Tuesday, April 22, 2008

When mystery is used as a bridge

On a earlier blog post, a reader made the following comment in response to my claim that God’s existence is not obvious:

Open your eyes, look around you. Look at your wife, look at a South African sunset, look at a baby being born, look at the stars! It takes MUCH more faith, in my opinion, to believe that there is NO God!

This argument sounds extremely convincing, but after much thinking I’ve realised – and I could be wrong here – a possible problem with this kind of reasoning. It is possible that God is the cause of all phenomena in nature, but the problem is that we have no idea of HOW God makes all these things possible. God is the cause and the link, many claim, but they fail to provide evidence for this link.

Think of the following equation:

A=B=C

C (a sunset, the universe, etc) is a result of A (God), but no clear idea is given of the kind of mechanism that links A and C together. In other words, B (the how) is unknown. I would think that, until B is provided, a theist can’t confirm that God is responsible for elements in nature, let alone claim that these are evidence of his existence.

This also applies to claims of miraculous healing, such as disappearing tumours, for example. Although most miracle claims are anecdotal, there are a few individuals who maintain that they have some sort of evidence from X-rays and medical scans.

You see, many attribute miracle healings to the supernatural, but they provide no idea of how the supernatural could have caused the healing, Again, the link (i.e., the B) is missing. In order for a theist to convince me that God healed them, not only do they have convincingly show that something unexplainable did indeed happen, but more importantly they have to show a clear causal link between the miracle experience and the God of the Bible. Without this link, I can’t be convinced that a healing, or any other phenomenon, was or is a result of the supernatural. In other words, although I won’t dispute the fact that miracle healings can happen, I doubt the claimed cause of these experiences.



Getting back to the blog comment above: we already have perfectly natural explanations for the phenomena the reader listed. Yes, a South African sunset is extremely beautiful, but I know this isn’t a result of a divine creator, but of sunlight reflecting off dust particles; God didn’t create a newly born baby, its parents did; and we know the stars came into being as a result of gravity and nuclear fusion. We have perfectly understandable natural explanations for all the phenomena in the above comment; we already have a fair understanding of how A,B and C all link together.

And what of the few phenomena in nature where we might not have a clear natural explanation either? Well, as an atheist, I’m very content to say “I don’t know”, until further evidence is in.

21 comments:

Trevor said...

Reason is a very useful thing, but it has its limits.

I must say too, that when I was in high school, I was wrestling with the question of whether God existed or not. Then one day I looked outside from the classroom and saw Table Mountain in its splendour with a white cloud over it and I was very moved. I somehow got convinced that God existed.

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.
- Psalm 19:1

CyberKitten said...

trevor said: Reason is a very useful thing, but it has its limits.

Indeed. I suspect it does - but that's no excuse to fill the gaps with un-reason.

Lui said...

"Reason is a very useful thing, but it has its limits."

It certainly does have its limits, especially when one needs to be convinced of things that require its complete suspension. But once you've made that leap and used the faith card, anything at all is allowed. There is no criteria by which we could judge whether something is wrong or not. The faith card trumps everything else because it doesn't recognise reason.

"Then one day I looked outside from the classroom and saw Table Mountain in its splendour with a white cloud over it and I was very moved. I somehow got convinced that God existed."

The problem is that, if something is allowed to count as evidence for God, there should be a demarcation to judge when something probably isn't. Is a parasitic wasp, for example, something to convince us of God? It is much more intricate than a mountain, but is really quite unsettling when you think about what it does. Now someone might retort "But you can't judge whether God designed an animal just because it does something that WE find unsettling". But then why can we judge that God designed a mountain when we find it beautiful?

I, too, find nature deeply moving, but I find it moving is because, first, it is so mind-shatteringly complex, and secondly because I realise that I myself am a part of it, and cannot escape it. We are all children and its history. A parasitic wasp is my distant cousin, so I feel an affinity towards it. But I admire it even more for its own rules (while being slightly perturbed by its fiendishly ingenious contraptions). I don't expect it, of course, to conform to any notions of human decency, for such concepts are alien to it.

