Over at PZ Mwahaha's, a reader named Observer popped up with a comment in the middle of an exchange related to belief and an interview given by John Haught (shown in the picture at right). Haught's a Catholic theologian who's been an evolution-friendly voice within the pews, someone that I as an advocate for evolution find congenial.

However, a recent interview described at the Apostle Paul's place finds him waxing....vaguely....about vagueness, seemingly the very stereotype of the literal theologian whose torturing of the text manages to elide every drop of supernaturalism out of the old Bibble. It's interesting to watch some of the criticism, and quite a bit of it appears valid on the face of it. Some of it appears less so, and so I have found myself happily embroiled with other Pharyngulans.

But in the middle of all this, Observer writes:

I am enjoying some of your commentary, but until you actually describe what it is you believe, or what it is you believe non-fundie theologians believe, how much farther do expect this conversation to go?

It's a fair question, and I in essence shared a few thoughts about my experience over there and then directed any interested reader to visit me here and look for posts labeled 'Behind The Curtain', and comment, if they so desire. So that's the gist of it, but here's some of the juicy details:

Regular readers of Pharyngula may know that I am a poor spokesman for organized religion, precisely because I tend to regard faith-based claims as not justified by evidence. I'm not sure so much if that's due to any particular intellectual consistency (my critics would say 'no'), or whether it's just an aspect of my personality. At any rate, I would make a very poor sheep.

Some very bright people here have suggested that I might be in the 'pre-atheist' stage. I mull that over quite a bit. Another poster here with a fascinating personal history involving Spiritualism has written rather movingly and persuasively about the capacity for personal self-deception where faith experience is concerned. I think about that quite a bit, especially when I am involved in faith-centered activities. So it would be dishonest of me to pretend that I have the final word, that I am utterly convinced that my own faith experience is entirely valid, and I find much of the discussions here on belief etc. to be valuable and clarifying.

Since I am a guest here, however, I draw the line at either pushing or directly exploring my own personal beliefs in this forum. For those who are interested in such things, for whatever reason, can visit my blog and peruse posts under 'Behind The Curtain', and (if they like) leave comments. I would welcome criticism.

And I would!


Ian said...

I find myself thinking that I am less "theistic" than many an atheist...but that's ok with me. I consider myself Christian, and think that the whole issue of defining "what is God" is irrelevant. It makes no difference to me whether God has an existence independent of human imagination. Doesn't matter to me one way or the other.

Of course, I found PZ's caricature of liberal theology to be rather annoying. He's such a biblical literalist :)

C. S. "Stan" Stephens said...

It is not necessary to depart from rationality when considering the realities that are not empirically testable. These realities include some thiings that atheists call "universals", because they are valid but no-one can explain why. Some of these universals are math, the laws of physics, subjectives such as "internal experience", the ability to discern, and so on. These things are not verifiable using empiricism, therefore, according to the Naturalism / Materialism meme, they cannot exist.

Rationally we know that they do exist, so Naturalism and Materialism, while correct within their physical domain, are incorrect about the limits of realitiy.

In other words, there is more to be known than Naturalism / Materialism can sdmit to, becasue of the arbitray limits that these philosophies impose upon themselves.

To admit that the reason for math to be valid universally is "transcendent" (beyond empiricism), is too painful for the A /M to accept.

Demanding that the source of universals "show himself" or be denied, is not a rational position.


Stan said...

Here are two definitions to consider:

(1) Empiricism declares a self-imposed limit on the range of real issues that it can test, repeat and verify. It self limits to issues that are physical.

(2) Naturalism declares that it knows conclusively that there is no reality beyond that which is addressed by empiricism.

Empiricism makes no claim on the size and scope of reality; it merely limits its own scope of investigation.

Naturalism is a claim of absolute knowledge of the set [ !reality] (i.e. “not reality”). And it claims that the set [!reality] does not exist. This is clearly impossible, because no-one can have knowledge of that which doesn’t exist. In fact, proving non-existence of [ not X ] is futile. And especially futile in regards to meta-Naturalist entities that we do know:

Meta-Naturalistic Entities:
(1) Mathematics is universally true, for no apparent physical reason.
(2) Natural “laws” are universally true for no apparent reason.

There are many of these “universals”, these two will do in order to get a conversation started.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Gentlemen, thank you for your comments. They are much appreciated. Don't take this the wrong way, but I was also hoping for some critique of theism. Let me play the proverbial Advocate...

