Sunday, January 21, 2007

Doubt and Faith

It occurs to me that the whole Harris/Sullivan debate is going to hinge on what Sullivan means by the word "doubt".

Doubt has a very rigorous, precise and unequivocal meaning to the rational scientific mind. It's more than a just vague admission that one might be wrong. Because scientific truth is established by evidence, there's always in principle the possibility that some future evidence might falsify what we believe to be true. More importantly, because evidence is central to scientific doubt, it has physical, perceptual meaning.

It is the clarity and physicality of scientific doubt which allows us to have a rational basis for belief in scientific statements. We can test any particular doubt, and by examining the evidence, decisively dispel it. General relativity predicts that a clock on the ground will run more slowly--by a definite amount--than a clock in orbit. If we doubt General Relativity in this way, we need merely to put a clock in orbit and compare it to a clock on a ground. We can do so, we have done so, the clocks are different, this doubt is rationally dispelled, and we have yet another rational justification to have confidence in General Relativity.

We can collect only a finite amount of evidence, but one can imagine an infinity of doubt. We can doubt even the rock-solid scientific principle that the laws of physics are the same at all times, a principle that has been scientifically tested a quintillion times: Every time anyone turns on a light switch, expecting the room to become illuminated today just the same as it was yesterday, and confirms that the room has indeed become illuminated, they are testing and overcoming a doubt. But tomorrow, eh? Tomorrow the light might not come on, the kettle might not get hot, not because the bulb will have burned out or the gas will have been turned off, but just because the laws of physics might be different tomorrow than they were today, and yesterday. It's logically possible.

So yes, we can always doubt in principle any scientific belief. On the other hand, precisely because scientific doubt is both unequivocal and physically meaningful, every time we do overcome a doubt, we gain rational confidence in the statement we are doubting. After we've tested a principle a quintillion times, we achieve a level of confidence that indistinguishable in practice (although not in principle) from certainty.

The whole point of scientific doubt is to establish a rational basis for decisiveness even given the lack of absolute certainty. Scientific doubt is all about evidence that we can, by definition, look at. It is precisely to because doubt has rigorous physical meaning that scientists can insist that any statement must have doubtable implications to have scientific meaning. And it is precisely because doubt has rigorous physical meaning that overcoming doubt can establish rational confidence any decision based on science.

What does "doubt" mean, though, to the religious moderate? It's not possible to doubt religious statements in the same sense as a scientist doubts scientific truth. Religious statements aren't established by evidence, so it's not possible that the actual evidence we see with our eyes might not match what the religious statements entail.

How does a religious moderate construct "doubt", not just to achieve a superficial feeling of humility, but to establish a rational basis for making decisions?

I think it's completely uncontroversial to say that Andrew Sullivan--as well as most self-described religious moderates--would reject the label of "moral relativism": Moral truth, in their view, really is truth, not merely opinion. And religious belief is the foundation of that moral truth.

Even absent perfect certainty, how specifically does their construction of "doubt" provide a rational basis for confidence and decisiveness in any way at all? "Truthiness" just doesn't cut the mustard: It is not a rational basis to believe a moral proposition actually is true just because it somehow "feels" true--even if one admits with faux humility that one might be "wrong" in some vague, unspecified manner.

The "room" for doubt in any scientific statement is in its epistemic basis: the connection between the scientific statement and the evidence it entails. Without this connection, there is nothing to doubt in the scientific sense. Where's the room to doubt for religious statements? You can't doubt the epistemic basis of a definition ("God is definitionally the Creator of such a universe" [emphasis added]) per se; a definition (by definition) doesn't have an epistemic basis.

Finding room to doubt religious statements, on some basis more rational and principled than arbitrary truthiness, is the challenge that Andrew Sullivan will have to rise to. To be honest, I don't think he will, because I don't think he can.


  1. "Religious statements aren't established by evidence, so it's not possible that the actual evidence we see with our eyes might not match what the religious statements entail."

    That you are not satisfied with the type of evidence is clear, but I think it is rare that the faith calls us to challenge what our eyes see (unless we are simply dealing with fundamentialism, but religious moderation is the subject). Some of the evidence is of course simply not visible when dealing with matters of faith. If this is ruled out then we are at an impasse.

    To the religious, faith is a "way of knowing" proper to its subject. Christians believe their faith is revealed, it is not deduced from some abstract data like I suppose you are implying a science is (but even there the issue is terribly complex and theory-laden as I'm sure you are aware).