A mountain is beautiful, not because there is any such thing as "intrinsically beautiful", as though beauty hung like an essence from a Platonic sky, but because we happen to find it majestic or whatever. A mountain doesn't have a "reason" for its existence, in the sense that it isn't there FOR anything. There is no "why" to a mountain. As Richard Dawkins has said: "In what sense of the word 'why' doesn't plate tectonics provide an answer for earthquakes?" Earthquakes are judged as terrible by virtue of the costs they inflict on this planet's human inhabitants, yet the forces that result in them (again, earthquakes aren't "for" anything, they just happen) are the same forces that elevate mountains. I would argue that to understand these forces doesn't take anything away from the beauty of mountains; not at all. If anything, it makes them even more beautiful and worthy as objects of our admiration. But if mountains aren't actually for anything - indeed, if they are mere side-consequences of forces that have no regard for our existence, and would carry on just fine without us - then I don't see how one could make the leap to supposing that they are in any way evidence for God unless one already had feelings along those lines.

It is more sensible, on the other hand, to ask what parasitic wasps are "for". In evolutionary biology, a type of "why" question is asked that acts as a short-hand for what we mean when inquiring into what function such-and-such an adaptation is fulfilling. Are organisms themselves amenable to this way of thinking? Indeed they are, for the question "What is a giraffe for, or a bee?" yields the same answer as "What is HIV for?" Some people imagine that HIV's purpose is to keep the human population in check. Certainly it can have this effect, but it doesn't mean that's it's reason for existence. In actuality, HIV isn't for anything other than the propagation of the genes that encode it - and the mechanism it uses to effect that is by having us become giant reproductive organs. Every virus and organism on this planet has it ultimate "reason" in this ancient pursuit. We need add nothing to this explanation to address notions of "why", because it's already completely sufficient as an answer. Why add another layer of complexity on top of it?

Max said...

Reason may, may have its limits (in a limited sense) but the scientific method does not.

Any question that we can formulate can be addressed by the scientific method. To paraphrase Peter Atkins:

"There are no important questions that begin with 'Why?' The only important questions begin with 'How?' And science can deconstruct all of those Why questions - either into their How components, or show that they are wholly invented, pointless questions."

Questions like 'Why are we here?' that imply purpose are inventions of human grammar, and presuppose purpose without first providing evidence that there should be a purpose in the first place.

Picards babe said...

I always find it amazing that those who say they don't believe in "God" spend so much time and energy and their life debating and talking about Him if He doesn't exist. I see no logic in that at all, lol

Lui said...

"I always find it amazing that those who say they don't believe in "God" spend so much time and energy and their life debating and talking about Him if He doesn't exist. I see no logic in that at all, lol"

Of course you don't, because you completely ignore WHY we do it. There difference between God and the Tooth Fairy, for instance, is that no one really believes in the Tooth Fairy or indoctrinates innocent children to grow up believing in and worshipping it. No one calls for the conversion of others in the service of the Tooth Fairy. No one calls for the subversion of science teaching standards on behalf of the Tooth Fairy. No one is trying to strong arm the bioethics debate to ban stem cell research and other potentially life saving avenues of inquiry. No one wants to wage holy war on behalf of this tiny primate. No one calls non-believers in the Tooth Fairy "infidels" or "dogs" or "heathens". No one is ostracised for not believing in the Tooth Fairy, or made to feel excluded because of it. No one is calling for the establishment of a Tooth Fairy theocracy. Now what if people in fact did start doing that, and it started making significant inroads? Would you not speak out against it? Well, that's exactly how we feel about God; they're both fictiotious constructs invented by human minds, but it's the belief in God that is actually dangerous. Children might believe in fairies, but they aren't told that they HAVE TO. And they are expected to grow out of it eventually, because we all know that there isn't the slightest evidence for these creatures. Yet children are expected to RETAIN their belief in an invisible man who speaks to us through telepathy and who administers miracles right through to adulthood.

Your comment is actually extremely hypocritical and if you had given it a moment's thought, you would have seen the fatal error in it. By your rationale, if you took your logic at all seriously, you would never speak out against things you don't agree with. Of course you do (and should). What if the above scenario actually happened, and Tooth Fairylogians retorted "I always find it amazing that those who say they don't believe in the Tooth Fairy spend so much time and energy and their life debating and talking about Her if She doesn't exist. I see no logic in that at all, lol". Wouldn't that be supremely grating and utterly banal?

