Monday, April 17, 2006

Reason, Faith and Truth Seeking


What is demanded of an honest truth seeker? Must he be rational? May he be a person of faith? I seek to understand these questions in this post. To answer them requires an analysis of what it means to be rational including having rational beliefs and acting rationally. Then I consider to what extent faith may be rational, and ask if it is compatible with truth seeking.

Belief is often posed as a binary option: Do you believe this claim, yes or no? That is: Are you certain the claim is true or certain it is false? But clearly these are not the only options. One can be unsure, and actually one's level of uncertainty could be anywhere in the range between certainty that it is false to certainty that it is true. Hence the question that should really be posed is: What is your level of belief in this claim?

Given then that we have belief levels about all sorts of things, how are rational beliefs distinguished from irrational ones? I assume what we mean by a rational belief is one that carefully considers all the evidence and produces an optimal prediction of the truth or falsehood of a claim given this evidence. Given uncertainties, the pridiction will be a probability (or a range of probabilities) of the truth of the claim. A useful example is that of weather prediction. One can be certain of the weather at the moment by looking outside. But it is harder to know what the weather tomorrow will be. So, for example, a rational belief might consider the season and recent weather etc. and conclude there is a 75% chance of rain tomorrow. To pose the question: do you believe it will it rain or not tomorrow creates creates a false dichotomy, as being certain it will rain or not without very strong evidence is irrational. Of course sometimes it may be difficult to determine what the evidence supports, or two people may have different sets of evidence available to them and so may rationally have two different levels of belief.

An irrational belief is one that ignores the evidence so does not optimally predict the truth or falsehood of a claim. Again this is not an all-or-nothing description. There are levels of irrationality depending on how much or little one considers the evidence.

I conclude that truth seeking is the process of building rational beliefs about the world, and includes the search for evidence as well as the analysis of it.

Now the rationality of actions, unlike beliefs, must be judged based on the goals of the individual. A rational action is one which, given the circumstances, best achieves the goals of the person. This says nothing about whether the action is good or bad, only how effective it is at achieving its goal given current knowledge, capabilities and constraints. Actions result from a complicated mix of beliefs, goals and values.

Now an interesting question is: can it be rational to be irrational? Let me put it another way: Can one rationally choose to have irrational beliefs? This is not possible for someone whose primary goal is to know the truth, and for most other cases, too, false beliefs lead to suboptimal choices and hence it is much better to have rational beliefs. But here is an example where I think irrational beliefs can lead to a better outcome and hence would be rational to hold. One can choose to believe with certainty that one's team will win the competition even though it is predicted to be an even match. Here the irrational belief in winning can help inspire one to play better and increase the chance of winning, and hence better achieves one's goal to win than would a purely factual analysis.

Now what about faith; is it rational or irrational? The first problem is that faith is a nebulous term with many meanings. Here I will consider a couple aspects of faith and their potential for being rational. Sometimes faith is considered an action. One might choose to follow Christ, or follow the church teachings. Is this rational? It depends what one's goal is in doing this. Some reasons might be: to escape persecution, to live a better or happier life, to get to heaven and avoid hell. If having faith best achieves these goals, then it is rational, if not then it is irrational (to some level).

Another aspect of faith is belief. Are the beliefs involved in faith rational in that they are most likely true given the evidence? First it is clear that the evidences for the chief faith claims are weak. This I conclude for a number of reasons including: (1) if the evidences were strong it would not be called faith (2) in general the claims aren't scientifically testable and so lack the type of evidence used by science, (3) the evidences are strongly disputed by many people, and (4) because I have looked at many of the evidences myself and concluded they are weak. However a common factor for many faiths is that, despite the evidences for their chief claims being weak, their followers are encouraged to be certain that their beliefs are true and act as if there were no chance that they could be mistaken. A host of techniques are used to build faith including encouraging active involvement in worship and prayer and bible reading and at the same time warning of the dangers of doubt and falling away. These emotional actions may sway people, but the problem is that the raw evidences are rarely critically examined and the claims evaluated on these. And having certainty despite weak evidence is a clear case of irrational belief. Hence this type of faith is irrational.

I have concluded that a truth seeker ought to seek evidences for claims and rationally assess their truth. Also, in so far as faith fosters irrational beliefs and unsupported absolute certainty, a truth seeker will be going astray by holding onto it. Faith beliefs are for those seeking other goals besides truth such as assurance and comfort. But there remain rational reasons for faith actions, such as following Christ's teachings to be a better person.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Losing My Faith


As long as I can remember, I have wanted to understand how the world around me works. My faith was an important part of that; it was not just for my comfort or pleasure (although it brought these), but more importantly it enabled me to understand the unseen parts of this world and the next. The Bible revealed much that I could not obtain elsewhere. I believed the Christian message about my sin, God's forgiveness and gaining salvation through Jesus. I read my Bible daily, went to church and fellowship and small-group meetings. I was strongly involved in evangelism and sought to bring my friends and others into a right understanding of God and the world and their need for forgiveness so they could gain salvation too.

