Faith: reflecting on evidence

Update:

This post has been edited and expanded. The full version can be found here.

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There seems to be a great deal of confusion among non-Christians about the meaning of the word “faith” in a Christian context. The prominent atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins writes that: “Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principle vice of any religion.” And further: “[whereas] scientific belief is based upon publicly checkable evidence, religious faith not only lacks evidence; its independence from evidence is its joy, shouted from the rooftops”. And thus we see that for Dawkins (and many atheists), religious faith is blind faith.

But such a view is totally at odds with the view of faith presented in the Bible and maintained throughout mainstream Christianity. The biblical narrative is full of references to faith based overwhelmingly on evidence. This was the whole reason that the apostle John wrote his gospel: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, NIV). Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, says that Dawkins’ definition of faith “certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers in history, nor most of those in my personal acquaintance.” Throughout the Bible we see this theme: you have been given evidence, so believe.

On the topic of evidence, we often see the charge that “Faith is opposed to science”. As both a scientist and a Christian, I find that to be patently false. Firstly, we must understand the rightful position of science on the topic. The great evolutionary proponent T. H. Huxley coined the word agnostic to describe not only his own personal philosophy, but also the necessary stance of science. He wrote,

“Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology.”

This is not to say that science can never contribute to faith. Among the central issues of the Christian credo are belief in the historical truth of certain events. I believe that Jesus was a real person, that he lived around 2000 years ago, that he was crucified under the orders of Pontius Pilate, then the Roman Procurator of Judea. I believe that God raised him from the dead, and that he appeared physically to hundreds of people after his resurrection. There are many other things that I believe about Jesus, but I offer these as a starting point, not only because they are all verifiable by historical and archaeological evidence, but because all my other beliefs about Jesus hinge on his death and resurrection. The apostle Paul, preaching to the gentiles in Athens, explains that the resurrection of Jesus was “proof to all” of God’s plans. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is even more explicit: “if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.” (1 Cor. 15:14, NLT). But the scientific contributions to the question of the death and resurrection of Jesus, principally through archaeology and textual criticism of the historical records, overwhelmingly endorse the beliefs I have stated above. There is evidence, so I believe.

On broader issues, such as the existence of a God who created the universe, science is in a far more difficult position. I have already discussed in a previous post how Stephen Jay Gould articulated so clearly that:

“Science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.”

The tools of science are unequipped to deal with the supernatural and the unobservable. Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate in Medicine, noted that:

“The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions … such as ‘How did everything begin?’; ‘What are we all here for?’; ‘What is the point of living?’”

Furthermore, for any postulated experiment to determine God’s existence, we have what I would term the isolation problem. That is to say, scientific experiments rely on experimental controls: if we wanted to determine the existence or lack of existence of God in an experiment, we would need another experiment in which God didn’t exist, to which we could compare our results. But God is present in the entirety of existence. He is not just the Creator but the Sustainer of the universe. Imagine a creature which lived its whole life under water and could not exist without water, attempting to eliminate “wetness” from an experiment.

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Acceptance of evidence: the real issue

In fact, the perceived lack of “evidence” for the Christian faith generally arises from an a priori decision that any evidence pointing towards the truth of Christianity must automatically be rejected. When the “Big Bang” theory was first proposed, it was met with staunch opposition from atheists on principle, rather than on scientific grounds, because it would lend support to the idea that the universe had a specific beginning, and thus force the issue of God’s creation into the picture. An endless universe could ignore the need to explain its beginning, but a universe with a definite and identifiable starting point could no longer bypass this issue. When the cosmic microwave background was discovered, the validity Big Bang theory was accepted as being conclusively demonstrated, but the same objectionists simply moved on to other semantic arguments and ignored the theological implications.

Jesus himself referred to this phenomenon: in chapter 16 of Luke’s gospel, he tells the story of a man who has died and is suffering in hell, and he begs that someone rise from the dead to go and warn his brothers of the truth. He is told that the prophets and the scriptures already give all the information his brothers need. But, he says, if someone from the dead goes to them, then they will believe. To which the reply comes:

“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31, NIV)

For those less insistent on keeping our eyes closed, every facet of the universe is a glorious testament to God’s creation. Even T. H. Huxley acknowledged that:

… true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which ‘are not dreamt of in our philosophy’.”

Or, as the psalmist phrased it:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1, NIV)

Is that a statement of science? No. But so much of what makes life glorious is inaccessible to science, and it really would be a shame to just ignore it all.

As for me, I do not take a blind leap of faith. The path ahead is thoroughly illuminated by historical evidence, scientific insight and personal experience, and I see clearly where I am choosing to walk.

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Related posts:

Believing and understanding

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

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47 thoughts on “Faith: reflecting on evidence

  1. I appreciated how you laid out the argument here. What I have found (and it would not surprise me that you have had the very same experience) is that regardless of what amount of evidence I present (arguments for God’s existence, manuscript, archaeological, literary, historical, etc.) none of it actually counts as evidence. Which of course indicates it is really not an issue of the mind but of the will.

