Measured Against Reality

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Anonymously Insightful

The other day I got an anonymous comment on my post Doubt Technology Too that was so insightful that I had to mention it in a real post. Honestly, I wish I had thought of/said this, because it really impressed me, and I think it’s something that a lot of people need to be reminded of.

Nick and Stu:

It strikes me that the two of you are talking about two different kinds of "truth", and two different kinds of "knowing." Therefore, Stu, you completely talk past Nick when you say "I believe what evidence supports," because Nick relies on "spiritual evidence" while you rely on "material evidence." And by the same token, Nick, you completely talk past Stu when you say "I cannot reveal anything to you that you are unwilling to see," and "evidence is all fine and dandy, but I seek truth on a higher level: reason."

In Stu's world view, I think, these are not well-formed English sentences; they conform to the syntax of English, but their semantics are either empty or self-contradictory.

Nick, you believe that there is such a thing as revelation, in the biblical sense, meaning that some higher truth is directly revealed to you by God in some internal process that must always remain ineffable. In this way of knowing, you don't become convinced of things by a an incremental process of rational thought that proceeds from known facts to reasonable conclusions by use of logic. Instead, you find yourself suddenly overwhelmed by an epiphany: in an instant, everything becomes clear and you feel no need to question, because you just know that you know what you know...

The rapture of resolved tension is so great that it does not occur to you to double check the truth which has been revealed to you; you are totally convinced. And, because of the intensity of this feeling, you believe that this process is more valid than that based on reasoning from evidence to conclusions.

Stu, your comparatively slow and unglamourous process of reasoning from established facts to necessary conclusions, using provably correct logical operations, cannot possibly offer Nick an emotional experience of comparable intensity, and therefore you cannot convince Nick of anything.

And Nick, Stu does not judge the truth of a statement by the intensity of his emotional response to it, and therefore you cannot convince Stu of anything.

Personally, I try to remain skeptical of any belief that I have a strong emotional response to. The stronger the emotional response, the more likely it is to color my reasoning, and therefore the more careful I must be to seek validation by alternative means. I am no stranger to that moment of inspiration and insight, when one shouts "AHA! Now I see it all!" But I try to keep myself honest by backtracking to what was previously known and tediously building the bridge of reason that will prove to me that I have not fooled myself, or given in to wishful thinking, or simply made a mistake...

That's what reason is for.


That quote perfectly illustrates why discussions between the religious and atheists can be so frustrating for both sides; we’re simply not speaking the same language. Personal revelation is something that science can’t deal with (at least not yet, although some of the articles I’ve read indicate that we’re getting close), and the evidence that atheists seek is just not there (at least in any form besides personal revelation).

The best way to think of the “culture wars” or whatever it’s being called is in terms of logic versus emotion. Instead of “faith”, think about trying to convince your best friend that their cheating lover is not good for them. Without any emotional attachment, it’s really easy to see. But when you’re in love, there’s almost no logic that can break it. The human brain can so easily be made completely illogical by love, and (I’d imagine) the same thing happens with faith.

So how can those without faith preach, if you will, to the faithful? It would seem to me that you’d have to do it the same way you’d convince a friend that their significant other is no good, hammer home the evidence, and maybe get a little mean and confrontational (if the situation warrants it). It probably won’t work, but if you’ve seeded doubt in their mind, it may grow. Eventually some people will deconvert. As far as I can tell, this is what most people espouse anyway.

The opposite could be said of converting people, and it’s exactly what evangelicals do. They’ve had thousands of years to figure out what works, and appealing to fears of death or needs for community or a sense of purpose work. They play to emotion, and unbelievers need to have counters to those emotions (some of which, such as personal revelation, we might not have anything to counter with, except perhaps Sam Harris’ meditation).

But the numbers of the religious are dwindling, as more and more kids leave the church when the leave the home, so something is going right for us. We need to take advantage of it, and work to show people that godlessness can be a very good, happy place. All the evidence in the world cannot make up for that.

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23 Comments:

  • What I've been trying to hammer home on this long-running debate is that you do have faith, you just don't have it in God. Your 'faith' (and I use the word because it's what I understand) is in materialism. You believe that logic is all there is and all there can ever be. You've made up your mind regarding God and no matter what anyone says, no matter what evidence could be presented, your emotional attachment to empirical demonstration will keep you from ever considering a possibility involving emotional revelation.