You would have seen the logic in what we do if you had actually ever listened to what we were saying, in which our concerns that fictitious constructs have such a dangerous grip on the collective psyche have been elucidated time and again. Your type of comment is in fact the sort of thing that absolves believers from having to look critically at their own beliefs, by ignoring why others might do so and focusing only on the fact that non-believers critique God "despite" not believing in him.

Anonymous said...

But what caused gravity and nuclear fusion? Please explain how everything came from nothing. How is it that everything has always existed, and if it didn't how did it begin to exist? Yes, you can explain phenomena, but what put the phenomena into motion in the very first place?

Ryan said...

I'm prepared to admit: I don't know. Nor does anyone. And to claim a connection between unknown causes or mechanisms of natural phenomenon, and supernatural instigator...

Well, it's just silly.

Lui said...

People falsely imagine that, when science stumbles upon a problem that seems fiendishly difficult and that perhaps has no possibility of resolution, religion "therefore" provides the outlet for an answer. But as Dan Dennett says, if we don't know then we don't know. And just because we don't know something now doesn't mean we won't ever know it; we have to keep trying. It hardly does these great questions any justice if we are content to leave them as they are and pretend to answer them with the cop-out "God did it". For what happens when we do find an answer; do we then push God further into the background? If God keeps getting pushed back and back, why do we keep giving him the benefit of the doubt? Why do we imagine that we must somehow keep on reserving a seat for him? We may well come up short one day, knocking on the door of the truly unknowable; perhaps our human minds are utterly incapable of even contemplating certain truths. But that doesn't mean that religion has any more legitimate claim to answer these questions - unless it can provide actual evidence for those claims.

Kevin Parry said...

Yes, you can explain phenomena, but what put the phenomena into motion in the very first place?

My answer is: "I don't know". But I would go as far as saying that you don't know either. Yes, you believe that there is a creator, but this is different from knowing that there is a creator. When it comes to the question of where the universe came from, I think both the atheist and theist are in the same boat: we simply don't know for sure. I'm content to proclaim my ignorance, rather than positing the indefensible belief of a supernatural cause.

Kevin Parry said...

Picards babe said...
I always find it amazing that those who say they don't believe in "God" spend so much time and energy and their life debating and talking about Him if He doesn't exist.

Excellent question! Lui covered this quite well, but you can also find my answer here.

Trevor said...

My answer is: "I don't know". But I would go as far as saying that you don't know either. Yes, you believe that there is a creator, but this is different from knowing that there is a creator.

How can we not know when the creator God lives in us? He does not live in you, so yes, you do not know, but He lives in those who trust in Him for their salvation. (This is what faith is, by the way.)

Lui said...

"How can we not know when the creator God lives in us? He does not live in you, so yes, you do not know, but He lives in those who trust in Him for their salvation. (This is what faith is, by the way.)"

In other words, he "lives" in those who already believe in him. Sorry, but that's way too "convenient", and it also happens to be exactly the same claim made by other religions in regards to their gods. I have a Muslim friend who assures me, in all sincerity, that the reason I'm not a Muslim is because I don't "understand" Islam. Strictly speaking, he's right in a sense; I DON'T understand Islam, because I see it as just another type of fiction, no more worthy of being believed than Harry Potter's adventures. More significantly, though, is that he seems incapable of conceiving of the idea that many people DO understand Islam, they just don't take it at all seriously (perhaps precisely BECAUSE they've understood it, and have found it unbelievable and even ridiculous). Well, if I believed (or "trusted") that some dead relative was trying to commune with me, I'm sure I too would be predisposed to seeing affirmations of that "truth" in everything I did or saw, perhaps even of having vivid conversations with the relative (or of hearing their voice in the wind at night). But that's only because I already believe that that they are out there, communing with me. Anyone else would rightfully see this as mere self-murmuring. However, when enough people do it, it's called "praying", and here the focus of one's conversations, deep feelings etc is more often a magical, invisible man who created the universe and has a special plan in store for us.

Believing in something doesn't make it real. That's elementary. You can't say "I know he's real, because He lives inside me." And how do you know you're not just kidding yourself, especially when millions of people of OTHER faiths also have "profound, religious experiences" and are supposedly communing with their respective deities? I bet it's easy to dismiss those experiences as delusions, wishful thinking and what not. I do, and in fact most religious people don't give a second thought to what other people in other cultures believe in. The Muslim in Mecca doesn't care much that the Christian in Florida is worshipping a false god, and vice versa, when deciding whether he himself is on the right track. Just ask them what they think of your experiences; for they believe just the same thing about your experiences being the products of misguided beliefs involving the worship and adulation of the "wrong god".

