Monday, June 29, 2015

The epistemic bar

Sometimes I read comment debates between atheists and Christians.  It's less fruitful than one would hope.  Every time, it devolves into an epistemic debate -- where they argue, not about the facts, but how strong a proof a person should need.

The atheist position is, "I disbelieve unless I am given very strong evidence for belief."  The Christian one is, "I believe unless it is categorically proven false."  Then they fight with each other about what the proper level of evidence needed really is.

The trouble is, as long as the question is in any way uncertain, there is no solution to this debate.  There is no categorical proof available.  That's sort of the point of religion -- it's about spiritual realities which you can't see or touch.  And the human mind is not capable of easily grasping probabilities.  Ignorance is something it has a lot of trouble with.  It is not really possible to be 20% sure of something.  How do you act when you are 20% sure?  To deal with this reality, you round down to nothing, usually, but you could round up if you really wanted to.  When I look at the weather forecast, I generally think of any lowish chance of rain (like 30%) as "not going to rain" and any highish chance (like 70%) as "going to rain."  Only at a really ambiguous number (like 50%) will I admit that I actually don't know.

So the real question between atheists and Christians is, which way do we round?  If we are 20% sure Jesus rose from the dead, should we act like it's true, or false?

Christians make the argument that they want to believe anyway, because of the benefits of belief, because the possible reward (heaven) is so high, and because they don't want to take the risk of disbelieving if it's true and perhaps going to hell.  (Now some people don't say that -- they say they wish it weren't true because being a Christian is hard.  But that means this argument doesn't work for them, and they should require more proof than the one who wants to believe.)

It seems to me that complete certainty is not possible in our current situation.  Therefore, depending on how you round, you could go either way.

The trouble, for the religious side, is where to place the epistemic bar so that you can believe all the truths of the Christian religion and none of the things that you don't want to believe.  That is, you have to come up with a standard of proof that Jesus' resurrection passes, but the resurrection of Proteus fails.  You want to set the bar so that the sun dancing at Fatima passes and the sun dancing at Medjugorje fails.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have to be credible witnesses, but not Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard.

For the atheist side, the problem is that they come up with a standard of proof that wouldn't allow them to believe in, say, Hannibal.  Hannibal has no contemporary attestation either.  On the other hand, no self-respecting historian really does believe the odd bits of the Hannibal story -- miracles, prophecies, and so forth.  It's not well-attested enough for that, and anyway the existence of the supernatural is usually taken as negative evidence in a text -- I sure discount that stuff when I read history.  And historical figures like Alexander the Great, Pontius Pilate, Socrates, and so forth do have multiple independent contemporary sources about them -- including critical ones.

The reality, which no one seems willing to face, is that historical "truth" is really no better than an educated guess.  This link says it very well (I recommend the whole thing): "The historian's 'truths' are derived from analytical evaluations of an object called 'sources' rather than an object called 'the actual past.'"  The past itself is not available; all we have is what is written down.

So we could have an amount of proof which isn't really good evidence of anything.  Jesus lived among mostly uneducated people in a place that wasn't the center of literacy.  It is quite credible that he should live his entire life without anyone writing a contemporary letter about him, without having become the subject of a satire by one of his enemies, without having been mentioned by Philo of Alexandria or Pliny the Elder.  It is entirely unsurprising for the new founder of a religion to be noticed exclusively by the members of his own religion during his lifetime.  Who else cared enough to write?

On the other hand, it is also entirely credible that a new religion could be founded on a falsehood -- most religions have to have been, if only one can be true!  It's credible that, within the fervent atmosphere of a new religion, myths could spring up and be encoded in sacred books within a very short time.  Regnum Christi had a little book called Perspectives on a Foundation which would seem like a credible source.  It was written by Legionaries, within the lifespan of the founder, from primary sources (mostly the founder himself).  But it was pretty much total fiction from beginning to end.  I, as a member of that movement, had no way of knowing it wasn't true and no reason not to believe it.  There's no popular rebuttal published, because only movement members cared about it!  All of us would normally discount anything said about L. Ron Hubbard by Scientologists, anything a Mormon told us about Joseph Smith, and anything Muslims say about Muhammad.  We know that their faith and zeal prevents them from being skeptical and objective.  When you take that standard and apply it to the sources about Jesus, the whole New Testament is suspect and you are down to two references to him in the historical record -- neither of which is very informative.

And we know that, a few short centuries after the birth of Christ, zealous Christians deliberately destroyed all anti-Christian writings they could find, as well as heretical material like the gnostic Gospels.  So who knows. maybe there was good evidence against the Resurrection that no longer survives.

Honestly I find both stories credible, and neither case rock-solid.

So, given that, what do you go with?  Like I said, you can't actually be 30% sure Jesus rose from the dead, because the mind doesn't work that way.  And how can you be 30% of a Christian?  "I don't know" gives no guidance about your life choices.

