a thing was obvious (which it isn't) then surely we would all agree on the 'right' religion?

sze zeng said: But that's not the point, anyway. You doesn't need e=mc2 to live.

That's true. Most people go through life without huge chunks of human knowledge without it bothering them too much. But I contend that you don't need religion to live either.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Cyberkitten,

>I always thought that theists were the ones who see ethics/morality as simple. It's all do's and don'ts isn't it?

When was the last time you went to the 'Ethics' section of a Christian book warehouse? This is a big topic by itself within Christian theology. It is not surprising that those who are not familiar with Christianity and Christian theology think that ethics to Christians is just simple 'yes' and 'no' with the backup of 'thus saith the Lord'. But that is not the case among Christian communities.

> But how are we expected to tell the difference?

No easy way. To get the 'approximation' of it, one has to immerse into the subject matter, just as any profession who immerse into their own studies. And I think you actually already know about this based on what you wrote previously, "The way you find truth is be asking questions such as "What can explain this particular thing" and "What evidence do we have to support that idea" You make theories and test them. Eventually you arrive at a close approximation to reality."

Just that you need to apply the same critical consistency towards the study of Christianity in particular, just as how you apply that towards other subjects.

>f such a thing was obvious (which it isn't) then surely we would all agree on the 'right' religion?

You are right that it is not obvious. But that doesn't excuse us to sweep it under the sofa. Rather, it is precisely because it is not obvious thus we should be giving more attention to it. But that is only IF you are really interested to find out the truth.

To think about it, all current advanced scientific discoveries (genome, for eg.) are not based on obvious observation.

>Most people go through life without huge chunks of human knowledge without it bothering them too much. But I contend that you don't need religion to live either.

You can contend that. But you can't contend for the *invalidity* of religion as an explanation to life,; just as you can contend that we don't need to understand e=mc2 to live, but you can't contend for the *invalidity* of the formula.

If your contention is true, then that at least concludes two things:

1) You are NOT contending the *validity* of Christianity as an explanation (i pick this religion because that's what Kevin's blog is about). You are just contending that you can live without knowing this explanation. But if that's all you are contending, then I think your contention is just a waste of time because generally everyone can just live without knowing or wanting to know the validity of anything.

But if you are contending against the validity of Christianity, that is another issue altogether.

2) If you want to know the *deeper* things about reality, then you will need to learn about Christianity. Just as scientists who wants to learn the *deeper* things about the nature of light, then he/she must learn e=mc2. And, of course, that implies that validity of e=mc2 is just as valid as Christianity; both as explanation of *deeper* things about reality.

CyberKitten said...

sze zeng said: When was the last time you went to the 'Ethics' section of a Christian book warehouse?

Erm... [muses] Never. They're not the sort of bookshops I would normally frequent.

sze zeng said: It is not surprising that those who are not familiar with Christianity and Christian theology think that ethics to Christians is just simple 'yes' and 'no' with the backup of 'thus saith the Lord'. But that is not the case among Christian communities.

Good. I'm glad. Thanks for that.

sze zeng said: No easy way. To get the 'approximation' of it, one has to immerse into the subject matter, just as any profession who immerse into their own studies.

So how long exactly does this immersion take? A year? Two? Five? And wouldn't I need to do this for each & every religion that exists or has ever existed in order to make an informed decision? In other words I would have to spend the rest of my life looking at the issue and still might find that the whole religion thing is simple nonesense? Well, I guess it's *one* way to spend my life....

sze zeng said: Just that you need to apply the same critical consistency towards the study of Christianity in particular, just as how you apply that towards other subjects.

Why Christianity in particular? Surely this would apply to *all* religions? Also what criteria would I judge them against? How could I crtically distinguish between Islam and Asatru for example? Do I also have to acquire a deep knowledge of all of the worlds philosophical ideas & critically judge them against all of the worlds religions too? I'd need 10 lifetimes of study to even make a start on all that!

sze zeng said: Rather, it is precisely because it is not obvious thus we should be giving more attention to it.

I have given it a fair amount of attention.... and found Christianity in particular rather wanting....

sze zeng said: But that is only IF you are really interested to find out the truth.

That assumes that some kind of 'truth' exists... and presumes that Christianity (or religion) can supply that 'truth' both of which are highly debatable.

sze zeng said: To think about it, all current advanced scientific discoveries (genome, for eg.) are not based on obvious observation.

Very true. Science is often contrary to Common Sense. Religion is also contrary to Common Sense. This doesn't mean however that Science & Religion are in anyway comparable.

sze zeng said: But you can't contend for the *invalidity* of religion as an explanation to life.

Yes I can & I do. Religion is a primitive way of explaining the Cosmos & our place in it. Such explanations are no longer required.

sze zeng said: If you want to know the *deeper* things about reality, then you will need to learn about Christianity.

Not so. Firstly you're assuming that there *is* a 'deep reality' which is not necessarily the case (depending on what you mean by that). Second, you are making the bald *assertion* that the only (or best) way to learn this is through Christianity. Why should I believe you when the world makes enough sense without adding God into it?

sze zeng said: And, of course, that implies that validity of e=mc2 is just as valid as Christianity; both as explanation of *deeper* things about reality.

It implies nothing of the sort. You appear to be saying that *any* search for deeper meaning is equally valid. So Astrology & Astronomy are equally valid ways of looking at the Cosmos? Or Islam, Wicca, Buddhism & Christianity are all *equally* valid religions... If that is the case how can we judge between them as you suggested earlier? Surely some religions must be superior to others in some way otherwise how to people make informed choices?

Lui said...

"sze zeng said: To think about it, all current advanced scientific discoveries (genome, for eg.) are not based on obvious observation."

"Very true. Science is often contrary to Common Sense. Religion is also contrary to Common Sense. This doesn't mean however that Science & Religion are in anyway comparable."

I would also add that science - when it introduces concepts that do violence to our common sense - provides actual reasons why we should nevertheless take those concepts seriously. Religion asks us to believe a counter-common sense notion on the basis of revelation, faith and personal authority. The two modes of claim-making are most emphatically not on equal terms.

"If you want to know the *deeper* things about reality, then you will need to learn about Christianity."

The problem is that the "why" questions of the sort that are often invoked by religion as constituting their exclusive domain don't necessarily have any legitimacy. Just because a question can be uttered with proper grammar doesn't automatically afford it a rightful claim to profundity. "What is the purpose of the universe?" could well make as much logical sense as "What is the colour of greed?" Of course, if you assume from the outset that such a question does have legitimacy, then obviously science cannot help but to "come up short". But that isn't necessarily a reason to suppose that science is "too limited in scope", as many seem to think. It could simply be that you are asking the wrong questions to begin with.

Richard Dawkins wrote the following in a letter to the editor to reply to a reader who complained that science doesn't provide answers to "why" questions: "In what sense of the word "why" doesn't plate tectonics provide an answer for earthquakes?" Those who would look to deeper significance in earthquakes will likely be disappointed by what science has to say, but that doesn't mean that the scientific account is incomplete in any "deep" sense. Why should we tie everything to what WE find important? There is no obligation upon fundamental reality to fall under the rubric of our parochial notions of meaning.

It is true that science may never be able to answer questions pertaining to "deep reality", but how is that any vindication for ceding them to evidence-lacking beliefs, which arguably have even less claim to adjudicate on such matters?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Cybeykitten,

That's alot of questions. And it seems that you are asking alot of 'why' questions here.

I'm not sure which one do you want me to address. Which one do you think is more critical. Then I will address that.

