Thursday, December 22, 2005

Do Religion and Truth Mix?

There are many religions and belief systems out there competing for followers. Many claim to be uniquely true and that other beliefs are mistaken. Obviously they cannot all be true, and for those that claim to be uniquely true, at most one can be true. Many very smart people are ardent followers of these conflicting belief systems, and if at most one is true, then a very large number of people are deluded in their beliefs. Hence I conclude that knowing the truth must be difficult and require careful searching.

Now if I am to choose a belief system, I want it to be true. However there isn’t an objective way to prove the truth of any of the systems. Hence at the least I will demand that my belief system value the truth, recognize the difficulty in finding it, and encourage its followers to be honest truth-seekers. Without these characteristics, I would have very little confidence that the belief system is true.

With this goal in mind, I will examine Christianity, and in particular evangelical Protestantism, as that is the system I am most familiar with. Many other religions share similar characteristics, and in a future post it would be interesting to compare them with this consideration in mind. The following are the characteristics relevant to knowing the truth that I’ve identified:
  1. The chief source of knowledge of the Christianity is revelation through individuals by God. This is how the main tenets of belief are acquired including how the bible was created. Unfortunately, there is no way for others who weren’t the direct receivers to test whether or not the message was directly from God. Actually even the individuals who got the original revelation cannot know for sure that it was from God (perhaps the voice they heard had some other source). Various tests like consistency with other revelation, miracles, prophecy, good works etc. all fail to confirm the divine origin (as all these could have other explanations). Ultimately one must simply accept the claim by the prophets, writers or canonizers to their divine authority. This secret method of obtaining truth without an independent observer concerns me.
  2. Empirical testing of the chief claims of Christianity is not possible. These claims include the characteristics of God, a future judgment, reward in heaven or punishment in hell, and so forth. Empirical validation is crucial in many fields as it gives an objective evaluation of the claims, but there is no such objective means for testing truth in Christianity. This is another reason for concern.
  3. Signs and miracles have been used, and continue to be used, as validation of the teachings. Unfortunately, as I argued in a previous post, at most these demonstrate power, not the truth of views expressed by the miracle workers. It is disturbing to me that these are assumed in the bible and by others as proof of the correctness of the messages. This I think makes its truth questionable.
  4. There is no way to disprove the faith or its claims. At first, this seems to be a strength, but in science if one proposes a theory that cannot be disproved, then it is considered an empty theory that gives no useful information. While Christianity makes many statements about the world, they are all sufficiently vague so not to be testable or about entities or events that cannot be accessed. Let me ask: what statement could one test that if false would disprove Christianity. This inherent vagueness and multiplicity of meaning of statements is makes me wonder about the truthfulness of Christianity.
  5. A host of doctrines is assumed as priors that cannot be questioned. These doctrines can be quite elaborate and must be accepted without any test. They include doctrines on God’s existence, his character and how he relates to people. Some doctrines are questioned by use of the bible, but this relies on other doctrines of the scripture and its interpretation. I think honest truth-seeking would start with minimal assumptions, and rest all these claims about God and the bible on gathered evidence. Hence rather than doctrines one would have observations and deductions – and these could surely be analyzed and improved as knowledge grows. Christians typically strongly object to proposals like this which might “water down” the message. However, if truth is important, rather than certainty, then making observations and deductions will get one there rather than defining doctrines.
  6. If one asks on what basis one should believe, the answer is: “Accept the claims on faith.” A common line of advice is: “Pray that God would convince you of the truth of the message, and then if you are convinced, this confidence itself is itself evidence of the truth of the message.” That is, confidence in one’s belief is crucial to being a follower. I can see how this is useful for motivating followers, but confidence is a strange test: surely one could easily be confident in something false or have faith in a falsehood. Faith and confidence are not a good test for truth, and I suspect could easily lead people away from truth.
  7. Invariably deep questioning, careful criticism, and doubting are discouraged by Christianity. At best these are things one must get over in order to develop in one’s faith. But it is strange that any true system would fear or discourage these. In science these are encouraged, and from these new and better ideas emerge. I can see how falsehood would fear these things, but truth should have no fear of probing analysis.
  8. An enormous carrot is held up for those who maintain the faith: eternal joys in heaven, and a brutal stick held over those who would disbelieve: eternal punishment in hell. Is it really possible to fairly assess the truth of one’s beliefs if one fears going to hell by making a mistaken conclusion from the evidence? I have experienced the fear of hell as I questioned aspects of my faith and for a while it kept me back from my inquiries. But in the end I decided that I would pursue truth foremost, and let God do what he likes to me. I find it hard to believe a true system would use these kind of measures to maintain believers.
  9. Followers focus on converting the unbelievers and seekers, and on maintaining their own faith. There is no open discussion on the truth or falsehood of their own beliefs. If truth is difficult to achieve, then surely people should be spending much more time analyzing the bases of their own beliefs than trying to convince others to believe the same.
  10. One typically joins a community of believers. This is a major strength of a religion: one gains company, friends, supporters etc. That is, so long as one maintains the faith. If one openly rejects the faith, then one loses one’s standing and ones ability to participate. This is another major stick held up against those who might disbelieve. I think this is unfortunate as it discourages independent criticism.
My conclusion is Christianity has few hallmarks of a system that values truth. It has an over confidence on how easy truth can be determined and that it must be true. Its key claims are not testable and it uses miracles and other spurious means for assuring its followers of its truth. Finally, it actively discourages thoughtful criticism through various means including threats of eternal punishment.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Faith or Freedom?