    • Absolutely. Acceptance of evidence is an issue related to, but distinct from, existence and validity of evidence. Unfortunately, the two are far too seldom distinguished.

    • Absolutely, I find the exact same thing – the choice many people of faith (religious (R), spiritual (S) and entirely non-R/S) make to not admit evidence contrary to what they already believe. In most cases related to belief a priori assumptions predetermine the conclusion ahead of any verifiable evidence. There is ample evidence for the existence of non-human spiritual beings at work in ways that are observable.

      An yet the statement of faith by the priests of non-faith is that no evidence exists supporting religious/spiritual beliefs.

  2. How we define faith here is core to the issue. If you share my definition of faith here, you will know that all people have a faith position. Yes – even atheists. My definition of Faith: “Faith is the logical extension of evidence”. Yes, i’m sure this definition is as floored as the rest, but if you really capture my point here, what i’m trying to say is that faith is only a matter of orientating ourselves in the direction that our evidence has pointed us. It is here that us “faith heads” look beyond. I would argue that science finds itself in a very similar position and fails to clearly separate itself from faith. Because, in order that scientists even lift their eyes from what is to what could be, they must have some logical extension of the evidence they have been working with (hence the term ‘theory’ is born). This is how science makes new discoveries. The testing or falsification only comes after this. Not before. To even look up from the evidence and gaize into what is beyond it requires faith. It is that science makes its finest discoveries: its looks at the evidence, stretches it beyond (faith) and tests it. An so the unfolding tension of science and faith continue to leap frog from what is to what might be. Not in a way that is incompatible. But in a way that the former is inextricably relient on the latter. Not based on arbitrary, unreasonable, random leaps. But in a way that mounts the evidence before and after it.

    • Thanks for the contribution, Luke – I think your definition is a very useful one. Certainty is always an elusive quarry, and thus virtually all our lives are based on the kind of faith you mention.

      “Following the evidence to its logical extension” also implies continual re-assessment based on further evidence: if new information strongly indicates a different interpretation, the articles of our faith should likewise be revised. But we must be careful to consider the entirety of the evidence each time, not just the latest headline or charismatic voicebox.

  3. Thank you for this post; it has given me much to think about.

    There is only point I would like to comment on, and that your ‘isolation’ problem. I guess you base this on the comment by Stephen Jay Gould, who argues that science cannot have any say on God’s existence because God is outside of the natural realm in which science is designed to operate.

    I would agree with Gould if the god in question remains forever hidden and outside the realm of the natural. But the god of the Bible is often portrayed as a being who continuously steps into the natural world, either by conducting miracles (as recorded in the Bible) or by tweaking the natural order of things to answer prayers. Thus I would argue that Gould statement is not relevant to the Christian god at all and that claims of this god’s interaction with the natural world are definitely testable using the methods of science.

    In fact, you yourself write earlier in the post that scientific evidence in the form of historical evidence is available. Does this not run counter to Gould’s statement?

    Moreover, even if science was not able to detect the god of the Bible in any way, then we would have to ask ourselves what reason we would have to believe that such a god exists. How is a god who is not detectable at all different from a god that doesn’t exist?

    Those are my thoughts. By the way, I really like the non-confrontational and thoughtful way you present your arguments on this blog. I’ve enjoyed reading what you have written and I will visit often.

    • Hi Kevin,

      Thanks very much for your insightful comments – you make good points.

      My point with the “isolation” paragraph is that God is never “out” of the natural world. In the Old Testament we see Him being more or less explicit in His interaction with the Jewish people, but He is always present throughout the universe. What I’m really referring to is the sort of experiment which could, even in principle, attempt to “detect” God’s existence: if He is everywhere, there is nothing to compare our results against. He is not so much “outside of the natural realm” as pervasive throughout the natural realm.

      We can observe evidence of times when God has explicitly interacted with humanity specifically because that type of interaction is less frequent (not to say that He is disinterested the rest of the time, merely that the nature of His interaction is less clearly observable). Jesus’ time on Earth is an extreme example of this: God sent His son precisely once, so this is an event quite distinct from the rest of human history.

      What is less clearly distinguishable by scientific means is His sustaining presence throughout the universe: the laws of nature and physics that we observe appear to be universal, so we do not have isolated incidents where God is more or less explicitly involved in these fields.

      We must also recognise the different tools that are used between what can broadly be classified as the “experimental” sciences (eg. physics, chemistry) and the “historical” sciences (eg. archaeology, cosmology, evolutionary biology). The kind of evidence that I am talking about with regards to the “isolation” problem is specifically that which would be deduced from the experimental sciences, which rely on repeatability and experimental controls. Because of the reliance on experimental technique, they are not well-suited to detect something which cannot be isolated. The tools of the historical sciences, in contrast, are better equipped to deal with one-off occurrences, and thus the historical incidents of God’s explicit intervention into human history provide evidence that is consistent with those fields.

