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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Discussion with Paul: faith, proof, and truth

I've gotten into a long and interesting discussion with a commenter named Paul at New Covenant. I've moved the discussion here since it didn't seem to be involving anyone besides the two of us.

Paul made the comment,
That's totally fine, Bonnie, but your doubt doesn't mean that it's not true. This is probably my biggest problem with religious faith, in fact; ultimately it's about faith, rather than proof, no matter how deep that faith may be felt. That in itself is fine, but when it requires me to change my behaviour it is unpleasantly intrusive.


Paul, can you explain a little more what you mean by the last sentence of your comment?

15 Comments:

  • First of all, I wanted to say how much I appreciate the way you conduct this discussion - I don't really expect to change your mind, and I suspect you won't change mind, but I appreciate the fact that you're treating me like I'm just wrong, not mad or evil or something!

    On to the comment... I've been thinking some about the role of laws in society, specifically what should determine what makes it into law. The two criteria I came up with are:

    1. It should improve the condition of society.
    2. It should have a reasoned derivation.

    Point 1 means that you shouldn't introduce laws that don't result in a net positive (though some people may lose as others win). Point 2 means that the logic behind the law must be clear, even if you don't have a cast-iron, unassailable trail of logic and evidence (because we're talking about societies, which aren't really amenable to hard evidence at all times).

    Now lets hold up a couple of ideas for laws and see if they work out:
    Education provision - There is some evidence to demonstrate that spending now on education returns the investment and more later. It's not a watertight case, but the logic is clear enough that it's worth creating some laws around it.
    Constitutional ban on gay marriage - There isn't any noteable evidence that gay marriage causes any net damage to society, and I'm unaware of any logical argument to explain why it must. In contrast there is pretty good (though not perfect by a long way) logic that it could help society (all the arguments for the societal good of marriage don't seem to inherently cease if the participants have matching genitals). So no law required.

    In all those examples, if you can pass both tests then I'll accept the law, even if I don't agree with it. But if you don't then I'd consider the law arbitrary, and hence unpleasantly intrusive.

    By Blogger Paul, at 6:24 PM  

  • Hi Paul,

    Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate good, honest debate with anybody, and wish that in this day & age it were less unusual for two people to disagree yet still be civil to one another :-)

    Thank you for explaining your previous comment. I find it intriguing that you answered my question with a statement regarding law. Do you mean for this to apply to faith/belief as well?

    Another interesting comment was: “Point 2 means that the logic behind the law must be clear, even if you don't have a cast-iron, unassailable trail of logic and evidence (because we're talking about societies, which aren't really amenable to hard evidence at all times).”

    I got the feeling before that you were telling me that you needed “good, hard evidence” in order to believe in God. But it seems from the statement above that you are conceding that some things “aren’t amenable to hard evidence at all times” yet still need to be dealt with, and the way to deal with them is through clear logic. Am I understanding correctly?

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 8:51 AM  

  • The reason I used the example of law is that it is a way for religious views to intrude on my life. I'm very happy for you to believe anything you want, and to shout it from the rooftops if you so choose. I'm only concerned with it when it interferes with my activity, and the law is an obvious way this can happen.

    Regarding my second point. I don't believe the making of laws can wait for conclusive evidence, because many of the issues it deals with are too nebulous to ever allow for such a thing. Nonetheless we should be able to make a reasoned argument for them, without resulting to leaps of logic or hand-waving. Naturally I'll suggest that "because god says so" would fall in the latter category :)

    As a non-specific example: "In the UK they introduced a law to do this thing, and this other thing fell by 20%. There are lots of things that might have contributed to that fall, but none explain all of it, so it looks like a similar law would be good if we want that thing to decline too." Not a perfect case, but a reasonable one.

    By Blogger Paul, at 2:08 PM  

  • Paul, I hope you don't mind if I conflate this discussion with the one concerning "ought" from New Covenant. I've thought about that a little further and would like to pick up on your nuances of "ought." (My brain is fuzzier than usual though so I'm not sure how far I'll get :-P )

    First of all, I want you to know that my questions are an attempt to understand what you are saying and where you are coming from. I like to converse with people, not just their ideas.

    So, are you saying that you will begrudgingly go along with a "religious" idea if it happens to be the law? Things aren't really that polar, though, are they? I mean, surely there are many places where your own opinion and a "religious opinion as codified in law" intersect, or agree, are there not?

    The other thing I'm wondering is, how exactly you decide what is "religious." To me, such a label can be quite misleading, and I personally put no trust in it. But maybe I'm missing your point.

    As to "'God-says-so' hand-waving," well, I have to admit that that's an abstract concept I don't really understand. I am certain that God does not require nor desire for us to check our brains at the door of faith. However, I recognize that our brains have limitations, and therefore need to be subordinate to God's authority.

    As an aside, I'd like to throw in that I am convinced that our minds are ruled by our hearts, and not vice-versa...but more on that another time.

    I'd also offer that "leaps of logic" are often in the eye of the beholder; one person's "leap of logic" is another's "reasoned argument," and vice-versa. Wouldn't you agree? (IOW, that's the kind of statement that is impossible to define an "absolute" for...every person's gonna have a different idea.)

