Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, January 13, 2006

Knowledge and Faith

My friend and former coworker, Jeff Dockman, has commented at length on my entry about Christianity. I feel that his comments deserve a reasoned reply, and I will devote several entries to responding.

Before addressing his arguments as such, I would like to make some comments about knowledge and faith, since they are at the core of what we’re going to disagree about. Let us say that we are presented with the following statement, “Hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water.” How do we determine whether that proposition is true or false? Easy. We appeal to empirical evidence. Combine oxygen and hydrogen under the proper conditions and you get water. That can be demonstrated to anyone who doubts it.

There are also propositions that can be proven by an appeal to logic. Take the statement, “The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.” If one accepts the assumptions of Euclidean geometry, that statement can be shown to be true by applying the laws of logic.

Science is based upon these two forms of proof, empirical evidence and logic. One might ask why we should restrict ourselves to these standards. The answer is quite simple. We humans are fallible beings and, when we disagree about statements of fact, we have to have some way of resolving that disagreement. Now that might not be such a big deal when a couple of guys are arguing about sports, but when it comes to knowing whether a drug is effective against heart disease or if air bags will really protect us in a car crash, it’s another matter.

Of course, the truth value of all statements are not so easily determined. Take the following, “There’s nothing stronger than a mother’s love.” Is that true or false? You or I might bring forth an anecdote or two that illustrates the truth of the statement but that would hardly constitute proof, since someone could undoubtedly come up with an anecdote that they would claim disproves the proposition. Part of the problem comes from “stronger” and “love”. What the hell is this strong that we’re talking about? Strong like a medicine, or strong like can bench press three hundred pounds. And what the hell do you mean by “love” here. I’d say I love my cats, but I don’t think anybody would say that refers to the same thing. Now, since nothing much rides on the statement above, it’s probably silly to spend much time analyzing it. When it comes to statements that impact the lives and decisions of millions of people, it’s something else again.

Consider the following statements, “Poseidon, the god of the sea, is really upset about the way we are destroying the planet, so angry that he smote New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina. It was a message to us.” Is that statement true or false? I doubt that there is anyone in the whole of the USA who would accept that statement as true. Reason would lead one to reject the statement out of hand. First and foremost, there is no referent for “Poseidon”. Ask the person who made the statement who this Poseidon is and what evidence there is for his existence, and it will ultimately come down to a matter of faith. If you don’t believe in the Olympian gods, there’s nothing he can do to demonstrate their existence. You can see where I’m going with this. How is the Christian God or, for that matter, the Jewish God, or the Islamic God, any different?

Now, I don’t necessarily say that the statement about Poseidon should be rejected. If it is taken as a metaphorical statement about the consequences of environmental destruction, then it makes sense and might have some value. In that way it is like a myth or art. They say things about the world without pretending that those statements are factual as such. We refer to the stories about the Olympian gods as myths, and rightfully so. A lot of those myths contain lessons about how we should conduct ourselves. Why should the Bible be taken any differently? If Christians were to admit that it was just a collection of stories and myths that tell us how we should conduct ourselves, I could accept that, but they don’t.

At the very minimum, mainstream Christians would maintain that the following are statements of fact. That there is a personal God with whom one can have a relationship. That this God is active in the world. That Jesus Christ is his son, and that he died to redeem us of our sins. If pressed on their beliefs they would assert that they are matters of faith, but that is just dignifying what is unreasoned belief.

I had a troubled adolescence and ended up on a psychiatric ward for a short period of time. One of the patients there was a paranoid individual. He believed that the government had machines hidden away all over the place and that the machines read our thoughts. I spent some time talking to him and he was unshakeable in his beliefs. Any objection you could bring up, he had an answer for. He had obviously thought it all out in detail. How are his delusions any different from the beliefs that Christians accept as matters of faith. The only difference is that there is a community of Christian believers. However, history is replete with examples of those who accepted beliefs that we 21st century Americans would find silly or delusional. The two most obvious belief systems that spring to mind are Nazism and Communism, both of which have much in common with religious belief systems in form, if not in content.

In short, I maintain that those who make what they claim are statements of fact be pressed to provide evidence for their statements on the basis of empiricism or reason. If they can’t do that, then they are either spouting nonsense, or speaking metaphorically.


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