Faith and rationality: a comic and a quote

XKCD-debugger

Science requires faith.

I realise that statement will upset people, but those are the facts. The comic above, from the excellent xkcd, presents the issue particularly well. To do science at all, we must at the very least have faith in our rationality and the ability of our brains to discover truth. Faith in the regularity of the universe helps, too.

Continue reading

Advertisements

The Heathen Manifesto – a quick review

Over in the Guardian‘s website, prominent atheist Julian Baggini has written a Heathen Manifesto in which he calls for atheists everywhere to stop insisting on a polarised society and try to listen a little more to what he calls the “moderate middle”, those who lack religious belief but are also turned off by the froth and vitriol of Dawkins et al.

As Baggini puts it in his introduction:

“This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.”

I rather like Baggini. More than many other atheist writers he is willing to conduct a reasoned dialogue rather than simply engaging in posturing and rhetoric. And I was very interested in his manifesto, so let’s go through it briefly. I’ve kept his headings to give this some sort of structure, and inserted my own comments at various junctures. Baggini’s manifesto is in italics, my own insertions are in normal typeface. Some sections have been trimmed for brevity.

. Continue reading

God and the “God particle”

The Telegraph has an interesting short piece from Alistair McGrath today. He looks at the parallels between the faith in the Higgs boson and faith in God, both based on explanatory power rather than direct experiemental observation. He concludes:

“Some tell us that science is about what can be proved. The wise tell us it is really about offering the best explanations of what we see, realising that these explanations often cannot be proved, and may sometimes lie beyond proof. Science often proposes the existence of invisible (and often undetectable) entities – such as dark matter – to explain what can be seen. The reason why the Higgs boson is taken so seriously in science is not because its existence has been proved, but because it makes so much sense of observations that its existence seems assured. In other words, its power to explain is seen as an indicator of its truth.

“There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic. Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world…

“There’s more to God than making sense of things. But for religious believers, it’s a great start.

.

Read the rest of the article here:

Higgs boson: the particle of faith

.

Faith is a part of life

In my last post, I wrote about what “faith” means in a Christian context. It’s a complex and multi-faceted term, but it is important to appreciate that faith is not just an aspect of Christianity. It is a part of life.

Theologian Tyron Inbody wrote the following:

“…faith is a dimension of the human existence as such. There can be no human life without the presence of faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt but nihilism – the loss of order, meaning and purpose in life… The scientist cannot operate apart from faith – faith in the dependability of nature, the orderliness and intelligibility of the universe, the unity of nature and the harmony of its laws. Social life is impossible apart from faith. We cannot exist without elemental trust in each other. If you doubt this, consider what one terrorist attack can do to undermine our confidence in the social order. And we act as if this social order is to some degree moral. We assume and affirm that there are things we ought to do and things we ought not to do. Although we may not agree on which things are which, we act with moral demands that are binding. These beliefs point to the fact that we cannot exist as humans apart from faith. They are justified not because they are demonstrable but because we cannot live without them. They constitute a primordial faith.” (The faith of the Christian church: an introduction to theology)

.

More specifically, science depends on faith.

Continue reading

A theoretical faith

The title of this post contains a pair of words that can be difficult to nail down. Let’s take them one at a time:

.

Theory

In common parlance the word “theory” is used to denote something purely conceptual, usually in contrast to something which has been implemented in the real world. This causes difficulty when referring to scientific theories, because in science, the word carries somewhat different implications. Scientific explanations for observed phenomena start as hypotheses, which are basically conjecture. After more testing and data collection, if the hypothesis appears to be useful in explaining the data and predicting results, confidence in the explanation increases. Once there is a strong weight of supporting evidence, we start to refer to the explanation as a “theory”.

The American National Academy of Sciences describes the distinction in usage thus:

“In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by [data] gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena…”

So it is understandable that scientists become frustrated with the dismissal of a scientific theory with phrases like, “oh, it’s just a theory”. This sort of language shows a grave misunderstanding of the subject.

.

