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.

11 comments:

  • Laurie says:
    18 April 2009 at 20:07

    Lovely stuff, Mark. A perfect reductio ad absurdum.

  • Mark Jones says:
    19 April 2009 at 10:54

    Cheers Laurie.

    I think there's more to say about faith and doubt, but I need to gather my thoughts. Doubt is something that my Christian friends profess they have, so I wonder how this allows them to declare any authority on moral judgements, for example.

  • Useful Idiot says:
    5 May 2009 at 17:45

    As an orthodox catholic I completely agree with everythng you have written. However Roderick Stranges "Belief without sight" is not the Catholic Church's definition of faith. His notions of doubt and faith are heterodox.

    I've written a fuller response to your blog entry here : katholike.blogspot.com

  • Mark Jones says:
    6 May 2009 at 01:53

    Thanks very much, UI, for a reasoned response. I'm not *completely* sure that the Monsignor is going against what you say, but it's odd that he didn't include his own church's definition of faith. To be charitable, he may be talking about the journey to faith that is *certain*.

    As for your definition, backed by objective proof, I'm bound to say that this *certainty* is what has convinced me of the wrongness of faith. If there's one thing I'm certain of, it's that I can't be certain of anything! As you point out, we cannot *know* our circumstances absolutely. Of course, I dare say you will counter with your divinely revealed truth, but that is just begging the question, as I'm sure you realise.

    Thanks anyway, for an interesting read.

    (Cross posted on UI's blog)

  • Useful Idiot says:
    6 May 2009 at 17:09

    Hi Mark,

    The question of how an almighty god can do what is seemingly impossible to us is another matter: I was only justifying faith as rational, and the rational definition has some assumptions, one of which you seem to suggest is impossible. However..

    "If there's one thing I'm certain of, it's that I can't be certain of anything!"

    ..except that nothing is certain?!? Hmmm. That's sailing the boat of reason in to rather choppy waters.

    What concrete grounds do you have for believing objective proof/knowledge of circumstances is impossible? I don't know of such grounds: epistemology's lack of success is not proof while your conviction is only that and my illustration of the problem of objective knowledge wasn't a positive demonstration of its impossibility while anyway only in respect of a seemingly non-almighty being (myself).

    Non-religious epistemology has long history with no untouchable answers. The fact that we might not have established a mechanism of objective proof/knowledge doesn't mean it doesn't exist. So the assumption, while not greatly satisfying, can still be made.

    As it happens there is a known mechanism: I alluded to it at the end of my post. I apologise that I can't, in good conscience, add to that allusion. However I don't think it is needed for this discussion. The hypothesis of an almighty god is adequate in the face of the fact that such a being is not disproven (and there is even some evidence for it: believers).

  • Mark Jones says:
    7 May 2009 at 02:20

    Thanks UI.

    "What concrete grounds do you have for believing objective proof/knowledge of circumstances is impossible?"

    As my jokey certainty comment indicates, I have no *certainty* about this, but the *probabilities* suggest it. This is not to rule it out completely, I agree. So, as with all such considerations, one must *weigh* the evidence. I don't *know* absolutely, but my weighing of the evidence suggests it to me at the moment. As you say, philosophers have wrestled with the problems of epistemology down the ages (and I'm no philosopher), but I would be keen to hear of a truly reliable 'way of knowing'.

    It seems clear in discussion with (some) theists that they weigh the evidence in favour of a god (often the god they were taught about as a youngster); fair enough, and perhaps they are using the mechanism to which you allude to provide this evidence. For a mechanism to supply such objective truth to its users, one might expect a remarkable consistency of belief in its operators, but strangely the opposite is truth. So we have a mechanism that is only available to some of god's creations which, even to those to whom it is available, delivers different versions of the objective truth. No useful predictions are supplied by this mechanism. What you allude to would seem to be an *unreliable* method for uncovering the truth, simply based on reports from its users. After all, weren't you prompted to post on my blog as a result of heretical views from a Monsignor? Or perhaps he's not using the mechanism to which you're privy? In which case, why not? How would I know which theist is? Why should I listen to *you* and not *him*?

    By contrast the scientific method is available to all and it does make useful predictions. This is not to describe it as infallible, however, but simply a pretty *reliable* method for uncovering the truth. And theists agree with this conclusion too. It is the best method we've discovered so far for uncovering the truth. Theists might not agree with that :-).