    I still am interested in your answer to this question: You said, "I don't believe the making of laws can wait for conclusive evidence, because many of the issues it deals with are too nebulous to ever allow for such a thing." I am wondering how this squares with your stated requirement of "proof" or "hard evidence" for the existence of God. You seem to accept laws based on "nebulous" info yet are not willing to do the same when it comes to God. Perhaps you can clarify this?

    Thanks :-)

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 10:43 PM  

  • Lots of questions!

    I'll go along with anything that's a law, wherever it might have its origins. Doesn't mean I won't try to change it if I disagree with it of course, but that has nothing to do with its origin. There are very few laws that exist purely for religious purposes, and as long as the other logic for them is solid then I don't see a problem.

    For these purposes I'd say that 'religious' is anything put forward by an organized religion. Not a sophisticated definition I know! But again, I'm not saying that religious principles are wrong. "Thou shalt not steal" is a fine sentiment, but it would be a fine sentiment (for me) whether it was a commandment or not.

    Regarding hand-waving; if a step in your argument for some law is "God says so" or "The Bible tells us" or similar, that's what I would consider hand-waving. Its opinion is only relevant if you believe in it, or if it is willing to come and testify on the subject. That sounds flippant, but it's not meant to be.

    On hearts vs minds I agree, though I don't think it's an absolute dictatorship ;)

    I'll agree that reasoned arguments about public policy can be very much in the eye of the beholder, but I also think that a reasonable person can still spot a good argument from a bad one. For example, I don't believe in the idea of cutting tax rates to raise tax revenues, but I can see there is a reasonable argument there. In contrast, saying we should do something because god says so involves an inherent leap in logic for the 19% of the country that doesn't believe in god, and presumably for followers of those religions whose god doesn't say what your god says on that subject.

    Final point! I think laws should be introduced to solve problems. Many of these problems are difficult to precisely quantify (e.g. drug problems, educational standards, etc). But the need for action means we can relax standards in a way that we wouldn't if the problem was something mechanistic like a flaw in a product or a need to service debt. We have to do something, and we may never get a rock-solid case for exactly the right thing, so we do our best. Lack of faith in a god isn't a problem (unless you are a person of faith of course), hence it requires the higher standard of proof.

    By Blogger Paul, at 6:45 AM  

  • Thanks for your response, Paul.

    Regarding hand-waving; if a step in your argument for some law is "God says so" or "The Bible tells us" or similar, that's what I would consider hand-waving. Its opinion is only relevant if you believe in it, or if it is willing to come and testify on the subject. That sounds flippant, but it's not meant to be.Lack of faith in a god isn't a problem (unless you are a person of faith of course), hence it requires the higher standard of proof.You seem to be suggesting that the "God says so" stuff is a...a "ghosty-thing" marauding as a "real-thing." Well, let me offer this description: these ideas, these "things of God," are ideas like any other ideas BUT -- they carry an additional authority. Just like you said: "Thou shalt not steal" is pretty good advice regardless of where it came from. It just happens to have a divine imprimatur upon it.

    On hearts vs minds I agree, though I don't think it's an absolute dictatorship ;)Probably not :-) I just see people at each other's throats over ideas when what's really warring, predominantly, is hearts & souls. (Actually, it's even beyond that, but I won't get into it now ;-) )

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 10:48 PM  

  • The problem I'd see with that is that the divine imprimatur only has weight if you believe in god. And without that belief they are, as you say, just ideas. What I'm suggesting is that we need more than ideas to change other people's behavior. I've got lots of ideas about how things should be run, and for many people I have as much authority as god (meaning none), but I wouldn't dream of using the fact that I say so as the reason for changing the law.

    And that's the problem with the intrusion of religion in my life. If you can demonstrate that something is a good idea without invoking god's authority, then I'm all for it becoming law. But if you have to invoke god's authority to make the argument, then that's not a sound basis for a law.

    By Blogger Paul, at 9:01 AM  

  • Paul, are you saying that "hand-waving" refers not to the ideas themselves, but to the concept that they carry more weight than other ideas?

    Is what we're truly discussing, then, a viewpoint (of yours) that does not allow for any reality beyond what we can see? I.e., philosophical naturalism?

    Here's another question for you: Do you consider your ideas as to "the way things should be run" as having any existence outside of your own thoughts? (besides maybe the thoughts of others who agree with you).

    And please humor me with one more :-): You said, "What I'm suggesting is that we need more than ideas to change other people's behavior."

    Such as?

    Oh, and I'm still interested in what you have to say to my question found at the end of comments 2 and 4.

    NOTE: If anyone else is reading this thread and has anything to add, please feel free to jump in!

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 9:53 AM  

  • "What I'm suggesting is that we need more than ideas to change other people's behavior."OK, I think I get it: you're saying we need laws, right?

    If so, let's get ready to go on a philosophical discussion of law!

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 11:33 AM  

  • Bonnie, I thought I'd answered your 2/4 questions in 3 - sometimes you just can't get incontrovertible evidence for something, but you should have *some* evidence combined with a sound argument (and of course some problem you're trying to solve).

