Friday, March 20, 2015

The difference between science and religion, take 2

In the comments section of an earlier post I advanced the following theory of the difference between science and relgion:
My definition of religion is the acceptance of claims on faith, i.e. without evidence.
To which commenter Publius responded:
I would make that "without scientific evidence." There are other forms of evidence - testimonial, personal knowledge, etc.
My knee-jerk reaction to this was to say that there is no distinction between "scientific" and "non-scientific" evidence.  Evidence is evidence.  You don't get to cherry-pick.  This is exactly the problem with young-earth creationists and lunar landing conspiracy theorists: they cherry-pick the evidence that supports their worldview and ignore the rest.

And then it suddenly occurred to me that I was actually making Publius's point for him.  It is not that religious people accept things with no evidence.  If everything is evidence and you don't get to cherry-pick, then holy texts and other people's beliefs are evidence.  The question is: evidence of what?  To me, holy texts and religious beliefs are evidence of human creativity and/or gullibility, but to a religious person they are evidence of God.  So there is a difference there, but pinning down exactly what that difference is turns out to be quite a bit more subtle than I suspected.  I'm still not sure I have it quite figured out.

Just to lay to rest the idea I'm imagining that there is a difference, let me lay out one very stark example.  Consider the theory that the Bible is the Word of God, which is to say, a privileged communication from the omniscient and omnipotent Creator of the universe.  Well, the Bible says this:
And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.  (Matthew 21:22)
This sounds to me like a testable prediction: if you ask for something in prayer, and you believe, then you will receive what you ask for.  This is an unrestricted offer.  It applies to "all things" and "whatsoever ye shall ask."  So let's give it a whirl: God, I wish for a pony.

[Wait, wait wait...]

Hm.  No pony.

Well, duh, of course there's no pony.  That's exactly what the theory predicts.  The offer has a catch.  To get what you ask for in prayer you have to believe, and I don't.  So that was not a fair test.

OK, so to conduct this experiment I have to find a believer to ask God for a pony on my behalf.  But then I will encounter another hitch: no believer will agree to conduct this experiment because "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord" (Luke 4:12) and asking for a pony seems a bit frivolous.

So let's try something non-frivolous: how about asking for the lost limbs of the victims of the Boston Marathon bomb to be restored.  That seems like a noble enough request.  Surely I can find a believer somewhere willing to make this request of God, if not on my behalf, then on behalf of the victims?  In fact, surely some believer somewhere has actually made this request already without my having to prompt them?  And if not this request, then for some other victim of some other malicious attack or accident that resulted in the loss of a limb?

And yet, in all of recorded history there has never been a case of an amputated limb being restored.  That is rather curious.  It seems to me that there are only three possibilities:

1.  No believer has ever asked for this.

2.  There is some reason that limbs are off-limits.

3.  Matthew 21:22 is wrong.

The difference between religion and science, it seems to me, is that science will unhesitatingly choose option 3 as the most likely, whereas religion will resist that conclusion with all its might.  Religion will twist and squirm and invent elaborate excuses, anything to avoid saying, "Yeah, there's something wrong with our holy text."

Science, by way of contrast, has no problem saying, "Yeah, there's something wrong with that theory."  In fact, it's woven into the weft and warp of the scientific process.  The very foundation of science is the recognition that the vast majority of theories are wrong, so it is entirely expected that any particular theory is wrong.  In fact, there is hardly any sport in finding a wrong theory.  The tricky part is finding a right theory because only a tiny minority of theories are right.

This is not to say that science-as-practiced by fallible humans always embraces correction immediately.  New theories often meet with initial resistance, but there is a sound reason for this: most theories are wrong, so given a random theory and no other information, the odds are very good that it's wrong.  The current set of accepted theories at any given time have already undergone some very strict scrutiny and filtering.  So the odds of a new theory being better than an old one is, a priori, very low.  And the odds get lower with every new improvement because science converges on truth.  Not always monotonically, but it does converge.

One of the starkest differences between science and religion is their respective attitudes towards scripture and scholarship.  Religions hold scripture and scholars in very high regard.  Science does not.  The closest thing science has to scriptures is the writings of great scientists, but hardly anyone actually reads those except historians of science.  Newton is the closest thing science has to a saint, but no one reads the Principia.  You will occasionally hear a "great scientist" cited as an authority, as in, "Einstein teaches us that the speed of light is the same in all reference frames."  But this is wrong. It is not Einstein that teaches us this, it is nature by way of experiments.  Einstein was just the first to tell the most parsimonious story.

So the difference between science and religion, it seems to me, is something like this: in science, at the end of the day, after all the transients caused by politics and human foibles have settled (and they always do), the experimental data wins.  In religion, it doesn't.  In religion, something else, like scripture or other people's beliefs or striving for "goodness", can trump the data.

You can see this reflected in some of the core arguments advanced for Christianity, which amount to something like: if the Resurrection didn't really happen, the consequences would be horrible.  Therefore, the resurrection must have happened.  It's not data that supports the conclusion, it's the horribleness of the consequences if the conclusion were not true.

The same can be said for science, by the way, because at the core of the belief that experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth is a fear of the consequences if this were not the case.  If God really exists, then we are at the mercy of a higher power that we cannot control even if we can come to fully understand it.  Science offers power through the gift of prophecy, but very little guidance on how best to use it.  So some people are understandably scared of having that power.  Others are scared of giving it up.  Welcome to the burdens of being human.

24 comments:

Luke said...

> Well, the Bible says this:
>
>> And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive. (Matthew 21:22)
>
> This sounds to me like a testable prediction: if you ask for something in prayer, and you believe, then you will receive what you ask for. This is an unrestricted offer. It applies to "all things" and "whatsoever ye shall ask." So let's give it a whirl: God, I wish for a pony.
> [...]
> Well, duh, of course there's no pony. That's exactly what the theory predicts. The offer has a catch. To get what you ask for in prayer you have to believe, and I don't. So that was not a fair test.