    Christians since Augustine view the the religious quest for knowledge as "faith seeking understanding". There is room to doubt our understanding (the church always has) but doubting your most basic faith would be absurd. (Incidentally, Augustine said, "I doubt therefore I am." Can't make doubt much more foundational than that!)

    The evidence consists of biblical readings and reflection, prayer, personal religious experience, the practice of Christian life and worship, communal wisdom (in the present and in the tradition), and run o'the mill reason.

    We can indeed 'rationally' trust that through this fallible process we will be guided by the God we seek to know (Holy Spirit). The trustworthiness of God to ensure the validity of this process (truthiness?) must be difficult, indeed impossible, if one treats God as just another object to be tested. The latter is the opposite of faith.

    So religious doubt is different than scientific doubt, but not inferior to it or altogether impossible as you imply. Faith and reason are just of different orders with different rationalities. But of course Andrew will contend reason needs faith's Logos to have any ultimate justification whatsoever. He just won't write a juvenile screed called the End of Science or the Rationality Delusion.

    Faith has a rationality which is proper to its Subject (who is no object). This is a key area of disagreement: The misunderstanding of the category of revelation. 20th century theologians have worked extensively on this subject, but it seems most recent atheists/skeptics/agnostics have stopped reading theology since the time of Darwin or when they left their fundamentalist preacher's congregation. It doesn't help with dialogue. Witness Harris' quotation of Leo XIII's 1893 encyclical about Scripture. The church curiously tested that and found it wanting. Thus Verbum Dei and Vatican II. I'm not even Catholic but this stuff is really elementary to the debate unless one has nothing but contempt for faith (which Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins seeth).

    Indubitably yours,

  2. David,

    You raise several excellent points, which deserve a substantive response. I hope you'll forgive a small delay: I'm not a particularly fast thinker, and I've just returned from the dentist, which does not leave me in the optimum state of mind for philosophy.

  3. Mr. Wilkerson,

    I certainly would not say that relgious belief, being a complex system of thoughts and ideas, is without rational components - nor do I think the Bum would suggest such.

    But while I grant that religious belief is not simply dismissable as wholly irrational, your arguments in this comment fall short of establishing that notion.

    I first have to disagree that faith is a "way of knowing" - unless we want to dispense with the seeminly meaningul distinction between knowledge and belief. I would have to argue that faith is a way of believing not a way of knowing.

    Second, your conception of faith as being "revealed" seems awfully similar to the arbitrary truthiness the Bum criticised before. If these "revealed faiths" do not reply on deductions but are instead imparted through religious experience, one has only the "feel of truth" on which to base their initial trust in these ideas.

    Simply because Augustine could claim his personal theme was doubt does not mean he truly doubted his religious convictions. The substantial intellectual gymnastics he undertook in his attempt to square Christian mysticism with hellenic philisophy are the work of a man who is taking a large part of Christian mysticism is truth and then trying to work the rest of his ideas out from there.

    The real problem is not in the rationality of general ideas like compassion or devotion or altruism that may be religiously motivated, but in the acceptance of specific notions without which a general moral belief has no connection to a particular religious system. A person is a Christian because of their commitment to the idea that Jesus was god-made-flesh via virgin birth only to later be crucified and resurrected.

    The acceptance as truth that one should feed the hungry and accept the marginalized can be arrived at via an observation of how these behaviors lead to a better life for all of us - even if they are initially justified as being "the word of God." There are no independent rational reasons for believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, resurrected, or even that he was god-made-flesh, apart from the emotional or spiritual attractiveness of these ideas.

    That was what Harris was getting at when he questions which of Sullivan's rational beliefs tied him to Christianity specifically. The beliefs that constitute the grounded, practical moral system expoused by Christianity and many other faiths are not the things Harris, the Bum, or I are suggesting are irrational.

    What Harris and I, and perhaps the Bum, would claim is that these rational systems are only tied to a particular religion via a set of non-rational beliefs about things like eternal souls and omnipotent dieties the belief in which is necessarily the domain of the "feel of truth."

    Sullivan has done a great job of establishing that a religious believer can have rational reasons for accepting the moral wisdom of his religion. What he has not done, and what the Bum (and I) doubt he can do, is rationally justify his commitment to a particular set of myths and stories that are the distinguishing characteristic of his particular faith.