    QED

    By Blogger Mr. Fantastic, at 8:35 AM, September 26, 2006  

  • I posted this as a comment on one of your previous threads, but as that thread has been pushed off the main page, and because I believe it relevant to this discussion as well, I will repost.
    -------------------------

    QUOTE:
    If faith doesn’t need proof, then why have thousands of people throughout history felt the need to defend their faith with evidence?
    END QUOTE

    Faith by definition, subscribes, at least on some level, to things which cannot be empirically proven. But this does not mean that true faith is void of logic and reason -- thus people will rightly appeal to evidence when they discuss their faith.

    In practice, what faith says is that even though we will never be able to empirically prove that God exists, we DO believe that He exists based upon sound evidence, logic, and reason.

    A flaw that must be avoided is one that assumes science to be the only truth. Science seeks to explain the more tangible side of the universe, but there is room also for disciplines such as philosophy and theology that seek to know and explain the more esoteric aspects of this complex cosmos in which we dwell.

    Granted, some folk's theology and philosophy is piss-poor, but some folk's science is too -- so be careful about blindly tossing the baby out with the bath water. It is not about good science apart from sound philosophical & theological reason. Nor is it about good philosophical & theological reason apart from good science. Rather nature demands that we take a broad approach as we search for truth. And we do ourselves injustice when we insist that truth can only be found in that which is empirical.

    ~Nice site btw. I saw it from Digg and have enjoyed reading it.

    By Anonymous Jase, at 8:38 AM, September 26, 2006  

  • Jase, I actually moderate comments (it's the only good way I've found so far to keep track of them), so sometimes it takes a few minutes (or hours if I'm gone or asleep) for them to get published. I had 60 in my inbox today from Digg...

    But I responded to that comment on the other post too, and thanks again for complimenting my blog.

    Mr. Fantastic (if that is your real name), once again it's down to personal/spiritual evidence, and material evidence. I can't possibly count personal/spiritual evidence that I've never felt, so short of a personal revelation all I can demand is material evidence, which you've previously admitted doesn't exist (proof denies faith). So we're back, locked into this crazy tango of different languages and evidences that can't really be reconciled. Or so it seems to me.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 8:44 AM, September 26, 2006  

  • I'd like to retract my assertion of proof denying faith, if that's possible — is there a form to submit?. On further meditation I don't believe I'd stand by it.

    Rather, as Jase very thoughtfully notes, proof must be determined from a broad base of evidence, reason, and logic.

    It would be fallacy to simply stop thinking and say "Oh, God did it." just as much as to give up on God and worship the observable world.

    After all, while the majority of scientists today may be atheists/materialists (I believe I've read that, but I don't have any statistics on hand to back that up), it has not always been so. For the great majority of recorded history, those who practice science have done so on the personal philosophy that science is for the higher purpose of revealing and better understanding the nature given man by God.

    By Blogger Mr. Fantastic, at 9:59 AM, September 26, 2006  

  • Nick, it depends on the discipline. Physicists are something like 90% atheists, while others are less so. But as a whole, I do think most are atheist, or at least weak deists. Most definitely do not belong to a traditional church.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 10:34 AM, September 26, 2006  

  • Mr. Fantastic:

    Re: you do have faith, you just don't have it in God. Your 'faith' (and I use the word because it's what I understand) is in materialism.

    This is the Equivocation logical fallacy. You are implying that “faith” in science is the same as religious faith. It is not. We trust science because of its track record of reliability. This is not “faith” - you just need to say it is to make your argument work.

    By Anonymous Skeptico, at 1:56 PM, October 01, 2006  

  • Nice job, Skeptico! I would like to point out that the religious appeasers also use a fallacious appeal to other ways of knowing.

    When emotional revelation produces a science as good as nuclear physics, then I'll accept it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:38 AM, October 02, 2006  

  • I trust God. Call it what you want, it is still a reliance on an authority. God has a great track record of affecting my life positively.

    I still don't get exactly what you guys are arguing *for*. I know you think that humbling onesself before God is infantile and stupid, but I have yet to see a coherent answer from science for Why things are.

    Like I've been saying, science reveals a lot of hows but very few whys.

    By Blogger Mr. Fantastic, at 5:09 PM, October 02, 2006  

  • Skeptico replies to Mr Fantastic

    Re: I trust God. Call it what you want, it is still a reliance on an authority.