Please don't quote verses out of context. Here:

>> When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Mt 21:20–22)

Furthermore, let's look at a similar passage to further flesh out what is being discussed:

>> “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. (Jn 14:12–14)

One more:

>> What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (Ja 4:1–3)

Can you see how wishing for the death of all Jews is not actually one of the things that you can pray for and get? Hint: asking something "in [Jesus'] name" means something. Think of how a US ambassador, when speaking by the authority vested in him by his country as a representative of that country, can only say certain things.

Instead, I propose a much better model is that God wants us to cooperatively act with him, such that what happens is based on agreement between two autonomous parties. Here, we can think of God being happy with a restricted set of all possible choices (instead of just one), with humans being free to pick from the restricted set. We call these the "good" choices, the choices that are "in [Jesus'] name".

Your model for what Mt 21:22 is frankly, nonsensical. It would be ridiculous for a deity to give that kind of power to its creation. (Physical contradictions due to contradictory prayers would multiply.) It is simply too powerful. So, there needs to be some sort of logical restriction on that power. I've proposed the beginnings of that kind of restriction.

Luke said...

> And yet, in all of recorded history there has never been a case of an amputated limb being restored.

You might as well link to http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/ .

> It seems to me that there are only three possibilities:
>
> 1. No believer has ever asked for this.
>
> 2. There is some reason that limbs are off-limits.
>
> 3. Matthew 21:22 is wrong.

4. The greater the request, the greater the quality of the pistis required.

Let's not make faith/belief/trust (pistis) binary. There is a reason the saying "where there is a will, there is a way" exists. Again, it is nonsensical for God to grant any and all prayers. Your 2. looks too restrictive, unless you meant that there can be context-sensitive reasons for why limbs are off-limits.

> The difference between religion and science, it seems to me, is that science will unhesitatingly choose option 3 as the most likely, whereas religion will resist that conclusion with all its might. Religion will twist and squirm and invent elaborate excuses, anything to avoid saying, "Yeah, there's something wrong with our holy text."
>
> Science, by way of contrast, has no problem saying, "Yeah, there's something wrong with that theory."

Please do not use induction—that is, 'some' ⇒ 'all'. For example, see Peter Enns' recent do inerrantist biblical scholars employ “protective strategies” and “privilege insider claims”? — a new article you’ll want to read., as well as one big reason why so many young people are giving up on the Bible–and their faith.

Luke said...

> So the difference between science and religion, it seems to me, is something like this: in science, at the end of the day, after all the transients caused by politics and human foibles have settled (and they always do), the experimental data wins. In religion, it doesn't. In religion, something else, like scripture or other people's beliefs or striving for "goodness", can trump the data.

Does "the experimental data" 100% determine:

     1. the fundamental, ontological nature of reality
     2. how we as humans ought to act

?

For 1., I caution you with the following:

>>     In order to properly understand the nature of this argument, let us first derive from what has been recalled above the obvious lesson that (as already repeatedly noted) quantum mechanics is an essentially predictive, rather than descriptive, theory. What, in it, is truly robust is in no way its ontology, which, on the contrary, is either shaky or nonexistent. (On Physics and Philosophy, 148)

The distinction between "predictive" and "descriptive" is none other than the distinction between instrumentalism and realism. According to d'Espagnat, here and elsewhere, QM pushed science toward instrumentalism. Note that d'Espagnat wrote On Physics and Philosophy with the explicit purpose of updating philosophy with the latest knowledge from QM. I would also point interested readers to his In Search of Reality, where he talks about the search for that elusive "mind-independent reality" that is claimed to exist. It is more of a narrative, while On Physics and Philosophy is more textbook-like.

(Perhaps it would be good to make yet another blog post on instrumentalism vs. realism. I wrote a tutorial on the matter you might find helpful.)

For 2., we can consider Alexander Pope's "What is, is right.", from An Essay on Man. I might be taking it a bit out of context, but I think that's done a lot; the way I've often seen it used is to criticize the notion that "the evidence" tells us how we ought to live. Let us, at least for the moment, accept this.

What this means is that there are multiple ways that humans could choose to act, such that they can prefer one possible future over others. If that is the case, then is it possible that there is something awfully like dogma which causes us to pursue one kind of future over another? Ron, I think you would want to include in the list of dogmas, "Thou shalt not enslave another human being." Is that correct? Would you want to write that on stone, as a moral truth that is timeless?

Suppose you answered all three of the above questions with "yes". Then I wonder whether they are based merely in the contingent, collective desires of human beings, or whether there is some actual undergirding ontology—some ultimate reality—from which they actually flow.

Ron said...

> Your model for what Mt 21:22 is frankly, nonsensical.

I dunno, I think asking people who believe to pray for the restoration of amputated limbs, and to expect at least on of those prayers to be answered, is not absurd on its face. But fine, here are two theories:

1. The Resurrection actually happened

2. The Resurrection didn't actually happen, but believing that it did has beneficial effects despite the fact that it's a false belief

At least one of these must be false. (They might both be false, but they can't both be true.) Can you suggest an experiment that would determine which one is false?

> Does "the experimental data" 100% determine:
>
> 1. the fundamental, ontological nature of reality
> 2. how we as humans ought to act

No, not 100%, not yet. But the data do provide some pretty tight constraints on #1 and some general guidance on #2. And we're learning more all the time, so the answer may be different tomorrow.

Don Geddis said...

Somewhat off topic, but CNN just published a (long) front-page article on the journey of a Catholic (and his family) who slowly became an atheist.

Luke said...

@Ron:

> I dunno, I think asking people who believe to pray for the restoration of amputated limbs, and to expect at least on of those prayers to be answered, is not absurd on its face.