  4. The problem I have with this type of religious belief is that the exploration of it turns to vapor, specifically it survives only so long as it isn't explored too far.

    How can you hold dear, a belief you are unwilling to or unable to explore fully, unless you accept that someone else explored it for you and therefore you just take what they say to you on faith, which opens you up to simply be misled. As many provably and often are. We have a history full of such incidents that would make the proverbial lemming shamed.

    Let me get specific. A believer tells me he/she believes in god. Okay, which god I ask? The Christian God is the reply. It is easy enough to say but the statement is nearly meaningless. We have to know more about the speaker to know what they mean when they say The Christian God. We don't need to know more about The God because even Christians don't agree on the details of their god.

    So ask then what do you believe about your god. The most general reply is, "He loves me and sent his only son to die for my sins. If I believe in his son and accept him as my savior I will have eternal life, if I don't I will burn in hell for eternity."

    So there we have a specific, and common in this country, religious belief. But even the examination of this basic belief falls apart.

    How do you know god loves you?

    Because good things have happened to me and I know it was God who made them happened. But it just creates even more questions than it answers. Is every good thing that happens to me God intervening in my life, or just a few events? If so which ones and how would you know?

    Even if we wave our hands about the good things, does that mean the bad things are Satan? Many say yes. Or, many more say that God is testing them. But see this is the problem. How they respond to the bad thing happen will vary depending on whether they think it is a test directly from god or is Satan tempting them. As soon as we supply action to our beliefs, again they fall apart.

    So it is merely constructed. I can say anything but it is defined differently in practice by nearly every religious group.

    In some, prayer is for us and is meaningless, in others prayer results in miracles. The bible supports both cases. So what does one believe? And the answer is we have nothing to base our faith on but what someone either indoctrinated us into or what we merely "feel".

    I but I feel all kinds of things from deep sadness and even temporary homicidal rage over a serious marriage betrayal. It wasn't religion that stopped me from any acting. Religion, specifically the bible, would have been on my side had I acted, even if society wasn't. What stayed me from action was an understanding of our cultural morals that have built up both because of and despite religious teachings, coupled with my own knowledge that such internal feelings were abberations that would pass, as they quickly did.

    Even if we talk about milder emotions from irritation to irrational exuberance none of these are a good or sane basis for a religious belief. So we are back to square one.

    Examine that other statement of general belief. If I don't believe in The Son of the Christian God then I go to hell? Huh? My punishment for the finite crime of not understanding who or what I am even supposed to believe in is eternal torment and damnation. That sends all kinds of alarm bells off.

    So God punishes finite crime with infinite punishment. Even us puny mortals understand that in order to be just the punishment must fit the crime. To use a graphic example. Hitler is considered by most people alive today to be one of the most evil people who ever lived. He ordered and is responsible for genocide. But according to the Christian faith I am supposed to believe that while Hitler ended the finite and precious lives of all those millions, the Christian God damned most of them to eternal torment because they died not believe in his son and yet God is good while Hitler isn't?

    Hopefully anyone can see the problem as soon as you even take belief seriously it falls apart. If you act on that belief it can go terribly awry.

    I can have extremely vague beliefs like, "be good to my neighbor." But one doesn't need religion for that. In fact religion seems to add ambiguity to it all making it permissible even to kill enemies of god or to shun them or persecute them. Moderates seem to shy away from these beliefs within the religions from which they take succor but that doesn't change the fact that such beliefs are still there to be discovered within the religious doctrine. That the examination of such belief leads to such extremes.

    Either the loss of faith or more zealous belief to danger of persecution of others. Only the determined moderate who refuses to look too closely at what they believe but strongly maintains a general but vague belief in belief can walk this tightrope. But of what value can it be? The less the person believes the easier it is to believe it but then the less certainty and comfort such belief supplies. The more they believe the more comfort and certainty they gain but the less able they are to tolerate others who believe differently.

    Bottom line. We all desire certainties but they are damn few. Most things and people fail us, often at the most inopportune times. But relying on an ill defined higher power doesn't fix this, it merely makes us feel better.

    People use alcohol to do the same thing. But in the end whether you accept it or not. Your problems are still your problems and you cannot escape them forever without consequences.

    I'll close with this. I wanted to believe. I was indoctrinated to both believe and have reason. I examined too much and reason won over belief. Rather than be saddened by this I must accept that I cannot force myself to believe what is verifiably untrue (see recent studies about the effects of prayer and the effect of religion upon modern societies.)