For someone who doesn't subscribe to any god-belief, it is always curious how utterly ordinary the claims of the religious all sound, how similar they all are to one another, and how supremely lacking in compelling reasons to actually take them seriously they are compromised by. Granted, they are persuading to people who already believe that already believe in the existence of a deity; even here, there is reason to be worried, for the details of the experience will be largely dependent upon historical accident. If history had conspired to make some feature of Christianity different, then today's Christians would be extolling that feature and it would be included in their experiences (experiences that would themselves be taken as "proof" that God exists - JUST LIKE the other religious people are doing with Allah or Vishnu or, in times past, the pagan gods).

In the absence of independent evidence associated with a marked statistically significant effect that would allow us to definitively differentiate these warm, fuzzy feelings of being loved by God (or Allah, or whatever other being that humanity has ever believed in) from merely talking to oneself, and further that these experiences be differentiated from other deity chat sessions by virtue of some statistically significant effect showing, for example, that Christian prayer is more effective than Muslim prayer, there is no reason for an atheist or an agnostic to take any of them at all seriously. They can all be discounted as permutations of self-delusion without further comment. And self-delusion is exactly the right null hypothesis top adopt, for it can't be the case that ALL religions are right (sorry, but that's feel-good, claptrap. Saying that someone will be consigned to Hell for an eternity for not trusting in Jesus IS NOT the same thing as saying to a Muslim "I agree with you". That should go without saying). If the Hindu religion is correct, then Christianity isn't. The most parsimonious explanation is that nothing is going on other than people believing in what they happen to believe in because of upbringing, culture etc. I know how much each individual who has "experienced the grace of God" or "has been touched by Jesus" would love for me to appreciate and "come to an understanding" of their experiences, but I see no reason whatsoever in giving one person precedence over anyone else (and saying "They're worshipping false gods" won't go down too well with me) just because they want me to. If you want me to believe that you're communing with an actual, omnipotent being rather than just engaging in a bout of (sincerely held) wishful thinking invoking a figment of your mind, fine. But do it by providing evidence. Otherwise I am not under any obligation - moral or otherwise - to hold your claims in high esteem. I will instead dismiss them with the same common sense that you dismiss other religions.

Granted, it is interesting why people have such experiences, but interesting from the point of view of human psychology, neuroscience and culture. Invoking a deity as an explanation has so far added nothing to their understanding.

Lui said...

I meant to say "that would allow us to definitively differentiate these warm, fuzzy feelings of being loved by God (or Allah, or whatever other being that humanity has ever believed in) from actually being spoken to by a god..."

Korolev said...

This is a wonderful blog, which I have been reading for quite some time now.

When people in ancient days observed a new born baby being born, they probably said "god did it" because they did not have the necessary knowledge and scientific grounding. Now, we do. We understand that a baby forms by cellular differentiation, with genes being silenced or expressed by various chemicals and proteins.

Science takes time. Religious people angle for answers NOW - they rarely take time to investigate. Anytime they run into something they can't explain, they often throw up their hands and say "God did it". That is the easy way out. Scientists will look at complex problems and try to find an answer. It takes time, it takes effort. We scientists are not arrogant to claim we have all the answers - but at least we try. Religion on the other hand, is arrogant enough to claim it knows everything.

Religious people love say that science doesn't have all the answers - and that is true. However, a lack of an answer is better than a made up answer.

Jessica said...

I stumbled across this blog today, and I am very excited to have found it! As an ex-Christian, I struggle with defining my logic so I can explain my change in belief more clearly.

In response to trevor's comment:

How can we not know when the creator God lives in us? He does not live in you, so yes, you do not know, but He lives in those who trust in Him for their salvation. (This is what faith is, by the way.)

"A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything."
-Friedrich Nietszche

Trevor said...

There seem to be several people who are reading this blog who claim to be ex-Christians. There also seems to be a definition of the term "faith" that is accepted which does not agree with the Bible's definition of faith.