There are two possible answers.  Round up is what religion demands.  Take a small amount of certainty and round it up to total certainty.  Eschew doubt.  When someone asks you if you believe, don't say "maybe," say "yes," even though you aren't sure at all.

The other option is round down, to say that without good evidence you will not believe.  That's what you would do if someone told you 9/11 was an inside job, or that the government is poisoning us with chemtrails, or that you live inside the Matrix.  You would say, "Interesting theory, but you haven't proved it yet.  I'm not going to change the way I live until I'm sure."  But then you have to go on in your life, wondering if there is a more out there, a beautiful reality which you are missing out on.

There's just one thing that gets me: if God is real, if Jesus saves, if the main concern of Jesus is to get us to believe in him, why would he leave us in a state like this, where our entire salvation hinges on a rounding error?  You would think he would be very careful to make it clear.  While it's credible on a natural level for there to be as little evidence as there is, if the whole thing is of supernatural origin, it would have been quite simple for God to make sure we had better sources.  Why didn't he?

The best answer I've heard to this is that God doesn't leave it to the historical facts.  He inspires each individual separately, giving us our own evidence for belief.  If you pray to him, he will give the gift of faith, or a miracle, or a fantastic coincidence -- something that lets you be really sure it's true.  After that, it's up to you -- believe or not, having been given exactly the evidence that you need.  The only flaw to this is that it has not happened to me.

As a result, the only possibilities I can think of are as follows:
1.  Christianity is false.
2.  Christianity is true, but it's a Calvinist version, and I am predestined to hell.
3. Christianity is true, but God is waiting till a better time in my life to reveal it to me.  A correlate is that he's okay with my not believing now.
4.  Christianity is true, but God knows it would be harmful to me personally.  He knows I'm obsessively conscientious and will make myself miserable trying to follow it all.  So he withholds proof so that I will not feel pressured to live that way.  He thinks I'll live better without knowing about him, and then he can clear it all up with me in heaven.

Can you think of any more? Anyway, that answers that objection.  The  one answer I won't accept is, "Because God wanted to give us the chance to believe without evidence," because God also didn't give us evidence that it was a good thing to believe without evidence.

Emotions might be a substitute for certainty.  If you feel God is out there, that could be enough.  But it seems to me this conclusion has two correlates: first, when you stop feeling God is out there, you should stop believing; and second, if your interior sense of God conflicts with something organized religion tells you, you should go with your feeling, since it's your ultimate source of belief in the first place.  Sure enough, there's plenty of religious people who believe in this way.

There is no real answer to the question, "Where should you put the epistemic bar?"  That is, what is the point at which you stop rounding down and start rounding up -- what amount of proof is enough to go ahead and assume it's true.  It comes down to a choice -- and that's why believing or disbelieving is almost always a choice.  If something is proven, you have no choice but to believe it.  I can't believe the sky is green.  But if there's any doubt at all, any wiggle room for disbelief, you can always make that choice.  That is why Christians say that if atheists wanted to, they could choose to believe (just set the bar lower!) and atheists say Christians are choosing to believe what they do because they prefer it (because they could always set the bar higher).

However, is one choice better than another?  Scientific thought suggests 50% is a good level.  If you are more sure than unsure, you should believe while leaving an open mind in case you learn more information.  If you're less sure than unsure, you should disbelieve.  And you should always be aware of the possibility that you are wrong.  Science has no room for "faith," because the very definition of faith is taking insufficient evidence -- something that doesn't lead to unavoidable certainty -- and treating it as if you were sure.

In fact, I can't think of a single area outside of religion where this is a good decision.  When I chose not to vaccinate my kids, it was with the understanding that I wasn't sure it was the right choice, I should keep an open mind to further information, and reassess as appropriate.  (I'm thinking it's probably about time to give at least Marko a few shots, by the way.)  When I was convinced by the evidence for evolution, I kept in my mind that it's not a sure thing and I shouldn't act like it is, even though the evidence is pretty good.  With religion, we are urged to take any evidence, even if it's not at all close to overwhelming, and stop considering other possibilities as soon as we have it.

If the common ground between atheists and Christians in this argument is "you should use the same epistemic bar for religion and other things," I think the atheists win.  Christians do not actually use the same epistemic bar for religion and other things, and if they did, they would be excessively credulous and much too stubborn about changing their minds when they were wrong.

But is it really agreed?  What do you think?  On what grounds can religious truth require a lower epistemic bar than other things?  The potential rewards are huge, yes, but so are the costs.  Religion requires of us many things that are painful and difficult, and sometimes it requires things which would be seen as immoral from outside its perspective.  And what if one religion is true, and it's not the one you're currently in?  Surely in that case you are obliged to keep looking.

Is there a level of evidence at which it is the right choice to switch from rounding down to rounding up, and if so, where is it?


Belfry Bat said...

