Saturday, 18 April 2009

John 20:29

Another article in The Times, this time by Monsignor Roderick Strange on the interesting subject of faith and doubt. He quotes Jesus's comment to Doubting Thomas; 

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. - John 20:29
And the article points out how faith and doubt *are* linked. He ends the article:

Doubt need not be the enemy of faith, but its ally. Thomas knew faith, wounded by doubt. Faith is deepened when we wrestle with ambiguity. Then indeed they are blessed who without seeing have come to believe.
When I was growing up this was how faith was presented to me; doubt (we have insufficient evidence) overcome by faith. Without doubt there is hardly any need for faith, is there? But one also sees theists arguing that there *is* good reason to believe - see my discussion of John Polkinghorne's article on that subject.

These positions are not compatible, and, oddly, perhaps, I think both positions are untenable! 

'Faith overcoming doubt' is the *expressed* position of Jesus Christ in the Bible. It can scarcely be any clearer from John 20:29, and the Monsignor also argues this point. This exercise of free will seems to be something that many can identify with. There are two problems here for me. First, it is not clear why this is supposed to be a *good* thing. Why is it good to believe when something is doubtful? That is a recipe for believing every charlatan that comes to town. That is a recipe for believing in *any* god created by man. Second, Jesus says that those who haven't seen are blessed who come to believe. Leaving aside that this is a very convenient doctrine for subsequent proselytising, it is also not thought to be a good thing for the disciples and others who *have* been granted a 'visual'. Why are *they* allowed to be persuaded by evidence but not us? How do the disciples and Doubting Thomas have faith - they have no *doubt*, they've got the main man standing in front of them! So the Monsignor's position fails, IMO.

For the 'Faith justified by reason' position, I'll assume for the sake of exploring the validity of this that there is good reason to believe (there isn't!), as such apologists think. The flaw in this position leaps out at one. If the believer genuinely thinks that there *is* good reason for faith it no longer becomes 'faith', but a justifiable scientific position. There is now *insufficient* doubt to allow faith, and there scarcely is any need for free will -reason is *dictating* one's position. I suppose in principle such a person could defy reason and say, 'No, I don't believe it, despite the evidence that shows it's true!'. This would just be the act of an irrational person, as the act of believing with insufficent *evidence* is as well. So the exercise of free will seems to boil down to acting irrationally.

We have here a credo that flies in the face of reason whichever way one looks at it.

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Saturday, 11 April 2009

Polkinghorne's Motivated Belief

John Polkinghorne has written a piece for the regular Credo column in the Times, called Motivated Belief and the Stringent Search for Truth. Polkinghorne is notable for being a physicist *and* an Anglican priest. From what I’ve read of his apologetics, his arguments for a god stem from such things as the intelligibility of the universe and fine tuning. I find these arguments very *unpersuasive*, but it’s apparent that Polkinghorne thinks that a creator god based universe makes more sense to him than no creator. To a limited degree, I think that one could *understand* how someone might arrive at this (erroneous, IMO) conclusion. And not being a physicist, I obviously have to bow to his greater understanding of the fundamental building blocks of the universe. But at best this only gets one to a deist view of reality.

What is more baffling, and, I would say, unforgivable, is how he can be a Christian theist and claim it is based on the evidence. So it is noteworthy that he writes about his ‘motivated belief’ in the article.

He starts:

If being a scientist teaches you anything it is surely that the world is surprising, often behaving in strange ways that we could not have anticipated. Who would have thought in 1899 that something could sometimes behave like a wave (spread out and flappy) and sometimes like a particle (a little bullet)? Yet that is how light has been found to behave, and physicists have come to understand how this seemingly oxymoronic combination is possible.

This sort of experience means that the instinctive question for a scientist to ask is not "Is it reasonable?", as if we knew beforehand the shape that rationality had to take, but rather "What makes you think that might be the case?"

I think this is true; we cannot know what’s unusual if we don’t know *everything*; we don’t have a full knowledge of the workings of the universe, so we cannot judge if something is unreasonable in the sense that it is improbable. Whatever the evidence suggests, should be considered. At least, I think that’s what he’s saying. Then

That is a question at once more open and more demanding. It does not try to specify beforehand the form that an acceptable answer has to take, but if you are to persuade me that some unexpected possibility is true, you will have to offer evidence in support of your claim. Science trades in the search for truth attainable through motivated belief.

I quite like that. One must follow the *evidence*.

So does religion.

Not so much. Many theists *don’t* have ‘motivated belief’, in the sense of *evidenced* belief, for religion, but faith. Still, good to hear that JP has good reason for his belief. Let's hear it:

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Jesus Christ is that we have all heard of Him.

Eh? He puts forward an argument that one should believe in JC because he’s famous. Well, I do think this counts a *little* as evidence for his position (many wouldn’t). But it is *very* little; otherwise one would be obliged to also believe in every other famous religion – an impossible position to put oneself in. But I'm prepared to give them a few brownie points for having a persistent meme.

All the writers of the New Testament believe that what happened was his Resurrection from the dead the first Easter Day. Can we today believe this strange counterintuitive claim?

Hume says 'No'; what does JP say?

Looking for the motivations for this belief requires a careful and scrupulous assessment of the evidence.