I find it interesting listening to politicians advocating a greater role for faith in the running of our country, from faith-based charity groups, to prayer in schools and the government, and simultaneously claiming to protect individual freedoms. Are these goals of spreading faith and increasing freedom compatible or do they clash? Plenty of groups advocate their faiths as the solution to our problems. But the strength of secularism and the separation of church and state in this country has kept this in check. It is not, however, too hard to find societies where faith is central to the running of the country. There are many countries that openly proclaim this. But has their pillar of faith been a solution to their problems? Surely is opposite is true; when faith-based groups gain power they invariably use their faith as a means of repression and elimination of individual freedoms. Naturally they ask why they should permit people to do things that are contrary to their principles? So the rules and regulations they create, governing what one can read, watch, say and believe, are for the moral good of the individual and country. Consider how many countries still ban speaking out against the official concept of God (i.e.. blasphemy) and reward this speech with a death penalty.

Christian groups are likely to reply that the problem is not that faith is supreme, but that the wrong faith is supreme. That is, if the Christian faith were in charge all would be better. But is it true that if the Christian religion were enshrined in our constitution and governing our every action, we be a better and freer nation? We might be better in the same way as the mullahs perceive their countries are better because of their state faith. They point to lower divorce, lower crime etc. in their countries to show how their faith improves their countries, but if so surely at an enormous cost of individual freedom. I propose that with Christianity in charge we would also have a similar loss of freedom. The key reason is that religious faiths (at least the monotheistic ones) have a pessimistic view of human beings: we're lost, we're evil, we're unable to do anything really good on our own, etc. Giving lost, sinful creatures freedom would lead to evil triumphing, and so true freedom would be a terrible state of affairs.

Instead the ideal Christian state is an authoritarian one in which God is in control and we all submit to him and obey his commands. That is how heaven will be in any case. On this earth realizing that goal is difficult as God doesn't seem to take actions on his own. Nevertheless the ideals of authority, submission and worship of that authority pervades Christianity. So as a result numerous people from the pope down on to individual pastors are eager to claim God's authority and decry any behavior that is displeasing to God. If they had political power they would surely use it to restrict any actions displeasing to God. Consider all the recent vitriol directed against gay marriage based on it being displeasing to God. Great efforts are being exerted by born again Christians to create a political ban of it. They reason: why should someone have freedom to do what God disapproves (even when it harms no one else)? I dread to imagine the growth of social control and the loss of freedoms if political power becomes subject to God's authority as determined by voting Christians.