Rounding-up is a funny game; I heard quoted today that a collision of a pedestrian with a car driven at 30km/h results in death of the pedestrian 5% of the time (1/20), or is survived 95% of the time. On the one hand, this means that if one is in a collision at 30km/h, he shouldn't be too much worried (but of course, seek medical assistance immediately); on the other hand, this doesn't mean that it's a reasonable idea to go out looking to collide with cars for fun, even if we happen to know they're all driving at 30km/h.

(( I'm not convinced that we are bound to believe that the Sun Danced at Fatima... "Private" revelation seems hardly a suitable word for the reports, but theologically, that's the category it's in. ))

... there might be a reply "(3b) Christianity is true, but we are discounting some evidence for it (through inadvertence or some other process)."

Your reply (4) is puzzling to me! Why would you do that? Or, if you know that you do this, and since it's applicable to ordinary day-to-day questions quite appart from Religion, what are you doing about it? ... you don't have to answer me on that, of course.

But as to the proposition "you should use the same epistemic bar for religion and other things," I think I should like to know why this is appropriate. Why should "the same" epistemic bar be applied to all questions? What does it even mean, when considering questions in different categories?

Enbrethiliel said...


I read this in the light of what you were saying about guns and becoming another person, and I wonder whether the issue is not the evidence for Christianity, but the people who are considering it. After all, the evidence is always the same; it is the people who are different. But it's possible for people to change. In the same way that someone can change the way he sees the world in order to be an efficient gun user, it seems that a non-believer can change the way he sees evidence (or whatever the objection at hand is) in order to be a believing Christian. So to paraphrase what you said in the last paragraph of that other post, do you think Christianity is enough to merit changing the sort of person you are?

Sheila said...

I would disagree with your offer of 3b. First, because the internet has resulted in easy information retrieval, and there are apologists cranking out material every day. If there is a strong piece of evidence out there, it would follow that they would present it, and that I (if sincerely looking for it) am likely to find it. And second, because this discussion is not about whether the evidence exists, but why God allows me not to find it. It seems if he is very concerned with my believing, he would put the right evidence in my path. You could say he has not done so *yet,* but I don't think it's possible that (if he wanted me to believe) he would not do so at *all.*

"Why would you do that?" -- You mean, overdo religion to the point of being harmful to myself? Well, because there's no logical reason, given the truth of the faith, why I shouldn't. Lots of saints did. Jesus died on the cross for me, so holding anything back -- going to bed early because I'm exhausted instead of spending some time in prayer, eating ice cream when I could be making a sacrifice for souls, or not flagellating myself because I don't like to -- seems inappropriate and selfish. Nowadays we don't really trumpet the saints who lived on pillars or thrust their hands into hot lye or starved themselves for years on end on bread and water, but nothing has changed doctrinally. It seems they had a clearer view of the importance of spiritual things than today's Catholics. If eternity is forever, why waste a single moment of your limited time on earth enjoying yourself? You will have eternity for that, but you only have a limited number of minutes on earth to save souls.

I would say that you *don't* have to use the same epistemic bar for everything. I'm not surprised that you should question this, considering if you DO use the same bar, the atheists win. But I was asking, WHY would you use different ones? If you find that one level is optimal for finding out the truth, choosing a different one would mean decreasing your chances of finding out the truth.

Taking a risk-based view -- one should not run a small risk of smashing into people with one's car, for instance -- doesn't seem to be the same as belief. It seems reasonable to *believe* that if you hit someone, they'd probably survive, but at the same time to avoid hitting them because you don't know for sure that they would (or that you wouldn't injure them). When there's a ten percent chance of rain, I rightly think "it's unlikely to rain," but at the same time, if I'm planning a picnic, I'd prefer the day with a zero percent chance. I have one bar for belief, another for action.

And while, as I said, the risk of disbelief is high (loss of salvation, assuming it's available), there can be significant risks to belief. This will vary from person to person, from martyrdom (which, if there is no God, would be a terrible waste of life), to depression and loneliness for a gay person, to death in childbirth for an acquaintance of mine with health complications and trouble making NFP work for her. You can't know what each person's risks will be, or even what yours will be, but keep in mind -- from faith's perspective, once you round up, you should stop counting the cost and assume it's all worth it. If a bigger risk occurs to you, you're not supposed to stop and recalculate and say "well, I'll go to church, but I'll also use birth control." And, of course, you're supposed to proselytize, which means that you are convincing someone *else* to round up, someone who perhaps bears a higher risk from believing than you do.

So I think you're going to have to answer the question, instead of just throwing it back on me: why SHOULD you use a lower epistemic bar for religious questions than for historical and scientific ones?

Sheila said...

E -- it absolutely is, if it's true. But if you can't know it's true prior to changing the sort of person you are ... I'm not sure that's justified!

I did try, though. It just seemed odd to me that the habits of mind which I learned to deal with God's creation -- which, in fact, work extremely well for figuring out God's creation -- should suddenly fail me when turned on God himself. Why should that be?