Just to bring this up: The reason why I pick Christianity in particular is because that's what KEvin's blog is about. This is not a memoir of an ex-religious/ex-buddhist/muslim. So, i pick christianity in particular because of its relevance.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi lui,

>Religion asks us to believe a counter-common sense notion on the basis of revelation, faith and personal authority. The two modes of claim-making are most emphatically not on equal terms.

I think we should be clear that all knowledge is grounded on authority. Do you agree on that?
Your knowledge to go against Christianity might be your dependence on the authority of Dawkins, for eg.

If all knowledge is grounded on authority, then believing in authority is a non-argument. Then that means the problem is not on the belief on authority but rather which authority to believe in. If that is the case, then McGrath is absolutely right to say that even atheists ground their stance on authority, which translates 'faith'. For eg. to the atheist, Dawkin et al are the authorities; to the Christian, God is the authority, not the bible nor the magisterium.

>It is true that science may never be able to answer questions pertaining to "deep reality", but how is that any vindication for ceding them to evidence-lacking beliefs, which arguably have even less claim to adjudicate on such matters?

First of all, Christianity is not to provide scientific explanation on anything. You are asking Christianity to explain something which it is meant to explain. Do you look at biology textbooks to explain tectonic plates? If you dont do that, then you shouldn't do that on Christianity too. Vice versa, Christians should not look at the bible for scientific explanation. If they do, they are disrespecting the ancient texts, which are not for such function.

CyberKitten said...

lui said: It is true that science may never be able to answer questions pertaining to "deep reality", but how is that any vindication for ceding them to evidence-lacking beliefs, which arguably have even less claim to adjudicate on such matters?

For the 'meaning of things' questions - which quite rightly Science does not often address - we have 2000+ years of Philosophy to look into. Many ideas contained within the writtings of some of the best minds humanity has ever produced I find far superior to falling back on primitive notions of supernatural agencies.

sze zeng said: I'm not sure which one do you want me to address. Which one do you think is more critical. Then I will address that.

Erm... all of them. [laughs] Your comments provoked me to pose many questions - as Religion tends to do. So far during my life I have been provided with *very* few answers to those questions. Maybe you can start at the top and work your way down.....

sze zeng said: I think we should be clear that all knowledge is grounded on authority. Do you agree on that?

[laughs!] Of course not! Knowledge is based on evidence and theory backed up by experimental investigation. The person or organisation who expounds that knowledge is totally irrelevant because they could be wrong and their 'knowledge' overturned by new evidence. Just because Richard Dawkins says something is true doesn't *make* it true!

sze zeng said: First of all, Christianity is not to provide scientific explanation on anything. You are asking Christianity to explain something which it is meant to explain.

So what is Christianity for? What is its function?

Lui said...

"I think we should be clear that all knowledge is grounded on authority. Do you agree on that?
Your knowledge to go against Christianity might be your dependence on the authority of Dawkins, for eg."

To an extent, most certainly. We all need to rely on authorities to some degree because it would simply be too tedious to go straight to the primary sources all the time. The difference is that atheists (most of them, anyway) don't look towards Dawkins as an infallible source of wisdom around which to base their lives. Certainly Dawkins has very interesting and compelling scientific arguments. His arguments about religion are arguably less compelling, but even there the reason I wouldn't call this reliance upon Dawkins a "faith" is because we have some idea of what it would take to convince us that he is wrong - and indeed many atheists are saying that he is wrong or only partially right on some important issues. The authority of the Bible, on the other hand, is accepted in the teeth of evidence because children ate taught that faith - to believe in the absence of evidence - is a virtue; it is unfalsifiable in some respects, and it resorts to fear-mongering and other non-intellectual modes of persuasion.

"First of all, Christianity is not to provide scientific explanation on anything. You are asking Christianity to explain something which it is [not] meant to explain."

I was simply saying that Christianity has no more legitimate claim to truth on matters of "deep reality" than any other creed. And it could well be asking the wrong questions, questions that can be asked in the sense that they can be put together in a sentence, but that aren't logically tenable.

"Do you look at biology textbooks to explain tectonic plates?"

No, but plate tectonics does in fact happen to be a proper subject, and we have actual reasons to back up that claim.

~GreyMatters said...

I, overall, agree with you. The only part I disagree with is the lack of belief part. In a sense your right, but by assuming a disbelief you are also necessitating the existence of a belief as the claim of a lack of belief assumes a belief within it. In other words, if I were to say "I don't believe alligators are in my bathroom" you are also assuming and presupposing a belief: "I believe that alligators are not in my bathroom". Neither statement can exist without the other, because if you were to say "I believe alligators are in my bathroom" and "I believe alligators are not in my bathroom" as it would be contradictory. Get it? Thus a belief is established by establishing a non-belief. But..I still somewhat agree. Two thumbs up brother.

CyberKitten said...

lui said: We all need to rely on authorities to some degree because it would simply be too tedious to go straight to the primary sources all the time.

Only in the *very* broadest sense. We rely on the 'authority' of Science because its immpossible to know everything (or even enough) about every issue. But that doesn't mean that we do (or should) believe someone just because they are an expert in their field. With religion is is easy to rely on the authority of God because He (obviously) has no rival of equal authourity. However, in the real world we see rival authorities in many fields presenting contrary arguments about a whole range of subjects. It cannot (and should not) be a case of beliving one faction over another. In science in particular issues and conflicts are settled by the application of evidence and experimental results until one faction emeges victorious. The authority in these cases is the truth of the argument - not the character of the people putting the argument forward. A classic example of this was Einsteins attitude to Quantum Mechanics. For most of his life he refused to accept its findings and spent years trying and failing to refute it. If we gave into ideas of personal authority the science of QM would have stalled right there - or at least until Einstein had died. But it didn't. No matter how great a mind Einstein had he was *wrong* in this instance and effectively sidelined. Respect for his genius is one thing, blind acceptence of his ideas is something else!

lui said: The authority of the Bible, on the other hand, is accepted in the teeth of evidence because children ate taught that faith - to believe in the absence of evidence - is a virtue; it is unfalsifiable in some respects, and it resorts to fear-mongering and other non-intellectual modes of persuasion.

That's the difference between science & religion in a nutshell.

greymatters said: The only part I disagree with is the lack of belief part. In a sense your right, but by assuming a disbelief you are also necessitating the existence of a belief as the claim of a lack of belief assumes a belief within it.

No. Because I say that I do not believe in God does not mean that I believe God does not exist. They are two different statements. The second statement is *much* stronger and requires much stronger evidence or argument to support it. Lack of belief is *not* a belief in the same way that baldness is not a hair colour.

Anonymous said...

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Miss Welby said...

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~GreyMatters said...
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~GreyMatters said...

Cyberkitten:"No. Because I say that I do not believe in God does not mean that I believe God does not exist. They are two different statements. The second statement is *much* stronger and requires much stronger evidence or argument to support it. Lack of belief is *not* a belief in the same way that baldness is not a hair colour."

You're wrong that one statement is a lot stronger than the other one, because if I were to ask why you don't believe in God, you would require the same amount of hassle for arguments and back-up as you would if I were to ask you why you believe God doesn't exist. If you were to ask "Do you believe in God?" and I say, "No, I don't believe in God", the statement in itself is assuming a lack of belief, BUT if I say "I believe God doesn't exist" It's basically intrinsically the same thing, although the statement in itself proposes a belief of the negation of a proposition. But, lack of belief in a proposition, and belief in the negation of that same proposition are synonymous; the same. The statements have a slight difference because of their phrasing, but they both intrinsically and basically are signifying and pointing out the same thing; the same stance. One is lack of belief in proposition A, and another one is the adherence to the belief of the negation of proposition A, but they are essentially, in meaning, referring to one and the same thing. Their phrasing and wording is different, but not what they intrinsically mean. You're right one requires more evidence, in the manner that that's the reaction people receive depending on the phrasing. Your analogy isn't really working. I don't see your analogy as a very good one.