Faith

Likewise, in common parlance, “faith” is often understood to mean “a belief without evidence”. But in the Christian context, faith carries very different connotations. Theologian Tyron Inbody (in The faith of the Christian church: an introduction to theology) notes three uses of “faith” within Christianity:

  • Assent: we believe that God has revealed Himself to us and can be known personally. This aspect of faith is largely intellectual: we are presented with God’s assertions about Himself (in the Bible, for instance), we decide that they are trustworthy and assert that they are true.
  • Trust: we believe that God will honour His promises, and that He is reliable.
  • Loyalty: we strive to ‘live out our faith’. In this context: “To have faith is… to obey Jesus; it is to be loyal in life and death to the God whom we meet in Jesus Christ.”

Although these three aspects of Christian faith are distinguishable, they are also inseparable. Christian faith is inextricably entwined with understanding: we have knowledge and understanding of God from personal experience, Scripture and the community of believers, and this forms the basis of our trust in God. Inbody writes:

“Faith in the New Testament means belief, specifically belief in God’s Word in Scripture. To have faith is to assent or to give credence; it is to believe. Faith refers to our acceptance of the message of the gospel… Faith means ‘belief in and acceptance of His revelation as true… an act of intellect assenting to revealed truth.”

The Christian faith is not divorced from reason: it is inseparable from reason. But as Thomas Aquinas explained, it is not just an intellectual exercise: it is also an act of will. I decide that certain things are true, and I choose to act on that belief.

.

A theoretical faith

Now, why have I put these two difficult words together?

Well, my personal exploration and acceptance of the Christian faith was similar in many ways to the development of a scientific theory. From the tentative hypothesis that Christianity is true, I sought more data with which to test this conjecture. The central elements of Christianity are the claims about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I found the evidence of his death and resurrection convincing enough to explore further.

A scientific theory is a framework which helps to explain observed phenomena. What about Jesus’ life and teachings? Do they make sense of the world I experience?  The framework of Christianity explains the world that I see around me more coherently than any other.

Of course, we should seek to challenge any theory to test its robustness, so I do this with my faith. The “problem of evil” is often considered the biggest counter to Christianity: Given that we observe evil in the world, how can we believe in the existence of a God who is both loving and all-powerful? I explore this question, and I come to a remarkable conclusion: Firstly, I find in Christianity a compelling and convincing framework to explain the coexistence of evil in this world and the Christian understanding of God. Secondly, if I try to remove God from the picture, I don’t even know what the word “evil” means. It turns out that the “challenge” becomes still further support for my beliefs. And so my faith grows. The more that I test it, the more compelling it becomes.

Christianity also claims that we can experience God personally. Here we must move to the “belief in”. I move from a position of intellectual assent and step out: I seek to meet with God through prayer and personal experience. He meets me. The God I encounter personally resonates completely with the God of my intellectual assent. My faith grows.

From my experience, my belief in God, comes my loyalty to God. I have found that if I seek to live my life in accordance with His will and listening to Him, my life is a much better place. He has shown Himself to be faithful and good.

.

I do not think that my personal experiences are unusual: in fact, I would say that the process I have described is analogous to the faith of most any Christian. The details will be a bit different, of course. St Paul had a rather more dramatic starting point for his faith, but he still based it on beliefs about God: specifically, beliefs that Jesus was God and that he was resurrected from the dead. Paul’s belief in and loyalty to God were a response to this.

Christian faith intrinsically contains a rational and evidentiary basis. N. T. Wright, the bishop of Durham, writes:

“I cannot… imagine a Christianity in which the would-be Christian has no sense, and never has had any sense, of the presence and love of God, or the reality of prayer, of their everyday, this-worldly life being somehow addressed, interpenetrated, confronted, embraced by a personal being understood as the God we know through Jesus.”

For a final description of faith in a Christian context, I close – as is often the case – with C. S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:

“Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”

.

—————————————

Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Believing and understanding

Chesterton on Miracles

.

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Update:

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

—————————————

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.

.

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.

.

—————————————

Related posts:

Believing and understanding

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

.