And once you learn things, and form inquisitive habits of mind, I'm not sure it really is possible to stop and become more credulous again. Somewhere in the back of your mind you keep asking, "But how do I know that's true?"

Enbrethiliel said...


We could totally go around in circles here, because my answer to your first paragraph is: what if it IS true but you can't know its true until you become that person? LOL! But seriously, if we're saying that faith, being a virtue, depends a lot on personality, then people really do need to change their personalities in order to cultivate faith. We also see it the other way around, as many people who have cultivated faith find that they've also changed their personalities. If you really want faith, then it's something to consider. If what you want is to be 100% rational about everything, then you're already there; no need to change. But the latter doesn't seem to be what you want.

And I think it's totally possible to unlearn habits of mind, especially after you've accepted they are flawed in some way. One example is porn addicts learning to stop seeing members of the opposite sex in an objectifying way. Their counterparts seem to be all those men who have "taken the red pill" and joined the Manosphere. Then there are all those people on race realist boards who talk about being "former liberals" who once saw everyone as equal. I recall a article about someone who went in the opposite direction, from white supremacist to someone who could see people of other skin colours as individuals. We tend to give critical thinking a pass, because it's generally seen as a positive thing; but it's also another pair of tinted lenses that might possibly be distorting reality if they are worn all the time.

Belfry Bat said...

The really curious thing about your reply to 3b is that the full scope of "other evidence" you suggest you might consider is more text written by people you don't know. The other evidence I keep having in mind is not the texts but meta-data about the texts (such as who wrote it, and where, from which sources) which usually isn't in the texts themselves but kept in oral tradition. Such as: the Gospel of Mark was written, mostly in Rome, by Mark (who later went to the North of Italy) mostly based on Peter's preaching; while the Gospel of Luke was written by Luke, as he followed Paul on his travels, based mostly on his preaching, as well as having spoken with others in various places, including Mary; that the Gospel of John was written by the apostle John, probably in Ephesus (where he was taking care of Mary)... If one can take any of Peter or Paul or John as credible witnesses, then you can take the respective Gospels as credible accounts.

Per contrasts, the source and authority claimed by John Smith and by Mohammed, (and by Hubbard for that matter, at least outside conversations with his fellow con-men over drinks in Toronto) is the word of an Angel (or angel substitute), incidentally contradicting both earlier scriptures and what Jesus is reported to have said quite publicly, not to mention eachother. But the primary reason I can't believe any other religion's claims is: they get human nature and charity thoroughly wrong.

What is said should be reasonable, but we don't attend only to what is said, but also to who is saying it, and whether we think them credible witnesses.


Since you brought up probabilities, and since you're missing my point about: belief is a habit of thought that informs our actions, but probabilities really do not inform our actions... There isn't even a sensible way to assign a "probability" to the question: is this or that apparent human person actually Divine; or a "probability" for: is some strange surprising occurence a proper miracle or the consequence of some invisible-but-ordinary process. We can't repeatably locate extraordinary Divine action in strange events themselves because: how do I know what it would look like? So: "probabilities", anyways, is not a useful tool.

Sheila said...

It seems to me, though, that a bit of critical thinking would have helped the white supremacist and the red pill takers. After all, there IS good evidence against both of those positions. Perhaps you never needed to find it, because your mind is good at the simple shortcut of "but that's a terrible way to live," but if someone has wrong ideas, critical thinking would be a good thing to introduce them to.

Priding oneself on being a realist isn't the same thing as actually being one, you see. This is my main reason for thinking men are not more rational than women. They always seem to THINK they are being rational, but saying it doesn't make it so. Neither does surrounding yourself with only people who agree with you and being nasty with people who don't.

Can you explain to me what sort of vision has a better chance at telling fact from fiction than critical thinking? You think faith-based thinking works well, but what if I used the same approach toward Islam or Mormonism? Would it be likely to lead me toward the truth in that case? The best kind of thinking (it seems to me) is one that can determine in some way between true and false -- it wouldn't just reaffirm the true, but also alert you to the false.

I used to be more creduluous; I had to stop being so because I believed in something false (RC) but of course that habit of mind targets my other beliefs. But can you reassure me that if I relearn the habit of being credulous, I won't be hurt by believing something false again? It may be that I could relearn those habits (I am really not sure) but certainly I shouldn't without good reason! The porn addict unlearns his addiction because he has a good reason to do so. He knows that women aren't REALLY the way he sees them, so he tries to see them in a way that's in line with the truth. But if you think you are seeing things truly already, how exactly do you change?

SeekingOmniscience said...

BB, don't probabilities inform our actions every time we buy insurance, look both ways before crossing the street, decide that taking that one shortcut isn't worth the risk of another traffic jam there, buy or do not buy that extended guarantee, and so on? Probabilities inform actions all the time, I think. I just don't see why one couldn't assign probabilities to various the question of divinity of an individual--you'd do it the way you do everything else, by gathering data about the reference class and the individual in question.