CyberKitten said...

Sorry greymatters but I don't agree.

I do not believe in God for a very simple reason. Zero evidence.

If I were to assert with any confidence that I believe that God does not exist I would need much more than that. The second statement is a much stronger one and requires much more evidence or a stronger argument to support it. The first statement is a negative one, the second is a positive one.

Another example then: I do not believe in UFOs for the same reason - no credible evidence. If I said that I believe that UFOs do not exist I would then have to explain every sighting, every photograph and every 'abduction'. Likewise with God. I would have to *disprove* other peoples experiences and assertions that He existed in other to make my positive statement credible.

You see what I mean?

~GreyMatters said...
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~GreyMatters said...

Cyberkitten..hmmmm...I'm trying to capture it, and I'm slowly starting to get what you mean; at the tip of my mind, but i still can't make a clear picture of it. Again, one may be a negative and a positive, but they have their same connotations. An analogy would be, let's say, we have two integers: one is a negative, another is a positive, BUT their absolute value is the same. Now, actually you can supply and support the phrase "I believe no God exists" with the same premise: there's no evidence he does. Both propositions can carry the same justification. I'm still not adhering to what you're saying, unfortunately. I am sorry. I also don't believe in God, and to me saying "I don't believe in God", and "I believe God doesn't exists" have the same absolute value. I am sorry. I'm struggling to grasp what you're trying to say. Nonetheless, I think the first thing we must do before arguing is defining what a belief IS. I'm just going to agree to disagree.

CyberKitten said...

greymatters said: I think the first thing we must do before arguing is defining what a belief IS.

OK. You first [laughs]

Jason said...

Kevin,
I did not read all of the comments. Just writing to say that I think the example of "the celestial teapot" satisfies most questions concerning atheisms burden of proof as well as claims that atheists have "faith" just like religious people do. (you give a very similar example). Good post.

-Jason

~GreyMatters said...

Cyberkitten said: "OK. You first [laughs]"

I give up, sorry ^^'
Don't feel like keeping this goin`; I'm done, man. *laughs*

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Cyberkitten,

I dont think it is appropriate to carry out a lengthy discussion here on a 'comment' box, can we correspond through emails instead?

I think we should start with the question on knowledge and belief first before we go on to discussing evidents.

From your responses, I see that you are a skeptic who believes that knowledge has to be based on evident.

What I want to probe is that, what warrant do you have to be sure that the evident you believe is true and not otherwise? For eg. you believe that e=mc2 is true, what warrant does your knowledge has? If you say repeatable experiment shows that it is true (or at least, not false), then does that means the warrant of a knowledge is based on observable repeatable results?

If that is the case, then that poses a problem. For an example, a person will eat whenever he feels like eating. He takes the feeling as an indication for hunger. What if the person just had fair amount of food during lunch, but an hour later, he felt like eating? Does that means his body need food whenever he feels like eating? Is that a warranted knowledge that his body *really* need food? I think not.

I am not here saying that truth are not to be based on evidents, but to probe further of such proposition; to suggest that evident cannot simply warrant knowledge. There are other factors involved.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi lui,

>The authority of the Bible, on the other hand, is accepted in the teeth of evidence because children ate taught that faith - to believe in the absence of evidence - is a virtue; it is unfalsifiable in some respects, and it resorts to fear-mongering and other non-intellectual modes of persuasion.

That is a shorthand, right? If not, then I disagree very much with that. But if it is, i believe you are saying that churches are bad and should not ask or use fear to compel people to believe that the Bible has authority. I totally agree with that.

I think I share more the same, if not more, frustration with you all, fellow atheists who loath at the churches' anti-intellectual pursuit. I've been complaining over this attitude: http://szezeng.blogspot.com/2007/12/killing-my-brain-cells-reasserted.html

Thus, in many ways, I, being a member of this community, has some short-comings to deal with, than those who does not belong to it. And hence I believe my complains bear more weight than those who do not belong to this community. And, on the other hand, I am clear that such disgusted attitude of churches is and should not be a deciding factors on my identity as a Christian.

At the end of the day, if we have problems with the churches, or a certain church, then we should, at least, be clear that we are not having problem with Christianity.

But of cos, some will argue that it is Christianity that fund the churches with such bad attitude. On this, I will say that it is the failure of the churches to come to grasp with the intellectual tradition of the religion (as shown great historical thinkers who are motivated by Christianity), rather than the failure of Christianity.

CyberKitten said...

Sze Zeng said: I dont think it is appropriate to carry out a lengthy discussion here on a 'comment' box, can we correspond through emails instead?

I definitely think that any debate we have should be in a public forum - either responding to posts here or on my Blog. I'm sure that Kevin won't mind us discussing things here as long as we keep fairly on topic.

Sze Zeng said: From your responses, I see that you are a skeptic who believes that knowledge has to be based on evident.

Pretty much yes. Skeptic just about sums me up. I'm pretty much skeptical about everything - and I mean everything [grin].

Sze Zeng said: you believe that e=mc2 is true, what warrant does your knowledge has?

Well... I don't *believe* it to be true. I *assume* that its true - because the experts in the relevant areas see it as true and (the important bit) it seems to work and there is actual experiment evidence that its a true statement.

Sze Zeng said: If you say repeatable experiment shows that it is true (or at least, not false), then does that means the warrant of a knowledge is based on observable repeatable results?

Where things can be tested in that way yes - though not everything *can* be tested in a lab.

Sze Zeng said: Does that means his body need food whenever he feels like eating? Is that a warranted knowledge that his body *really* need food? I think not.

That's an unknown - though we could monitor things like blood sugar levels and so on. But people eat for a variety of reasons. I eat when I'm bored or frustrated. I can't remember the last time I was *really* hungry. Food and eating is a complex issue and, I think, a bad example for you to use. I think what you're trying to get at is that not everything can be tested scientifically. I agree with you. What is your point though?

Sze Zeng said: At the end of the day, if we have problems with the churches, or a certain church, then we should, at least, be clear that we are not having problem with Christianity.

I have a problem with both Theism and Religion in general (not just Christianity) rather than simply the Church organisation - though the two (or three) are necessarily linked.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Cyberkitten,

As you wish, as long as Kevin is fine with it. Then we shall carry on here.

>Well... I don't *believe* it to be true. I *assume* that its true - because the experts in the relevant areas see it as true and (the important bit) it seems to work and there is actual experiment evidence that its a true statement.

You *assume* that something is true just because experts in relevant areas see it and tell it? If yes, your assumption is the relevant experts' sayings (I think even the experimental results and findings that you know are from these relevant experts' reports and not your own discoveries and construed conclusion based on your own observations), which you consider as evidents. So, can I say that your demand for 'evidents' are really demands for "relevant-experts'-say-so"?

>Where things can be tested in that way yes - though not everything *can* be tested in a lab.

2 questions:
What kind of knowledge that you currently hold which can not be tested in the lab but still hold as true?

How do you see historical knowledge? For eg. what criteria/warrant to determine the historicity of a certain event in the past?