But this is not what I critiqued. I critiqued the idea that you asked for a pony. The idea that said verse on prayer means you could pray a pony into existence is incoherent if you make that a general principle. The closest coherent instances of it I can think of are the Star Trek: DS9 episode If Wishes Were Horses and the Star Trek: TNG episode Where No One Has Gone Before. Even those had some conceptual problems which were glossed over by the script writers.

> But fine, here are two theories:
>
> 1. The Resurrection actually happened
>
> 2. The Resurrection didn't actually happen, but believing that it did has beneficial effects despite the fact that it's a false belief
>
> At least one of these must be false. (They might both be false, but they can't both be true.) Can you suggest an experiment that would determine which one is false?

There would appear to be many historical facts which cannot be experimented upon in this way. But this doesn't keep one from figuring which explanation is most compelling. You were happy to extrapolate from extant evidence to the existence of the unobserved Oort cloud. And so, I don't see what's wrong with extrapolating from extant evidence to the warranted belief that Jesus was raised.

Suppose, though, that we did try to find an experiment. What would it look like? It would seem to have to be able to detect the "rules of reality" pre-resurrection, and compare them to the "rules of reality" post-resurrection. This is, of course, predicated upon the idea that the rules changed, which only some Christians accept. One of those is C.S. Lewis, who had a rule change be a central plot element to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; search for "deeper magic" in that page.

I don't know how one would empirically conduct such an experiment without a time traveling machine. If the rules are different now, and different everywhere, then we wouldn't know it without historical knowledge, just like if the whole universe turned red in BC 20,0000, we'd probably have no way of knowing it. Now, we do have historical knowledge, and so there is a kind of experiment which can be done—a forensic experiment. As an example of someone who discerned true aspects of human behavior from merely looking at the product of human culture, see René Girard § Psychology and neuroscience.

Are you with me so far?

Luke said...

@Ron:

> > Does "the experimental data" 100% determine:
> >
> > 1. the fundamental, ontological nature of reality
> > 2. how we as humans ought to act

> No, not 100%, not yet. But the data do provide some pretty tight constraints on #1 and some general guidance on #2. And we're learning more all the time, so the answer may be different tomorrow.

On 1., I wonder what you would make of Jolly Mathen's 2005 On the Inherent Incompleteness of Scientific Theories. A related paper, which you briefly commented on, is Thomas Breuer's The Impossibility of Accurate State Self-Measurements (pdf). This is kind of a big issue, and so perhaps it would be better to bracket it until both of us choose to dump a bunch of time into it.

On 2., I wonder if you can demonstrate that your supposition is probably true. The first thought that springs to mind is that you seem to be relying on induction. The second is that it would seem weird to be in a state of knowledge where "What is, is right." Doesn't that seem problematic at all, to you? One of the first thoughts I would have upon entering a world or culture which accepts "What is, is right.", would be that a huge amount of manipulation is going on. Furthermore, this seems more like a philosophical matter than a scientific one.

Perhaps most importantly for right now, there is the question of where we get the (100% – X%) guidance from, for the time when "the experimental data" cannot 100% determine. One way to start this would be for you to answer the questions I previously asked:

> Luke: If that is the case, then is it possible that there is something awfully like dogma which causes us to pursue one kind of future over another? Ron, I think you would want to include in the list of dogmas, "Thou shalt not enslave another human being." Is that correct? Would you want to write that on stone, as a moral truth that is timeless?

Ron said...

> I critiqued the idea that you asked for a pony.

Yes. So did I:

"Well, duh, of course there's no pony. That's exactly what the theory predicts."

So you're attacking a straw man here.

>> Can you suggest an experiment that would determine which one is false?
>There would appear to be many historical facts which cannot be experimented upon in this way.

Really? Like what?

> You were happy to extrapolate from extant evidence to the existence of the unobserved Oort cloud.

Yes, but the difference is that I don't *care* if the Oort cloud exists or not. And the *reason* I don't care is precisely because it is impossible (with current technology) to do an experiment that would definitively tell us one way or the other.

By way of contrast, the reality of the Resurrection matters a great deal to you. I'm not saying there's anything necessarily wrong with that, just that it's a difference between science and religion.

> Suppose, though, that we did try to find an experiment. What would it look like?

I already suggested one. You didn't like it.

> you seem to be relying on induction

Perish the thought! I'm a Popperian!

> this seems more like a philosophical matter than a scientific one.

It's both. Philosophy can be informed by science.

> answer the questions I previously asked

Yes, yes, I still owe you an answer to that. Next blog post, I promise.

Luke said...

@Ron:

> So you're attacking a straw man here.

No, not really. Your reason was not incoherence of the idea that you can ask for a pony, taken to its logical conclusion of everything getting what they ask for. Instead, your reason was because you have to truly believe, and you don't. I'm challenging you to defend that you even presented a coherent concept, before one gets to the 'believe' status.

> Really? Like what?

That a person named 'Paul', who wrote several influential letters, existed in spacetime.

> Yes, but the difference is that I don't *care* if the Oort cloud exists or not. And the *reason* I don't care is precisely because it is impossible (with current technology) to do an experiment that would definitively tell us one way or the other.

Why do you care whether the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened? Is it merely caring-by-proxy, because people you would like to understand happen to care?

> By way of contrast, the reality of the Resurrection matters a great deal to you. I'm not saying there's anything necessarily wrong with that, just that it's a difference between science and religion.

The reason it matters is that the truth-value critically determines human action. For example, if resurrection from the dead does not happen, coercive power probably wins. If the State can threaten me to do something both you and I think is grossly immoral, giving me the option to do it or to die (perhaps the State will kill my family as well), then whether or not I bow to this power could easily depend on my thoughts about resurrection. After all, sans resurrection, perhaps I can fight the evil better by making the moral compromise.