      I am delighted that you mentioned miracles in this regard, because that is actually a perfect example of mis-matched tools. We would love to apply the tools of physics and chemistry to such miracles as the transformation of water into wine, or the multiplication of loaves and fishes: however, the experimental sciences are not suited to explore these incidents. We can use historical accounts from witnesses, textual criticism, etc. to try and deduce whether the events are likely to have actually happened. We can play around experimentally in the lab (or even just from theory) and deduce that we have no idea how such a thing could be possible. But we cannot use chemistry to explore how a particular miracle occurred on that particular historic occasion.

      I hope that clarifies the “isolation problem” a little more.

  4. You seem to have a very strange notion of what constitutes evidence for aiding the establishment of what is probably true, probably accurate, probably correct.

    Remember, when it comes to truth claims about the natural universe and everything in it, we cannot jump to supernatural assertions and call these assertions an equivalent kind of evidence. There is a difference, no? How then can we figure out what this difference might be? Revelation? How about truth value? I like the truth. I think the truth is important.

    A simple rule of thumb is that if you cannot think of any way to falsify your claim, then your claim is merely an assertion and that’s where it will stay. That’s fine. It may be correct, but it may not. Because you cannot falsify the claim, there is no practical means at your disposal to verify whether or not the claim is true. And if you are okay with that, then admit (at least to yourself) that you don’t care about the truth regarding the claim. I’m okay with that, too, as long as you keep your assertions from being inserted without justification into the public domain where they have no business being peddled as truth. To do so makes you disingenuous and a danger to others.

    • Is there a way to falsify the suggestion that your brain is merely sitting in a jar somewhere, and all your sensory perceptions are illusions? Do you believe in a purely rigid materialism, and that your brain activity is simply the result of random firings at a sub-atomic level? Given the impossibility (a la Heisenberg) of ever describing exactly the quantum state of your entire brain, that sounds impossible to falsify.

      Historical sciences use the criteria of “weight of evidence” to determine the most likely explanation. I assume that there is such a thing as objective truth. Given that starting point, what is the most likely hypothesis to describe that truth?

      Following the evidence to its most likely conclusion does not require that I also propose a method of falsification. Appeal to the best explanation stands on its own as the most likely candidate for truth unless a better explanation can be offered.

  5. In such a world where my brain was sitting in a jar somewhere and all my sensory perceptions were illusions, there would be no material whatsoever… hence no brain, no jar. That’s how you falsify the claim.

    Rigid materialism? I hold to two views: philosophical naturalism where the material world that science can investigate is not only all that we can know but that it is all that there is to know), and the method we can rely on to inquire into the natural world is methodological naturalism, meaning that we can investigate claims only by a practical method that requires that hypotheses be explained and tested only by reference to natural causes and events. That’s the only way to find the mechanisms that link cause with effect. Claims beyond the natural cannot be examined by this method nor is it reasonable from a philosophical point of view to conclude that there is any reason to believe in anything supernatural, which by definition is simply unknowable.

    As for the brain, the evidence is very solid that what we call thinking and consciousness and mind IS what the brain DOES. Can that be falsified? Yes. Not only can we see consistent cognitive impairments resulting from very specific brain damage, but we can also reliably duplicate the kinds of transformative experiences people often attribute to an outside supernatural agency.

    Be careful with your terms. Objective truth is not a thing: it is a description that is completely accurate all the time every where (so far). Is this description accurate for some concepts? Absolutely!

    It is not consensus that determines what’s probably true, probably correct, probably accurate. It is the quality of the evidence and its predictive ability that informs the claim. Hence, consensus can change… for the right reason.

    My suggestion about falsification is not to ask you to provide a method but even a concept or hypothetical situation that could do the job. This is where religious belief usually has nothing in the pantry and requires… yup… a leap of faith: belief without evidence, belief not needing any evidence, the kind of belief that ONLY occurs in religious terms where this intellectual leap away from reason backed by evidence is a leap towards virtue, but a step where in every other human endeavor is an intellectual capitulation. And that’s very telling.

    • “That’s the only way to find the mechanisms that link cause with effect. Claims beyond the natural cannot be examined by this method nor is it reasonable from a philosophical point of view to conclude that there is any reason to believe in anything supernatural, which by definition is simply unknowable.”

      My point is that this methodology is only equipped to deal with what might be termed “the natural order of things”. Historical events are immune to this technique of investigation. Philosophical reasoning itself is immune to this technique.

      But let’s look at some evidential claims:
      “God created the universe” – totally opposed to the prevailing worldview since Aristotle, which held that the universe was infinite and immutable. But the evidence now points compellingly towards a specific moment of creation.

      “Jesus was crucified on the eve of the Jewish sabbath in around 30AD, under the authority of Pontius Pilate, then the Roman Procurator of Judea. His followers claim that he rose from the dead the morning after the Sabbath, that he appeared to them physically, interacted, spoke and ate with them. He appeared to hundreds of people on many occasions after his crucifixion, and these witnesses were prepared to die horribly (some of them many decades later) rather than refute their witness. Many of these witnesses were among those hostile to Jesus before his crucifixion.” – overwhelmingly endorsed by archaeology, historical study and literary criticism, including independent and often hostile witnesses and investigators.