Perhaps a classic argument formulated by Saint Paul claims that people in their natural state are slaves to sin and the Christian faith offers them freedom from that. The idea is that sin is an addiction, and faith in God releases one from that and so enables one to live in freedom. There are big flaws in this claim however. It is true that addictions or compulsive behaviors effectively limit our freedom, but unfortunately these aren't solved by faith in God. I think what Paul is talking about is an ideal of a sinless life that he has, and that he is unable to achieve it as a non-Christian. But it is pretty big leap to say that not being able to achieve an ideal, or that one makes mistakes, is equivalent to being enslaved. (Especially when the ideal is somewhat suspect.) In addition, how is the Christian free if he is still unable to achieve this ideal, and actually is no better at achieving it than the rest of mankind? But the main problem with Paul's argument is his concept of freedom. Consider this illustration. One lives in a totalitarian state. One is free to do whatever one likes so long as one submits to the ruler and obeys all his commands. Is that freedom or the opposite? That is the kind of freedom Christians advocate: so long as you submit to God, worship him and obey all his commands you are free to do whatever you like. If you reject this offer of "freedom" then the fury of hell awaits you. So you are not even free to say no.

If religion-inspired pessimism about the human state is the enemy of freedom, what is its promoter? Surely it is the optimism of humanism. Humanism believes we can conquer our downtrodden state of affairs and build a better world. We each should be set free to pursue and realize our individual and corporate potential. This may be tempered with a condition that we not harm others in our pursuit, but surely the greatest gain for everyone to be free to do as he wishes. It is this trust and optimism in human nature that is the basis for the freedoms given to us by our constitution.

Not surprisingly many religions show great distain for humanism. But hand in hand with this they show distain for freedom. So I think the choice for our country is pretty clear: faith or freedom.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Is an Afterlife Meaningful?

Does the concept of an afterlife even make sense? It is true many religions teach or assume an afterlife for people. In some cases it is reincarnation, and others it is heaven or hell or something in between. But what does it mean for someone to leave this life and enter an afterlife? Put another way, how do we know it is the same person in the after-life? If I die, and someone called Daniel enters heaven, is that me, or is it just someone like me with my name?

One can ask: what makes me me? How do I know I'm the same person as that person that looked just like me and inhabited my house yesterday? Well, there is a physical continuity between me and that person, and I have the same memories has he had, and my personality is the same. Perhaps none of these are perfect answers as they are all subject to gradual change, but let's suppose they contain a majority of what defines me.

Now clearly death is the end of our bodies. So physical continuity between us and whatever comes afterwards definitely breaks down. Then at best, from an correspondence perspective, an exact copy of one could be made, including a copy of the states of all one's neurons so that one's memories and personality are the same. Now I doubt most people would really want this, especially those suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer's, but assuming an improved body just complicates the correspondence, and I'll pass over that for now. Assuming then that an exact replica of me is made, including the state of my brain and my memories. Is that me?

Well if this is possible, there is no need for me to die for a replica to be made. A replica could be made now and placed in an appropriate world. Is that me? I would not think so, and I would not care for that replica any more than I would any other person. Another possibility is that after I die, not one but two replicas are made of me. One is put in heaven and one in hell. What should I think about that? Which one is me or are both me? I can't say that I care too much about the fate of my replica or replicas and would not consider them me. So it seems there is a crucial correspondence problem between me and whatever being is supposed to be me after I die. If an exact copy of me now is not going to be me, then an exact copy of me after I die is not going to be me, nor is any other improved copy.