If the ex-Christians on this blog really were Christians, then they would know what faith is. After all "It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith."

Can anyone tell me what they think faith is?

CyberKitten said...

trevor asked: Can anyone tell me what they think faith is?

Belief without knowledge or 'beyond' knowledge.

Kevin Parry said...

Trevor wrote
Can anyone tell me what they think faith is?

Excellent question! I think – and this is my uneducated opinion – that Christian faith consists of two aspects. First is the not-seeing-is-believing aspect of faith, that one should have belief in something without the associated evidence (as the writer seems to allude in Hebrews 11:1). Second is the relational aspect of faith that focuses on the person of Jesus. In other words, not only is faith believing in things that are difficult to support rationally (such as the supernatural, virgin births, parting seas, and other such claims), but it also means putting your trust (or faith) in the personhood of Jesus, in his gift of salvation. Ex-Christians and atheists tend to focus the first aspect, while Christians understandably emphasize the second.

As a Christian, I naturally held onto the relational aspect of faith more than anything else. I followed what I thought was Jesus, I held onto his teachings, and I spoke with him and – at times – I thought he spoke to me. But later I started to battle with the first aspect of faith: I suddenly came to a point where I could not honestly believe in things without the associated evidence. With the collapse of the first aspect of faith, I realized that I couldn’t sustain or uphold the second, relational part. After all, how could I have a relationship with someone whose existence I wasn’t sure of.

Hope this answers your question.

gip-k said...

Well, I don't think, in the case of Christian miracle stories, that the link "B" which you claim to be weak/missing is there. You had the same point expressed in the other 2 of the 4 posts that you linked me to.

For example, isn't it probable to assume in the case of an untreatable, persistent medical condition, that if someone prays specifically in the name of Jesus Christ, and an unexplained/supernatural healing occurs within a reasonable time frame after the prayer, that you can attribute this to the fact that they prayed?

Or even that aside, what about if in the case, a bone was broken- something that can reasonably heal on its on, but is not known to be healed in seconds or minutes for example- was suddenly healed directly following prayer? Wouldn't it be right to attribute this to God or Jesus? We can't say it just "happened" because of something else, because these people were praying to a specific entity/person. Of course, someone could claim "Yeah, it was just aliens or some other unseen force" but that's not logical, is it?

I use these two as examples, because you're not going to fall into the problem of "before this, after this, therefore this" or however the saying goes which expresses that just because two things happen simultaneously does not mean that one caused the other.

For example, I do not consider it to be "healing" if someone is prayed for a cold or flu for example, and the sickness runs its course. Yes, flus can be fatal, but there's no way to prove that the person didn't die because of the prayer. It's also not a healing if prayer and medicine are combined, even if the results are unusually positive- since there's no way to tell if the results would've been the same with or without the prayer.

Of course, you can still argue that not all the Bible is true even if the God of the Bible exists- it's all up to you. But I think deciding whether or not a specific god is responsible for a miracle would be pretty easy in the right circumstances.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi gip-k

Very good comments

For example, isn't it probable to assume in the case of an untreatable, persistent medical condition, that if someone prays specifically in the name of Jesus Christ, and an unexplained/supernatural healing occurs within a reasonable time frame after the prayer, that you can attribute this to the fact that they prayed?

Is there evidence that this in fact happened? We first have to establish that person was actually healed from an untreatable disease before we talk about causes, and this can easily be done through X-rays, medical reports, etc. If this can’t be proved, then this example is simply anecdotal in nature.

But even if it were proved that a person was healed from something untreatable, I still would not consider the God hypothesis. Simply because – and I humbly disagree with you here - that this is an example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. I say this because not all prayers for healing are answered - there are many that go unanswered. In other words, there is no clear, statistical pattern that I’m aware of that shows that miraculous healings are specifically linked to prayer, so we are not yet justified to claim that prayer is the cause, even if it seems to be the case in a few examples. It could be a third, unknown, and unrelated factor that causes such healings.

And a bigger problem is the fact that there are many claims of miraculous healings throughout history from other religions and faiths. Even if we managed to link prayer to healing, how would one demonstrate that the God of the Bible is responsible?

It would be intriguing though if high proportion of prayers for miraculous healing were answered, and that the prayers by Christians were the only ones that worked. Then those claiming miraculous healing could then begin to build a case!