      But of course, none of that matters because it’s not explicable by your understanding of “the true order of things”.

      • And exactly how is historical evidence immune to a ‘natural’ exploration of evidence? Reasoning itself IS natural, philosophy being one area of study. Your point?

        Evidence: testimonials are one kind of evidence… the poorest because it depends entirely on attribution by the subject. I know a guy who knows a guy who heard of a guy who was there and saw the miracle.

        But be that as it may, what kind of evidence would back up claims of supernatural powers of a historical figure? Testimonials? Sure, but we know they are the weakest kind. What else? What differentiates the claims for, say, Jesus, and the claims of any of the thousands who also have testimonials in their favour? These claims, by the way, continue to this day… especially in India. The same kinds of claims – fulfilling ancient prophecies, magically altering one substance into another, miraculous cures, rising from the dead, and so on. The major difference, of course, is our ability to test these claims today with scientific rigor and, lo and behold, not a single claim passes these tests. They don’t pass the tests today, which lends credence to the notion that perhaps these older ones would also not pass. So your reliance on historical testimonials must include some degree of skepticism. Perhaps these testimonials accurately relate Jesus’ powers… but perhaps they don’t.

        Can you think of any way Jesus could have established his supernatural power as the messenger of god in a way that would have revealed his godhood beyond an iffy level? Me, too. He could have done stuff that only a god could do, like write a message on the moon by means of moving mountains visible to the naked eye here on Earth, perhaps. You know, something much more than testimonials. Why show up in a nomadic illiterate goat herder culture rather than, say, China where literacy levels were quite high? Why not offer a solution to a math problem so far ahead of where that culture was mathematically so as to leave little doubt of a highly advanced peek into god-like abilities? The possibilities are huge and the historical record so sketchy that testimonials are poor fare indeed for revealing such a god.

        So it’s not a question of ignoring what passes for the best evidence believers have but understanding why it leaves so much room – unnecessary if the intent is to convince beyond a reasonable doubt – for healthy skepticism.

      • Solving a maths problem is more incredible that rising from the dead? Wow, that’s a tough maths course.

        Although the reasons that Jesus “showed up” in Israel had nothing to do with the current literacy rate, the historical accounts are in fact far more compelling for the fact that it was a diverse culturally and politically heterogeneous place. As a result, our eye-witness written accounts range from those close to Jesus to impartial observers to fiercely hostile opponents. The agreement between all these sources gives far more weight to the testimonies than could be ascribed to written accounts from a culturally homogeneous state with a powerful central authority, where consistency in an untrue story would have been easier. Of course, the narrative style of the Gospels didn’t exist in fiction for another 1500 years, but that’s an entirely separate point in their favour as historical accounts.

      • Yikes! These reply boxes keep getting so much smaller.

        Yes, solving math problems is better evidence than rising from the dead because the math stays as a constant reminder of something extraordinary and available to all to see for themselves, whereas rising from the dead is a priori… I believe the accounts that he rose from the dead, therefore rising from the dead is evidence that he rose from the dead. I’m sure you can see the problem here.

        And your attribution of why a messiah would show up in an illiterate goat herding nomadic society is may be true. Gee, I sure wish there was a way to test your explanation to see whether or not it was true. I’m sure you believe it to be true, and I’m sure you have faith in why it should be true, but your narrative is hardly overwhelming evidence that it IS true.

  6. “This is where religious belief usually has nothing in the pantry and requires… yup… a leap of faith: belief without evidence, belief not needing any evidence, the kind of belief that ONLY occurs in religious terms where this intellectual leap away from reason backed by evidence is a leap towards virtue, but a step where in every other human endeavor is an intellectual capitulation.”

    I realize my brain my be sitting in a jar somewhere, but there is a tendency in these type of discussions that gets repeated over and over again. Somebody can make articulate remarks and arguments on any number of ideas. Possibly even write coherently about philosophical methodology–however, when they get to the meeting of faith and evidence a different form of thinking seems to take over. What tends to follow is more of a rant than an argument.

    • It does rather resemble a stuck record. I could have sworn I wrote a post at one point explaining how my Christian faith is based on evidence and not on an empty cupboard.

      I really must see if I can find that article somewhere…

      • What you have written at first blush appears to be a reliance on evidence. And what might that be? The biblical narrative is full of references to faith based overwhelmingly on evidence.

        Overwhelming? Surely you jest.

        If the bible was indeed filled with overwhelming evidence, it would not be so filled with errors. I think it has something like 60 some odd references to the sun revolving around the Earth, claims the relationship of the radius to the circumference of a circle to be one to three, and so on. It suggests trees were created before the sun, and the list is long of mistaken claims and absurdities. As a source for authority of evidence, you may find it satisfactory. But to suggest that it is overwhelmingly filled by meaningful evidence to the god hypothesis reveals a very, very low skeptical bar (if any at all).