    It is a truism that the hypothesis of an almighty god has not been disproven, just as there is an infinite number of *things* that have not been disproven, and I agree there is *some* evidence for this hypothesis; I think the more *reasonable* conclusion, however, is that the evidence is insufficient. Not to say that your position is *unreasonable*; just *less* reasonable than mine. IMO!

    All the best.

    (cross posted on UI)

  • Useful Idiot says:
    7 May 2009 at 17:16

    "a truism that..an almighty god has not been disproven..there is an infinite number of *things* that have not been disproven"

    I consider it a critical truth: one of the parents of your doctrine of uncertainty and unlike the infinity of arbitrary ideas the concept of a supreme being is not.

    Dawkins trick of equating such a being to unicorns and fairies is naughty. A supreme being is an idea much examined because it isn’t silly but rather fits in to the philosophically attractive ideas of zero/nothing,1/ unity, and infinity. It’s also a personification of existence, which undoubtedly exists. The real question is not whether a god exists but is existence self-referential (conscious). See Gregory Chaitin.

    The weight of evidence: most religions with a supreme being tend to share fundamentals: personal, loving, just, merciful, and versions of heaven and hell: seemingly the same god. Some religions don't have a supreme being (ie. Zeus isn't one) and are said to be pagan. But those that do are similar, to contradict you (Hinduism does). Only protestants and fanatics are truly exclusivist.

    “Why should I listen to *you* and not *him*?”

    Authority isn’t a problem if a person goes to the source: “God, if you exist, please reveal yourself”. At least some one should be encouraging you to talk to god but which a genuine (and irrational) belief that such a god does not exist would make impossible (a test of whether you are actually atheist).

    Prediction isn’t a test of truth.

  • Mark Jones says:
    8 May 2009 at 02:52

    "Dawkins trick of equating such a being to unicorns and fairies is naughty. A supreme being is an idea much examined because it isn’t silly but rather fits in to the philosophically attractive ideas of zero/nothing,1/ unity, and infinity."

    This strikes me as a re-wording of the ontological argument, which is deeply unconvincing to me.

    "The real question is not whether a god exists but is existence self-referential (conscious). See Gregory Chaitin."

    Well, there are *many* real questions, IMO, consciousness being just one of them. I think the reification of consciousness is a very human reaction to our state of being, and for the religious, a response to the demolition of the teleological argument in recent times. It *is* important and interesting and it *may* be significant in the way you think. At the moment, I think not.

    "The weight of evidence: most religions with a supreme being tend to share fundamentals: personal, loving, just, merciful, and versions of heaven and hell: seemingly the same god. Some religions don't have a supreme being (ie. Zeus isn't one) and are said to be pagan. But those that do are similar, to contradict you (Hinduism does). Only protestants and fanatics are truly exclusivist."

    I think there are *some* fundamentals religions share; there seems to be a very good *natural* reason for this to be so. They all arise from humanistic thought. In these circumstances nothing could be more understandable than some shared characteristics. It's evident that many religions have *good* things in them. But it's also evident that there are many *differences* in dogma and doctrine. My comment referred to these differences, which you must acknowledge. I have a dream of a utopian world where the inconsistent and incoherent and imagined elements of religions (remember there are atheist religions) are removed to leave us with... humanism, at bottom. Perhaps that's a bit too John Lennon!

    "Authority isn’t a problem if a person goes to the source: “God, if you exist, please reveal yourself”. At least some one should be encouraging you to talk to god but which a genuine (and irrational) belief that such a god does not exist would make impossible (a test of whether you are actually atheist)."

    I have had people encouraging me to talk to god(s), all my life. Many have searched, in good faith, without success; that is my first point. So then, as one who hasn't had the benefit of the mechanism (despite a lifetime of searching) one looks at the testimony of those who say they *do* have access to it; that testimony does not point to an objective truth generator, otherwise all the many differences in dogma and doctrine wouldn't exist. And these are not trivial differences, otherwise you could quite easily abandon Catholic doctrine and follow Buddhism, and the Pope would still consider you a good Catholic. The penalty for apostasy in Islam would be a pat on the back, not death. These things are undeniable, I think, and don't recommend your mechanism to the searcher for 'truth'.

    I don't think *incoherent* gods exist, but for other types, I see insufficient evidence for them. I cannot say they don't exist. 'Atheist' is a rather broad brush word semantically for these nuances. After all, I can call *you* an atheist for all but one of the gods humans have worshipped down the ages.

