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DGE Roundup 1

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Over the summer, my goal was to read 6 or 7 books debating the existence of God. The purpose was to take a look at how smart people argue about things with little evidence. I've had to cut my series short due to a bunch of work-related material I need to read, so I thought I would draw some conclusions here.

My purpose wasn't to get into a religious debate, only to see where the strengths of each argument lie. Apologies if any of this offends you!

The Methods

On one side, we have the rationalists. Their position is: if somebody can't prove it, for all intents and purposes it doesn't exist. The only rational way to live is to deal with what science can show us to be reality. Otherwise we're stuck in a world of superstition and darkness.

While sounding great on the surface, let's take a deeper look.

Suppose you were to go from the year 3000 AD back in time to some place in the Stone Age, say around 15,000 BCE. You meet a couple of cavemen and attempt a conversation.

You quickly find out that you have no basis for communication -- they have no language that's anywhere near enough to comprehend anything you're saying, besides, of course, the easy "me hungry" and "fire good!" But you're trying to convey something of import, perhaps that the sun is going to flare and they should learn about radiation poisoning and hide in caves for a couple of years. Perhaps you show them some tricks: giving off light, levitation, ability to see through walls, mind-reading, etc. As we all know from Arthur C. Clarke, any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic. So any little thing you do can easily me misinterpreted. And trying to tell them something that's 20,000 years ahead of their understanding is impossible. Best you can do is impress them with tricks and give them a few simple instructions.

So far we have nothing more than the beginnings of a cheap sci-fi novel. But let's take this one step further. You leave, and years later these cavemen you met are telling their story to another caveman. What's he to do? From his standpoint, he's never seen any such thing. He can look back to verbal stories from multiple generations which indicate nothing like this has ever happened. In addition, the feats they describe such as levitation or mind-reading seem to be only that of the gods. He refuses to accept any sort of story that can't be clearly described, delineated, and has something in it that he can go check.

The point is that basing your entire belief system on rationality has its limits. The world is full of intermittent, one-time-only, and non-reproducible behavior. In addition, the current advancement of language puts a natural limitation on things people can talk about and understand -- no matter how smart or advanced you are, you're always that caveman to some other species. Rationality is a great tool for day-to-day operations, mostly because it's mostly right most of the time. But to think it's the do-all, end-all of human knowledge is to be that caveman, denying anything he cannot describe or observe. It's to say "we're done learning now, we're ready to declare what's true for us for the entire universe now" -- silly at best.

On the other side, we have the fideists (the linked wiki article does not do the subject justice but it's a good starting point). At the extremes, fideism is about faith and science having completely and diametrically opposed viewpoints, and faith being the best choice. Fideism -- or bad fideism -- is exemplified by the religious person who does not go to a doctor, believing that faith alone is sufficient for all problems. Science and faith are always enemies. In a strange way, many rationalists would agree on this point.

The problem with an over-reliance of faith over rationality, as the rationalists are quick to point out, is that without reason you're left at a real loss to choose what to believe in. Various religious supporters will claim that their faith is obviously correct, but in general, people continue to believe what they were brought up believing, even if exposed to various beliefs later on. The evidence is heavily weighted to show that a sole reliance in faith is basically a reliance in continuing to believe the faith you were raised with. This seems like a crap-shoot at best, and can actually be harmful in the case of the person who doesn't believe in doctors. To this day there are people living a life of faith with a belief system that hurts them and their children. Not a good outcome.

On the more moderate side, in my opinion, the fidiests have a point: as we've already seen: you can't know everything. So life is naturally about believing in stuff you'll never see and won't be able to describe. (This is why our caveman story is flawed, by the way. A caveman of that era would easily believe in non-rational things, such a trait is both natural and key to survival.) I think the key question is where to draw the line: do I believe in quantum physics? String theory? Newton's Laws? God? Intelligent life in the universe? Visitors from other planets? Extra-sensory perception?

Some of these things, no doubt, will be proven true in time. Some will not. Some already have flaws, like Newton's Laws. But believing in them, or not, is a natural and key part of being human. This is one of the reasons I like pseudo-science so much: it challenges us to determine where we might believe in one thing or another by presenting us with non-scientific, yet possibly true, scenarios. UFOS? What better example of transient, non-reproducible events could you want? It drives rationalists crazy (It also brings out the wackos, but c'est la vie)

So I'm giving the game to the fideists, if only because rationalism seems so incomplete and pedantic as to not be useful beyond running and manipulating the physical world. Their arguments mostly consisted of praise for science (which is the obvious light we have in the darkness), praise for some sort of logical predicate-calculus reasoning over creatively guessing (which is totally smoking crack), and putting down Christianity, which is beneath them, or should be. I find them simplistically true, yet missing the entire point. It's like the caveman claiming that he just can't believe everything he hears, so therefore nothing he doesn't understand or see can be real. It's stupid. Dude. God loves you. Look out for the solar flare. It's all of the same cloth.

Having said that, obviously there's a long way to go from believing that your worldview is incomplete and becoming a Great Pumpkin Acolyte Level Five. Picking where to stop is above my pay grade, although I do have a few thoughts from reading all these books which I'll share in Part 2.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on September 2, 2009 1:05 PM.

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