>Food and eating is a complex issue and, I think, a bad example for you to use.

I think my analogy is not an emphasis on hunger but on whether the body really need the nutrients. Thus, i think it stands.

>I think what you're trying to get at is that not everything can be tested scientifically. I agree with you. What is your point though?

'tested scientifically' is too generalized a term. My points are two:
1) To reach a warranted knowledge, we need more than mere repeatable experiments.

2) Bear in mind that we need to use different set of warrant for different issues. For eg. to falsify discovery in physics, we need repeatable results that debunk the theory. But in the case of study of history, we need other criteria other than repeatable results as data for historicity. We emphasize on the nature of the study of history as unrepeatable in a sense to have a past event to happen for more than once in the exact similar fashion. Then we study the sociological effects, artifacts, and verifiable historical sources of a particular event. These 3 data further need to be connected by a warrant to justify the historicity of a particular event. Thus, we can't use the same criteria for physics and apply it to history. Do you agree?

>I have a problem with both Theism and Religion in general (not just Christianity) rather than simply the Church organisation - though the two (or three) are necessarily linked.

If you have problem with Theism, that does not mean you are having problem with Christianity (Trinitarianism). Theism and Christianity are not identical. In contemporary systematic theology (G.Gunton, R.Jenson, S.Grenz, K.Vanhoozer, R.Williams), we emphasize the difference between Theism and Trinitarianism. I hope that you can get this clear. If not, we are not really talking to one another, you see?

And of course, the church must not be seen as the same as Christianity. They are necessarily linked in the way democrat wing is linked with its own various representatives. Often, individual opinion and practice does not represent the whole wing, though certain has effect to the public's perception.

CyberKitten said...

Sze Zeng said: You *assume* that something is true just because experts in relevant areas see it and tell it?

No. For example when told that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant I have no reason *not* to believe it - especially when there is evidence (and consequences of that idea) which make more sense of the Universe. Such statements also do not violate my knowledge of things that I knew (or assumed) before. In other words they are consistent with my world picture. I know 'enough' that statements such as that make sense. Statements about God do not make sense from my point of view.

Sze Zeng said: So, can I say that your demand for 'evidents' are really demands for "relevant-experts'-say-so"?

Not at all. First experts can disagree. I am more likely to assume to be correct what the scientific community *in general* assumes to be correct - until proven otherwise. The statement should also (by and large) fit in with my previous knowledge of the subject. If I come to something fresh an outrageous statement might just get a raised eyebrow from me or it might get rejected until I acquire a better understanding of the area. It is not as simple as 'believing the experts'. I'm too sceptical for that!

Sze Zeng said: What kind of knowledge that you currently hold which can not be tested in the lab but still hold as true?

Well... I don't really hold anything to be True - but only provisionally true. But it is generally assumed that there is an *I* - a feeling of personal identity that looks out of the world from behind our eyes. I'm not entirely convinced this is the case (indeed I'm coming to the opinion that its an illusion) but if it *was* the case I doubt if that central personality could be picked up during a sophisticated brain scan. I could probably think of other examples after a good nights sleep.

Sze Zeng said: How do you see historical knowledge? For eg. what criteria/warrant to determine the historicity of a certain event in the past?

That would depend on many things. Where it happened. When it happened. The quantity & quality of the physical evidence or witness testimony. Who was investigating or writting the history.... etc....

Sze Zeng said: I think my analogy is not an emphasis on hunger but on whether the body really need the nutrients. Thus, i think it stands.

Well, that could certainly be monitored & tested for.

Sze Zeng said: To reach a warranted knowledge, we need more than mere repeatable experiments.

That would depend on what kind of knowledge you are talking about. Sometimes experimental results are enough. Sometimes experiments can't tell you what you need to know.

Sze Zeng said: Thus, we can't use the same criteria for physics and apply it to history. Do you agree?

Yes. That is obviously the case.

Sze Zeng said: If you have problem with Theism, that does not mean you are having problem with Christianity (Trinitarianism). Theism and Christianity are not identical.

Not my area so I couldn't comment. By Theism I mean the belief in God. If you believe in God that makes you a Theist in my book. I take it that Trinitarianism is Father, Son & Holy Ghost?

Sze Zeng said: I hope that you can get this clear. If not, we are not really talking to one another, you see?

I think so.

BTW - Are you going to answer any of my previous questions at some point in the future? This is becoming a one way interorgation [grin]

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Cyberkitten,

>I have no reason *not* to believe it - especially when there is evidence (and consequences of that idea) which make more sense of the Universe...Such statements also do not violate my knowledge of things that I knew (or assumed) before. In other words they are consistent with my world picture.

2 points:
1) At least it is clear that your idea of knowledge is warranted by believing in authority. Even the idea of so-called 'evidents' is just the info produced by a certain group who are deem authoritative by *you* (you wrote: In other words they are consistent with my world picture). In other words, you agree that your stance is a 'belief'. To be precise, a "reasonable faith", agree?

2) You remind me of those Christians who disputed with Galileo. When Galileo suggested that the earth is not the center and still, an idea which violate the conventional knowledge of that time, those Christians rejected it and condemned Galileo. From the way you portray yourself, I can't help but to get the impression that you are like those Christians.

>I am more likely to assume to be correct what the scientific community *in general* assumes to be correct - until proven otherwise.

Even in the case of proven otherwise, it is again your reliance on relevant authority to tell you that.

>If I come to something fresh an outrageous statement might just get a raised eyebrow from me or it might get rejected until I acquire a better understanding of the area. It is not as simple as 'believing the experts'. I'm too sceptical for that!

That implies that you reject something without really understanding it. That also implies even though that something is rational and justifiable, you will still reject it if you are ignorant of it. That is your business, not anyone else. But do not say that that 'something' you reject is irrational or not valid or not justifiable when you havent acquire knowledge about it. So it is totally two different case altogether. You reject something you ignorant of does NOT mean that something is not rational or justifiable in itself. That merely means you are ignorant of it. And from these few responses, i see that you are ignorant of Christianity and therefore you reject it; not that it is irrational or not justifiable that you reject it. And if that is true, then at best, you can only say that you reject it because you dont know about it. You cannot say that you reject it because it is irrational.

> I don't really hold anything to be True - but only provisionally true.

I agree with you on this. The term 'true' is a mistake. I mean 'justified' or 'rational'.
>Well, that could certainly be monitored & tested for.

My analogy draws on the everyday experience, which is some sort of 'common sense', that we assume our body need nutrients when we feel hungry. I am sure very few, if not none, will get their body to be monitored and tested in the lab every day to see if their body needs nutrients. Thus, I think, my analogy still stands.

>That would depend on what kind of knowledge you are talking about. Sometimes experimental results are enough. Sometimes experiments can't tell you what you need to know.

Agree with you on this.

>Yes. That is obviously the case.

Agree.

>By Theism I mean the belief in God. If you believe in God that makes you a Theist in my book.

That is absurd. If one claims to represent Hitler, that does not make him to be representing humanity. And your making me simply as a Theist because I believe in the transcendent is like you saying the representative of Hitler as the representative of humanity simply because Hitler is a human. Totally absurd.

>I take it that Trinitarianism is Father, Son & Holy Ghost?

Yes, you are right. Totally different from Aristotle's uncaused cause or Plato's ultimate ideal, though many Christian thinkers derived theology from the Greeks.

