Saturday, January 07, 2006

Logic and Faith

This discussion about evolution and religion on AFP (which I’m not posting to, because I’ve had this discussion enough times) got me thinking again about the appeal of religion for rational thinkers. The thing about science is, it forbids certainty. If you’re a good scientist, you have to be agnostic, not just about the existence of any gods, but about everything, including scientific theories, personal experiences, the evidence of your senses and the evidence of other people’s senses. You can’t be sure that you’re not just dreaming the rest of us. The refusal to take anything on faith leads to what one religious poster calls a “complete fog of unknowing” and a nonreligious poster admits is at least “fairly misty.”

This isn’t a fun position for rational thinkers, who presumably like to think rationally because it leads to conclusions which they can trust more than they can trust their wild guesses. In other words, they like to think rationally because they’re looking for some degree of certainty. But if you aren’t willing to accept the premises on faith, then you can’t accept the conclusions that follow rationally from them either. So people who are looking for answers ultimately have to rely on a combination of faith and reason.

The difference is in what kind of axioms you feel you can accept. What combination of direct personal experience, second hand reports, and consistency with your other experiences does it take to convince you that something is a fact? Scientists look for repeatable, recordable data. Religious people have to rely on subjective experience of God. (Since crazy people have subjective experience of their dogs talking to them, this is rarely convincing to anyone else. Scientists rely on subjective experience too, though, just not for reaching scientific conclusions.) And how willing are you to re-evaluate your position later? Scientists are supposed to only ever accept anything provisionally, always reserving the right to change their minds if contradictory data comes along. They'd like more certainty, but they have to leave room for new theories.

Some people aren’t satisfied with such wishy-washiness. They’re looking for truth without error bars and disclaimers. They want rock-solid foundations, none of this fog or mist, on which to build with iron logic, and religion provides that for them. There are more of these people than most atheists and agnostics think. There was a time when theology, not math or physics, was considered “queen of the sciences.”

It so happens that some of these people claim to have discovered, among other things, that those who reach the wrong conclusions about the way the universe works will meet terrible fates. (This is a testable prediction. Unfortunately, we can’t test it until we’re dead.)

The problem is, not all of these people agree with each other. They are not all of the same religion. So some of them must be wrong, must not have a handle on objective reality after all. Some of them might be right, of course, but how is it possible to tell which ones? Reason won’t help. The premises are the part of the argument you can’t prove, and that’s where they disagree.

The stakes are high, but you can't just pick the most likely sounding. It doesn't count if you say your god is "probably" the only one. That would defeat the whole purpose, which is certainty.

So those who don’t find any of assumptions self-evident, who would love to have rock-solid foundations but find only mist instead, might justifiably worry. (And they can worry about their friends of various religions, some of whom must be doomed if the others are right – even though none of those friends is worried for themselves.)

For those people: Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete says there is hope after all. Slate describes him as “a professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York, and president of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico.” Slate says "But if God really loves humankind, shouldn't He let, say, a good Buddhist or Jew through the pearly gates? God goes further than that, says Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete in this clip from his interview: even atheists are eligible for salvation. This radical reinterpretation of scripture, Albacete notes later in the interview, has now become official Catholic doctrine (unbeknownst even to many Catholics)."

I didn't watch the whole interview, so I didn't find the part where he said it was official Catholic doctrine, but I did watch the part where he said atheists and Buddhists might have an easier time getting into heaven than he did. Not that they could get in on good works alone -- it doesn't count if you're doing them to impress someone or make yourself look good -- but if you did them out of love for your neighbor, did them out of faith, if not in Jesus, then in what Jesus stood for, they still counted. This sort of seems consistent with Catholic doctrine to me (although most protestants probably wouldn't like it.) Mind you, he doesn't say that those atheists and Buddhists aren't wrong, just that they won't necessarily be punished for their mistakes.


Simon W said...

Yes, a scientist should be strong agnostic about just about everything. The way that I get around this is simply saying "yes, this could all be wrong, but it works OK for everyday life, so why worry". With regard to evolution/religion, my reasoning along these lines is here: This is similar to the approach used in research of "we don't know what's going on here, but this model which we know is wrong gives us useful answers". In science the problem is when people confuse the model with reality and start thinking that bouncy particles with happy smily faces that "want to do" whatever really exist.

In everyday life, the problem is perhaps the reverse, for those who can't let go of the fact that they're living in a useful model which may or may not be real, and can't just get on with life anyway.

The question of "real" in that last sentance is one that I leave for the philosophers ;-)

Anonymous said...

Very well put -- by the monsignor and yourself. - RM

Eric said...

The way I see it is this, and here I'm getting pretty close to the fundamentals of how I see the world.

People often talk about the difference between seeing things in black and white and seeing things in shades of grey. This is such a common idea that many people seem to think that's the only choice. So they see the alternative to the sort of stark black and white contrasts of childhood as being a dull complex world of grey. However that isn't what's there when you stop being beguiled by easy certainties. What you get is a wonderful array of colours.

The glory of science is that when you cut through to the messy details the universe is a kaleidoscope of amazing possibilities. Certainty is a blindfold that prevents one from seeing them. I don't want to know what is, that's just a small part of the picture. The really pretty stuff can only be found by looking also at what was, what might be, and what could have been but probably wasn't. To an extent at the quantum level these all have a real existence or at least an impact on what is.

Of course I have to offer the usual proviso. Studying quantum physics on psychotropic drugs can be a life changing experience but isn't necessarily a good idea. :)