    Thank you for considering this topic.

    - Michael Tenery

  5. Debates in religious epistemology tend to proceed from the assumption that belief in God is inherently suspect and needs to be justified by the appeal to evidence in order to be rational. Thus, the question often becomes whether or not one has sufficient reason to believe in God or whether one has stepped outside the bounds of what can be justified.

    I am not sure this assumption is necessarily tenable. Why think of of beliefs such as "God forgives me for what I have done" on the model of a scientific hypothesis? The philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued that we can have basic beliefs in God. If it is true that we were created by God in order to know God, then our natural faculties are so constituted in order to produce warranted beliefs about God.

    For example, if I see a tree, then, simply in virtue of the fact that I see a tree, I am warranted in the belief that there is a tree there. When properly functioning, my senses are the source of veritable beliefs. This also holds for other sources of knowledge, such as memory, testimony, reason, and intuition. The reliability of any one of these does not seem demonstrable given only a combination of the others.

    So, Plantinga asks: What if we also have a sensus divinitas which, when reliably functioning, produces beliefs about God? I am not sure he is correct in positing one, but he is certainly correct to question some of the basic presumptions about religious belief that go into these discussions.

    Some of his papers are available online here:

  6. Tprisk:

    Platinga is as good a philosphical proponent of religious belief as you're likely to find, but his notion of a divine sense requires the same implicit assertion of a divine reality that Anselm's ontological argument does. A divine sense can only be considered rational justification for a belief in God if one already accepts that there is a God who would be motivated to impart such things as a divine sense in his creations.
    If we know that a particular Judeo-Christian God exists and created the universe, then the orderliness and intricacy of the universe could be sited as rational evidence of his existence. If we are asking whether a God exists in the first place, however - our divine sense is not rational evidence because there is no way to evaluate it's worth independent of the notion you're trying to justify.
    Thus, Platingaphiles are left with the problem of deciding which sensations derive from our divine sense and which are simply the features of an active imagination. And that seems to bring us back to arbitary truthiness standard since a "sense of the divine" can only be assessed on how true it feels.

  7. "[F]aith is a "way of knowing" proper to its subject."

    I always loved philosophy because of statements like this. I mean this in a serious way. But I also know that statements like this can sometimes say less than they imply. I suppose one could argue that if there were a god as described in the Bible, then our way of knowing Him would necessarily be different than the way we know the world around us; we might further argue that our way of knowing this God, would be identical to what we see in religious mystics to this day. But this would not give evidence that in fact there is a God, much less that religious mystics have any knowledge of Him.

    Many critics argue that Harris and Dawkins obstinately apply naturalistic principles to a subject that is beyond nature. But Harris and Dawkins are not stupid. They know you cannot find that giant invisible rabbit in your living room by looking. But they do have a right to ask why they should bother looking in the first place. I know that there is a difference, or so it is claimed, between God and an invisible rabbit. One gives hope and meaning to the world--one is a construct to make a point in this forum. But what if I argue that the other is simply a construct to make a point about the world and our place in it?

    In any case, most of these kinds of serious discussions about how theists "know" God and how atheists just miss the point, often become too esoteric. They focus on the mystery of God and those aspects that are beyond our capability. This is convenient because if God is beyond our rational (or at least naturalistic) minds, then theists can simply shake their heads in sadness at all of those lost souls like Harris.

    But the God of the Bible is not always so esoteric. For thousands of years apparently, God was pretty clear about things, usually by overtly griping and complaining, or just downright killing. Even in the New Testament, Jesus is clear about the power of prayer. As a former religious moderate, I spent a long time trying to understand prayer. Acknowledging the mystery of it all is not enough. If prayer has clear benefits, it should be measurable. But we know where that goes. Maybe there will be other studies, but the big one they just published should cause all moderates to think things through. I did hear one moderate friend say that God did not like us trying to "study" him, so he made sure that experiment failed. Since he was moderate, he felt bad about believing that, but still what else can a moderate say? Maybe next week he will have a different interpretation. If God is real, I don’t expect to understand all of Him, but I ought to see something of his presence--something that cannot be explained easily in other ways.

  8. Actual readers! Welcome!

    I've made other comments about the debate: Why Doubt is Important and Potshots from the Peanut Gallery.