I am also curious about the question of whether we could possibly be at the place we are now, in Western Civilization, without strong belief in the resurrection. I've excerpted before the bit from A Far Glory about Western individualism being a radical departure from "the common pattern [which] has the individual tightly bonded within his community" (101). Take your belief that the bad guys in Star Wars are the Rebels, not the Empire. Is it all that wrong if only one innocent Rebel is executed by the Empire, if it preserves order? Now switch that Rebel for Jesus, and the Empire for Pilate (Rome) with Jewish threat of rebellion.

These are no idle questions. They reach into the very foundation of the tremendous liberty you and I enjoy, today. That liberty could not have been achieved by just any old beliefs. No, it is a very precarious liberty. If we do not properly understand what it took to bring it into existence, can we keep it from passing back out of existence?

> I already suggested one. You didn't like it.

Remind me, please.

> Perish the thought! I'm a Popperian!

Labels don't guarantee anything. :-p

> It's both. Philosophy can be informed by science.

Yes, and I want to dig into the philosophical aspect. Which apparently will happen in an upcoming blog post? :-)

Ron said...

> I'm challenging you to defend that you even presented a coherent concept

Sorry, praying for a pony is a perfectly coherent concept. So is praying for amputated limbs to be healed, which I think is not only coherent, it seems to me *legitimate* thing to pray for. (Actually, even a pony might be a legitimate thing to pray for if I were seven. I don't recall Jesus's offer coming with age restrictions.)

> That a person named 'Paul', who wrote several influential letters, existed in spacetime.

Well, *someone* had to have written them, and one of the letters is signed Paul:

"Phmn1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow labourer,"

So we may as well call him Paul.

> Why do you care whether the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened?

Because one of the extant theories is that I have an immortal soul and if I don't avail myself of the salvation offered by the Resurrection that I will spend eternity in the fiery furnace where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth (Mat 13:42). If that's true, I'd certainly want to know it.

Another reason I care is that if this story isn't true we ought to stop telling it to children because it's pretty scary.

> I am also curious about the question of whether we could possibly be at the place we are now, in Western Civilization, without strong belief in the resurrection.

That's another essay. But whether or not the Resurrection myth helped us get where we are doesn't necessarily mean that it's not time to discard it, or at least acknowledge that it's a myth.

>> I already suggested one. You didn't like it.
> Remind me, please.

Restore an amputated limb through prayer.

But I'm not too particular about the specific miracle. There are many other things I would settle for. Jesus had a suggestion: "if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done." Casting mountains into the sea seems more frivolous to me than restoring lost limbs (to say nothing of more destructive) but it would certainly be a convincing demonstration.

Luke said...

@Ron:

> Sorry, praying for a pony is a perfectly coherent concept.

True. But now give everyone pony-praying-power. Does that mean that Hitler could pray for all the Jews to disappear and have that happen? I'm guessing that the concept you espoused is only coherent because you didn't take it to its logical conclusions.

> So is praying for amputated limbs to be healed, which I think is not only coherent, it seems to me *legitimate* thing to pray for.

This is better than the pony, but it still requires actual analysis. For example, does this mean I can saw off my limb, then pray for it to be re-grown, and have that happen? Furthermore, does it mesh with the idea that God is training us up to be like him? After all, praying things that are "in [Jesus'] name" and "according to his will" are important qualifiers that can only be dismissed if you don't want to talk about the most probable meaning of the text.

> Well, *someone* had to have written them, and one of the letters is signed Paul:

If you really want to, we can Saul Kripke's Naming and Necessity, to show the importance of proper names and how one cannot get by with Bertrand Russell's descriptivist theory of names. But that's a bit dry and while I know a bit about each, learning more about them is not at the top of my priority list or anywhere near the top! So, instead of being pedantic, how about we consider this as a valid answer to your question? You wanted an example and I gave you one; what's the next step in your argument?

> Because one of the extant theories is that I have an immortal soul and if I don't avail myself of the salvation offered by the Resurrection that I will spend eternity in the fiery furnace where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth (Mat 13:42). If that's true, I'd certainly want to know it.

Given that there are annihilationists, universalists, and those who hold to eternal conscious torment, this seems somewhat orthogonal to Jesus' resurrection. If you disagree, perhaps you could explain why in a bit of detail? I was surprised by the jump from Jesus' resurrection to the discussion about hell.

> That's another essay. But whether or not the Resurrection myth helped us get where we are doesn't necessarily mean that it's not time to discard it, or at least acknowledge that it's a myth.

No, I think we need to do more than that. I think we ought to root out falsehoods and attempt to reconstruct without them. So if modern liberal democracy with solid individual rights is impossible sans resurrection, we should get rid of them. Otherwise, what you're saying is that it's ok to build a society on falsehoods, and I think that is an extremely dangerous belief. I claim that we must root out falsehoods not only from our beliefs, but from our ideological DNA. Purge them all! And then see if what is left is any good.

> Restore an amputated limb through prayer.

How is this an experiment which demonstrates that Jesus was raised from the dead? I fail to see the causal intelligibility.

Ron said...


> True. But now give everyone pony-praying-power. Does that mean that Hitler could pray for all the Jews to disappear and have that happen?

[voice = 7-year-old]
No. If everyone has pony-praying power then Hitler could only pray for a pony. Duh!
[/voice]

Seriously, though, figuring out the logical coherence of prayer is frankly not my problem because I'm not the one making the claim. Jesus *specifically* cited moving a mountain into the ocean as an example of a legitimate thing to pray for, and extrapolating from there to ponies and limb regeneration is not that much of a leap. In fact, how do you know that Hitler *didn't* ask God to kill the Jews? It's not like doing something like that is out of character for Him.

> For example, does this mean I can saw off my limb, then pray for it to be re-grown, and have that happen?

Sure, why not?

> Furthermore, does it mesh with the idea that God is training us up to be like him?

Sure, why not? To be like God means to be reborn. Why not practice by having pieces of ourselves be reborn?