>BTW - Are you going to answer any of my previous questions at some point in the future? This is becoming a one way interorgation [grin]

I will certainly address your questions. These are all prolegomena. We have to clear the air before we fly. I am trying to build a common ground so that we dont talk pass each other when we discuss your questions. That is to be fair to you, the questioner, so that I really understand what you are asking and not wasting time tearing down strawmen. I do not want to simply assume I know about you. I dont want to reject your stance just because I lack knowledge about you. In other words, I dont assumed you to be irrational because I am ignorant of you. If I want to think you as irrational or rational in yourself, I have to make sure on my part that I acquire as much knowledge about you.

CyberKitten said...

Sze Zeng said: At least it is clear that your idea of knowledge is warranted by believing in authority.

No. Not by itself. Obviously statements about science often come from experts in their fields (authorities if you wish) but I do not believe what they say just *because* they are experts. Also it is impossible for anyone to know everything about everything - or even everything about anything. There's just too much knowledge in the world. There are many things that I know nothing about. There are many things that I will *never* know anything about. So when an expert says something about ice on Mars or changes in climate or any other scientific subject we are often forced to take their arguments on trust because we cannot verify them independently. However, if a climate expert says (for instance) that Global Warming *isn't* happening I wouldn't believe him because the ice caps are obviously melting. You see my point? Experts are experts for a reason - because they know more about a subject than I will *ever* know - but I do not have to believe everything that every expert says. They have to be reasonable in their comments.

Put it another way - if an 'expert' on UFOs said that they are real and come from another dimension I would not believe him - not matter how much of an expert on his subject he was and no matter how little I knew about the subject because in my mind his statements are unreasonable and should be rejected because of that unless he can produce a great deal of evidence to back up his claims. Am I clearer being now?

Sze Zeng said: That implies that you reject something without really understanding it.

Yes I will. If it seems unreasonable I will reject it until such time as it appears reasonable. If I accepted everything I was told because of my lack of knowledge in a particular area I'd believe a whole host of nonsense. No one has time to investigate every claim made by people. There must be some process by which we reject things that are or appear to be meaningless.

Sze Zeng said: That also implies even though that something is rational and justifiable, you will still reject it if you are ignorant of it.

I can hardly think that something is 'rational and justifiable' if I am in ignorance of it. I presume you mean that other people consider something to be 'rational and justifiable' that I know little or nothing about... and I should just take their word for it? I think not.

Sze Zeng said: And your making me simply as a Theist because I believe in the transcendent is like you saying the representative of Hitler as the representative of humanity simply because Hitler is a human. Totally absurd.

Here's a definition of Theism: it is the belief in a god or gods. Classical theism is belief in one God, and involves affirming certain theistic doctrines about his nature. The doctrine of divine omnipotence, for instance, holds that God is all-powerful; the doctrine of divine omniscience that he is all-knowing. Other doctrines affirm God’s immutability (unchangeability), eternity (timelessness), impassibility (freedom from passions), and aseity (self-sufficiency). Someone who believes in all or most of these doctrines is a classical theist; someone who believes in a god but does not conceive of it in this way is a theist, but not a classical theist. Such non-classical theists include pantheists, who believe that everything is God, that God is identical with the universe.

Do you believe in God? If the answer is yes - then you're a Theist in the same way as I'm an A-theist because I *don't* believe in God. Why do you have a problem with the term?

Sze Zeng said: These are all prolegomena.

That's a new word to me - I had to look it up! [laughs]

Sze Zeng said: I am trying to build a common ground so that we dont talk pass each other when we discuss your questions. That is to be fair to you, the questioner, so that I really understand what you are asking and not wasting time tearing down strawmen.

That's fair enough but I don't think that you need to get to know me that much before you answer my fairly simple and straight forward questions. We can work out the details as we go along don't you think?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Cyberkitten,

>Also it is impossible for anyone to know everything about everything - or even everything about anything. There's just too much knowledge in the world.

Agree with you.

>However, if a climate expert says (for instance) that Global Warming *isn't* happening I wouldn't believe him because the ice caps are obviously melting. You see my point?

Yes, I see your point. In fact I am assuming you to be mean that all this while. But you don't seem to see my point, which is build on your point.

My point is that our rationality/reasoning ability is influenced by those who/which we set up as authority within our own tradition or social surroundings. And if a warranted knowledge is a product of rationality, then our knowledge inevitably is rooted within the tradition and social surroundings that we are familiar with. Thus, our warrant for knowledge depends on which authority we are familiar with. (A.McIntyre convincingly argues this in 'Whose Justice? Which Rationality?).

For eg. Expert A says our globe is heating up. We believe Expert A due to his credential and presentation (his proposition and evidents). Then came Expert B who argues the contrary. He has the credential and the evidents too. And let's assumed that his presentation is more convincing than Expert A. Thus we changed our knowledge. Now our knowing that the world is not heating up is grounded on the presentation of Expert B which resonate more with our already traditioned rationality. Here is the point: No matter which *particular* Experts we are more familiar with, in the end, our knowledge is *certainly* warranted on authority. It is therefore, earlier on, I propose that "there is no argument to say that knowledge ultimately is warranted on authority".

In other words, your point is that our warrant for knowledge is grounded on *particular* experts even though if we might disagree with some/all of their points based on our own traditioned rationality.

My point is build on top of yours. Our warrant for knowledge is *certainly* grounded on authority even in cases where we disagree with this particular expert. Because the reason why we disagree because our traditioned rationality is more familiar with other experts who say otherwise. Do you see my point?

>...unless he can produce a great deal of evidence to back up his claims. Am I clearer being now?

Yes, you are clear on that. I get your point. What I am saying is not contrary to you but is something that build on top of what you are saying. For eg. if the UFO expert able to back up his claims convincingly, you will rationally believe that UFO exists. And your rationality to affirm UFO exists (the warrant of your knowledge) is grounded on the UFO expertise, you see.

>Yes I will. If it seems unreasonable I will reject it until such time as it appears reasonable.

Yes, that is a rational thing to do. Again, I am not saying you are irrational to reject something you are not familiar with the excuse that you are ignorant of it. But if you are rejecting something *as false/unjustifiable/unwarranted* merely because you are not familiar, then I think this is irrational. In the former case, you reject without saying that it is false/unjustifiable/unwarranted, is a sort subjective rejection. In other words, you reject something based on your ignorant. While the latter case, you reject it as false/unjustifiable/unwarranted, is a sort of objective rejection. To be more explicit in this case, you are in fact saying that you reject that something because it is concretely/objectively false to everyone in everywhere at everytime. And I think this is irrational. Whether something is concrete/objective does not determined by your degree of awareness/knowledge of that thing itself. Whether UFO exists or not is not up to how much you know about it. It can exists without you knowing anything about it. Thus I dont think you have enough reason to be A-theistic, but only agnostic at best in the case of Christianity.

>No one has time to investigate every claim made by people. There must be some process by which we reject things that are or appear to be meaningless.

Totally agree with you. But this is a slippery statement. On one hand, that does not give us allowance to be despaired and abandon the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. On the other hand, it does not allow us to claim wrongness on things that we are not familiar with. At best, we can just say we don't know much about it. We cannot say that it is wrong.

You exemplified this in your response when I brought up "Trinitarianism". You said, "Not my area so I *couldn't comment*." (emphasis mine) And I think you are rational in that response. But if you say "Trinitarianism is wrong/unjustifiable/unwarranted", then I think you are irrational.

>Here's a definition of Theism: it is the belief in a god or gods...Why do you have a problem with the term?

