Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Why do we believe?
And why doesn't God make it easy?

Caraveggio, Doubting Thomas
from Wikimedia Commons
Jesus said unto him, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.” --John 20:29 (KJV)


Monday, July 3rd was the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, more familiarly known as "doubting Thomas".  As the Gospel for the day was read, I recalled an argument against belief in God made in Sean Carroll's new book, The Big Picture. Carroll, an eminent theoretical physicist, asks (and I paraphrase*): "if God exists, why doesn’t he make it easier to believe in Him?”   I’ll have more to say about the book in a future review, but in this article I’d like to focus on Carroll’s rhetorical question.

If we want to get an answer to “Why God doesn’t make it easy” we have to address two implied issues: 
  1. If there is an all-powerful and all-loving God, why does He allow evil?
  2. If God wants us to believe in Him, why doesn't he give signs to make it easy to do so?
The first question, why does God allow evil to exist, is one that has occupied theologians and philosophers over the past millenia.  Books and tracts on end have been written on this (theodicy), so I can't contribute anything really new. I've touched on this problem  in two  posts, Suffering--a Jewish | Catholic perspective, and Suffering--Our Great Gift from God,  but I'll not discuss it further here.

First, I want to show that religious faith is part of our nature and not irrational; second, to show that the so-called rational modes of inquiry are imperfect--there are occasions in which they do not achieve truth.


"Pure insight and logic, whatever they might do ideally, are not the only things that produce our creeds."  William James, The Will to Believe
Religious faith is NOT  an affront to the intellect, according to William James, in his essay, The Will to Believe,  (William James was the American philosopher and psychologist who wrote like a novelist;  his brother, Henry, was the novelist who wrote like a philosopher.)   James  explains that those who  do not wish to believe in God do so for fear of committing error:  he cites the 19th century mathematician / philosopher William Clifford as typical:
"It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." William Clifford, as quoted in The Will to Believe.
This unwillingness to believe anything that might not be true, to be in fear of error, overcomes the satisfaction that would be achieved by belief in a creating, personal God:
"that it is only natural that those who have caught the scientific fever should pass over to the opposite extreme, and write sometimes as if the incorruptibly truthful intellect ought positively to prefer bitterness and unacceptableness to the heart in its cup.
'It fortifies my soul to know That, though I perish, Truth is so'"  
the inner quote is from the poet, Arthur Clough.  loc. cit.
But are the methods of so-called rational inquiry--deductive logic, empirical verification--free from error?   I will try to show below that even these bulwarks of rationality will not always yield the truth.    And then we can address the second question, why God doesn't make it easy to believe.

Rational Inquiry--Deductive Logic/Paradoxes and Mathematics
“'Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, 'if it was so, it might be; and if
it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.'”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
One way of knowing is deduction, drawing conclusions from premises we believe to be true, using logical procedures first set up by Aristotle--going from the general to the specific.  Here's an example (with apologies to Gelett Burgess), a “syllogism":
  • Major Premise: All cows are purple.
  • Minor Premise: This animal is a cow.
  • Conclusion: This animal is purple.
If you know the premises to be true, then the conclusion is true. If the premises
aren't generally true (as in this example), then the conclusion may or may not
be true. For example, you could paint a cow purple, or it could be a mutation.
Note the difference between the above and the following:
  • Major Premise: All cows are purple.
  • Minor Premise: This animal is purple.
  • Conclusion: This animal is a cow.
The conclusion clearly need not follow; there might be purple animals other than cows (unless the premise were stated "Only cows are purple"). This type of false logic (fallacy), would be "affirming the consequent

Can deductive logic always yield an unambiguous true or false set of propositions? In his very fine book, Labyrinths of Reason, William Poundstone gives examples of logical paradoxes for which it is difficult to make a truth judgment. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Cretan Liar paradox (see Star Trek, Fooling the Androids Episode):
  • "Epimenides the Cretan says, 'that all the Cretans are liars,' "
  •  Question: Is this statement true or false?
(If it is true then Epimenides is a liar, but if Epimenides is a liar how can his statement be true?)
There is also the barber paradox,
  • "The barber is a man in town who shaves all those, and only those, men in town who do not shave themselves."
  • Question: Who shaves the barber?
Both paradoxes invoke self-reference, whence the paradox. Bertrand Russell attempted to deal with the problem of self-reference by his "Theory of Types", which sets up a hierarchy of statements, i.e. statements about statements, statements about (statements about statements), etc.