I've heard people bring up the metadata of the texts in question, but I really wish I knew the provenance and sources of the metadata.

Enbrethiliel said...


I don't mean to disparage critical thinking. I think it's quite nice. But it's not the only tool we've got. And it's also like a gun; if you are used to having it as your main tool, everything becomes a target to be shot at.

And now this part is just a very personal opinion: I tend to be suspicious of things that are their own strongest supports. Protestantism, Mormonism, and Islam fall on their faces for me, for instance, because scripture can't be its own witness. That is, you can't prove that a book is divinely inspired merely because the book has a verse that says it's divinely inspired. Anyway, this is my view on critical thinking: if critical thinking is what leads us to believe that critical thinking is the best, then there's a con being pulled. (End of very personal opinion.)

I suppose the white supremacist and the red pill takers would echo you in saying that they see the evidence for the opposite side but that it simply isn't enough. (And for the kind of people they have chosen to be, it really isn't!) Even if they don't like their new view of the world, they could say another thing you did: that going back to the old way won't guarantee they'll be safe from black-on-white crime or a divorce that takes all their assets. And they do think they see things truly, which is why they won't change.

Now, to be absolutely clear, I don't mean to say I think you're like them on a personal level. But if we're going to stick to abstractions, I do see a lot of similarities between both your arguments for your respective positions.

Anyway, of course I can't guarantee you that you will never again be hurt by believing. But I also can't guarantee you that no one will break into your house. I can point to the statistics and show that it's highly unlikely. Sheila, you've calculated the risks of everything else form measles to home invasions before; what do you think of the risk of your being hurt a second time by believing in the wrong thing?

Belfry Bat said...

SO, please submit an experimental design.

SeekingOmniscience said...

An experiment to determine the probability that someone is divine? Well, you can try to assess probability for things in general without experimental design. Actuarial tables, I surmise, are gathered from census-style data rather than interventions--and they provide really sound probabilistic evidence, quite applicable on a large scale. Experimental design isn't everything; good observations are what gave Einstein his theory, though Eddington confirmed it.

But yeah, as regards experimental design that someone is divine, there are a few ways I'd go about it. If the individual were present-to-hand, I'd ask them (1) for definite, particular data about future events in a particular limited timeframe, without the ambiguity that often accompanies prophecies. Ideally it would be about something definite--not necessarily important--but very, very difficult to predict accurately. This forcast data I would distribute to other trustworthy or skeptical people before the supposed event, so that other people who were interested in the divinity of this individual could verify it. Other checks could also be put in place. Then we could ask other people who did not know the provenance of the prophecy, after the deadline has passed whether it had occurred, if you wanted to make it really double-blind. There would have to be some more checks put in place to prevent fraud, and also to prevent hindsight bias, which would be a big factor. Something like that would work. We could then look at the percentage of prophecies fulfilled, the chance a knowledgeable but not prescient individual would know them, which could be determined by looking at predictions in the same reference-type, and so on.

Of course, this is only evidence that the individual has prophetic power, which is not necessarily divine. But if you verify this then it definitely raises the probability that they're divine, and so would have value as part of an ensemble of other tests. It certainly raises the probability from the infinitesimal amount ("Hey, a dude says he's God. Ha.") such a claim usually sits at to something more tangible.

The nice thing about this experimental design is that even if they aren't present, they could have anticipated *that* I would be interested in this kind of thing, they could have included some definite prophecy to help provide me (and other people!) with good evidence. For instance, stating that two trans-Saturnian gas giants would be found, that we would find that Mars has two small moons, and that we would find that the sun burns by splitting very small things apart, would be good evidence that someone was a prophet, if they lived several thousand years ago.

Sheila said...

BB, I don't think I meant to say that I could calculate the probability of Jesus being divine, or anything of that sort. How would you even do it? Out of however many people that ever lived, a maximum of one is divine, so that would be a low probability, but if you took "odds that someone who rose from the dead is divine," well, that would be very high! Rather I'm talking about how sure I am. How much of the evidence goes which way, and how strong it is. I can't reach any sort of precision about this (there are logicians who do, I guess) but what I can say is what the preponderance of the evidence states, which overall explanation fits the data best, that sort of thing. And I can also realize that I do not believe anything with a high degree of certainty, though (because my brain isn't good at this) this is more an intellectual statement than something I readily understand.

Talking about the metadata, there are a few questions to ask. First, how can we be sure the oral tradition is correct? This seems to be one of Enbrethiliel's self-referential systems -- if the Church's tradition is that its own teachings are trustworthy, well, what else would you expect it to say?

Second, if it's true that they were who tradition says they were (and scholars are quite divided on this), how do I know they are reliable? People do get swept up in religious zeal and claim to have seen miracles; they attribute their pet ideas to their heroes; they pretend to have been present for events they only heard about. The NT writers wrote with a purpose: to provide a religious text for a religion they'd been part of for 30 years or more! That is very different from the attitude of an unbiased historian trying to get down just the facts. Just as, when I want to learn about Medjugorje, I'd rather hear from a journalist or investigating impartial priest than someone who leaves Medjugorje leaflets everywhere and tells me that I need to hear the "Gospa's" message.

