Monday, 15 May 2006

Conversations with the Priest: Reason

The Priest: I don't think there's any such thing as an atheist. Everyone believes in God. I knew someone who claimed to be an atheist once. He claimed not to believe in God despite all our conversations. But we went to the beach one day, and he got caught in a rip and found himself being dragged out to sea. And guess what -- he called on God to save him. So much for atheism.

Me: For my part, I don't think there's any such thing as a believer in God. For example, you think it's terrible to kill someone. Why would that be, when their spirit just goes somewhere else? Secretly, I think you suspect there's no life after this, and you muster your faith every day just to keep that suspicion at bay. And you're right that people do turn to religion in times of crisis. That's because that's when people reason most poorly.

Priest: You think reason is good, and it is, as long as you listen to God. You need to remember that the foolishness of God is wiser than men.

Me: Unless God doesn't exist, in which case all the foolishness belongs to yourself.

16 comments:

  1. If I don't beleive in God but I am trying the best I can to live a moral life, help others, work on improving myself etc. what kind of God (if God did end up existing) would care if I beleived in him or not if I were doing these things? Not any kind of God I want to spend eternity with.

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  2. But I do have to ask Daniel... First, why did it take you so long to react to the obvious logical inconsistancies inherent in any system that relies on Faith and what set of events led to this change.

    Second, why so much anger about it.

    You said,

    For my part, I don't think there's any such thing as a believer in God. For example, you think it's terrible to kill someone. Why would that be, when their spirit just goes somewhere else? Secretly, I think you suspect there's no life after this, and you muster your faith every day just to keep that suspicion at bay.

    If someone is a believer in God that belief is based on faith not facts. Therefor they think it is bad to kill someone because God says it is bad. Also, having crisis of faith is part of faith. Adults who believe in God question that faith all the time.

    I think this is part of why Amys thread was bothering me so much. She was trying to prove something that is ment to be beleived on faith. If you can prove it you no longer need faith.

    Of course, I can't live with that kind of looping logic which is why I left the church.

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  3. Do you mind if I butt in on that? Just a little little thing...

    "If you can prove it you no longer need faith."

    ...it may simply be a case of using one word to describe two concepts, but I disagree with this definition of faith. Or rather, if I say I have 'faith', I mean something quite different.

    For me, faith is "believing what my reason has accepted as fact but which my emotions have since hijacked." It's the ability to tell my EMOTIONS where to get off.

    For example, you can reason with a person that they are probably not going to die in an aeroplane-- but once they're on the plane, their emotions get in the way and they become convinced of their imminent death. They lose faith in air travel.

    In any case, the bible tells me over and over again to 'get wisdom' and 'test everything' ...if my beliefs were based on blind faith, that'd be like a sin or something, I guess...

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  4. Thats a very good point Amy. I do agree that a person of faith, as they mature in that faith, must move beyond blind acceptance and find concrete examples of the "good fruit" coming from thier beleif system. I did say "Adults who believe in God question that faith all the time."

    In any case I have nothing but respect for people who have found any system which makes them stretch to be the best people they can be and brings joy into thier lives and the lives of the people they love.

    Amy, I hope you will accept that I have not ment to be rude in any way. I love when people can discuss different ideas and opinions without closing thier minds to the other side and I truly have appreciated the comments from you.I just think that in the end you cannot "prove" that god exists. I have never said that that means that he doesn't exist.

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  5. Hey, not a problem :) I didn't think you were being rude at all, I just wanted to comment on the way you guys bandy around the word 'faith' like it was necessarily blind or ignored reason.

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  6. Y'all are so nice around here. I do appreciate it, especially the absence of trolls. Respect and civility on the Net! How 'bout that!

    But there's a time for stompin', and I've got my boots on.

    I have elsewhere defined faith as "the willingness to suspend critical reasoning facilities in the service of a belief for which there is no adequate evidence". If you need to exercise faith in a theory, it means you've got a poorly supported theory, but that you've chosen to believe anyway. If you are a scientist, this is something that you Shouldn't Do.

    This is why I have a problem with 'faith' and why I (like Jeff) contrast it with 'facts'. I personally view faith as an unacceptable kind of bias that priviledges one's own current view, and as a critical thinker, I am always trying to identify my sources of bias and purge them.

    Does someone with faith ignore reason? Depends on what they do when they get a fact that conflicts with faith. The right thing to do would be to go with the facts and dump the faith. Or, if you think the two can be harmonised, then go for it, but don't knock yourself out. You run the risk of 'true believer syndrome'.

    So, Jeff: why did it take me so long to dump faith? I guess there were a few things.

    1. Having belief was important to me. It made me a part of a tradition that streched back through my whole family. It was a part of my heritage. It made me different from people who weren't in the Church, and who lived in 'terrible' ways and made 'bad' decisions (according to The Priest). Hard to dump all that. I guess I was afraid.

    2. Related: I was reasonably happy in the Church, although I sometimes felt exasperated by the parochial or downright frightening attitudes of some of its members. Most people were fine, though, and in fact there are more liberal-minded LDS that you'd imagine, even though they do tend to hide among the predominantly conservative congregation. I had it pretty good. I was teaching Sunday School, I was directing the choir, which I enjoyed. I had some small status, and that's a good way to keep someone in line.