> You wanted an example and I gave you one

No, you didn't. I wanted an example of a historical event that is NOT subject to experimental scrutiny. But the existence of Paul *is* subject to experimental scrutiny. We have *evidence* of Paul's existence: his writings, one of which is signed, and the rest which can be attributed to him by textual analysis.

You should watch this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LW06dav7KA

> this seems somewhat orthogonal to Jesus' resurrection.

You can't be serious. The whole *point* of Jesus's resurrection was to redeem our sins and hence save us from hell.

> How is this an experiment which demonstrates that Jesus was raised from the dead?

Because if Jesus is still performing miracles he can't still be dead. Isn't that obvious?

Luke said...

@Ron:

> Seriously, though, figuring out the logical coherence of prayer is frankly not my problem because I'm not the one making the claim.

An excellent way to discredit one's opponent is to make his/her arguments out to be ridiculous, when they aren't necessarily so. Now, this "excellent way" is not a truth-seeking operation, but it is rhetorically powerful.

I will push back against "because I'm not the one making the claim": my claim is that part of respecting other people as human beings is to try to make sense of their attempts to make sense of reality. I claim that if you do not treat other human beings this way, you (i) dehumanize them; (ii) thwart idea-ism. Again and again Ron, I assume you actually follow idea-ism, and then you say things which seem antithetical to it. I don't understand.

> Jesus *specifically* cited moving a mountain into the ocean as an example of a legitimate thing to pray for, and extrapolating from there to ponies and limb regeneration is not that much of a leap.

One would have to analyze what it means to have enough pistis. I say pistis and not 'faith'—do you know why? (I did recently send you an email with subject "Two kinds of 'faith'".) I claim that the word 'trust' is much better, and I would argue that one can have justified trust and unjustified trust. Justified trust leads to fantastic consequences; unjustified trust can easily lead to disastrous consequences.

I challenge you to show anywhere in the NT that a compelling model of "having enough pistis" merely means "believing real hard". Suppose you find it. I challenge you to show due diligence, that this model stands up when one tries to expand it into other parts of the NT. This is the model I have said I use myself, which properly mitigates the criticism of cherry-picking. That is: one must cherry-pick reality to start rendering it intelligible; however one expects to expand out one's "islands of intelligibility", accounting for intransigent phenomena like the ultraviolet catastrophe along the way.

> > For example, does this mean I can saw off my limb, then pray for it to be re-grown, and have that happen?

> Sure, why not?

That seems like a nonsensical world to me. Does it seem entirely sensible to you? Would you like to live in such a world? (If so, one is being created for you: increasingly realistic virtual reality.)

> > Furthermore, does it mesh with the idea that God is training us up to be like him?

> Sure, why not? To be like God means to be reborn. Why not practice by having pieces of ourselves be reborn?

Pieces of ourselves do get reborn; if I cut myself, my body heals. You, on the other hand, seem to want a huge, supernatural-type leap from what is currently possible to limb restoration. If the idea is for us to learn the intricacies of reality better and better, such irrational leaps would seem to be just the wrong type of thing. They would seem to destroy intelligibility. They would create those gaps associated with god-of-the-gaps.

Luke said...

@Ron, cont.:

> No, you didn't. I wanted an example of a historical event that is NOT subject to experimental scrutiny. But the existence of Paul *is* subject to experimental scrutiny. We have *evidence* of Paul's existence: his writings, one of which is signed, and the rest which can be attributed to him by textual analysis.

Tell me about a historical event that "is NOT subject to experimental scrutiny". You seem to be using 'experimental' pretty freely, here. When I ask you to try a different interpretation of reality with no new evidence, you tend to balk. But in this case, "textual analysis" is precisely "try a different interpretation". So I'm somewhat confused by your stance.

If I do try and work with this update to my model of your stance, I don't see why you reject evidences of Jesus' death and resurrection out-of-hand. But perhaps you don't reject them out-of-hand? Perhaps you've thoroughly analyzed all such evidences you could get your hands on? I personally haven't done a thorough analysis, because I am more interested in the after-affects, in the here-and-now, if they can be somehow discerned.

> You should watch this:

> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LW06dav7KA

Seriously? I return you to my discussion of "try a different interpretation", and how in every situation I can recall, when I pushed in this direction, you required "evidence". There seems to be a disconnect between the two of us, here.

> You can't be serious. The whole *point* of Jesus's resurrection was to redeem our sins and hence save us from hell.

Please show the causal intelligibility that links Jesus' resurrection to saving us from hell. Remember, you're big on causal intelligibility, as well as empirical connections (those two things appear to properly restrict 'intelligibility' to your 'reason' from EE&R—correct me if I'm wrong). Christians definitely say that Jesus' death and resurrection are important, but I wouldn't peg you as someone who would believe that cause-and-effect story. It strikes me that you would require a more detailed explanation of how the cause could possibly connect to the effect. And until then, I would expect you to be your typical skeptical self. Once again, I am confused.

> Because if Jesus is still performing miracles he can't still be dead. Isn't that obvious?

And how would you know, from the magical restoration of an amputated limb, that it is Jesus performing the magic? What would constitute proper epistemic warrant for you to make this connection? Once again, I require causal intelligibility, because you yourself require it of me.

Ron said...

> my claim is that part of respecting other people as human beings is to try to make sense of their attempts to make sense of reality.

Trying != succeeding, Yoda notwithstanding. Believe it or not, I really am trying.

> One would have to analyze what it means to have enough pistis.

No, one would not. Why? Because the fact that no mountain has *ever* been flung into the sea is evidence that *no one* has enough pistis to pull that off, no matter what pistis actually is. You could substitute *any* word for "pistis" and the result would be the same.

BTW, Jesus actually told us how much is enough in Mat17:20.

> I challenge you to show anywhere in the NT that a compelling model of "having enough pistis" merely means "believing real hard".