L. Ron Hubbard seems to have really believed that he'd cured himself of various maladies with the help of Dianetics. His writings definitely suggest he does; they seem sincere and he cites sources (which, of course, don't measure up). Joseph Smith and Muhammad don't seem like liars; yes, what they've written contradicts with other things you believe, but just like with the Gospels, you have to trust they're telling the truth (or not). Your "separate attestation of tradition" isn't really so separate if you consider that both the documents and the tradition came out of the same church -- first the oral tradition, and then the documents. Consider that a *single person* could have made the whole thing up, insisting that all these other named (and conveniently unavailable or dead) people saw it too. By the time the evangelists wrote, the trail was pretty cold, and anyway why doubt their revered religious leader who changed their lives? Consider that the Gospel was preached all over the Mediterranean by pairs of apostles .... the church at Corinth, for instance, would have met Paul and Barnabas, maybe, but wouldn't have the chance to interview Peter and Mary Magdalene before deciding whether or not to believe. A few stirring speeches, and they were lining up to be baptized. Once there are hundreds of people in your town and thousands in the world who accept the message, it seems a little silly to be skeptical about how you've never met the eyewitnesses.

I hate constructing this story because I know as Catholics we see it very differently, and nothing can be more offensive than calling St. Peter or Paul liars. But it IS a possibility.

Sheila said...

E, considering that at most one religion is true and there are thousands, the possibility of being deceived is high. And considering that most religions include commandments that would make no sense outside of that belief-system -- in part to force people to "ante up" and prove they believe -- if I were deceived, the probability is high that I would be hurt by it, at least in small ways. Certainly I already feel hurt by the possibility that I have spent so much time and money propagating something that might not be true, and that no one ever suggested to me that it might not be true. They swore they were as sure as the sun goes round, only to reveal later when I pressed for evidence that, well, of course you can't be sure, it's a matter of faith.

I just feel that, given the risks, the smart thing is to keep an open mind and keep looking at evidence. But the Catholic Church says you may NOT keep an open mind. A person who keeps an open mind is not a believer .... even though my mind is at least as open to God as to anything or anyone else.

SO, wouldn't you say this experiment has been run, when Jesus gave his two-part prophecy that, 1, Jerusalem would be destroyed, and 2, immediately after this, and within the lifetime of the people standing there, he would return in glory? It's an easily disprovable prophecy, it's reasonably clear, and it's set within a clear timeframe so you can't keep pretending it's still in the future. I can easily see Mark (or Matthew, depending on who you think was first) putting that in there as solid proof that Jesus can prophesy, because it would have been written soon after the destruction of Jerusalem, but since it's undated they could claim it was written before. It would also serve as proof that we live in the end times and therefore a high level of fervor was required.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, I confess that I'm not sure whether I still have the thread. You're making really reasonable points, but until now, I had the impression that you wanted to believe again and that you thought Christianity was worth trying to believe in despite all the drawbacks. But if even the smallest risk is reason enough not to try to change, then my conclusion is that you're already in the most comfortable place you could possibly be in an imperfect world. You've pointed out that you've already lost a lot of things by not believing, but you seem more okay about this than about standing to lose more by believing again.

If someone asked me, "What does Sheila want?" I'd say, she wants to believe based on solid evidence that stands up to her reason. And if he also asked, "What do you want, Enbrethiliel?" I'd say, I want to help Sheila get what she wants instead of convincing her that she should want something else. At the moment, the only practical solution I've found involves changing the kind of person you are. (We seem to disagree about whether it's possible or not, but I think that all the dramatic conversions in human history--including non-religious ones--prove that it is, IF people are willing.) But now you say you won't even try to do what it may take to believe in the evidence unless the evidence were more believable. It's totally circular.

This is like someone saying, "I'm not going to do this exercise to lose weight unless the weight is lose-able." (Pardon the bad English. =P) I had thought we've been discussing ways to lose weight, but now the issue seems to be whether the weight can be dropped at all. So before we continue, I have to ask you: do you think it's possible? Because if you don't, then there's really nothing I can do to help out.

Sheila said...

If it's true, I want to believe it. Because if it's true it's worth risking everything for. And I want it to be true because it's a better truth.

But if it's true, shouldn't there be good evidence for it? That's what I don't get. Why is the answer always "it's true, but it's unreasonable for you to expect evidence"? WHY is it so unreasonable? On what grounds should I abandon otherwise good thought processes -- processes that have allowed me to find out all kinds of true things and reject lots of false things -- in this one case?

The ONLY reason I can come up with for why I should believe something even though the evidence for it suggests it's false, is that I like it better. And that is kind of a terrible reason to believe something. I would like to believe there are a million dollars sitting in my bank account right now, but it's not the case and I'll suffer the consequences if I pretend it is. Would you really say, "Hey, it's a better reality, so just believe it! You don't need to see a bank statement"?