    Hand-waving - I'm refering again to a leap in logic. If one of the steps in my argument doesn't really exist then I'm guilty of hand-waving (i.e. trying to distract attention from the fact that I've just missed a step). I'd consider any mention of god's opinion as hand-waving. This is independent of whether the idea is a good one or not (though if it is a good one no hand-waving should be necessary!)

    The viewpoint I have doesn't necessarily disqualify things that we can't see. But I do ask that if you're putting forward such an argument, you explain why it's more significant than something I just made up. So given "God says this" versus "Jeff says that" how should I choose?

    As to having more than ideas to change other people's behavior - I was thinking of a solid reason to believe that the idea would work. For example, one idea for feeding the world's poor is to mine the cheese that the moon is made of. That's an idea, but I don't have reason to think it will work.

    By Blogger Paul, at 2:36 PM  

  • sometimes you just can't get incontrovertible evidence for something, but you should have *some* evidence combined with a sound argument (and of course some problem you're trying to solve).So you must be saying you haven't seen or heard "some evidence combined with a sound argument, etc." for the existence of God, right?

    Hand-waving - I'm refering again to a leap in logic. If one of the steps in my argument doesn't really exist then I'm guilty of hand-waving (i.e. trying to distract attention from the fact that I've just missed a step).You seem to be suggesting that those who "hand-wave" know they're being disingenuous. Yet I thought you told me that you didn't doubt the sincerity of my faith. Do you think the "hand-wavers" have an insincere faith?

    I could suggest that there are all sorts of "hand-wavers" based on your "leap of logic" definition, and they aren't just limited to those who believe in God. I hear all sorts of preposterous stuff presented as fact by all sorts of people who seem to have an agenda or an axe to grind.

    The viewpoint I have doesn't necessarily disqualify things that we can't see. But I do ask that if you're putting forward such an argument, you explain why it's more significant than something I just made up. So given "God says this" versus "Jeff says that" how should I choose?

    Well, you can consider each "thing said" on its own merits. If that doesn't help, you can decide who you trust more. One hint on the "God says this" stuff, though: it helps to have context. In the context of a "Christian worldview," the "God said" things make a heck of a lot more sense.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 9:58 PM  

  • Evidence + argument for god - correct

    Hand-waving. First, I totally agree that hand-waving isn't limited to religion, in fact most hand-waving isn't religious. And it isn't dependent on any kind of sincerity - if what is said isn't a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence and prior reasoning, it's hand-waving. (I'm happy to use a different term if you like, btw!)

    I totally agree that, if you're a Christian the word of god is more significant (nothing more so, in fact). But that presupposes something you haven't proven, or have even provided reasonable evidence and a good argument for, so it's still hand-waving.

    By Blogger Paul, at 7:43 AM  

  • Hi Paul,

    What part of the "God exists" equation is missing for you?

    I get the feeling you're not answering my questions directly anymore, you're merely recycling previous statements. C'mon, Paul, don't give up on me now! ;-)

    I also get the feeling that you have placed "God things" into their own ephemeral category, separate from the total marketplace of ideas. True or no?

    Oh, and don't forget about the biblical interpretation discussion we were having hereAlthough if you're ready to give it a rest for the time being, I completely understand.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 12:00 PM  

  • I could be flip, and say the bit of the "God exists" equation that is missing for me is God existing. But I realize that's hardly useful. There are two joined reasons why I don't believe in God:
    1. I haven't seen a space where a god is needed to explain something. There is no gap that only a deity could fill in, no problem whose solution is a god. So I have no reason to think that god should exist.
    2. God doesn't *have* to be necessary to exist, of course; I exist, and I'm not filling in some blank. But in the absence of that, and given the fantastic nature of the claim made, I expect pretty strong evidence. I haven't seen such evidence, though I'm very open to being corrected.

    I'm certainly not intending to evade your questions. Please assume that it's just because I'm struggling to answer within a frame of reference we can both understand. That's certainly the case with your post on newcovenant - I'm stuck as to what to say, in fact I can't even explain what it is you've said that has lost me, but I'll keep on it.

    As to ephemeral 'god things', you're partly correct. Any idea is worth considering, if only briefly. Some ideas I'll find to have more merit than others, and I don't really care where they came from. But if the reasoning comes down to 'because god says so' then I don't consider that to be good reasoning. As a simple example, "You should be well behaved" seems like a good idea, for involved reasons about social interactions, burdens on society etc. Saying that I shuold be well behaved because Santa is making a list doesn't really add to the equation.

    By Blogger Paul, at 1:29 PM  

  • I'm certainly not intending to evade your questions. Please assume that it's just because I'm struggling to answer within a frame of reference we can both understand. That's certainly the case with your post on newcovenant - I'm stuck as to what to say, in fact I can't even explain what it is you've said that has lost me, but I'll keep on it.Paul, thank you so much for saying this. I apologize for making an assumption. Ack, sometimes I get too intense - and forget to leave some space :-/

    Thank you also for making effort to express yourself in language we can both understand. I hope you know I'm trying to do the same!

    OK, I'll try to chill out now :-)

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 5:07 PM  

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