Monday, August 21, 2006

The Way We Want The World

Often disagreements about the world are really disagreements about the way we want the world to be. Consider the following questions:

  • Morality: Is morality absolute? What should our morality be?

  • Origins: Were we created by God? How and when?

  • Afterlife: Is there a heaven and a hell?

  • Supernatural: Is there a hidden supernatural world that can affect our lives?

These are difficult questions, and yet many people confidently assert affirmative answers to these questions. Why can people make these assertions so confidently. It is not due to physical evidence or logical necessity. Neither of these lead to these conclusions, at least not definatively. I think the reason people have these strong beliefs is that they want the world to be a certain way and so believe it is that way. They want things to be always right or wrong, and so assume morality must be absolute. They want their lives to have a personal cause and so choose to believe they were created by God. They want hope for heaven after death and hell to punish evildoers. They want to affect the world through prayer and so believe they can via influencing the supernatural.

Letting our hopes and desires swing our beliefs about the world is a strong form of bias and so is likely to lead to false conclusions. If we want to discover truth, then we need to step outside of our wants and judge the world based purely on the evidence. Yet humans have a natural tendency to bias their beliefs based on their wants. I acknowledge that is hard to eliminate this bias in questions about the world that affect our well-being, yet truth seekers must seek to be unbiased.


  1. On Confidence, Hope and Bias

    What is a bias? I was asked this question by my spouse the other day, and I couldn't actually come up with a good answer. We use the term to refer to a pre-disposition to believe something before examining all of the evidence. The funny thing is that all of us make choices that create in us a bias of sorts. Take for example the scientific method as espoused in common science-oriented colleges. I would bet that the vast majority of students choose to join such organizations without thoroughly evaluating the evidence for or against the scientific method. When the student enters, they will quickly be "biased" toward that particular view point. We generally do not have a problem with that in Western Society, because we generally believe in the scientific method, and we certainly have reasons for doing so. For example, science tends to enable us to prolong life, which is a commonly held value, and science can make us more prosperous etc. On the other hand there is a fairly sizable crowd of folks who do not value the outputs of the scientific method. For example, those who think we should return to a hunter-gatherer society, or those who believe that the products of science have caused irreperable harm to the environment.

    The reality is that some ideas are sufficiently important that they require a choice. This is true with respect to scientific theories as well. At some point Einstein had to make a choice as to whether he would continue to pursue and publish his ideas about the universe, though he could not prove them. I would bet that if we could go back and talk to Einstein he would have held firm in his choice to pursue his theories, though perhaps with a certain amount of humility--realizing that he cannot yet prove their validity.

    Thus it is for my own faith. I hold on to it as a commitment, a choice, because I see it as the best explanation out there for the world that I experience today, and the world I know of through history. I hold it with a bit of intellectual humility at times, realizing that I cannot prove it, but I yet offer it to others because I have found it to have enormous explanatory and effectual power; and I have found that a decision with respect to this "belief" is incredibly important. This sort of choice/belief is different from the extent to which I believe in Baysian statistics for example. I know a philosophy professor who thinks that there are hidden assumptions in the world of Baysian statistics that cause problems for the proofs upon which the methods are based. On the other hand these methods do tend to be useful for certain types of problems. But the beauty of Baysian statistics is that I can use them or not use them at will. Unlike matters of ulitimate truth, it doesn't really matter that much (at least to me).

    I see my faith, ie a worldview that espouses Jesus of Nazereth as a unique mediator between the Creator of the Universe and humankind, as having enormous power to explain history. Firstly, I think that this belief is the best explanation of the birth of the Christian Church, and in fact other world religions. I really do not think that the church would have grown as fast as it did, in the midst of the persecution that it faced, without military might (pre constantine at least) if it were devoid of power and based upon lies or even half truths. While many other movements have sprung up at times, and even gained some following without a firm foundation in actual events, the truth claims of these beliefs were often hidden from public scrutiny, or were propogated through force. Not only this Christianity says that a "father of lies" will come and lead folks away from the truth at times, so this has some explanatory power as well. Secondly, it has the power to explain my personal history. For example, Jesus tought his disciples that when they ask according to his will, and in His name they will have what they ask. This morning I asked that God would grant me a bit of freedom, and I was set free. I have found this sort of inner freedom comes regularly to those who ask humbly seek God's gift of freedom.