    "Prediction isn’t a test of truth."

    Unlike you, I'm not sure we can get at *absolute* truth, so I'm not sure I would put it like this, but accurate prediction does indicate we have *something* right. Scientists accept that scientific theories are most likely wrong in some detail, but that doesn't mean they aren't right in some detail, and the predictions provide *comfort* to that view. (By contrast, the religiously minded don't like to entertain the chance that their beliefs could be wrong in some detail.) No doubt you appreciate the value of predictability? How could anyone not? Why do some theists value biblical predictions, if not because they think it provides some 'truth' test?

  • Useful Idiot says:
    8 May 2009 at 08:24

    If the religions share fundamentals then its the same god: and that's the point. Your non-trivial differences would have to be more significant than the fundamentals which I reckon would create a logical difficulty. Most faiths seem to think that membership of other faiths does not preclude admittance to a heaven. The multi-gods objection is shaky at best.

    In any case differences, non-trivial or otherwise, are an obvious consequence of a free-will, which is possible if there were a personal god. A god might have a manifestation, in his mercy, in each religion, even if it were to reserve the fullness of truth to only one. Catholics believe this as do Hindus.

    An example: Hinduism has a trinity, the 2nd person incarnates, justice/mercy, god is love, a version of original sin, similar sexual codes to other faiths, the need for cleansing from wrongdoing and purification, mastery of the body and passions, angels and demons (the demi-gods).

    "otherwise you could quite easily abandon Catholic doctrine and follow Buddhism"

    Not if god had told you that the Catholic Church was the fullness of truth and Buddhism wasn’t, but many Catholics don’t (either due to no revelation or rejection of it) and they are defacto non-catholics.

    "This strikes means a re-wording of the ontological argument..deeply unconvincing to me."

    That there must be a god if we can conceive of one: I can’t see that I have suggested it. In any case point was that the idea of a supreme being is not as fanciful as Dawkins would suggest by his sleight of logic (logical fallacy as ‘reason’ worshipper like to say).

    Dawkins plays dirty and has no integrity: most of Christianity has never had a dogma of biblical literalism.

    Suffering innocents as unjust (also hell): depends on a sentimental idea of love and ignores justice: the innocent must suffer in place of the guilty to give them time to repent: not a reason palatable to the western mind. Material evidence: my uncle was a nuclear physicist and said “In my work I see the finger-prints of God everywhere”, so it depends who you talk to. Logical proofs (ie. limits on power) against a god, Bertrand Russel: “..describe myself as an Agnostic..I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God.”

    Nature and logic strikingly reflect the Trinity, even to feed-back mechanisms. The anthropomorphic objection means that the evidence is not compelling but it also means that Dawkins’ “not a shred of evidence” is incorrect since that depends on no significant signs of a deity in nature anthropomorphic or otherwise.

    Reason as supreme: even reason requires knowledge first: human reason can’t examine and understand it’s own axioms: like the axioms of maths thay are just a given: not good is it?. Faiths put knowledge before reason, which is the correct order.

    “..a response to the demolition of the teleological argument in recent times.”

    ..I was not aware of this but I am aware of irreligious modern philosophies so complex they aren’t verifiable. Demolish is a strong word for someone so uncertain.

    “consciousness..*may* be significant..At the moment, I think not.”

    Its relevant to creation as intention, otherwise why should anything but the non-personal deity exist so while not critical it’s certainly significant before even considering that science has no answer as to why anything exists at all.

    Anyway, you conceded my point that faith as defined correctly is rational so its time to wrap up. Also it seems to me that you may be a closed-minded agnostic if not a true atheist (to believe that god does not exist, which is irrational,as defined by the OED not wikipedia, rather than to lack belief which is really a form of agnostic), so I don’t want to expend more time on this.

    I’ll leave you the last word (unless you request an answer) and this quote:

    “A man is more often right in what he affirms than in what he rejects”

  • Useful Idiot says:
    8 May 2009 at 08:32

    "Reason as supreme: even reason requires knowledge first: human reason can’t examine and understand it’s own axioms: like the axioms of maths they are just a given: not good is it?."

    I simply can't understand how so many damnable colons got in to that sentence. :)

  • Mark Jones says:
    8 May 2009 at 18:13

    Thanks for your input, Useful, and thank you for granting me the last word, but feel free to post again, if you feel the urge; I'll try to refrain from responding!