Some might reply: it is one's soul (or spirit) that defines a person, and the transference of the soul is what constitutes a correspondence of a person. That is, it is me if my soul gets transferred to that body. But what is the soul? What part does it play in one's person? Presumably it is a non-physical thing, as if it were physical thing it would join the body in the grave. But can a non-physical thing influence the physical world? If it does then physics as we know it breaks down at that point. So I think we can safely reject that, and so conclude that whatever the souls is, it has no effect on the body or world. So it seems the most the soul can be is a label for a person; after one dies the soul or label gets attached to some other body. But this seems strange -- why should I care about some other body just because it gets my label? Moreover, if bodies can be replicated, maybe souls can too. Then perhaps multiple bodies will get my label after I die.

To conclude: I have a direct connection to my past and future in this world, and I understand how my current actions affect the future state of myself in this world. However, even if there is an afterlife, I see no connection between me and whatever creature or creatures follow me in the after-life. It is the same as someone making a clone of me -- all very well, but I have no attachment to that clone. In addition, transferring or copying my soul into that clone doesn't build any direct connection to it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Meaning of Life

I want to answer the questions: Does life here in this world have meaning? And if so, how can we find it? In discussing this with my wife, we came up with three broad ways in which life can have meaning. These are: community participation, achievement, and sensory satisfaction. I will elaborate on each of these.

By community participation I mean the give and take of relationships spanning the range from that with one's spouse to that with the rest of mankind or of even animal-kind. We are part of a complex community, and being part of it, especially an active part of it, contributes to its vitality. We might teach, we may be a plumber, we may raise children, we may write books, we may be politicians or we may help the poor, and so on. We each bring unique things to our community and affect it in unique ways. Through this community participation our lives gain meaning.

We all have the desire to achieve various things, and by achievement I include creation and discovery. We explore new lands, we overcome struggles, we build small and great things, we design vehicles, we create art and aesthetically pleasing structures, we have children, and the list goes on. This drive to discover, to create and to achieve propels our lives and gives them meaning.

Finally in sensory satisfaction I will include emotional satisfaction and pleasure. We experience the world, we imbibe new drinks, enjoy great food, receive love, affection and admiration from others. This aspect of our lives also gives us meaning.

Whether our lives are short or long, we can each find meaning in these ways. Contrary to what some people claim and I used to think, it is not necessary to have eternal life to have a meaningful life. Rather, if these short lives on earth are all we have, then they are all the more precious and we ought to make the most meaning out of them that we can.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

What do Miracles Prove?

Various religions rely on miracles as a justification for their validity. In Christianity perhaps the key miracle is Jesus' resurection from the dead, although many other miracles were and are used to confirm teachings and make converts. Here I am not questioning the validity of the miracles -- I'm assuming they are true miracles. My question is: Given someone does a miracle, does that prove that what that person teaches is true? That happens a lot in the Bible; someone does a miracle and then everyone believes what that person teaches. Is that a reasonable response of the people?

If someone can do miracles at will, like healing people, then surely that demonstrates that the person has power (or at least access to a power) that the rest of us don't. But does having power imply that someone speaks the truth and is not deluded in his beliefs? Surely not; plenty of people have extraordinary powers and at the same time lie or are deluded. Well, one might reply that supernatural powers like healing people at a command only come from God, and God only gives them to people who are truthfully representing him. But where do all those qualifiers come from? First how do we know it is only God who bestows miracle-working powers? If one assumes God gives these powers, then it does not take much to assume other supernatural beings might give those powers as well. Second, even if the miracle power can be shown to be from God, how do we know on what basis God gives that power? The Bible says all earthly authority is from God, and if so then God bestows it on plenty of unpleasant and untruthful characters. He could equally well bestow miracle-working powers on charlatans.

Miracle workers tend to conflate power and truth as a way to gain credibility for their teachings. However power and truth are very different things, and power does not imply truth. If one seeks truth one is not going to be convinced by dogmas or doctrines that are justified by miracles.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

God wants a relationship with you... and you better not say "No"

One of the main ways I have heard Christianity advertised is as follows: "God is not interested in your good works etc., rather what he wants in a relationship with you. He sent his son to die on the cross so that you could be reconciled to him. Accept this gift, have faith in him, make him your lord, and you will have a relationship with him that surpasses relationships between spouses." The second part is sometimes omitted, but generally implied: "But if you don't accept his offer, then you will be condemned as a sinner and sent to spend eternity in hell." Actually this second part, even more than the first, is what spurs evangelism to save the lost by telling people about this relationship offer.