    No, I do not think that my faith is merely wishful thinking, but I will freely admidt that I cannot prove its validity. The problem with trying to come to a proof of validity is that such a proof would require a set of first principles that are accepted by those who hold all beleif sets. Unfortunately in ultimate matters widely agreed upon first principles do exist. Take for example the principle of the value of humans. The Biblical world view, as far as I can tell, is that humans are, in fact all of "creation" is, valuable because they come/it comes from God. The assumption stated in your post is that humans have value of the sort that is derived from other humans, and you imply that this value is of highest import. These assumptions lead to vastly different conclusions about the nature of the world. All this is to say that it is hard to come up with first principles that will make everyone happy, and will also lead us anywhere in particular with respect to ultimate beliefs. If only some representative of the Devine could come to us and talk with us, and show us what God is like. -PH

  2. PH:

    You point out that there are many good things that science and religions have brought us. On the one hand many lives are saved by medical technology (my life was saved this last summer by an appendectomy). On the other hand Christianity, (and other religions), give us explanations for the universe and our place in it. They also provide comfort and community.

    The problem is that the benefits of a system may not bear any relation to its truth. For example, many religions provide community for their followers including special love and care for believers. But this is not evidence that the beliefs are true; what is important is the followers have shared beliefs, not necessarily true beliefs.

    What is crucial in assessing a system, in my optinion, is not its benefits, but is how knowledge (or truth) is attained through the system. In Christianity knowledge comes from revelation, or put another way, comes from people claiming to be speaking words from God. In science knowledge comes through hypotheses and theories that are tested empirically. There is an enormous difference in approach. Christianity faces the problem of how do we know that the prophet (or bibical writer) is actually speaking from God and not his own ideals. For that matter how can the prophet himself know if what he is saying is inspired by God? In the end Christianity relies on authority (such as a fixed canon) for determining what is from God and hence what is truth. The usual authority is the Bible which we simply need to accept as being God's word. In science authority is irrelevant to truth; rather truth can be assessed by anyone through critical analysis, building hypotheses and constructing empirical tests. Christianity does not allow for this; for example, we are not free to follow the evidence that indicates various Pauline epistles weren't written by the apostle Paul, or that Jesus was only a human and didn't actually rise from the dead. Those hypotheses are declared heresies. It is not like in science where errors are what are contradicted by measurements, errors in Christianity are those things that contradict the established authority.

    So here we have two very different outlooks on how truth can be attained. How can we decide between them? I don't expect proof that one or other is true. Rather, my approach is to ask which is the more reliable way of finding truth. It seems clear to me that obtaining knowledge through inner feelings or words is subjective and not very reliable; there are many subconcious influences that could affect what the person (or prophet or biblical writer) hears. Then the next step of placing authority on a set of revelations to protect them from criticism is moving in the opposite direction of truth seeking; it entrenches a subjective assessment as what must be true.

    That is a peculiar view of truth -- that it must be protected by authority. I think truth can stand on its own. It can't be proven false by criticism or empirical tests. Actually it should like honest criticism and tests, as those can purify it from error. And that is precisely the ideal of the scientific method. Empirical tests enable it to escape from relying on authority (and the subjectivism involved in that) for assessing truth. On the other hand, seeking criticism and emprical tests theories provides an objective test for truth. It won't prove ultimate truth but it will find out errors, and we can be confident we are making progress towards truth and gaining understanding of the world that is better than what we had previously.

    On the topic of explanatory power. I agree that is an important consideration, and a major reason people seek faith. It seems to me that is the purpose of the Adam and Eve story: to answer why men have to work so hard for food, and why women have so much pain in childbirth, among other issues that needed explaining. But science also can produce an explanation for those things (perhaps something like babies with larger heads were more intelligent and so had an evolutionary advantage and size increased until the maximum size was reached that women could bear, which would indeed be painful.) It is interesting to understand why Christianity grew so successfuly in the early days. I expect there is a scientific explanation and I would think it has to do with the power of beliefs rather than the truth of those beliefs. A powerful belief can change someone's life. But that is not evidence on its own that the belief is true. And overall that is the problem I have with faith. I agree that it is powerful, but I fear it is not true, and the way it establishes its truth seems contrary to the way of truth.


  3. Does science not also have its heretics? For example, if I declare that the scientific method is not the best means of knowing, it would not be long before I was cast out as a heretic. One does not have to look far to find scientists who have been cast out of the club because they held to beliefs that were incompatible with strongly held scientific theories. One cannot prove that the scientific method is always the best means of achieving a given end. It is a belief that must be chosen in order to do scientific work. The evidence that we have for this belief comes primarily in the form of an argument that the method has produced benefits that we as a society enjoy--that it has worked well thus far.

    Lest I be cast out as a heretic, I actually do believe that the scietific method works well for many types of problems. This comes from my fundamental belief (which I have chosen for its explanatory power) that there is a God who brought the universe into being, and did so with some measure of order that we can observe. Understanding that order, and even its limits, is the beauty of science from my viewpoint.