    Faith is belief without evidence. That is what you have in God. I trust science because of the evidence it works – science’s track record of success at figuring out the universe. Completely different. But I see you agree your belief in God is based on authority. Authority has proven an unreliable method for getting at the truth. That’s why science depends on evidence, and the authority of the person presenting the evidence is irrelevant.

    Re: I have yet to see a coherent answer from science for Why things are.

    Like I've been saying, science reveals a lot of hows but very few whys.


    ...Unlike religion which reveals nothing of use – neither hows nor whys. Oh, I realize religion claims to reveals the whys, but in reality religion just makes stuff up and claims them as fact.

    By Anonymous Skeptico, at 6:10 PM, October 02, 2006  

  • How is faith belief without evidence? All of the evidence in the world serves only to confirm my faith.

    If I am asked to validate evidence, the authority of the person presenting the evidence is of utmost importance. I am an extremely critical person. You know, because I'm testing your deepest beliefs.

    Your atheism defies logic. You want very badly to believe that there is no God, and you are not open to the possibility that there may be one.

    You are the closed-minded one.

    By Blogger Mr. Fantastic, at 6:50 PM, October 02, 2006  

  • Skeptico replies to Mr Fantastic

    Re: How is faith belief without evidence?

    That is the definition of faith:

    2. belief that is not based on proof

    I prefer “evidence” to “proof”, since proof doesn’t really exist, but that’s perhaps semantic. Religious faith is by definition belief without evidence, or in reality belief in the teeth of evidence.

    Re: All of the evidence in the world serves only to confirm my faith.

    Please present this evidence.

    Re: If I am asked to validate evidence, the authority of the person presenting the evidence is of utmost importance.

    Wrong. Argument from authority is a logical fallacy:

    An appeal to authority is a type of argument in logic, consisting on basing the truth value of an otherwise unsupported assertion on the authority, knowledge or position of the person asserting it. […] It is one method of obtaining propositional knowledge, but a fallacy in regards to logic, because the validity of a claim does not follow from the credibility of the source. (My bold)

    Re: I am an extremely critical person. You know, because I'm testing your deepest beliefs.

    What beliefs would those be?

    Re: Your atheism defies logic. You want very badly to believe that there is no God, and you are not open to the possibility that there may be one.

    Your theism defies logic. You want very badly to believe that there is a God, and you are not open to the possibility that there may not be one. You are most certainly the closed-minded one.

    The burden of proof rests with the claimant. I am still waiting for evidence God exists.

    By Anonymous Skeptico, at 4:12 PM, October 04, 2006  

  • By Blogger Mosilager, at 5:25 PM, October 05, 2006  

  • Skeptico, I'm not trying to convert you, I just want you to think that there might be something more significant than mankind.

    Perhaps it all boils down to what makes me comfortable. I see God in all things; in existance itself.

    You ask me to provide proof? My response is proof enough.

    God's existence informs my every action.

    By Blogger Mr. Fantastic!, at 6:49 PM, October 05, 2006  

  • Skeptico is not skeptical at all. He is a cynic. He comes to this discussion not with an open mind, but with his conclusions simply awaiting proof.

    Nobody is trying to twist words here. Pointing out logical fallacies in my speech does not strengthen your argument. You don't even have an argument, you just have meaningless attacks on my personal beliefs.

    You atheists are cookie-cutter copies of one another. I used to believe in your dogma when I was 15 years old, but I grew out of it. I hope that someday you will too.

    By Blogger Mr. Fantastic!, at 8:21 PM, October 05, 2006  

  • Mr. Fantastic:

    Thanks for your response. I note you can show no evidence that God exists, so it is clear that your belief (faith) in God is not based on evidence, and so is different from our trust in science, which was the only point I was trying to make.

    By Anonymous Skeptico, at 8:39 PM, October 05, 2006  

  • I just noticed that Mr Fantastic, after his first reply, has come back and made some rather angry additional remarks. Replies below:

    Re: Skeptico is not skeptical at all. He is a cynic.

    No a skeptic – I apply critical thinking to evaluate claims. That's a skeptic. A cynic is: “a person who shows or expresses a bitterly or sneeringly cynical attitude” – you know, a bit like you in the comment above. And your cheap cynical name-calling gimmick has been noted.