        And you have made a mistake in comprehension from my comment: I wrote that the empty pantry was related to falsification of religious truth claims for the existence of supernatural. Without any way to falsify these claims, what you are really doing is armoring your beliefs against any possibility whatsoever of ever changing your mind because there is absolutely nothing that you will accept as evidence against your beliefs.

        Think about that criticism very carefully.

        That’s the very definition of a closed mind and something you should ponder deeply.

        I know that nobody likes to hear from someone – especially someone with whom he or she disagrees – to grasp just how important that criticism is and why it is justified. Nobody likes to read or hear that he or she has a closed mind, but the fact of the matter is that if you cannot conceive of a way to change your mind – for the truth claim to be falsified – then it really is closed. It is closed to all comers, including reason. And that’s very clear, very personal evidence that your kind of faith that cannot be falsified is very dangerous not just to you but to all.

        Why do I write that?

        Because that’s exactly the mindset needed for good people to do terrible things and we see this played out over and over again. Your beliefs may indeed be true and I am willing to concede that the possibility exists. But it’s just as important to accept that your beliefs may be wrong. And if you take that possibility seriously, then YOU – not I – have to figure out a way how to allow for the possibility.

      • Hi tildeb,

        You seem to be struggling with my meaning a bit:

        The biblical narrative is full of references to faith based overwhelmingly on evidence. i.e., when the Bible refers to “faith”, it refers to confidence/belief based on strong evidence to support such confidence/belief.

        And contrary to your interpretation, I am not armouring myself against anything. I am simply assessing all the available evidence, and seeing where it leads. I am not ruling out large portions of historical and personal evidence because of an a priori adherence to a strict materialist worldview. This is, in fact, the very definition of an open mind. I explore all the evidence, I try to assess its validity and I am willing to follow it wherever it most convincingly leads.

        I have regularly questioned my faith. I am a scientist by profession, and I am not immune to the superficially logical appeal of a rigid materialism. But as I explore it further and research it more deeply, I ultimately find that its answers are less logical and convincing to my intellect than the Christian account of the nature of the universe.

      • No, I’m struggling with your meaning… your meaning is quite clear: the bible is an authority because it says it’s an authority and you believe it to be an authority. But it’s still a narrative mostly written after the fact full of the same kind of references we find active today attesting to god-like powers as well as all kind of factually incorrect truth claims. Yeah, so? Where the overwhelming evidence for the god hypothesis? In your mind set firmly in your belief. Take away your belief and your mind and what are we left with? A bunch of stories without any means to verify the truth claims. It is NOT based on “strong evidence” because there3 isn’t any… other than the very weakest kind called testimonials and personal revelation. Those simply are not strong evidence but dependent on attribution which may or may not be correct. Without means to verify whether these testimonials and revelations are indeed accurate, we are left with hearsay.

        And will you please stop calling my ‘worldview’ strict materialism? I’ve already written quite clearly what my approach is to gaining knowledge… it’s the same one you use in almost all cases except regarding your faith claims. That you exempt these claims from skeptical review is not adding to your cause but showing intellectual duplicity. I suspect strongly that you would not grant claims based only on testimonials and revelation an equal place at the table of knowledge in your science. And you know exactly why: people are often wrong in their attributions and, without any independent verification, claims remain just that… claims. That’s exactly the same case in your faith claims based on testimonials and revelation… they’re still just claims. But then, as a scientist, you know this to be true.

        And I have to seriously doubt THAT claim when you suggest that the “Christian account of the nature of the universe” makes better sense to you. That’s like saying you prefer Brazilian chemistry to Swedish. It’s incoherent.

  7. What I like about your suggestion Sentinel is that your statement about faith is a relational one – trust in any person (including Godde who is also a Person) is related to your history with that person and their reputation. That Christians extend their relationship to a community who experienced the same Godde should not present a problem at all to anyone. After all, humans build upon the contributions of others.

    That makes for a lot of evidence, evidence that cuts across cultures, worldviews, time and subjectivity placing its testability in the public and historical spheres. Can we test for Godde? Yes, Godde speaks and acts.

    That’s not to say that Christians today don’t test the validity of Godde or things, like Godde’s faithfulness and love and willingness to heal, etc., as they do – their experience today corresponds with reports others have made about the same Godde.

  8. tildeb :
    It is NOT based on “strong evidence” because there isn’t any.

    Tildeb, that’s a statement of faith contrary to actual evidence. You may not wish to admit the evidence, but it exists. A sweeping statement like the one you are making is not helpful to conversation or dialogue. You are defining faith in a particular way that is contrary to how it is defined by others. In that sense, EITHER you are not speaking about “faith” or they’re not. Your definition roots “faith” in fictions while others root “faith” in concrete and actual relationships, the experiential element as primary in their spirituality as well as that of the reports of their faith.

    Are you interested in listening and open to exploring the experiential and relational component in others experience?