Good, I would say so too.

Here I can do no more than sketch the considerations that persuade me to bet my life on accepting the claim.

Never mind, get on with it.

The New Testament offers two lines of evidence. One line is the appearance stories, strangely varied, yet with a surprisingly persistent theme, that initially it was hard to recognise the risen Christ. I believe that this is a genuine historical reminiscence, indicating that these are not just a bunch of made-up tales constructed by a variety of early Christians.

This doesn’t seem to qualify as evidence to me. I can’t go to someone else and say, ‘John Polkinghorne thinks the surprisingly persistent theme of the appearance stories in the gospels means it's a genuine historical reminiscence’ – there’s your evidence. After all, that person might say, hey, Bart Ehrman and others have demonstrated how after the fact adjustments to the texts have tried to enforce some kind of persistent theme. And *Ehrman* has studied the texts more than JP, I would think.

Then there are the empty-tomb stories. If these were just concocted, why make women the discoverers when they were regarded as unreliable witnesses in the ancient world?

Why do they need to be concocted? Bodies can be removed from tombs without resurrection. How many times in history have empty tombs been found? Lots. How many times was it a result of resurrection? None, I would say; JP would say once. I’ve *no* idea why, if one bases it on *evidence*.

Clearly there is much more that needs to be said...


...but I hope I have said enough to show that a scientist, open to unexpected beliefs but stringent in demanding adequate motivation for them, can believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, the fundamental pivot on which Christian belief turns.

No, and one cannot help but conclude that this ‘evidence’ is not why John Polkinghorne believes. Two very sorry looking bits of exegesis do not make a compelling case. A *stringent* search for truth is not at all evident.

I think he’s missed an opportunity here, because it would be nice to know what does lead a brilliant scientist like Polkinghorne to believe in Christian Theism. I guess he wasn’t able to tell us in this short article. Pity.

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Saturday, 4 April 2009

Confounding Expectations

I’ve been reading Daniel Dennett’s excellent Consciousness Explained in which he makes the thought provoking observation that the brain is a future predicting device. This is sort of obvious when one considers that once life has evolved the ability to propel itself, it will be advantageous to predict its own course, so a whole load of *expectations* of events will be established by the brain to assist; there’s a tree ahead, so the brain plots a path around it.

It seems to me that these expectations of what *should* happen play a part in one or two of our most common human emotions. Occasionally an ‘expectation gap’ occurs, that generates a response in us. In the video above, Lee and Herring wittily deconstruct a common element of basic jokes - the lazy comedy slag template for a joke incorporating the confounding of expectations – and that confounding (confoundation?) is an element in a lot of humour. The comic suggests one or two things that our brains take on board to create a scenario, and the pay-off comes when the comic explodes that scenario. I quite like this clip because it demonstrates that the *expectation* is important; just doing something inappropriate in an unusual scenario isn’t necessarily amusing, but for some reason it is more amusing after one has been led to think the situation is different. I don’t know why!

I think I see expectations in music appreciation too; we are all familiar with the way that a song fixes itself into our minds after a few plays (if it’s good). We can listen to the song ‘in our heads’, but it’s better to hear it again. There is surely an element in which expectation satisfaction (of the expected words and tunes fixed in the mind) makes this process feel good to us. In fact, hearing a live version of the song, with different tempo, and arrangement, perhaps the odd bum note, can grate against the expected version in our heads. We experience an expectation gap. But a few listens to the new version can often replace the old one, and one can come to prefer it, bum notes included, thus eliminating that expectation gap.

I also see an element to this in moral thinking. One occasionally hears the theist ask the non-believer ‘Haven’t you ever sinned?’, or ‘Are you without sin?’. It’s a very revealing question, I think. The theist is adamant that he *has* sinned, but what does that mean? When confronted with a situation requiring a course of action, everyone establishes a notion of ‘what they should do’. This normative moral construct is then used to drive one’s course of action. Sometimes one fails to follow that (apparently) prescribed course of action, and this produces an uncomfortable feeling within us; our *expectations* have not been met. Once again we suffer an expectation gap, and the theist is inclined to assign guilt to this uncomfortable feeling.

(Of course, whether or not one has sinned is pretty irrelevant to the anti-Pelagian Christian denominations. For them, everyone is sinful, even before they’ve had a chance to do anything! I’ve often thought this means that real time sinning has no ill effect for them – ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’)

But the normative construct causing this expectation gap is a result of one’s genetic, evolved altruism, culture and education. All these elements are variable, so any ‘sin’ is variable. In fact, the individual’s prescription could be wrong (may well be wrong), so the feeling of ‘sin’ could be mistaken. To base one’s 'guilt' on this would be an error, but we see this amongst the religious all the time. And conversely we see with psychopaths that it’s possible not to feel *any guilt*, even when clearly doing wrong. So to base one’s worldview on this doubtful construct is not wise. We need to establish a normative ethic through reason and negotiation with others. No-one can ever establish such things reliably in isolation.

Well, this is layman speculation, obviously; do all mammals (animals?) create these expectations, and expectation gaps? They must to a certain extent, I suppose, but presumably not with the degree of sophistication of the human mind. Otherwise one would expect chimpanzees to point and laugh if they saw a human slip on a banana. Or perhaps they do?

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