That's hard to do because I don't read Greek so I can't tell you where (or even if) the word "pistis" appears. But the NT is chock full of references to (whatever Greek word is translated as) belief. Mat 9:28-30, Mark 9:23, Mark 11:24, Mark 16:16-17...

> And how would you know, from the magical restoration of an amputated limb, that it is Jesus performing the magic?

I wouldn't. But whatever it is that causes miraculous physical effects that discriminate according to belief in Jesus might as well be called Jesus. It's kind of like asking how we can really know if Shakespeare's plays were written by Shakespeare of by someone else who just happened to be called Shakespeare.

>>> For example, does this mean I can saw off my limb, then pray for it to be re-grown, and have that happen?
>> Sure, why not?
> That seems like a nonsensical world to me. Does it seem entirely sensible to you?

Of course not. But the concept of an omnipotent deity who transcends space and time being *dead* (which is a pre-requisite for being resurrected) doesn't seem entirely sensible to me either.

Look, you've asked me to try to make sense of your worldview. That requires me to place myself in a mindset that is very foreign to me. I'm sorry if the results are not entirely to your liking, but I really am just trying to follow your directions here.

> if I cut myself, my body heals.

Yes, so does mine, despite the fact that I don't believe in Jesus. And so do Muslims and Jews and Hindus despite the fact that none of them believe in Jesus.

> You, on the other hand, seem to want a huge, supernatural-type leap from what is currently possible to limb restoration.

Sure, because that is what the Bible promises, so that is what the theory predicts. So this is an entirely reasonable demand from the point of view of science. Keep in mind that the topic at hand is not whether Christianity is right or wrong, but rather what is the difference between religion and science.

> Tell me about a historical event that "is NOT subject to experimental scrutiny".

That depends on what you mean by "historical." There are lots of past events that are not subject to such scrutiny. For example, on September 17, 1972, I either said the word "cat" or I did not. I can't imagine any experiment that would determine which is the case. But I'm not sure if you would call that "historical." Historical usually means recorded in some manner, so in that case there is always some evidence to be considered.

> why you reject evidences of Jesus' death and resurrection out-of-hand

I don't reject it out of hand, I rejected it after very careful consideration and study. I did quite a deep dive into the history of how the Bible came to be written and it is just clear as crystal (to me) that the NT is a myth.

> I am more interested in the after-affects, in the here-and-now, if they can be somehow discerned.

Yes, so am I frankly. And I am particularly interested in discerning the differences between the effects of the (alleged) resurrection and the effects of *belief* in the resurrection. The latter are indisputably real.

Ron said...


> Seriously?

Yes. But I should have mentioned to start at the 1 minute mark.

> Please show the causal intelligibility that links Jesus' resurrection to saving us from hell.

I can't show you causal intelligibility because I don't think it's causally intelligible. But I can cite authority: Mark 16:16. Rom4:25, 5:1, 6:4.

Luke said...

@Ron:

> Trying != succeeding, Yoda notwithstanding. Believe it or not, I really am trying.

Well, have I convinced you that you need to think through Pony-Power more? I did give you two Star Trek episodes where the idea of Pony-Power is explored a bit. Incidentally, this reminds me of Ender's Game and the following books; I decided I didn't want to deal with the Pony-Power which started with the fourth book, Children of the Mind.

The general strategy I try to imagine is not just propositions being true, but what kind of world would exist where those propositions are true, and true everywhere, not just for you. It is questionable that one can even know what a proposition means, without seeing it embodied in a world. For more on this idea, see Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, as well as the article The Computational Theory of the Laws of Nature. You might like the latter, given that it's mostly computer science.

> > One would have to analyze what it means to have enough pistis.

> No, one would not. Why? Because the fact that no mountain has *ever* been flung into the sea is evidence that *no one* has enough pistis to pull that off, no matter what pistis actually is. You could substitute *any* word for "pistis" and the result would be the same.

Yes, that means nobody has had enough pistis (note the hyperlink, and what is there) to move a mountain. It doesn't mean that lesser amounts of pistis can't do things.

> BTW, Jesus actually told us how much is enough in Mat17:20.

Go ahead and provide an interpretation for that verse such that I can employ it. Until you can, I will declare that I really don't know what it means, other than some vague ideas. I cannot apply that verse to reality, at least not yet. And so, I work with what I do understand.

> That's hard to do because I don't read Greek so I can't tell you where (or even if) the word "pistis" appears. But the NT is chock full of references to (whatever Greek word is translated as) belief. Mat 9:28-30, Mark 9:23, Mark 11:24, Mark 16:16-17...

Did you ever notice that I hyperlink my first use of words like pistis? Here, I've included the hyperlink multiple times for your convenience. The verb form is pisteuō. That hyperlink is also helpful in precisely this domain. I do try to use hyperlinks strategically, you know.

> > And how would you know, from the magical restoration of an amputated limb, that it is Jesus performing the magic?

> I wouldn't. But whatever it is that causes miraculous physical effects that discriminate according to belief in Jesus might as well be called Jesus. It's kind of like asking how we can really know if Shakespeare's plays were written by Shakespeare of by someone else who just happened to be called Shakespeare.

What do you make of Mt 24:23–25 and Rev 12:11-15? I don't trust raw power; I hope you wouldn't either. So I'd like to see a bit more nuance about your attribution of causes to agents.

Luke said...

@Ron, cont.:

> Of course not. But the concept of an omnipotent deity who transcends space and time being *dead* (which is a pre-requisite for being resurrected) doesn't seem entirely sensible to me either.

Are you trying to find the rules of that "doesn't seem entirely sensible"—let's call them "not-quite-sensible rules", or NQSRs for short—and apply them to other areas? I would get this kind of attempt at pattern-matching. But if you are doing this, then you ought to be able to start articulating what those NQSRs are. Then we can examine them to look for good aspects and bad aspects.