    • No, it’s a factual statement, Tim. By all means prove me wrong and tell what this “strong evidence” is.

      I suspect you think I meant that there is no evidence. (That is not correct comprehension of what I wrote. I wrote “strong evidence.”) And a statement in the absence of evidence is a faith statement. If there is evidence of some kind, then it’s a truth statement subject to verification. Either the verification strengthens the truth statement or its lack of verification calls into question the veracity of the truth statement.

      The experiential element as a primary means of ‘evidence’ is highly dubious for verifying the attribution awarded by the person as an explanation of the experience. Again, the attribution can be right, but it can also be wrong. How can we know?

      Well, unless and until we can establish cause and effect and the mechanism by which the two are dependent, we can’t. And that’s why the attribution is so iffy. Notice also that the experience is still the experience but the understanding of what caused the experience is not helped if we simply assume that the attribution is correct without fully appreciating why the assumed attribution can just as likely be wrong. If we value what is true, then we cannot in good intellectual standing allow personal experience to be any measure of verification for the attribution. For that, we need stronger evidence.

      If dialogue is meant to only be in agreement in principle then we have a problem because Sentinel expresses many opinions with which I disagree. And I don’t disagree based on some contrary faith; I disagree because I think his reasoning is often weak and inaccurate. I am sure Sentinel will be thrilled to read this not least of which is because his hit count will go up!

      In addition, dialogue requires a shared language. The use of different meanings for words like ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ is often exchanged in mid stream of explanation whose alternative meanings are substituted to avoid the very problems of cohesion pointed out by skeptics. I will do my best to point this tactic out and keep my tendency to do the same to a minimum. This sleight-of-mind tactic needs exposure to keep the dialogue about religious issues honest. And I like to be honest. I think honesty is a virtue and intellectual honesty a duty.

      So when you accuse me of placing ‘faith’ – as in claims that are justified by attribution – in the same category as ‘fiction’ you are not correct. Attribution of cause is not the same meaning as evidence for cause. This is a huge problem to overcome dealing with the truth value of claims that cross the boundary between faith and truth. If we first assume that faith claims are true no matter what, then that’s that. Conversation is over. The mind is closed and intellectual honesty sent packing for the duration.

      If we wish to present faith claims as true because of evidence then that’s a whole new ball of wax subject to the rigors of honest intellectual inquiry and independent verification.

      My concern, Tim, is about what is true regardless of what I may believe is true. Can you (honestly) say the same? Or are you just looking for agreement? Which would you prefer from me: to agree with what’s true or simply my agreement?

      • Precisely, truth is public – but your making an assertion regarding faith and experience “that there is no factual or experiential foundation in support of introspective spirituality, e.g. those related to meditation, or extrovertive spirituality, e.g. those related to the self-revelation of transcendent spiritual beings.

        Have I somehow misread you? I’m sure the above statement both correctly interprets and expands your argument?

        However, both kinds of spiritual orientation are in fact well attested and they are so because of people’s experience not despite thereof. Hence your statement is not one of fact, or at least only factually true where there is no such experience and not true given that the universe is a bit broader than that and actually includes such experience.

        So, once again – are you interested in exploring such experiential foundations or not?

      • Tim, in response to my comments, why are you quoting what I have not said? Of course there can be evidence that someone has had an experience. My point, which seems to have eluded you, is that how we attribute the cause of that experience is not necessarily true, not necessarily accurate, not necessarily correct.

        I have written that our attributions alone are just as likely wrong as right, and that by recognizing this fact allows for justified doubt to the veracity of truth claims made by this method. This does mean that I am negating the experience itself, nor its effects, but it does reveal that the cause we attribute to such experiences without other means of verification can be wrong. Spectacularly wrong.

        When we make a claim that uses testimonials and revelation as the primary source of our evidence, we are depending on how these people have attributed cause. (Francis Collins: I saw three waterfalls so I believe Jesus really, really, really was born of a virgin.) That makes these forms of ‘evidence’ the least likely to be true, accurate, and correct.

        When we believe that the attribution is correct without some other measure of verification, we run into epistemological problems, meaning we run into trouble determining how we can know something. (How do three waterfalls establish the virginity of a mother?) As soon as that belief crosses into the realm of some supernatural explanation, (because the angel sent by god to make Mary pregnant said as much) we have moved beyond any epistemological means for verification.

        For example, let’s take demonic possession. People believe that demons are real. For evidence, they turn to testimonials and revelation and swear such critters exist because they note radical changes in behaviour and attribute those changes to a supernatural agency… in this case demons. If we grant weight to this kind of evidence, then we have no means to figure out how such a thing as demonic possession is possible, no epistemological method to associate true cause and its effect; instead we must assume that the attribution is correct. And when we act in the real world on these kinds of beliefs – like they do in several African countries where thousands of children really, really, really are murdered because they are accused of being possessed by demons – we impede our ability to gain knowledge. Consider someone having an epileptic or diabetic seizure and tell me how belief in demonic possession aids in establishing true cause and effect when one is equally willing to grant the attributions of testimonials and revelation equal weight? Why should we investigate blood sugar levels and light sensitivity when we already know that these people are demonically possessed?