The question I have is this: Is this relationship offer really a good and honorable thing as is generally presupposed by Christians? At first it sounds like nothing could be better. An offer of a perfect relationship, free of the defects that haunt human-human relationships, including the fact that it lasts not only through this life but through eternity. One would be a fool to turn down such an offer. But let me bring out the aspect that disturbs me through a parallel analogy:

There is a handsome, eligible bachelor, son of the governor and the wealthiest man in the land. Now he happens to meet a peasant girl, and falls in love with her. He makes her this proposal: "Come marry me and I will pay all your debts, take you away from menial labor, dress you in the finest clothes and give you all the luxuries you could want on top of my love. But if you refuse, then I will see to it that you are fired from your job, barred from future employment in the land, your home will be repossessed and you will live in abject poverty for the rest of your life." Surely, no matter how wonderful the benefits he offers her if she accepts, one would not call this a good or honorable proposal. Rather, wouldn't one condemn it as just the opposite: a malicious act that takes advantage of his wealth and her low position to virtually force her into a relationship irrespective of her wishes? The honorable thing, and the only action if he truly loved her, would be to treat her well even if she refused his offer of marriage. So isn't God guilty of this same crime if he sends people to hell who refuse his offer of a relationship?

One response to this is to say that the analogy is mistaken in that the peasant girl was already in a terrible mess, and the rich man was offering to save her from it, not to actively punish her himself if she refused his proposal. Well, I'm not sure if this objection is valid or not, and I will consider this question in a later blog, but for now let's accept this revision. Let's say that the woman has been convicted of a terrible crime and is scheduled to be hanged, drawn and quartered the next morning. Now the rich man comes to her in jail and says: "I love you deeply and want to marry you. If you accept this marriage proposal then I will use my influence to have you acquitted and freed. But if you don't accept, then I will leave you to your fate. (Also in the future if after accepting my proposal you reject me, then I will make sure your charges get reinstated)." Well again, doesn't this conditional offer demonstrate that the man's love is not deep and pure? If he truly loved her he would have her freed whether or not she accepted his marriage offer.

So I conclude that this relationship offer from God is not really an outflowing of sincere love, but due to it's conditional nature is rather primarily self-seeking and unconcerned about the human fate. I am surprised it is used so frequently by Christians despite this huge flaw -- I suppose either the conditional nature is glossed over, or else the conditional aspect is justified by various means. But it seems pretty rotten to me.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Thoughts on Heaven

For at least the last two millenia, many have longed for a better life than was their lot here, and have taken consolation in the anticipation of achieving this in heaven. But what do we mean by "heaven" and is it really a meaningful hope? Here are some of the Christian components of heaven:
  • Free from pain and sorrow
  • No death or (permanent) harm to individuals
  • Free from evil and evil actions
  • Full of God's love and care for us
  • Full of happiness and joy
  • It is a nice place to live
  • Lots of pleasures and riches ("streets of gold")
  • Continual worship of / interaction with God
The question I have is: Is this a satisfying place? Is it really somewhere one would want to go? At first blush one would say "Of course". But what about the issue of freedom? Is there freedom in heaven? That is, is there freedom to do what we want to do, to think what we want to think, to pursue what we want to pursue? If there is not freedom all of these "pleasures" are pretty meaningless. It's like being locked in a jail with all the luxuries one could want, except the freedom to direct one's own life.

By freedom I mean one's life is not determined or prescribed by someone else. I think of it this way: imagine oneself as a point in a high dimensional space, where each dimension is a possible action or thought one could have. Certain dimensions are constrained, and we cannot move along those: for example one can't punch a fist through a concrete wall, nor can one factor a 50 digit number in one's head. Being free means having a rich set of unconstrained dimensions along which one can choose to move or not to move. In this sense being alive, being human, and being free all have the same meaning. That is why prison is a punishment -- it takes away a large portion of one's life.