Deductive logic is foundational for mathematics;  proofs of mathematical theorems depend on sequences of logical statements.    Given premises that are accepted one can draw sound conclusions, as for example:  parallel lines never meet --> Euclidean geometry; or, parallel lines always meet --> non-Euclidean geometry.

Is mathematics complete in itself--no loose ends?   A primitive view of Goedel's and Turing's theorems suggest that this is not so.    The computer philosopher Gregory Chaitin reinforces this opinion in his books The Limits of Mathematics  and The Unknowable:

"What I think it all means is that mathematic is different from physics, but it's not that different.  I think that math is quasi-empirical. [emphasis added]  It's different from physics, but it's more a matter of degree than an all or nothing difference.  I don't think mathematicians have a direct pipeline to God's thoughts, to absolute truth, while physics must always remain tentative and subject to revision [emphasis added].  Yes math is less tentative than physics, but they're both in the same boat, because they're both human activities, and to err is human."  Gregory Chaitin, The Unknowable, pp 26-27

Rational Inquiry--Empiricism: Inductive, Retroductive, Abductive Reasoning
Bee Dance to tell flower location
from Wikimedia Commons
Empirical judgments are based on observations, or reports of observations.   From observations one draws general conclusions in the following ways.

Inductive  Reasoning
Induction is generally regarded as proceeding from particular instances or events to a general conclusion. (I'm not referring in this context to the mathematical method of proof.)

Here's an example. A naturalist notices that bees move their rear ends back and forth in a special way—"dance"--after they have been gathering nectar from a certain group of flowers. The dance is the same for a given group of flowers. The naturalist concludes that this bee-dancing is a communication to other bees about the location of the flowers and receives a Nobel Prize.

There are methods of assessing inductive reasoning propositions by means of probability statements, strength of belief quantification by Bayesian probability analysis.   But it should be emphasized that no conclusion drawn from inductive reasoning can be regarded as absolutely true.   Hempel's Raven Paradox  shows that cataloging all the things that are not black does not yield absolute, 100% evidence that all ravens are black.

Abductive Reasoning
"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth".--Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of the Four
 One of the best known examples of abductive reasoning is given in the quotation above, indicated by its commonly used name, “Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE)”.    IBE uses given data to infer the most likely explanation of a past event that could have given rise to the data. It is commonly used in the so-called “historical sciences” (geology, paleontology, cosmology) for which laboratory experiments aren't in order. Here's an everyday example adapted from one given in Stephen Meyer's book about Intelligent Design, The Signature in the Cell:
You look out your window and note that your driveway is wet; three explanations occur to you: it has rained, the sprinkler has been set so that it also wets the driveway, your car has been washed. You notice that neither the street nor your lawn are wet, so you conclude that the third explanation—your car has been washed—is the correct one. A pail of water beside your car is confirmatory evidence for that conclusion.
Some philosophers of science put down IBE as lacking certainty and leading to false conclusions. In the past theories proposed as best explanations have turned out to be duds: caloric fluid as heat, ether as a medium for electromagnetic waves. However,  it should be kept in mind that these theories were disproved by additional empirical evidence: caloric fluid by Count Rumford's cannon-boring experiments, the ether by the Michelson-Morley experiments.    So,  new results can sometimes overturn what seem to be entirely reasonable theories.

Retroductive Reasoning
Retroductive reasoning is commonly used by scientists to explain phenomena in terms of a familiar model. A very early example is that in which Galileo proposed that the moon had seas and mountains on it just as does the earth,
Galileo's Moon Sketches
Red arrows indicate direction of sunlight
modified from Wikimedia Commons
in order to explain the differing patterns of light and dark on the moon at different orientations with respect to the sun.    A more recent example is that used to model vibrations between atoms in a molecule, that of the “Simple Harmonic Oscillator“, represented by a weight attached to a massless spring.

In a retroduction, the scientist proposes a model whose properties allow it to account for the phenomena singled out for explanation. Appraisal of the model is a complex affair, involving criteria such as coherence and fertility, as well as adequacy in accounting for the data. The theoretical constructs employed in the model may be of a kind already familiar (such as "mountain" and "sea" in Galileo's moon model) or they may be created by the scientist specifically for the case at hand (such as "galaxy," "gene," or "molecule”).” --Ernan McMullin, “A Case for Scientific Realism. “
McMullin's explanation of retroduction implies that reality does not always mirror the model.   The "seas" of the moon do not contain water;  the vibrations of molecules are more complicated than the simple model of a weight attached to a massless spring.