    As for the authorship of the Pauline letters I do not think that belief about this authorship is a prerequisite for faith. There are many who choose to follow Chirist but differ in their views of book authorship. On the resurection on the other hand, if the resurection of Christ did not occur then my faith is pointless. Why would I want to follow a belief system that is based on a falsehood? Such a belief seems highly irrational to me. The church has used the word heretic to describe folks that did not believe in the resurection but continued to claim to be a part of Christianity. It does not seem to me to be irrational to try and remove an irrational belief from the community--science would do no less.

    If there is compelling evidence that the resurection did not occur, I have not seen it. The main argument that I have heard to this end follows along the following lines: we don't see resurections very often, therefore using Baysian type logic we need an overwhelming posterior in order to choose the belief that one did happen. Evidence of this sort is never available for historical events from the time period in question, therefore we must believe that it did not happen. This line of reasoning depends completely on the prior that one places on the feasibility of the resurection of Jesus. Baysian priors are not an inherent property of an event, but rather a property of the person who holds the belief about this event, therefore different people will come to vastly different conclusions depending on the belief with respect to the probability that Jesus could have risen from the dead On the other hand, I think that the enormous growth of the belief in the resurection, and the nearly uniform belief in the empty tomb among followers and critics alike in the first century, provide good evidence (though certainly not proof) that the resurection did occur. I think that you are right to point out that this is the central point with respect to Christianity though.

  4. Hi Daniel:

    There is an important comment at the end of this post which is very telling:

    "Yet humans have a natural tendency to bias their beliefs based on their wants...yet truth seekers must seek to be unbiased."

    Does this include you? Are your biases affecting what you currently believe, or are you the first Truth Seeker to ever arrive at your conclusions based only on the very best evidence available?

    The question is posed rather tongue-in-cheek, of course; while I agree with you that biases can and do affect what we ALL believe, it is faulty logic to assert that if other Truth Seekers arrive at different conclusions than you, based on precisely the same set of Data (and evidence and reason, etc.), that YOU are the unbiased one and "they" are choosing to believe what they WANT to believe...

    The fact is, Evidence and Reason and Logic (all of which are critical components to legitimate Christianity), while they can take us a long way down the road to Truth, cannot complete the journey for us; we find ourselves at the end of the pavement, as it were, where we ALL are actually "free" to believe whatever we choose in order to arrive at our destination, Truth.

    The shorter the distance from the "end of the road" to Truth, the better, of course, and the trip to this point must be made by all intellectually-honest Seekers; but the unsteady and often rocky terrain ahead calls to ALL of us to span the gap, somehow...

    One more thing:
    Good Apologetics does not attempt to "prove" beyond all doubt that proposition "X" is true; it only serves to give the reasonable mind sufficient satisfaction on propositional truths, such that other forms of Data and Experience can then be allowed into the discussion...

  5. gskern:

    I agree with you. By bias I am trying to describe the process of weighing evidence in making an estimate or decision. An unbiased decision is one that correctly weights the evidence, whereas a biased one would put more weight on the less-sure evidence and perhaps discard some good evidence. I think our goal should be to assess the evidence as best we can and weight them accordingly. It won't give certainty, but it is likely to be closer to the truth than a biased estimate.


  6. PH:

    I would modify your evidence for science from: "The evidence that we have for this belief comes primarily in the form of an argument that the method has produced benefits that we as a society enjoy--that it has worked well thus far," to something like: "The main evidence for science is from its explanitory power and as a result its predictive power for innumerable events in the world." That is the evidence is not the physical benefits, but the knowledge benefits. But maybe that is what you meant.

    It does assume order in the universe, although I don't think this requires a God, but nor does it exclude a God.

    I don't think it is irrational to be a Christian and not believe in the physical ressurection, at least as spelled out in current doctrines. There are other forms possible including spiritual ressurection or simply Jesus's teachings that lived on. In the early days there were many types of Christianities, some of which did not believe in the physical ressurection of Jesus. For instance the Ebionite movement didn't hold to the physical ressurection but followed in Jesus's teachings. But these and other early Christianities got eliminated by the branch that became dominant and defined itself to be the true form of Christianity. Some good books on this is are Ehrman's "Lost Christianities", and Hyam Maccoby's "The Mythmaker". I would not say that what becomes dominant is necessarily true.

    As for priors, one can't escape having these if one is to make judgements about any religions. Priors become less important for things with plenty of evidence, but it is true they have a large impact on events with little evidence. So a question is, given our current position in history, what priors should we have if not the scientific ones? How do these enable us to choose modern Christianity as opposed to the many alternatives?


  7. Hi Daniel:

    This may or may not be the right/best place to post this, but for some excellent material RE evidence for the Resurrection, check out the web site of a former philosophy professor of mine:

    Dr. Habermas is something of a renowned expert on the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus, and his site is the best place to sample his material (there are free Video feeds you can watch, and everything)..