    I have more to say about atheism as well: Theism, Atheism and Knowledge.

    I started feeling better yesterday evening; I'm about halfway through a response to at least part of David Wilkerson's comment. It'll be up today.

    I hope y'all are as patient as you are perspicacious; you've raised enough interesting points in just a half dozen comments to provide fodder for a month's worth of posts.

    I'm also going to comment today on Andrew Sullivan's latest salvo in his debate with Harris.

  9. I'm beginning to answer David Wilkerson's comments in my latest post, The Scientific Method. It's a complicated topic which I've only begun to answer, so I want to respond more completely (if considerably more briefly) to his comment.

    It's true that I'm not satisfied with the type of "evidence" used by the religious to justify their beliefs. But this dissatisfaction is principled, not intuitive.

    My point is not that moderates' faith contradicts the evidence of our senses, but that it speaks to propositions which are not at all connected to the evidence of our senses; they are not empirically falsifiable.

    To me, the question of whether faith is indeed a "way of knowing" in the first place is whether it provides the two pragmatic criteria I set out in my post: Does it give us a rigorous method for establishing agreement? And if so, is there some at least some sort of pragmatic justification for adopting the method?

    The "room to doubt our understanding" is precisely in the methodology. Simply enumerating a list of activities is not a description of a methodology: Precisely how does one use "biblical readings and reflection, prayer, personal religious experience, the practice of Christian life and worship, communal wisdom (in the present and in the tradition), and run o'the mill reason" to satisfy even the most basic criterion of generating agreement?

    These techniques might be interesting ways of arbitrarily permuting our arbitrary intuitions of "truthiness", but without more rigor--that is, with all due respect, without some rigor--it is frankly inappropriate to stretch the meaning of "rational trust" to the conclusions we obtain from the activities David describes.

    Religious "doubt" is inferior to scientific doubt precisely because scientific doubt has rigorous meaning, whereas I'm still unable to get even a glimmer of what religious doubt actually means.

    This is not David's fault; even the best theistic philosophers I've read (including Plantinga and Swinburne) don't seem to be able to do more than throw doubletalk and obfuscation at the issue, or, as with Sprong, just descend into pure mysticism.

    Let me also assure you that no small few atheists, skeptics, agnostics--myself included--are more-or-less hooked into modern theological thought. Perhaps not to the same extent as believers (atheism is not as central to my life as theism appears to be to believers' lives), but we are not completely ignorant.

  10. Kipp,

    I appreciate your response about Plantinga, though I would like to comment about your argument that "a divine sense can only be considered rational justification for a belief in God if one already accepts that there is a God who would be motivated to impart such things as a divine sense in his creations."

    This argument seems to be vulnerable to parody. One might say "ordinary sense perception can only be considered rational justification for a belief in physical objects if one already accepts that there is a physical world that causes those sense perceptions." But, I don't need an antecedent justification for trusting what my senses reveal. Similarly, one does not need to appeal to an antecedent belief in God in order to believe in the results of their sensus divinitas.

    I am not sure whether or not Plantinga is correct that we have such a faculty, but he is right to highlight the fact that assigning a heavy burden of proof to the theist is already to make a substantive claim about the nature of human beings and the way they acquire knowledge of the world.

    There may be independent ways of determining whether or not there is such a faculty as a sensus divinitas by studying psychology and brain science. Perhaps learning more about the physical underpinnings of religious experience will help us decide whether Plantinga might be correct.

  11. Timmo: There are more fundamental reasons why one should view Plantinga's "sensus divinitas" with considerable skepticism.

    The first is that the immediate pragmatic justification for taking such a sense seriously in the first place is much weaker than for taking sensory perception seriously: Pain hurts in an immediate, compelling way that thoughts about the non-existence of God just don't.

    More importantly, there's nothing in such a sense anything like the 99.999..% agreement on billions of prosaic statements of perceptual fact.

    Your critique is correct, but the justification for scientific notions of reality go in the opposite direction. It's not that we all believe the importance and specific truth of perception because we all got together and agreed on an elaborate metaphysical system which justifies such belief. Rather, we've created our elaborate notions of reality just because that's the best scientific theory to account for the immediate importance and widespread agreement of our statements of perception.

  12. Also, if any philosophically-minded theists would like discuss theistic philosophy in more detail, I would be very much interested in discussing providing a guest-blogger spot.

    If you're interested, you can email me at


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