What makes this situation different?

Enbrethiliel said...


But isn't where we decide to put the bar already very subjective? People are looking at the exact same evidence and coming away with different conclusions. What to some is a bank statement straight from the bank president's desk is to others a suspicious document fished out of the recently-fired clerk's waste paper bin. (Not that the same document can't be both! Stuff gets "misfiled" all the time. =P) It seems to me that the big issue is not why one person can have a high bar for some things and a low bar for others, but why different people can have different bars for the same thing. And it begs the question of what criteria we use to evaluate the criteria by which we evaluate everything else.

So to reply to the question in your second paragraph: there IS good evidence; it's just not good enough for you. And I don't mean to come across as snide there, because I'm actually in the same boat. Let me explain . . .

I hope I'm not pushing a taboo subject, since whenever I bring up something else that I think is a great matter of belief--namely, evolution (by which I'm sure we both mean micro-evolution)--it gets dropped like a hot potato; but more so than ancient astronauts, astrology, feminism, race realism, or the other controversial topics we've dribbled around, it's the one where my intellectual path most closely parallels yours. As I've said before, I used to think evolution was true, only to be appalled (and yes, even betrayed) by how little evidence there actually is for it and how much rationalisation goes on to maintain its dogmatic status. (My Science teachers lied to me!!!) It seems to me that if we teach evolution in schools, we have no excuse not to teach feng shui-based medicine. And I think the Vatican coming out in support of the former in the 90s may one day turn out to be as embarrassing as the Galileo affair.

Yet I can also see the possibility that I just have a really high bar for these things. What if the evidence is actually very strong, but just not strong enough for me? What if I'm being unreasonable? And if I am, how do I know???

Sheila said...

The nice thing is, you don't *have* to know! I think one of the wisest things a person can do is to admit when they don't know. Faith forbids that -- you are supposed to check your uncertainties at the door, and though no one actually stops being uncertain, you sure as heck aren't supposed to act as if you are. If someone tried to draw a moral conclusion from evolution (which I think is impossible anyway, what IS doesn't tell you what you SHOULD do) that I should kill black people or something, I'd say no. But the Catholic Church says that no matter how unsure I am that this or that teaching is the right thing to follow, I should work to *make* myself feel more sure than I am and go ahead and do that thing. If it was instead commonly understood that none of us are really sure about the faith, that we'll follow it when it seems right and abandon it if the evidence says we should, I'd feel a lot better about the whole business! Replace the Act of Faith with an Act of Provisional Acceptance because the reality is that certainty is not possible with a finite mind, and I'd happily say it.

True, some people say that I am still welcome in the Church with that attitude. But for one thing, that is not at all what actual Church teaching says, and for another, it is not the way Catholics actually behave.

As far as evolution goes, maybe you just haven't been exposed to the right evidence! It sounds to me as though you got a grade-school version saying it was true, have read skeptical websites or books saying it was false, and never found counterarguments. But have you looked? I haven't yet heard an alternate explanation for why our cells are full of junk DNA which we don't use but which we share with bacteria. And why do people say we can't duplicate evolution in a lab when it's been done? What about antibiotic and pesticide resistance?

I drop the issue of evolution with you like a hot potato because I don't think it actually matters, and I also find arguing with people who disagree with it rather tiresome. It reads like a conspiracy theory. What in the world are they positing instead? And is the alternative more likely than what we've got? But instead they just like to poke holes in the only theory that even comes close to including all the evidence!

But you know what? It's okay because you can go ahead and put the bar for evolution sky-high and the bar for, say, paranormal occurrences rock-bottom low. Because no one is expecting you to base your entire life on either idea. Being wrong isn't a problem.

Belfry Bat said...

Where Evolution becomes problematic isn't the idea that children aren't exactly like their parents (this is obvious, e.g. if you've ever planted rosehips) nor that long-separated branches of any given family may become mutually unintelligble, like Latin and Japanese (how do you cross a Chihuahua with a Newfoundland?), but with the particular scientistic idea that a rational soul might be nothing more than a very-evolved brain. This scientistic idea then leads to potential moral troubles in that one is tempted to morally value special "smart-but-not-human" brains more highly than small numbers (among plentiful) human brains — as in the Trolley Dilemma that runs "Would you shoot The Last Bull Elephant to prevent it trampling the 9b'nth baby?" (To which the Catholic Answer is: "yes, if possible and nothing else would stop it, but who left this baby in trampling grounds and why?")


I'm still not convinced that that's what the prophecy is meant to mean; Mary also speaks prophetically: "from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed..." and this doesn't mean a whole lot if there's only two or three "generations", if that were the sense meant in "this generation".

Enbrethiliel said...