Ian, if the independent existence of God apart from human imagination has no effect on your belief, what (if anything) could lead you to abandon Christianity?

Stan: A couple of questions....

1) Granted that there is a distinction between empiricism and naturalism, does empiricism still map on to or boil down to methodological naturalism in practice?

2) Would the existence of a vast multiverse undermine the significance of the 'universals' that you appeal to as demonstrating the reality of a realm outside the purview of naturalism/materialism? Why or why not?

I look forward to you gentlemen's respective replies.

Ian said...

Scott - I spent 20 years as an atheist, but part of me was longing for something else. Having rejected Christianity when I was 9 or 10, I had no interest in going back there, but I spent a lot of time looking at Islam and Hinduism. They just didn't quite fit for me. My initial conversion was born of conversations and the experience of reading Matthew. I could call it a "born again" experience, but only if it is shorn of its conservative connotations. And since then, my commitment to the church has grown at the same time as my understanding of theology has led me to a place where the reality of God is unconnected to whether God exists independent of people.

The threats to my Christianity - probably Buddhism (which I haven't really explored) and a Karen Armstrong-inspired "freelance monotheism". Or I might wake up one Sunday morning and say "this is dumb" and go back to bed. There's nothing wrong with atheism. But this is more fun.

Stan said...

Naturalism, as it is commonly thought of, is philosophical in nature. It is a declaration of the limits of reality. Methodological Naturalism is identical to empiricism I suppose, if it says nothing about the limits of reality. But there is no reason to call it Methodological Naturalism that I can see, other than to confuse the issue by having two names for the same thing.

It is interesting that the rabidly rationals resort to story telling to try to eliminate uncomfortable information. When they show me another universe, then I would be able to discuss it. Multiverses are exactly the same cloth as the Flying Spaghetti Monster that the Athesit community loves to toss around: both are fabrications, fictions which are used as if their very imaginary existence falsifies some premise of the opponent.

Postulating infinite universes with infinite permutations of internal contents is of no concern that I can see with regard to "universals" within our universe. For example postulating another universe where 2 + 2 = 19 has no meaning to us, or effect upon us. Another example, a universe where there is no consistencey in logic, in math, in physical laws, also has no effect on us.

Paul Davies said:
"The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse."

But let's talk about Evidence, and the need for it, the validation of it, and the range / scope of it. Would you care to go first? If not, I would cheerfully do so.

Bertrand Russell said that we should never believe anything for which there is no evidence.

According to John Locke, a mark of a rational person is "the not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proof it is built upon will warrant."

According to David Hume, "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence."

W.K. Clifford:“To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

I appreciate the time and space to discuss these things.

Stan said...

I think that I didn't fully address your question about multiverses being addressable as entities "beyond empiricism". It appears to me that when one steps outside the boundaries empiricism, the need for a definition of "evidence: non-empirical", becomes urgent. That's what I was driving at in my adjacent comment.

Here is an example of a starter definition for "evidence": accurate representation / demonstration of reality; ground for belief. (The last part, "ground for belief", is from Webster's Unabridged, 1979.)

This is clearly true but likely insufficient.

The reason the definition of "evidence" is so important is because of the inverse of Anthony Flew's original challenge:

"What evidence would it take to make you disbelieve in Atheism?"

So we must be very careful about what counts as evidence, and what does not count.

Again, thanks for the chance to discuss these things,

Stan ("40 Year Atheist)

Stan said...

OK, one more comment...
Scott, I won't try to be a advocate for theism, because the discussion has not come anywhere near that level just yet. I think that the progression starts with Atheism / Empiricism, and then addresses transcendency; if transcendency is allowed, then the limits of transcendent reality are addressed. If limits are allowed, then transcendent entities might be examined using the rules for "evidence, non-empirical".

Hopefully we would arrive at a method of discernment whereby we could discriminate rationally between entities that are "very likely valid", and those other entities that are not likely valid.

I'm very interested to see where this goes!

(40 Year Atheist)

Anonymous said...

Stan (and others) - I am curious about your position, but am horrible about communicating on blogs (even my own LJ). I have started a thread on a forum that I visit and can keep up with if you (or anyone) is interested. I am not sure if a link would work, but the post can be found at http://www.iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?p=5049930#post5049930 if anyone is interested. Thanks no matter what anyone decides.