        I sincerely hope you understand my point here: when a truth claim depends on attribution without any means to verify it, then we are leaving the realm of knowledge and entering the world of assumption and assertion and faith.

      • Tildeb, “quoting and expanding on” yes. From your response I don’t believe I’ve misread you at all.

        My question remains – are you interested in exploring the evidence or not?

      • So, how would you like to take “demonic possession” and explore it? Are you happy with accusation alone and an a priori assumption that remote controlling a human being is not possible (with science I believe we are getting closer to being able to do so)?

        Have you participated in any first hand experiences related to the demonic and can you make any first hand reports? It sounds to me like logical and hearsay are the substance of your faith?

        Even Buddha would smile condescending on your argument: “So Vasettha, in the absence of hearsay and conjecture what first hand experience do you have?”

        Even within a religious framework, e.g. the New Testament, a distinction is made between possession and insanity and disease, with only same cases a demon being linked to the latter two. I guess those more representative of the Christian faith can actually agree or disagree with my NT reference.

        To me it sounds like there is a developed framework worth actually exploring as opposed to the argument you’ve proposed. Remember, citing unhealthy examples is different to working with healthy examples. The sheer volume of fake money in the world, no matter how much pain it produces, does not take away from the reality of non-fake money.

      • Even Buddha would smile condescending on your argument:
        “So Vasettha, in the absence of hearsay and conjecture what first hand experience do you have?”

        I love it 🙂

      • I’m actually quoting Buddha. The Tevijja Sutta is a major text and one that specifically addresses this topic and one well worth reading.

      • Including the condescending smile?

        Little did I know that I was arguing with Buddha, but even if I were, and he insisted that testimonials and revelation were “overwhelming” and “strong” evidence, I wouldn’t change a word and would expect a well-reasoned response.

      • I am doing my level best to explain why the the kind of ‘evidence’ put forward by sentinel as a justification for holding religious beliefs is really mere attribution. Dawkins is quite correct correct to label the conclusions drawn from attribution alone to be useless because it cannot be verified.

        If exploring attribution is what you mean by ‘exploring’ then you are being deceitful because you have already chosen a very particular conclusion based on very particular attributions (while rejecting others based on exactly the same criteria), which I categorically reject as a meaningful avenue for honest inquiry. One cannot be intellectually honest about inquiry, start with the answer and then plug in only the data that seems to best inform inform it while rejecting all contrary evidence. That’s not exploration; that’s cherry-picking. Give me an epistemology we can both respect as meaningful and I am all ears. But understand why the epistemology you currently use is so badly flawed. That’s what I have attempted to do.

      • Regarding #28, you’ve got it exactly backwards. The default position (if one has any respect for honest inquiry to determine what is true) is that supernatural critters are figments of the imagination. They are not real; their ‘existence’ is the inevitable result of mistaken attributions.

        I don’t need to explore that baseline position at all. It falls on those who make the extraordinary claim to the contrary, that demons are factual, that they are real and active, to prove their case. But clearly, for you to rely on more attribution as if this were ‘strong’ and ‘overwhelming’ evidence when it is nothing of the kind, is no exploration at all. It is a position of intellectual capitulation, a waving of the the flag that surrenders reason to superstitious nonsense. But by all means, if you have evidence that is meaningful about the reality of demons, I – along with the world – await your case with eager anticipation. Until then, your kind of ‘evidence’ is exactly that which empowers the justification for killing children so identified as ‘possessed’ on this day here in the real world… where such justification as mere attribution about the existence of demons is taken to its logical conclusion.

        My question is, how can you disagree with this barbaric practice if you so willingly support the kind of bad reasoning that informs it?

      • Regarding #30

        What “is” simply is, however whether one has access to it or not and most things lie beyond one’s immediate horizon of knowing.

        As Buddha said, “If you Vassetta have not faced one yourself, and only have conjecture and hearsay to go on, clearly you have nothing to add.”

        😉

  9. timvictor has set the parameters of the debate very well. What happens is somebody decides they will make the rules, they will define the terms, they will set the bar–and then determine your arguments don’t fit the criteria–therefore you are wrong.

  10. “self-revelation of transcendent spiritual beings.”

    You mean like jasper the friendly ghost? or does it have to be a spiritual being that only other people know about? If it is a spiritual being that only other people know about – can you draw it? What colour eyes does it have? Can you describe it – can we do double blind trials on all the people who have seen god an ask them to describe his image?

    Would I get very far? Or would I get some ambiguous reply like “you see god through the love in your own eyes’

    or

    ‘you do not see god for he sees you with his love’

    Is it the same spiritual being that all believers are ’self-reverlating’ ? Or can anyone imagine anything they like and say that it is the truth?

    • What you are doing is understandable – allowing your worldview, your horizon of knowing, to provide the model questions and answers. Sentinel has not defined the link between experience and faith the way you’ve put it and I would happily, along with you, disparage either of the views you’ve put forward.