    3. I thought I had some very good reasons for my beliefs. After all, I'd had many spiritual feelings and experiences, and I took these as evidence for my view. I didn't think it was blind faith at all. I liked the idea of being 'intelligently faithful', in the best BYU tradition. I also liked Paul's verse "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." Only later did I learn that feelings and experiences are anecdotal evidence, and not valid.

    4. Faith prevented me from seeing or acknowledging inconsistencies. Choosing to believe in a theory makes the theory seem (surprise!) more believable.

    5. Along with this, I was more committed to the Church than to the facts. Actually, at the time, I didn't think there was a difference between the two. But that did mean that if a contrary fact hit me over the head (say, Noah's Ark being too small), I would dismiss the fact, thinking, "Well, that fact doesn't necessarily mean my ideas are wrong. People will learn more later, or the person reporting the fact was biased."

    6. I was not encouraged to learn about science or to think critically. Even during my university education, I did not really try to learn about these things.

    Then I found out about critical thinking and cognitive bias. My doctoral studies helped me learn about science, what makes a good theory, what good evidence looks like, and how to design an experiment. Also, I realised how people use faith to avoid facts, and recognised that I'd been doing it myself.

    Particularly important, I was surrounded by practitioners of alternative medicine, and I honed my chops on them. (Heh heh.) It took me a good long while to recognise that the same poor reasoning, bad sampling, ontological gymnastics, creative re-interpretation, and self-deception at work among users and practitioners of alternative medicine were in fact the very same devices at work among religious believers. And it took me another good long while to apply it to religious belief, and even longer to cope with the implications of it.

    So, to sum: Critical thinking wrecked my religious faith, for which I will ever be grateful.

    Anger, schmanger. I'm snarky and pugnacious, but that's just my Web persona. I suppose you could expect me to be angry after wasting half my life learning and teaching fairy tales (and who could blame me?), but I really don't feel that way. I still have good feelings toward the people in the Church, but I don't hold back from disagreeing, sometimes pointedly.

    Amy: For me, faith is "believing what my reason has accepted as fact but which my emotions have since hijacked." It's the ability to tell my EMOTIONS where to get off.

    It seems that you're grouping reason and faith more closely than feelings and faith, as though feelings worked against faith. In my religious tradition, it's just the opposite, and believers are encouraged to use 'feelings of the Spirit' (e.g. the 'burning of the bosom') to determine what truth is. It sounds like you're operating from a different tradition, and I'm interested in what this entails.

    In particular, if faith does not derive from emotions, where do they derive from? It can't be reason; that's where we get theories, and they're not the same.

    Also, you mentioned the verses about 'get wisdom' (mostly Proverbs, if memory serves) and 'test everything' (one verse in one of Paul's epistles). How does one verify religious ideas?

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  7. "...feelings work against faith."

    Yup. I stick by that, but I'll come back to it later, becuase I think I see the discrepancy.

    I still propose that even well-supported theories require faith, if they elicit an emotional response.
    Gravity? Who cares about gravity? I have perfect faith in gravity.
    Ships floating? If your biggest fear is drowning, if 'ships floating' elicits an emotional response from you, you're going to need faith-- you're going to need to tell your emotions to shut up-- before you step on a boat.
    Existence of God? I maintain that historical evidence combined with inductive logic provides an absolutely kick-ass reason for believing in the existence of God-- but I have very little faith. Too much emotional crap involved.

    'Feelings work against faith' ...You're thinking of anecdotes and personal experience kinds of feelings, right? What I'm talking about are feelings like, 'This is too good to be true. So it can't be true'. And, even though as far as I can see, all the available evidence points to a resurrection, I have trouble shaking this feeling-- not this rational thought, but this feeling-- that God Does Not Exist. It's a 21st century mindset.

    Anecodtal and subjective experiences don't prove a thing. That's fair, and I totally agree. Belief based on experience alone would be my definition of blind-faith-- believing something that your emotions have accepted to be true but which your reason threatens to hijack unless you shut it up, quick.

    But don't underestimate the role of experience in 'sighted-faith'. It would go a long way to shutting your emotions up. As someone who hasn't had any personal spiritual experiences (another reason for my faith-slaughtering feelings), I greatly envy you yours. But you're not using them anymore. Trade you for a banana sandwhich?

    Does there already exist a word for my definition of 'faith'? I'd hate to have an argument where we're not even arguing about the same thing. Or do you not think my def. of 'faith' is valid?

    "How does one verify religious ideas?"

    You are not going to like my answer, but here it is anyway, based on my worldview...

    Science is the study of (God's) natural universe. The natural universe follows predictable patterns. Anything in and part of the natural universe can thus be subjected to some kind of scientific method. This is why I have no problem with evolution (biology), or an earth that is more than 6000 years old (geology)

    How to verify stuff outside of the natural world: ...philosophy? Experience? Sorry!!! The creator of the universe can not be part of it and is not subject to its laws, so it can not be verified by the same method. That's why I opt for Christianity, because the majority of their claim is about totally natural stuff in the natural universe.