    Your attempt to show the compatibility of the religions of the world is a little fruitless here; my view is they all stem from the same root (humanity), so these compatibilities are to be expected. Furthermore the *incompatibilities* are to be expected too, because we humans are a feckless lot with curious notions, despite our common biology. So a natural history of religious belief *can* be understood. However, I repeat, the incompatibilities, whilst understandable naturally, *don't* conform to your idea of a divinely revealed truth. Your appeal to free will simply suggests that exposure to the divinely revealed truth does not guarantee transmission of that truth; in which case, it's worthless, because we are back to square one - what is true? If the people who use your mechanism cannot agree (through free will) the truth, it is genuinely of no use.

    Apologies if I misunderstood your point as the ontological argument; my comprehension sometimes fails and this is one of those occasions. But I don't think that Dawkins is playing dirty, as you say. Many mythical creatures crop up throughout human cultures and a god or gods are part of that pantheon, if I can use that word. This doesn't talk to its truthfulness, and Dawkins is well within his rights to point out the lack of good evidence for the proposition. Perhaps he is too hyperbolic about this for my taste, but people often say there isn't a shred of evidence when what they mean is, there isn't a shred of *good* evidence. Which seems to be the case to me (constantly weighing).

    "most of Christianity has never had a dogma of biblical literalism."

    The lengths to which some Christians will go to fit the bible to their own ideas just seems to point once again to a natural history of religion.

    "Material evidence: my uncle was a nuclear physicist and said “In my work I see the finger-prints of God everywhere”, so it depends who you talk to."

    Frankly, what another person *believes*, however eminent, tells me nothing for or against the proposition per se; I would need to understand *why* that person believed it, and then weigh the evidence again. I would defer to your uncle on matters of *nuclear physics*, however, as long as it wasn't against the expert consensus. The 'fingerprints of God everywhere' thought seems to be against the expert consensus currently; I'm unaware of any peer-reviewed papers confirming such fingerprints.

    "Reason as supreme: even reason requires knowledge first: human reason can’t examine and understand it’s own axioms: like the axioms of maths thay are just a given: not good is it?. Faiths put knowledge before reason, which is the correct order."

    I've never understood the attraction of this sort of post modernism to theists. I honestly do not see how positing a god explains why 'reason' works. It simply replaces one inscrutable, perhaps non-existent, problem (brute fact) with a bigger, but definitely existent, problem (an uncaused cause as the source of reason and, er, everything).

    "I was not aware of this but I am aware of irreligious modern philosophies so complex they aren’t verifiable. Demolish is a strong word for someone so uncertain."

    I'm not aware of any modern theist philosophers who defend the traditional teleological argument, but I'm always willing to read any offered. Just because a person isn't *certain* about his ontology and epistemology doesn't mean that he cannot see when a particular argument fails. That is a simple non sequitur.

    "Its relevant to creation as intention, otherwise why should anything but the non-personal deity exist so while not critical it’s certainly significant before even considering that science has no answer as to why anything exists at all."

    Again, I'm familiar with this argument from theists, and find it deeply unconvincing, but I'm happy if you find it satisfying. Asking these sorts of 'why' questions are natural to our make-up, but there is no reason to believe they are valid questions, even. Shocking as it might seem, there may be no 'why'. My advice is not to look for *your* answers in the *lack* of answers that science offers. That is really, literally, founding one's views on a void.

    "Anyway, you conceded my point that faith as defined correctly is rational so its time to wrap up. Also it seems to me that you may be a closed-minded agnostic if not a true atheist (to believe that god does not exist, which is irrational,as defined by the OED not wikipedia, rather than to lack belief which is really a form of agnostic), so I don’t want to expend more time on this."

    In my view most agnostics should call themselves atheists, if they are being honest, but this word carries a lot of baggage. Your definition is incorrect; you are describing an *anti-theist*, a subset of atheism. Certainly your (and the Catholic Church's) definition of faith ("Assent and adherence to divinely revealed truth") is rational, in the sense that if "divinely revealed truth" existed one could assent and adhere to it. I think I've demonstrated there is *significant* doubt over the existence of "divinely revealed truth". Well done for having found it though. But a more reasonable explanation might be that it's just your mind playing one of the clever tricks that humans have picked up down the ages.

    And a quote to leave you with?

    "Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them."

    All the best.

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