      No, I don’t “mean like jasper the friendly ghost” or through the silly kind of logic you mention where someone ‘makes up the meaning’ based on conjecture and speculation and imagination alone.

      The “self-revelation of transcendent spiritual beings” is a category emerging from applying grounded theory to the study of spiritual experience.

      • Tim writes self-revelation (as if there is any other kind) is a category emerging from applying grounded theory to the study of spiritual experience.

        Really? Revelation is an emerging category that is somehow increasing our knowledge? I think you mis-speak the truth.

        I don’t like to use words like ‘epistemology’ if I don’t have to, but in this case it is central to Tim’s claim. What emerging epistemology allows revelation to be grounded in some kind of useful theory? He says/she says is theoretically grounded? Come on. Throwing in these words sounds good – it sounds sort of ‘sciency’ but is still quacking like the superstitious attribution duck it really is when it comes to studying the ‘spiritual’ experience as evidence for supernatural agency.

        Let’s be very clear here: attribution of cause to some supernatural agency by means of a ‘spiritual’ experience is pure un-grounded, non-theoretical, superstitious speculation. If you decide to be honest, you will soon find that the only game in town grounded (in) theory to the study of (the) spiritual experience is called neuroscience. It directly and reliably links and maps spiritual experiences to a brain event located in very specific part of our brains. Lots of excellent research has been done regarding these experiences without a shred of evidence to justify any outside supernatural agency causing the event. As a matter of a fact, a ‘spiritual’ experience can be reliably, repeatedly, and artificially induced by highly directed magnetic waves that interfere with normal neurological functioning. (Isn’t that telling?) How is this possible if we require an outside supernatural agency for the cause of the experience?

        Look, if you actually want to inquire about cause and effect, you cannot continue to rely on assuming the truth of your attributions that involves some kind of oogity boogity. That assumption impedes the gaining of knowledge and promotes superstitious nonsense that has very real and very unpleasant – even tragic – consequences in the real world today all in the name of fueling a belief set that properly belongs to the Iron age when knowledge was hard to come by. Today, we know better.

        We know that knowledge is not furthered by superstition. End of story. We know that cause and effect needs a mechanism and we can successfully find this causal chain in all natural events. The spiritual event is no different because it occurs in the natural world by means of natural biological processes that can be understood using the epistemology we call cause-mechanism-effect.

        Our explosion of knowledge in the past 300 years based on exactly this approach works and it works well. We can tackle unknown effects and establish causation based on the natural world and we can identify the natural mechanisms that link cause with effect in spectacularly successful ways.

        Our knowledge in medicine, for example, by first rejecting superstitious attributions has yielded the elimination of certain deadly diseases. This epistemological approach works and works reliably well. No supernatural belief set has come close to achieving anywhere near this increase in medical knowledge.

        Our knowledge in mechanics has propelled us safely into the Space age and allowed near instantaneous communication to become a reality. This epistemological approach works and works reliably well. No supernatural belief set has come close to achieving anywhere near this increase in mechanical knowledge.

        Our knowledge of biology has has propelled us into understanding how life itself has come to be. No supernatural belief set has come close to achieving anywhere near this increase in cellular knowledge.

        Our knowledge of electrical engineering has allowed various digital technologies to mushroom into establishing unparalleled interconnectedness, remote sensing, and even the creation of virtual worlds. No supernatural belief set has come close to achieving anywhere near this increase in digital knowledge.

        There is nothing but mounting evidence that your attributions of supernatural intervention are not only simply wrong but fading link to an ignorant past. And furthermore, you insistence that revelation is as meaningful as a path to knowledge as is methodological naturalism (Cause-Mechanism-Effect) is delusional. Belief in supernatural agency yields zero knowledge, zero reliability, zero meaningful explanations that are reliably applicable. But belief in supernatural agency is a show stopper when it comes to honest inquiry that seeks to know, that seeks what’s true, what reliably works in the real world. Revelation for supernatural interventionist agencies, by comparison, is a belief set that causes harm, spreads ignorance, and promotes superstition. And that approach by no stretch of the imagination is any kind of study grounded in (knowledge-based) theory. Quite the opposite is blatantly true.

  11. “In fact, the perceived lack of “evidence” for the Christian faith generally arises from an a priori decision that any evidence pointing towards the truth of Christianity must automatically be rejected.”

    Sounds like some good ole presuppositionalist apologetics to me! Ever read Cornelius Van Til? I think you might enjoy him. You should also check out James Spiegel’s “The Making of an Atheist” (I reviewed it here: http://jwwartick.com/2010/03/23/book-review-the-making-of-an-atheist-by-james-s-spiegel/ )

  12. tildeb :Now you are projecting what Buddha would think, feel, and do? Why doesn’t this surprise me?

    I don’t suppose anyone would believe me if I said the flying spaghetti monster is interested in this debate?

  13. Pingback: Faith and Experience « tim victor's musings

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