There were two significant events and a few lines of thought that lead to a crumbling of this faith. The first event was a discussion over dinner with two people I had met from the International Church of Christ: a sect of Christianity that thinks it is the true church. We were discussing our faiths. Tim, the more experienced of the two, was a strong believer and active in his church and spreading the faith. There was a lot I had in common with him, and to some extent I saw myself in him. But we had some disagreements. He took some passages in the New Testament about making disciples as implying we had to be actively evangelizing every day, otherwise our faith was void. We discussed it in length and I tried to show Tim that his belief was ludicrous. But he was absolutely convinced that his interpretation was correct and that those of us who disagreed were wrong and going to hell. And that is how our discussion ended, with no progress. As I thought back over our discussion I was amazed that someone who seemed so reasonable and strong in faith was so confident in a belief that was so obviously false. The disturbing question it raised for me was this: might I be like Tim, confident in beliefs that if I were more objective I would see were clearly false? I concluded that confidence in a belief is not good evidence that it is true. Rather such confidence, where evidence is weak such as in spiritual things and knowing God's will and as often showed by Christian leaders, is most likely a mask for ignorance.

The second event was actually a semester long course on creation and evolution that I taught to the youth at a Southern Baptist church I attended. I wanted it to be as fair a presentation of all the evidence and views involved, so I did a lot of research into the creation-evolution debate. Whether evolution is true or not, I didn’t know. What surprised me, though, were the arguments used by Christian organizations to counter evolution. Arguments like: the decay of the earth’s magnetic field indicates that the earth can’t be older than 10 thousand years old. This and a number of the other arguments (which I had learned when I was young) had long since been shown to be false, and yet they were still being printed without disclaimers and included in curricula for students. How could Christians, who were claiming to be spreading the truth, be using falsehoods to achieve this goal? Perhaps what was more important than truth of the message, was simply convincing people of the message. This, of course, is not restricted to the creation-evolution debate. There are many beliefs Christians seek to convince others of; but are Christians scrupulous to use only truthful arguments for these? I began to wonder if that were so. As I thought back over various evangelism efforts I was familiar with, I realized indeed making converts was the goal, and the truth of the message or the arguments did not matter. Even the Biblical authors are guilty of this. There are numerous times in the New Testament where anyone who disagrees with and disbelieves the author is labeled an evildoer and described in horrible language (for example Romans 1:18-32). Clearly there are many morally good unbelievers who reject the gospel message (I'm not saying they are perfect), but it is convenient and rhetorically powerful to ignore this fact. This is another example of truth being discarded for the sake of making converts. Should I really have faith in a message that is so casual about truth?

Ask a Christian why he believes, and he will have a reason, especially if he is involved in evangelism. But are these reasons for faith really reasons for the truth of the belief? Of course I can’t evaluate all the reasons here, but the surprising thing is that most of the reasons most people give aren’t actually reasons for the truth of the message. For example, people believe because they were healed from something when they prayed, or because faith gives them great joy and hope and peace, or because they at last feel forgiveness, or because they want to go to heaven in the afterlife, and so forth. But none of these speak to the truth of the belief. One can be miraculously healed without the gospel message being true (see my post: What do miracles prove?), one can gain great joy, hope, peace and forgiveness simply through having a belief, without the belief being true, and one can be confident that one is going to heaven without that being true. What I found as I thought more carefully, listen to sermons, read apologetics books and read the arguments in the Bible, was that despite finding many “reasons” for faith, there are very few reasons or evidence for the truth of the gospel message. But I only want to believe a message if it is true.

My last line of reasoning is probably the most important for me, and one that I have considered on and off for a number of years. Christianity depends on divine authority for its message which it proclaims with with no uncertainty. The natural question this poses is: How can one know if a message is from God? The common answer is: Find it in the Bible. But that just pushes the question back one step: How do we know the Bible is a divine message to us? That’s a hard question, and it compels a similarly difficult question: How did the original writers or prophets know that their message was from God? Say one of the prophets heard a voice; How is he to know if it is from God? Or maybe he saw an angel; Does that mean that what he heard was from God? Who knows what spiritual things exist outside our experience; if one of them appears and claims to be from God, why should we believe it? How can one we sure that it is speaking the truth or that it is trying to deceive the prophet? (The simple tests sometimes proposed assume these creatures are idiots -- one must assume they are at least as smart and knowledgeable as any human and so could easily deceive any human.) In addition, how can anyone who hears the prophet know that he got his message from God? One might say, well if he does signs and wonders then one should believe. But if there are powers out there, then it could be any power doing the signs and wonders. Another answer is: One knows through spiritual insight. That is to say, one feels it is from God so it is from God, or equivalently one feels it is true so it is true. That is a statement of ultimate subjectivity and not surprisingly there is a plethora of contradictory feelings as to what is from God. Luckily the scientific approach has moved us beyond that dead end of pure subjectivity. Another answer is: Listen to what Jesus said. But if Jesus was a human, he would have similar difficulties as we in determining what the divine message was – just like we can’t know for sure, he wouldn’t know for sure. Doing great works and rising from the dead aren’t a demonstration that he was right in his message. So we are stuck, unable to be sure of anything about the spiritual world that lies outside our realm of experience. Nevertheless there are religions that claim to know all about the spiritual world without a shadow of a doubt. It seems clear to me that there is a lot of bluffing and deception going on.

The conclusion that I have drawn is that while Christianity claims to speak the truth with divine inspiration, the evidence for this is completely lacking. None of the reasons or evidences I have seen proposed actually justify it. Moreover, the confidence in which the message is stated actually counts against its likelihood, since the speakers refuse to accept the inherent uncertainty in any such pronouncement. Indeed there is plenty of evidence of Christianity from the begining being more concerned about making and keeping converts than preserving the truth. My goal is to find the truth, and if I am to be honest in that search I have to move on from my faith in infallible claims of divine pronouncements.