> Look, you've asked me to try to make sense of your worldview. That requires me to place myself in a mindset that is very foreign to me. I'm sorry if the results are not entirely to your liking, but I really am just trying to follow your directions here.

Ok, I'll do a reset of my expectations, here. I thought you'd see the inherent problems, but then again I've probably tried to think through the prayer issue more rigorously and extensively than you have. I have talked to other atheists about it, multiple times. None of them has cared to actually try and articulate their NQSRs, and arrive at something which can possibly constitute a coherent magic system for a universe. (Indeed, fantasy magic systems could be quite helpful for this discourse, because they try very hard for them to be intelligible.)

> > You, on the other hand, seem to want a huge, supernatural-type leap from what is currently possible to limb restoration.

> Sure, because that is what the Bible promises, so that is what the theory predicts. So this is an entirely reasonable demand from the point of view of science. Keep in mind that the topic at hand is not whether Christianity is right or wrong, but rather what is the difference between religion and science.

Is this what the Bible promises? This seems to depend, at least, on whether there is "justified true pistis", like there is "justified true belief".

> > Tell me about a historical event that "is NOT subject to experimental scrutiny".

> That depends on what you mean by "historical." There are lots of past events that are not subject to such scrutiny. For example, on September 17, 1972, I either said the word "cat" or I did not. I can't imagine any experiment that would determine which is the case. But I'm not sure if you would call that "historical." Historical usually means recorded in some manner, so in that case there is always some evidence to be considered.

Given this, I don't understand your "I wanted an example of a historical event that is NOT subject to experimental scrutiny." That seems tautologically impossible, for anything other than the category of whether you said "cat". This seems like a matter of definition, not evidence.

> I don't reject it out of hand, I rejected it after very careful consideration and study. I did quite a deep dive into the history of how the Bible came to be written and it is just clear as crystal (to me) that the NT is a myth.

Would you be willing to share the EE&R you employed?

Luke said...

@Ron, cont.:

> > I am more interested in the after-affects, in the here-and-now, if they can be somehow discerned.

> Yes, so am I frankly. And I am particularly interested in discerning the differences between the effects of the (alleged) resurrection and the effects of *belief* in the resurrection. The latter are indisputably real.

In that case, would you respond to what I said near the beginning of this thread?

> ... > Suppose, though, that we did try to find an experiment. What would it look like? It would seem to have to be able to detect the "rules of reality" pre-resurrection, and compare them to the "rules of reality" post-resurrection. This is, of course, predicated upon the idea that the rules changed, which only some Christians accept. One of those is C.S. Lewis, who had a rule change be a central plot element to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; search for "deeper magic" in that page.
> ... >
> ... > I don't know how one would empirically conduct such an experiment without a time traveling machine. If the rules are different now, and different everywhere, then we wouldn't know it without historical knowledge, just like if the whole universe turned red in BC 20,0000, we'd probably have no way of knowing it. Now, we do have historical knowledge, and so there is a kind of experiment which can be done—a forensic experiment. As an example of someone who discerned true aspects of human behavior from merely looking at the product of human culture, see René Girard § Psychology and neuroscience.

If you don't think this is a good approach, I'd like to hear why.

> > Seriously?

> Yes. But I should have mentioned to start at the 1 minute mark.

What in that did you think I don't understand?

> > Please show the causal intelligibility that links Jesus' resurrection to saving us from hell.

> I can't show you causal intelligibility because I don't think it's causally intelligible. But I can cite authority: Mark 16:16. Rom4:25, 5:1, 6:4.

Which authority do you cite and why do you trust that authority? I remind you that scripture frequently doesn't have just one interpretation. So why do you pick the one you have? For example, Mark 16:16 employs the word pisteuō, which you can see by visiting the first link. What do you think that word means? Does it mean merely believing in a set of timeless truths, or do you think it's more like trusting your buddy? It seems that "believe" and "trust" have important differences. Would you agree, or disagree? If you agree, I'd like to hear how you'd interpret that verse differently, if you went with "trust" vs. "believe".

DJ Penton said...

I have not read through all the comments. Probably what I am about to say has been covered by somebody already.

To cut to the chase: pretty much everyone's grounds for belief in science is testimony rather than evidence. That includes scientists. Convictions are based on reading research papers, talking to colleagues, etc. No scientist has the time to reproduce more than a few experiments directly in his/her field.

I do not claim that such scientific testimony should be rejected. I accept most of it on a kind of trust, and because I observe technological change. And I admit that religious attitudes toward scripture as inherently inerrant are fairly different than reasonable attitudes toward scientific writings.

I am agnostic, and very interested in science and philosophy of science. As I write this I am sitting across from my library with various works by Popper, Lakatos, Quine, Kuhn, Feyerabend, and a score of others. all of which I have attempted to understand.

So although I "believe" in science, what pisses me off is people who rail against anything they consider unscientific because (as they are prone to say) "the evidence is right there in front of you".

No, it's not. What is right there in front of most people is an article in Scientific American. Their own grounds for belief are pretty much based on trust.

Oh yeah, I know - there is peer review, results must be reproducible, etc. But think a bit about the sociology of science. I am not a social constructionist by any means, but constant pressure to make the academy the servant of industry has an effect. Read, for example, James Robert Brown's 2008 piece in "The Challenge of the Social and the Pressure of Practice: Science and Values Revisited" (U. of Pittsburgh Press). It's online; see the chapter called "The Community of Science". Brown (a philosopher of science at U of Toronto) discusses the utter subversion of scientific research by pharmaceutical companies.

And, it seems to me, that orthodoxy in science, and bitter condemnation of challenges to orthodoxy, have pretty much the same smell as religious fanaticism.

So, if this kind of ruination of science is possible, and given that most of us have to take scientific claims on trust (I won't say "faith" I guess), some caution at least is in order when blasting religious belief, or the attitudes of, say, anti-vaxxers.