A whole world of problems. For eg. Trinitarian does not affirm God being omnipotent, onmipresent, omniscient, and omni-etc/ immutability etc. Trinitarianism differs much from Classical Theism, Polytheism, Pantheism, Atheism, Agnosticism, and even Monotheism.

Trinitarianism is an explicit Christian doctrine of God which derived from ancient Jewish's Monotheism. That assumed the historical development of the doctrine and thus our human's progressive understanding of it. In fact the term 'transcendent' presumed the transcendant to be ineffable. Ineffable means that which cannot be expressed. If the transcendant can be expressed, then it is not transcendental anymore. Thus, in Trinitarianism, we affirms strongly on the progressive revelation from the divine Transcendant which communicates analogically within the limitation of our human expression to us. In other words, we can't grasp the Transcendant by ourselves unless we are revealed by it to us within all our limitation. Thus, we have 2 short-comings: (1) we can never know how potent or wise the Transcendant is because we lack the ability to know it. (2) thus we can not simply assumed that the transcendant is omnipotent or omniscient because omni is an immaterial expression which really do not mean anything or could mean anything to anyone.

Hence in Trinitarianism, we affirm strongly on the historical events that we believed have leaved us some vague glimpses of the transcendant.

>Do you believe in God? If the answer is yes - then you're a Theist in the same way as I'm an A-theist because I *don't* believe in God.

Rowan Williams responded to such over-simplified classification ingenuinely:

"In the year 156 of the Christian era, Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was arrested and brought before the magistrate, charged with being a Christian. He was in his eighties, and his age and frailty prompted the magistrate to offer him a quick discharge if he would acknowledge the divine spirit of the emperor and say 'Away with the atheists.' The latter, at least, you might think would not be difficult for a bishop; but of course at this period an atheist was someone who refused to take part in the civic cult of the empire, to perform public religious duties and take part in the festivals of the Roman city. Christians were atheists, by this definition; Polycarp had a problem after all. His response, though, was an elegant turning of the tables. He looked around slowly at the screaming mob in the amphitheatre who had gathered for the gladiatorial fights and public executions, and, says our eyewitness chronicler, he groaned and said, 'Away with the atheists.'

The magistrate did not fail to grasp the theological point, and Polycarp was duly condemned to be burned alive. But this poignant story is one well worth pondering for reasons beyond the study of early Christianity. It is a reminder that 'atheism' may be a less simple idea than either its defenders or its attackers assume. People often talk as though 'atheism' were a self-contained system, a view of the world which gained its coherence from a central conviction – that there is no transcendent creative power independent of the universe we experience. But the story of Polycarp reminds us that to understand what atheism means, we need to know which gods are being rejected and why." (emphasis mine)

>...before you answer my fairly simple and straight forward questions. We can work out the details as we go along don't you think?

I am very tempted to do just that by answering straight forwardly. But I think both of us are aware that such issues are not simple, or at least not to me. I was not a Christian and I wouldn't say I am converted intellectually. But for sure, speaking from human's perspective, my faith still survive due very much to my continuous seeking for understanding.

Of course, we can work out the details later. That's fine to me too. But since it is inevitable (learn from experience) that we will find common ground and know one another more in the end, so i thought, why not now.. (grins)

CyberKitten said...

sze zeng said: My point is that our rationality/reasoning ability is influenced by those who/which we set up as authority within our own tradition or social surroundings.

*Influenced* yes...

sze zeng said: our knowledge inevitably is rooted within the tradition and social surroundings that we are familiar with.

If by that you mean that knowledge is dependent on culture then I don't think I can agree with you. Knowledge is culture independent. 2+2=4 no matter where you are. What is *regarded* as knowledge (or regarded as useful knowledge) may be cultural - but not knowledge itself.

sze zeng said: No matter which *particular* Experts we are more familiar with, in the end, our knowledge is *certainly* warranted on authority.

No, it isn't. If knowledge was based on authority or even mainly on authority that we could never arrive at truth regarding anything. When two or more authorities disagree how can we tell which is closest to the truth? Not by any appeal to authority but by looking at the facts of the matter and at their interpretation and application. Evidence and rational argument are *far* more important than the person who expounds the knowledge. Experts in any field can be (and often are in hindsight) wrong. That is how science progresses - over the corpses of dead ideas.

sze zeng said: if the UFO expert able to back up his claims convincingly, you will rationally believe that UFO exists. And your rationality to affirm UFO exists (the warrant of your knowledge) is grounded on the UFO expertise, you see.

No again. If such an expert *could* back up his claims it would be by presenting enough evidence to convince me. I would not base my new belief in UFOs on his *authority* but on his presentation of sufficient *evidence*. A persons authority or expertise is *not* the deciding factor.

sze zeng said: Thus I dont think you have enough reason to be A-theistic, but only agnostic at best in the case of Christianity.

Oh I have every reason for being an atheist - in that I am unaware of any credible evidence to support the idea that God exists. Being an Agnostic would mean that I do not beileve that the God Question can ever be answered. I do not believe that to be the case - therefore I am not an Agnostic. I do not believe in God because there is no evidence that He exists. Simple really.

Thanks for the explanation of Trinitarianism.

sze zeng said: People often talk as though 'atheism' were a self-contained system, a view of the world which gained its coherence from a central conviction – that there is no transcendent creative power independent of the universe we experience.

Atheism is not a system, nor is it a world view or a philosophy. It is simply a sceptical response to the God Question. It is a subset of scepticism in general and normally part of a belief in the natural origins and processes of the Universe.

sze zeng said: But the story of Polycarp reminds us that to understand what atheism means, we need to know which gods are being rejected and why."

I reject *all* Gods as I reject demons, angels, ghosts, pixies and a whole host of other imaginary creatures... and all for the same reason - there is no evidence nor reasonable argument that can be brought forward to support their existence.

Here's a question for you: Do you believe in the existence of the Gods of Mount Olympus? If not, why not?

Lui said...

> The authority of the Bible, on the other hand, is accepted in the teeth of evidence because children ate taught that faith - to believe in the absence of evidence - is a virtue; it is unfalsifiable in some respects, and it resorts to fear-mongering and other non-intellectual modes of persuasion. <

"That is a shorthand, right? If not, then I disagree very much with that. But if it is, i believe you are saying that churches are bad and should not ask or use fear to compel people to believe that the Bible has authority. I totally agree with that."

I'm not sure what you mean by a shorthand, but I don't see what part you could vehemently disagree with. I'm not saying that religion always uses these components together; but they are undoubtedly important in terms of explaining religion's ubiquity. They are all significant.

Faith IS taught as a virtue. That's no one's propaganda. It's just a fact. Person after person I've spoken to has said things like "In the end, it's about faith"; "Just believe!"; "I need something to give my life meaning."; "I believe that there's something out there greater than us." and so on. These have all been held up as reasons to believe, and they aren't isolated cases, they're part of a general trend.

Aspects of religion are unfalsifiable, precisely because they are matters of faith not open to empirical refutation. If they're matters of faith, the basis for believing them effectively precludes the possibility of their disproof. But of course, just because something can't be disproved isn't a reason to actually believe it.

Finally, fear IS used to propagate faith. Children (I'm not saying this was the case with you, but it is with many) are taught that not to believe will result in punishment in the afterlife. Weak-minded adults who never grow out of this grotesque story use it as the basis for "saving souls"; they use the threat of God's wrath to push forward social agendas, to control the sexual behaviour of other people, and a raft of other things, all in the name of appeasing a God whose patience is running out (because we have "rejected him").