    Re: He comes to this discussion not with an open mind, but with his conclusions simply awaiting proof.

    I asked for evidence to back up your claims – that’s the way it works in the real world away from fairy-tale religious nuts like you. Not my problem if you’re angry you can’t provide one shred of evidence to back up your silly claims.

    Re: Nobody is trying to twist words here. Pointing out logical fallacies in my speech does not strengthen your argument.

    No, it demonstrates the fallacious nature of your arguments.

    Re: You don't even have an argument, you just have meaningless attacks on my personal beliefs.

    Attacks? I just asked for evidence to back up your claims. What a baby you are.

    Re: You atheists are cookie-cutter copies of one another. I used to believe in your dogma when I was 15 years old, but I grew out of it. I hope that someday you will too.

    You theists are cookie-cutter copies of one another. I used to believe in your dogma when I was 5 years old, but I grew out of it. I hope that someday you will too.

    (Hey this is easy. Easier than having to provide any, you know, evidence.)

    By Anonymous Skeptico, at 8:51 PM, October 05, 2006  

  • Wow! You willingly ignored the first two definitions of cynic that you ran into on the same damn page, just to prove your ideological point of view.

    Anyway, anyone that is smart enough to read this exchange is smart enough to recognize that science is not all there is to life.

    By Blogger Mr. Fantastic!, at 9:27 PM, October 05, 2006  

  • Skeptico replies to Mr Fantastic

    Re: Wow! You willingly ignored the first two definitions of cynic that you ran into on the same damn page, just to prove your ideological point of view.

    Which one were you relying on then?

    Either way, I am a skeptic, and your silly name-calling tactic was a cynical ploy that failed.

    Re: Anyway, anyone that is smart enough to read this exchange is smart enough to recognize that science is not all there is to life.

    So what? I never said it was. I merely called you on your “you do have faith, you just don't have it in God” blather.

    By Anonymous Skeptico, at 7:33 AM, October 06, 2006  

  • Pointing out logical fallacies in my speech does not strengthen your argument.

    Surprisingly, this is actually pretty close to a logically valid point. Unfortunately, it's also a non-sequitar. You're the one who came in here and made the claim the we have faith just as you do. Now that you've made that claim, it's on trial. Our only argument, if any, is that your argument is invalid, in which case pointing out logical fallacies you use does strengthen our argument.

    Wow! You willingly ignored the first two definitions of cynic that you ran into on the same damn page, just to prove your ideological point of view.

    The two other definitions he skipped were:

    1. a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.
    2. (initial capital letter) one of a sect of Greek philosophers, 4th century b.c., who advocated the doctrines that virtue is the only good, that the essence of virtue is self-control, and that surrender to any external influence is beneath human dignity.


    First one is obviously irrelevent to this case; no one's arguing over selfish or selfless acts here. Second one is even more obviously irrelevent.

    The third one is the only one that's even possibly relevent. The fact that you'd act amazed that he'd use this arguments strikes of
    you getting desperate here.

    Anyway, anyone that is smart enough to read this exchange is smart enough to recognize that science is not all there is to life.

    Of course, on my university alone we have Mathematics, Engineering, Arts, Philosophy...

    Oh, did you mean more than Science as a way of learning about the world? Sorry, this is the old Appeal to Other Ways of Knowing (using Skeptico's excellent description of it).

    But my own argument here: Which way of knowing should we use? Our choices:

    Science, which has a track record of leading us to good information and being utilized for new technologies to improve life.

    -or-

    Faith, which has a track record of leading to contradictions between any two people who use it. Its results are rarely usable in order to improve life. Instead, the disputes over whose faith is right tend to lead to wars which destroy life.

    I'll take Science, thank you very much.

    By Blogger Infophile, at 10:07 AM, October 06, 2006  

  • Here it is, the Battle of the Century! Skeptico vs. Mr. Fantastic, and the age old Science vs. Religion!
    It's ironic really. The post was about the differences, and this debate flares up again.

    Skeptico relies on logic and empirical evidence to arrive at conclusions, and most likely, doesn't involve his emotions in the prococess. Mr. Fantastic however, relies on his emotions mostly. He has a feeling, and whether it's the warm fuzzy feeling you get from helping someone, or the ice cream he at at lunch, to him it's God. That feeling is evidence enough for him that there is something more to life. Basically, it's what the orignal post was! Just replace "Stu" with Skeptico and "Nick" with Mr. Fantastic.