If I really wanted to get to the bottom of the evidence for micro-evolution, sure, I'd look more stuff up. But I confess that transitional fossils are probably the only evidence that could ever convince me. Should they finally pop up some day and be proven not to be more hoaxes, I'd reevaluate my thinking. (But given what happened with the last two hoaxes, I have the same "Can you guarantee that I'll never be hurt again?" baggage you do. The transitional fossils will have to woo me.)

Back to the point: I've finally come to see what you're getting at. You're really stuck, aren't you? There have been times when I read something you've written and said to myself, "Wow, Sheila is right: God really doesn't love her." Now, that is something I don't believe at all, and yet you make me believe it. You're so convinced. The "God doesn't exist; all is well" glow that I've told you I sometimes come away with from your blog is kind of nice, but this other feeling is more like the nihilist hangover that I wake up with after a night of reminiscing with the music of Blur and Pulp. It's awful for me, so imagine how it must be for you!

I like helping you think up "hacks" so that you can believe again, but after 999 of them have failed, even my legendary optimism is starting to flag. That's why I asked you, a few comments, ago, do you even think it's possible? If it's not, then we're wasting time, energy, and emotion.

Before I bow out at last, I think there are three points you should consider.

First, as I've said, I think solum dubium cogitandum is as fallible as sola Scriptura. This is partly why I tend to look for ways to get around your points rather than address them head-on; to do the latter would be like trying to play "dueling verses" with a Protestant. "Why would God give me this mind and then not want me to use it?" is very much like "Why would God give us the Bible and then not want us to use it?"

Second, related to that last analogy, is that you put a lot of the blame on God. He let you fall into the hands of people who damaged your faith; He gave you your mind and your character; He chose to be born in a semi-illiterate backwater where no one kept proper records; He didn't do more for you even though, being God, He totally could have. All this is true, and yet blaming others for our problems is a game that nobody wins. Like everyone who was ever dealt a bad hand, you're going to have to accept that if you want to get out of the hole you're in, you really will have to do more work than others have had to. That's not fair, but the alternative is being stuck forever.

Third, all this is possibly due to a defect in character rather than a defect in evidence or in reasoning. I really don't like making things so obviously personal, but you yourself made it about character when you described yourself as "obsessively conscientious." (But again, notice, that you also pinned that on God.) This is why I suggested, several comments ago, that you may have to change the kind of person you are. But since you conscientiously won't do this unless it also stands up to your reason, then you've come to the borders of a very perfectly circumscribed world. A world that you, not God, made for yourself.

SeekingOmniscience said...

So a while back, while I was questing for truth to be had *anywhere* within the Catholic Church, I tried out a charismatic service that some Franciscans put on.

Everyone was very welcoming, of course. One thing I remember in particular from the experience, though, was something one of the Franciscans had said while preaching. Which was that he had come to a charismatic meet, many years ago, in sort of the same mood I was in. He said that, in the past, he just thought of himself as needing something to cling to. "I didn't even care if it was true," he said, "I just wanted something to believe." And then a miracle ostensibly happened at the meet, and he came to believe, and so on.

And you gotta think, even if you believe the story, "Huh. Apparently a motivation God is quite willing to reward is *not wanting the truth*" Which even at the time, struck me as more than a little odd. A story of a skeptic, who tried to put himself in the way of God, and found a miracle apparently worked for him, like John C. Wright? Well, you can doubt the veracity of the miracle, but at least even in the story God is meeting the desire for truth with truth. But in the story above, God is meeting a willingness to embrace falsehood with truth--if the story is true.

And that's the thing. All these "Just let go of the desire for evidence!" kinda things are, well, bizarre, if you suppose God likes truth.

Re. being in a circumscribed world--well, every worldview is circumscribed. The point of trying to follow procedures likely to lead to truth is that you make the circumscribed parts of reality the same as the places where reality is actually circumscribed. If you don't follow procedures likely to lead to truth, you have literally no reason to think that your worldview is circumscribed by anything your own emotions and by what the contingent group of people you've met have told you. So by not following these procedures, you place yourself in the power of your own emotions, and you place yourself in the power of others. Sure, this may be a world that other people, and not yourself, have made for you. But it seems like a smaller world than the world as it is.

Belfry Bat said...

S.O., That is a weird story; I'm with you in preferring Wright's tale. Steven Kellmeyer's is another story I like, though ymmv... the only gloss I can make on it that makes sense is that, somehow, your Franciscan was looking for something good, and was given something good (if not the particular good of solid philosophy).

I keep reading complaints that someone has claimed we should stop looking for evidence; and I want to clarify that I've never tried to suggest such a thing. On the contrary, where there is both doubt and interest, evidence should be sought and considered. I have tried to suggest that there is more diverse evidence to consider than things written down; and I think I have tried to emphasize the necessity of care in construing proposed evidence.

Of course, where there is no doubt, evidence is superfluous; and where there is no interest... well, there may be doubt as to Emperor Qin's prefered breakfast, but I don't know if it's interesting.

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