In general,  the laws of science are descriptive, not prescriptive.   They are our best attempt to give order to the material universe, to put its workings in a mathematical framework.  In her book, How the Laws of Physics Lie, Nancy Cartwright explains why the fundamental equations of physics are not "true", in the following sense:
"The fundamental laws of physics do not describe true facts about reality. Rendered as descriptions of facts, they are false; amended to be true, they lose their explanatory force."  Nancy Cartwright, How the Laws of Physics Lie

Faith--Testimony, Revelation
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not
seen.” Hebrews 11:1
Religious faith is based on reports of singular incidents, not replicable as laboratory  experiments might be.  On what then do we base our faith?  Answer: The testimony of others whom we trust to be telling the truth.   However, even in science, it is testimony rather than direct personal observation that almost always serves as evidence.  And the "scientific method" requires that testimony not be that of a single individual,  but of many, yielding equivalent results by different investigators (within experimental error).  So, even though I myself have not directly observed the results of a quantum double-slit experiment, I know what is supposed to happen because so many experiments have been reported about this phenomenon.

Consider these singular occasions on which we base our faith: miracles and accounts  in Scripture.  Some of us believe the testimony given in Scripture, and we believe it to be given by humans inspired by the Holy Spirit, and thus to be the Word of God.   Why do those of us who do believe Scripture, do so?  There are different degrees of belief in Scripture, and many different reasons for belief.   I and others have touched on this in two posts (and comments thereto):  God's Periodic Table... and Evolution and Can a scientist believe in miracles, redux--Is belief in evolution and cosmology heretical?

Let me focus on my own experience in coming to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus.  I've written about this in several posts, but it bears repeating.   Twenty-three years ago (prompted by the Holy Spirit?) I read Frank Morison's, Who moved the Stone, an analysis of the accounts of the Resurrection in the New Testament.    Reading his account, it seemed to me that an impartial jury (not composed of evangelical atheists) would give a verdict of "innocent", that is to say, the  biblical accounts of the Resurrection were true beyond a reasonable doubt.   What struck me even more was that this New Testament bunch of uneducated yahoos--fishermen, tax collectors, women--had managed to out-talk Greek philosophers and Judaic scholars and thereby to spread the Christian faith through the Roman world, undergoing hardship, pain and death in so doing.   Surely they must have been inspired by encounters with the risen Jesus and the inner voice of the Holy Spirit.

So there was a rational component to coming to believe in the Resurrection, but more was required:   to ignore the possibility of error  in order to engage in a more complete and beautiful faith.  Or, as William James puts it so well:
"If religion be true and the evidence for it be still insufficient, I do not wish, by putting your extinguisher upon my nature (which feels to me as if it had after all some business in this matter), to forfeit my sole chance in life of getting upon the winning side." William James, The Will to Believe.


Now we come to the crux (literally and figuratively): why God doesn't make it easy to believe.   I've tried to show above that each way we come to believe may be in error, even that which is commonly held to achieve truth--deductive logic.   There are degrees of possible error as there are degrees of belief.  It is common sense to argue, as does James, that to avoid believing because there's a possibility that God doesn't exist, will not put you "upon the winning side".

This argument is a paraphrase of Pascal's Wager, put in a non-quantitative frame.  And what if, in spite of this plea to ignore the possibility you might be wrong in order to achieve a greater good, one still doesn't believe?  Or, as put by the non-believer whom Pascal addresses:
“ I am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?” Blaise Pascal, Pensees #233 (Pascal's Wager)
Pascal's response was essentially, "Fake it until you make it", the Twelve-Step aphorism.   And for some, this might work;  others, not.     And here we come again to behavior:  some will find it easy to believe, some will find it difficult and some will find it impossible.   Why the differences?   Why has God made it possible for some people to believe and others not?

The answer lies in Scripture:  the Fall.   But to explain further, let's see what C.S. Lewis had to say in his wonderful speculative fiction work, Out of the Silent Planet.   There are three sentient species on Mars; their talents and interests are widely different, but complementary.   What unites them is a belief in God; for these species, there has been no Fall.   Only in the Silent Planet, Earth, has Satan managed to work his will and cause God's creation to disobey him.

So it is in the Fall:  God gave Free Will to man, and man exercises this Free Will, to believe or not to believe, to choose good or evil, to choose heaven or hell. This is God's gift to us.    If God did not give us a real option, a truly available choice, then it would not be a gift--we would be his plaything, not free.


*Carroll makes this argument, not as a question, but as a proposition using Bayesian probability analysis that proceeds something like this (probability experts, forgive me for making this a “horsies and duckies” explanation); if God did exist He would make it easy to believe in Him; since it isn’t easy to believe in him, one can assume that it is improbable that God exists.

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