Now back to heaven. The idea of no death, pain, sorrow, or permanent harm actually takes away a lot of freedom. One cannot take risks as one knows that nothing really bad can happen to oneself. Heaven must be very carefully padded to prevent someone falling off a cliff and dying, (or equivalently people's bodies are indestructible). It must be like living in a grand phantasm. One is not free to fully experience it, since that freedom would involve possibility of harm and death.

No sorrow eh? So that means one cannot do anything that would emotionally hurt another person. One can't be rude, one can't be too forward, one can't be withdrawn, and so forth. There are innumerable things one is not permitted to do in case they hurt someone. Or perhaps people aren't hurt emotionally by anything. But surely feeling loved and feeling hurt are two sides of a coin -- if one can feel loved, then surely one will feel pain if this love is cast asside. So in heaven either we are devoid of emotions, or else we are constrained by lots of rules to prevent hurt emotions.

Perhaps one would reply that people in heaven will be good and will always choose the good path and think the right thoughts. But that is saying people's lives are prescribed not to proceed along certain dimensions. That is much the way in which a manufacturing robot would be programmed to operate. Surely lives like that are empty shells. The problem with heaven, like communism and other utopias, is that it fails to take into consideration freedom.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Can a Scientist Believe in Prayer?

What do we really want when we ask God in prayer for something? Say we ask God to heal someone or to protect someone from harm or to give someone wisdom etc., what are we expecting him to do? Well, let's assume that the world progresses along according to its natural mechanisms (things fall when we drop them, etc.) which we seek to describe using physics or science in general. In these requests we want God in some way to change the state of the world from what it would otherwise be, given this natural unfolding of physics. That is, we want God to intervene in this world and perturb its physics.

The key point is that there is a significant difference between getting God to do something and getting a person to do something. A person is a physical being and when he or she acts no laws of physics are broken; his/her actions are all within the system and perfectly describable by physics. But God is not material and hence outside of the natural physical interactions. If he does something that changes the state of the world from what it would naturally be, he must by definition be breaking the "laws of physics," i.e. temporarily changing the natural mechanisms that govern physical interactions.

One reply to this is to claim that God governs the universe and all physical interactions, and hence he can do as he wishes without breaking anything. Well given this claim, the question then is whether God has himself set up mechanisms or rules (which I was calling natural mechanisms or physical laws) that determine the outcome of physical interactions, or if he decides every time two atoms get close how they will interact. The incredible success of physics at describing nature strongly points to there being a consistent set of interaction mechanisms. So whether these are God governed or not, God must break them in order to answer someone's prayer.

Another reply: due to quantum mechanics, given the state of the world at any time, there are many possible outcomes. Prayer asks for God to select a particular outcome of the possible ones. In this way surely it wouldn't be breaking physical laws, but it would still be influencing the world. However, the problem with this is that while there may be many possible outcomes, their likelihood is governed by a probability determined by the wave function. This statistical probability is part of the physics of the system. If this probability is changed by fixing the outcome, then the physics is also changed.

So this is a serious thing: do we really want the laws of physics to be broken or changed by God so that our desires can be satisfied? Is it possible for me to think scientifically, and at the same time believe in prayer causing physical changes in the world? There are surely many scientists that hold onto both, but if they do it is in separate spheres: the lab vs. personal life. Making this separation is a contradiction that many people are happy to live with. Not only that, this power to break the laws of physics within the reach of everyone is very attractive -- a kind of David vs. Goliath power. But if the world is filled with these outside perturbations, then the goals of physics are a lost cause. If anything does not fit the theory, it is probably God perturbing the world, and there is no point developing a more encompassing theory to describe it. This is opposite to the natural mechanism assumption that has lead to the success of physics. Which is one to choose? Clinging to two contradictory world views is surely dishonest, and a truth seeker would not do that.