    All in all, it boils down to this: Mr. Fantastic won't be convinced by logic alone, and Skeptico won't be convinced by emotions alone.
    It is an interesting read though!

    By Anonymous Koolwhip, at 12:59 PM, October 07, 2006  

  • I'd like to backtrack a bit, if I may, because something that was said early on caught my attention:

    Skeptico said: You are implying that “faith” in science is the same as religious faith. It is not. We trust science because of its track record of reliability.

    Mr Fantastic responded: I trust God. [...] God has a great track record of affecting my life positively.

    This is interesting to me because it highlights a thought I've been pondering regarding the validity of faith. In science, a statement is deemed to be "true" if it is useful, in a very specific sense of the word. The scientific concept of usefulness revolves around an hypothesis's coherence, accuracy and predictivity.

    There are other concepts of "useful" that from a philosophical perspective are equally valid. For example, some folks consider the usefulness of a concept to centre primarily on its power as an enabler. I often deliberately set my watch fast - the belief that it's 10:00 rather than 9:50 may not be useful in the scientific sense, but it's very useful in the sense of getting me to meetings on time.

    The concept of "useful" which Mr Fantastic, along with many religious people, adheres to would appear to be centred round the ability of a concept to make one feel better in one's self. In the context of this broader treatment of usefulness, this would appear to be reasonably valid. However, it does have two limitations:

    1) it is significantly less effective at determining accurate statements about the universe than the scientific version of "useful". This can come back to haunt people.

    2) it is inherently subjective. There's no point trying to convince someone else of views that have been concocted using this definition of usefulness, because those views may not "work" for them.

    On the other hand, the scientific definition, whilst producing far more objective views, has its own limitations:

    1) it doesn't necessarily lead to any sort of success or happiness on the part of its proponent

    2) whilst it gives rise to a very accurate model of how things are, it provides no moral guidance as to what we should do about that model

    Any thoughts?

    By Blogger Lifewish, at 1:38 PM, October 08, 2006  

  • Lifewish, I think that your statement "it doesn't necessarily lead to any sort of success or happiness on the part of its proponent" is true of religion too, or anything really.

    For example, most people I know find existentialism incredibly depressing, but I don't.

    And your last point, that science doesn't provide moral guidance, I'd say the same of religion. Almost every religion has aspects that we'd consider very immoral, and most believers simply ignore and don't acknowledge those parts (most of them, at least. The parts that say that homosexuals are evil still seem to be in). So why not just chuck all the morals from religion and try to establish morality through rational thought? That seems better to me.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 1:49 PM, October 08, 2006  

  • Lifewish, I think that your statement "it doesn't necessarily lead to any sort of success or happiness on the part of its proponent" is true of religion too, or anything really.

    On reflection I'm not sure "happiness" was the right word to use. A better term might be "enjoyment" or "comfort".

    Science doesn't care about your feelings. Science couldn't give a damn if you like its conclusions or not. In the short term at least, it feels better to believe in an appealing concept (forgiveness, an afterlife, a loving God) than it does to subject said concept to critical scrutiny.

    Or at least it does for many people - as I mentioned, one of the disadvantages of the comfort-based definition of usefulness is that any given conclusion doesn't necessarily apply to other people. Personally, I've come to quite enjoy skepticism, although I would say that it's definitely an acquired taste :)

    And your last point, that science doesn't provide moral guidance, I'd say the same of religion.

    That's a matter of interpretation, but it's fairly undeniable that religion at least makes the effort, which is what I was getting at. Religion reifies the concept of morality, and gives a whole heap of suggestions as to how to behave. That's a very attractive approach for many people.

    So why not just chuck all the morals from religion and try to establish morality through rational thought? That seems better to me.

    That's because you're concerned with the accuracy and efficacy of your worldview, rather than how enjoyable it feels to accept it. I'm with you on this - I value the security of knowing that I've thought things through to the best of my ability over the comfort of following a prescribed "True" approach. However, that's very much an individual value judgement.

    Thanks very much for the feedback. On reflection, I'm wondering whether I'm just rephrasing Pirsig's thesis from "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance".

    By Blogger Lifewish, at 3:05 PM, October 08, 2006  

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