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  8. ugh. Those last couple of paragraphs did a spectacularly bad job of not answering the question. Will further ponder what 'test everything re: religious ideas' actually entails if not the scientific method, and try and dig myself out of that hole :) (Mental gymnastics, indeed!)

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  9. Dan:

    Get ready for some stomping back.

    6. I was not encouraged to learn about science or to think critically. Even during my university education, I did not really try to learn about these things.


    Sorry but I am going to have to bust you on this one. I am sure that during your post grad work you certainly started getting a better understanding of science and critical thinking but come on, we both grew up in the same environment. You had all the basics instilled in you by the 6th grade. And we were surrounded by adults, both mormon and non mormon, that used and tought us those techniques every day.

    Fess up.

    Jeff

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  10. However, on a more possitive note...So, to sum: Critical thinking wrecked my religious faith, for which I will ever be grateful. -I love this. I think I'll make a bumper sticker-



    I'm snarky and pugnacious

    Sounds like a great new comic strip. The adventures of Snarky and Pugnacious.

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  11. To Jeff @ 12:25 AM:

    No, I don't think so. Did you ever have someone talk to you about logical fallacies, or how to distinguish good arguments from bad ones when you were younger? I didn't even flipping hear about Occam's Razor until I was 21. My parents never really told me about that stuff, and they're really well-educated.

    We were occasionally exhorted to 'prove all things' and 'find out for ourselves' etc, but no one ever gave me any guidelines about logic and cognitive bias. Maybe you got more of that from parents, etc, but I really didn't.

    No, I'm coming to this science stuff like a real noob, despite all the pleasant hours in Mr Hallett's biology class.

    Where did you hear all this from, and why didn't you tell me?!

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  12. Sorry to butt in on this private reminiscence, but I wonder, Dan, whether you would consider posting something about introducing critical thinking to children. Do you know any good links to conversation starters or playful ways to work out logical fallacies?

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  13. To Snowqueen,

    I dont know what age group you are looking for but there is a wonderful little book called Amador, can't think of the author right now, that is a great intro to philosophy, critical thinking and ethics designed for the 12 to 15 year old.

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  14. Here's a funny short story about fallacies that I read when I was younger. I've also used it in classes.

    "Love is a Fallacy" by Max Shulman.

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  15. Dan,
    No, I don't think so.

    "I didn't even flipping hear about Occam's Razor until I was 21."

    I know you were very into reading Sherlock Holmes by at least 6th grade. And he said "when you have eliminated all else, whatever remains - no matter how unlikely - must be the truth". I also know you have keenly honed abstact thinking abilities.

    So while no one may have sat us down and said, "here are the 20 most common logical fallicies and here is occam's razor", I do think we still had access to the basic knowledge to come to the same conclusions.

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  16. You said,

    Where did you hear all this from, and why didn't you tell me?!


    How about Mia's humanities classes? She worked hard on showing us the art of argument and logical falicies. (I sooo want to type phalicies) and as for why I didn't tell you, because you were always so much smarter than me I was too worried about keeping up with you on logical puzzles to even think about explaining logics to you. He said with a note of desperate irony.


    You said:
    1. Having belief was important to me. It made me a part of a tradition that streched back through my whole family. It was a part of my heritage. It made me different from people who weren't in the Church, and who lived in 'terrible' ways and made 'bad' decisions (according to The Priest). Hard to dump all that. I guess I was afraid.

    Couldn't agree more with this. I was VERY afraid. But I got to a point where I just couldn't live a lie anymore even though I realised that by choosing not to live that lie I might be giving up everything I had known, including my family.


    also you said:
    My doctoral studies helped me learn about science, what makes a good theory, what good evidence looks like, and how to design an experiment.

    You obviously have me here. While I think I understand the basic concepts pretty well, the profesional training you have in the practical steps of designing an experiment and reading the statistical data correctly are things I wish I had. Yes, I do know all I have to do is go get them for myself but life can get in the way sometimes.

    One thing I really liked that you said was:

    I was surrounded by practitioners of alternative medicine, and I honed my chops on them. (Heh heh.) It took me a good long while to recognise that the same poor reasoning, bad sampling, ontological gymnastics, creative re-interpretation, and self-deception at work among users and practitioners of alternative medicine were in fact the very same devices at work among religious believers.

    The poor reasoning and bad science often used by sellers of alternative medicine was one of my fathers pet peeves. We had hours of talking about it as I grew up and is probably where I recieved the most instruction in scientific inquiry. Later, when I realised that the same poor arguments were being made in religion Bob and I spent hours going over the same ground... to no avail.

    Right now Im at a place where when it comes to answers I look to science, but I really try to look at it as a tool of inquiry, not an end unto itself. Some people get hung up in the "dogma" of science and start to behave just like the religious people.

    Two things I do "beleive" in.

    1. Existance is far more complex than we think.

    2. It is very likely, and historicly acurate, that 80% of what I base my reality on and how I percieve truth is based on false assumptions. 300 years from now many things I know are correct will be snickered about at a cocktail party and they will say, isn't it wierd that they could have thought that way?

    BTW, can you tell I really want to talk with you.

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