Atheists and theists have authorities, but it's important to look at the reasons why someone is considered an authority, and whether they're good reasons. If we consider a scientist an authority (by this I mean only that we acknowledge that they are well qualified to talk about a topic; evidence itself would be the real "authority"), it is because we know that they have dedicated their lives to the systematic investigation of nature. Of course, there are things that scientists disagree about (because the evidence isn't conclusive, mostly) but there are things that have been confirmed to such an extent that we can regard them as having been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt (through the convergence of evidence). Evolution, for example. Scientists have brought us discoveries that have become vital to our technology, and that technology wouldn't work if a good part of the underlying body of information didn't have a firm grounding in reality.

What about religious authorities? Can anything equivalent be said about them? Or, in the sense of an authority being a thing - like evidence is in science - what is the equivalent in religion? Some have ceded to theologians and priests (or rabbis and mullahs depending on geography) the domains of morality and "ultimate meaning". But this comes to my original point: just because there are domains (and this assumes that they are proper domains, not just "what is the colour of greed" types of domains where syntactically correct sentences can be strung together even though the content of those sentences are vacuous) that science is ill-equipped to address does not therefore pass onto religion the privilege (let alone the exclusive privilege) to speak about them.

"sze zeng said: Thus I dont think you have enough reason to be A-theistic, but only agnostic at best in the case of Christianity."

Are you similarly agnostic about The Flying Spaghetti Monster or Zeus? Do you spend much time fretting over the possibility that many of the thousands of religions you have never heard of might be true?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Cyberkitten,

>If by that you mean that knowledge is dependent on culture then I don't think I can agree with you. Knowledge is culture independent. 2+2=4 no matter where you are. What is *regarded* as knowledge (or regarded as useful knowledge) may be cultural - but not knowledge itself.

I think you are trying to say 'truth' is culture independent, not 'knowledge'. Knowledge and truth are not the same. Anyone can have a false knowledge to a certain truth.

>If knowledge was based on authority or even mainly on authority that we could never arrive at truth regarding anything.

If you are following the discussion among epistemologists, then this wouldn't be a surprise to you. Therefore I had earlier on try not to go into this muddled issue about 'truthfulness' or the nature of truth (if you are interested, you may start with Robert Audi's introductory text which is now in 2nd edition). So i think it sufficed to talk about knowledge and rationality as "warranted".

>When two or more authorities disagree how can we tell which is closest to the truth?

T.Kuhn suggests a paradigmatic evaluation; I.Lakatos suggests a research programme evaluation; S.Toulmin suggests a evolutionary structural evaluation; A.McIntyre suggests a cross-tradition evaluation. Your pick.

And the example you gave above presumed that you already know the 'truth', or at least its existence. But when I used this previously when I was arguing for a 'deeper' meaning of reality, I was being criticized as too presumptuous. Why is such double-standard?

>No again. If such an expert *could* back up his claims it would be by presenting enough evidence to convince me. I would not base my new belief in UFOs on his *authority* but on his presentation of sufficient *evidence*. A persons authority or expertise is *not* the deciding factor.

You are reading me without the context. Pls remember that I was responding to your statement that "unless he can produce a great deal of evidence to back up his claims.." So, when I said "UFO expert able to .back up his claims convincingly", that includes the presentation of all the evidents which is assumed includes in his expertise ("assumed" because if he is not qualified, then no point presenting). Thus i think you are not responding to my points. You seems to reinterpret my point so that you can criticize it.

Thus I think what i wrote about knowledge grounded on authority still stands.

>I do not believe in God because there is no evidence that He exists. Simple really...I reject *all* Gods...there is no evidence nor reasonable argument that can be brought forward to support their existence.

No evidents to you does not mean anything much for such big question on God's existence. As the saying goes "absence of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence". But of cos I am not suggesting that we dont need evidents as one factor that warrant our knowledge. I'm just saying that the absent of evidents to a particular person does not warrant anything in the external world. At best it can only warrant the individual's subjective (faulty) knowledge. For eg. A particular group of native African thinks that all birds can fly. And that is because they dont have evidents of bird that cannot fly in their surrounding. That is until they encounter the penguins.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi lui,

I'll just skip the "shorthand" because I just dont have the time to respond to another issue, though i wish I really want to. Apologise for that.

>Faith IS taught as a virtue. That's no one's propaganda. It's just a fact.

'Faith' is like a evil-word among intellectuals. But that does not need to be. Of course there are unreasonable faith and reasonable faith. It is the former that we should abandon. While the latter is what keep the world going, be it in relationship, business, political decision etc. Of course the other word for 'faith' is 'trust'.

>Aspects of religion are unfalsifiable

I hope to focus only on Christianity in particular instead of religion in general because the discussion will be very different in nature.

You will not say that Christianity is unfalsifiable if you know a few names like R.Bultmann, S.Spong, D.Cupitt, J.D Crossan, M.Borg, B.Mack, G.Ludemann, H.Avalos, B.Erhman etc.

>...fear IS use to propagate faith

Well, i agree with you very much on this on one hand. On the other, we also have to acknowledge that the veracity of Christianity does not hang on how it was presented or propagated.

>Scientists have brought us discoveries that have become vital to our technology, and that technology wouldn't work if a good part of the underlying body of information didn't have a firm grounding in reality.

This is the similar discussion between Cyberkitten. So i'll just focus with he/her first, to be more efficient.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Cyberkitten and lui,

Both of you asked the same question:

CK: Do you believe in the existence of the Gods of Mount Olympus? If not, why not?

lui: Are you similarly agnostic about The Flying Spaghetti Monster or Zeus? Do you spend much time fretting over the possibility that many of the thousands of religions you have never heard of might be true?

I dont wish to address this difficult question here yet because I want to focus on current issues first. I can just say that I have grapple with these difficult questions myself. Actually the greek and roman gods and etc are far less hostile to the veracity of Christianity compared to those other ancient religions from the land of Canaan and Egypt, which interestingly seem to have some connection with the belief in YHWH of the ancient Israelites.

Rodolfo said...

Can someone clarify what the "current issue" is?

Lui said...

"'Faith' is like a evil-word among intellectuals. But that does not need to be. Of course there are unreasonable faith and reasonable faith. It is the former that we should abandon. While the latter is what keep the world going, be it in relationship, business, political decision etc. Of course the other word for 'faith' is 'trust'."

I would like to know what sort of faith it is you think we should abandon, and how it isn't an integral part of maintaining religion. I would also like to know how the juxtaposed "good" faith can be used to make truth claims.

"You will not say that Christianity is unfalsifiable if you know a few names like R.Bultmann, S.Spong, D.Cupitt, J.D Crossan, M.Borg, B.Mack, G.Ludemann, H.Avalos, B.Erhman etc."

I don't know them, but I do know that whatever type of falsifiable religion you're alluding to is emphatically not the sort that prevails among most people. If evidence can be brought forth to support the premise that there is a God and that Jesus is his son/incarnation, let it be brought forth.

"I'm just saying that the absent of evidents to a particular person does not warrant anything in the external world. At best it can only warrant the individual's subjective (faulty) knowledge"

That rapidly degenerates into an excuse to let everyone believe whatever they want and call anything "evidence" for their beliefs. I can invent a god right now and then retrospectively fit every scientific discovery ever made into a supposed edifice "validating" that deity. The irony is that your statement that what is evidence to one person cannot be taken as the final word about what is actually out there effectively becomes a statement affirming the primacy of the individual deciding the matter. But there is no need to do this. When scientists say that creationists are wrong, for example, they are saying something important, not just stating a subjective opinion about what constitutes evidence "for them". Evolution is demonstrably correct, and creationism demonstrably vacuous by virtue of the convergence of evidence in support of the former. In order to say that we have positive evidence for something, you must have some criteria that can be judged against that evidence and that can be shown to be what we would expect to be the case if one proposition is true versus another being true.