None of which makes the Genesis account of creation literally true, of course. LOL.

- DJP -

Ron said...

@DJP:

That is a very good point, but there is actually a lot of evidence that what scientists say is true that is directly accessible to anyone who cares to check. See here and here for two examples.

Publius said...

The Great Pumpkin and Sincerity

@Ron
And yet, in all of recorded history there has never been a case of an amputated limb being restored. That is rather curious. It seems to me that there are only three possibilities:

There is usually another possibility - which is you didn't think of all of the possibilities.

1. No believer has ever asked for this.

This is more likely than you estimate. Jesus isn't the Miracle Arm-Grower (nor is He the Miracle Caterer). I have a scar on the end of one of my fingers - it has never occurred to me to pray to Jesus for it to be removed.

2. There is some reason that limbs are off-limits.

If God cannot be proven by scientific methods (as such proof would eliminate faith, then religion is not useful, ...) then if He performs a miracle, He must do it in accordance with natural laws. A sudden rash of limb regrowth would be violating natural laws.

How about cancer? There are well documented cases where
1. a person prayed to be healed
2. a person did not pray to be healed
... and in the next checkup the cancer had disappeared. This is explained by the two persons as:
1. a miracle
2. spontaneous remission
Since 1 looks just like 2, we can't discern a difference and therefore can't discern if natural laws were violated.

Now consider the rescue of 18-month-old Lily Groesbeck on March 8 in Spanish Fork, Utah. Police and firefighters had been called to a car that was upside down and partially submerged in the Spanish Fork river. The rescuers heard a distinct female voice from the car say, "Help me! Help us!". Four officers flipped the car over. Lily was found inside strapped into her child safety seat (she had been upside down for 14 hours in frigid temperatures).

Who had said, "Help me! Help us!"? Lily was unconscious and not breathing. Her mother had died on impact.

But wait, there's more - there is body camera video of the actual rescue. If you watch the third video, at 2:01 an offier says, "We're helping! We're coming!". At 4:30, Lily is pulled out of the car. You don't hear the "Help me! Help us!".

In the end, you are left with doubt - or faith.

Publius said...

The Atheist Meta-Problem

Atheists will read the Bible (at various level of rigorousness). The construct an unskilled religion as a straw-man to burn down. So we get the usual objections:
1. Bible verse Set A{...} contradicts Set B{...}
2. Bible verse X: God does something objectionable
3. Bible verse Y: God tells people to do something objectionable
4. Logical contradictions in unskilled religion
5. ...and more

These objections are raised to a believer in a skilled religion with a certain smugness, an air of intellectual superiority as if to say, "You religious rube, I read your book and I found all these problems! There is no proof of God! Your religion is logically contradictory!"

The skilled believer responds
A. Yes, we already know that
B. You do not understand my skilled religion; it is not your unskilled religion
C. You might try reading some of the Bible commentary that has been published over the past 2000 years.

Now let's consider and example. Say, the efficacy of prayer in unskilled Christianity vs. skilled Christianity.

Unskilled understanding
Obviously, someone - somewhere - prayed for an amputated limb to be restored. Since no limbs have been sprouting, the Bible and unskilled Christianity must be false.

Skilled understanding:
One may categorize prayer as blessing and adoration, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise. "Petition" and "intercession" would be in question here.

Note that when Jesus did healings, He didn't heal everyone in the crowd. Remember this for later.

Why do we complain of not being heard? Other prayers - blessing and adoration, thanksgiving, praise - we don't worry so much that our prayers are acceptable to Him. Yet, for a prayer of petition, you would demand to see results? If our prayer is "unproductive," is it useless?

The answer is that our prayer is in cooperation with Christ, His providence, and His plan of love for men.

Now back to Jesus performing healings. What purpose might that have furthered? Fiat voluntas tua.

Commander Pirx said...

I have some additional thoughts which are going around in my head a long time. First I think the term religion needs some clarification. I suspect that religion and science share the same origin, the search for truth. But religion is metaphorical looking inside and science is the search outside. While religion explores the conditio humana, the humanity in itself, does science ignoring this bias and searchs for objectivity. Therefore science will never be capable to tell you, what to do. Science cannot give you some guidence in the meaning of a personal advice. Science is not interested in you as a person. But religion is. It's more then social, it's entirely personal.

But then there are churches. And I think, contrary to what has been widely claimed, churches and religion are very different. A true believer is a seeker, a scientist of the soul. It has open questions, has doubts and evolves. Most churches are afraid of people with doubts and dissenting opinions. A church tries to establish a dogma, tries to be the only legitimate authority. A church is afraid of other churches and fight them. The reward for accepting the dogma is the promise of salvation. It's a simple deal. But most people are confused about the difference between a church and religion. In fact they can't see a difference. We are all somewhat brainwashed in this respect.

So science and religion have something in common. But science and churches are very contrary. Science and religion (in the sense described above) are a permanent revolution. Everything is changing and fragile. But churches defend changes. They try to keep the status quo. I assume that ron talks about churches. And in my opinion the main difference between science and churches is not the way how they work. It is the task in our society which they perform. A dogma exerts a stabilising effect on a community. It provides a clear guideline and covers important social aspects in our life. It creates trust and confidence and provides meaning. These are valuable aspects in a society. But as I said it has it's price. With a dominant dogma (of a church or cult) cultural, social and technological development is stalled.

It seems to me, that the gap is not been caused by different ways to reason or to prove something. Also theologians apply logical conclusion dependend from there beliefs. And even a mathematician has to believe in the deepest axioms in some way. Indeed we need a starting point to think. The question is, what is our purpose? To answer this question is your personal responsibility. No one can make this decision for you. Neither a church, a religion, the sciences nor your parents. Or in Rons words, this is the burden of being human.