CyberKitten said...

sze zeng said: I think you are trying to say 'truth' is culture independent, not 'knowledge'. Knowledge and truth are not the same. Anyone can have a false knowledge to a certain truth.

I think so yes. Knowledge is an approximation of the truth (I know I'm sounding all Platonic here) and different cultures over time have had different approximations - different things they called knowledge. For example Einstein had a closer approximation of the truth than Newton, Quantum Physics is a closer approximation than Classical Physics & Darwinian Evolution is a closer approximation to the truth than Biblical Creationism.

sze zeng said: Thus I think what i wrote about knowledge grounded on authority still stands.

No and again No. A persons authority or expertise has no relation to the truth of the matter. Authorities disagree and authories can be wrong. Truth is authority independent. It is the facts, the evidence and the reasonable argument that is the ultimate authority - not the person who makes the claim.

sze zeng said: No evidents to you does not mean anything much for such big question on God's existence.

I know of no evidence for the existence of God. Therefore I do not believe in His existence. That's about as much as I can say on the idea. I have asked many people (Christians mainly) to provide this evidence and they have universially failed to do so. This has hardly changed my opinion on the matter.

sze zeng said: As the saying goes "absence of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence".

That's very true - but how much absense do you need to conclude that something doesn't exist. We have no evidence for Unicorns, fairies or dragons. Should we therefore conclude that they don't exist or hold our scepticism in check just in case we discover one of them at some point in the future? Do we have to believe in things - *all* things - just in case? Can I *not* believe in anything?

sze zeng said: At best it can only warrant the individual's subjective (faulty) knowledge.

All of our knowledge is faulty because, as I've said before no one can know everything about everything or even everything about anything. What knowledge do you have to assert with any confidence that God *does* exist? If you have less than perfect knowledge on the subject do you not also have 'faulty' knowledge?

sze zeng said: Of course the other word for 'faith' is 'trust'.

..and as you hinted - there is reasonable trust and unreasonable trust. The deciding factor is (as always) reason.

sze zeng said: I dont wish to address this difficult question here yet because I want to focus on current issues first.

You see to be *very* reluctant to answer many of our straight questions. Why is that? Yes and I know that that's a question too [grin]

lui said: If evidence can be brought forth to support the premise that there is a God and that Jesus is his son/incarnation, let it be brought forth.

I've asked that question many times myself. Guess what? Yup, I'm still waiting both for an answer and *any* credible evidence.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Cyberkitten and lui,

I am traveling a bit currently, so wouldn't have much time to respond.

But what I am trying to discuss now with both of you is the question of prolegomena, an essential part in most discussion. Straight jumping into discussion of Christianity without knowing whether what we know about Christianity and knowledge will be a waste of time. A good eg. is that we found out that Cyberkitten is rejecting religion such as classical theism, to which I am rejecting as well. Thus that saves us lot of trouble to talk pass one another on one hand. Prevent us from striking strawman on the other.

lui said: If evidence can be brought forth to support the premise that there is a God and that Jesus is his son/incarnation, let it be brought forth.

Cyberkitten: I've asked that question many times myself. Guess what? Yup, I'm still waiting both for an answer and *any* credible evidence.

If you want the evidents for Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection, I have a few resources that you might consider reading.

On the studies of the reliability of the gospels:

Martin Hengel - The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (2000)

Richard Bauckham - Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006)

On Jesus the Messiah:

N.T Wright's 3 volumes:
-New Testament and the People of God (1991/1992)
-Jesus and the Victory of God (1997)
-The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003)

Basically Wright's work on Jesus has nailed the skepticism of the scholars of Jesus Seminar and the like. If this scholarly written books are too dry, you might consider his popular books like 'The Challenges of Jesus', 'Who Was Jesus?', and 'The Resurrection Debate: J.D.Crossan and N.T Wright in Dialogue' (2005).

If a skeptic who has not read any of these latest materials, he/she can only deny the veracity of the Christianity's claims about Jesus out of ignorance. Of cos one can always chose not to handle these materials, and keep up with the discussion of such issues on the deeper level, and stay skeptical. But these questions themselves are not easy ones and thus one should not expect to find easy answers.

CyberKitten said...

sze zeng said: If a skeptic who has not read any of these latest materials, he/she can only deny the veracity of the Christianity's claims about Jesus out of ignorance.

I didn't know that Blogging entailed homework [laughs]

Can you paraphrase their ideas for us - either that or we'll get back to you in a few months.... [grin]

Kevin Parry said...

I haven't yet read all the comments in this fascinating discussion, so apologies if this has already been covered.

Sze Zeng wrote:
As you wish, as long as Kevin is fine with it. Then we shall carry on here.

I don’t mind at all. I know there are many who are reading your discussion with a great deal of interest, so it would be great to keep it public.

Just a quick thought: I wonder if this discussion also applies to metaphysical naturalism, the world view to which many atheists subscribe. Atheism might be a lack of belief, but one can argue that the metaphysical naturalist is expressing belief when she claims to hold the view that everything that exists in our universe has a natural cause or origin (which I understand is the basis of metaphysical naturalism). What do you think?

Anonymous wrote
Hi Kevin, You commented on my blog so I came to see yours. I would love to chat to you. Please contact me via my blog.

Hi Anonymous. Thank you for visiting my blog and for the invitation. Unfortunately, I visit many blogs, and you didn’t include your blog address or your name in your comment. Please email me with your blog’s address (you will find my email address under my profile), and I will visit as soon as I can.

All the best
Kevin

Sze Zeng said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sze Zeng said...

Hi Cyberkitten,

blogging doesn't entail homeworks but discussion and debates do! (laugh)

I cant simply paraphrase any sort of those here in a blog. I really wish I can but on one hand, I dont have internet connection at home, thus I cant respond promptly. On the other hand, these matters are not easy stuffs which even regular church goers wouldn't know about them. Thus it is difficult to communicate through blogs.

What I want to say is that there are convincing evidents that suggest the veracity of claims made by Christianity.

>No and again No. A persons authority or expertise has no relation to the truth of the matter. Authorities disagree and authories can be wrong. Truth is authority independent. It is the facts, the evidence and the reasonable argument that is the ultimate authority - not the person who makes the claim.

You are still working only on one level to which what I suggest is being built on. Thus, I am not disagreeing with you but I go a step further to explore the nature of our decision to make rational choices for knowledge.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Kevin,

>I wonder if this discussion also applies to metaphysical naturalism, the world view to which many atheists subscribe. Atheism might be a lack of belief, but one can argue that the metaphysical naturalist is expressing belief when she claims to hold the view that everything that exists in our universe has a natural cause or origin (which I understand is the basis of metaphysical naturalism). What do you think?

I think so. To say of one's lack of belief is not to say of one's worldview which derived from the non-existence of that belief. For eg. one doesn't believe in Christ is different from the entire implication which derived from such irrelevance. Just as one who doesnt have a husband is different from the implication of how one lives life as a single.

Marcus said...

Atheism requires the belief that explanations define reality.

Theism requires the belief that experiences define reality.

Atheism is not an absence of belief, that would be skepticism. Atheist beliefs, however, are methodological in nature, not moral or religious.