Conversations: Faith

There are people who believe certain propositions about the world we live in, not because those propositions make them feel good, but because they think they are true.

I see that it is obvious that those propositions can either be true or untrue. And if one proposition is right, the contradictory proposition must be wrong. For instance, the Bible is either the word of God, or it is not.

Exactly. Consider your example, if the basic doctrine of Christianity is correct, we have misused our lives in the worst conceivable way.

Well, if the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for people like ourselves.

Indeed, but let us return to your example so I can expand on it a little: either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it is not. Either Christ was divine, or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false. Now, you would think there are quite convincing reasons for believing that if you drink the blood of a fictional carpenter’s son you can live forever, but there do not seem to be any.

That is an interesting point. And you would think the fact that our continuous and public rejection of a collective delusion such as Christianity does not worry us in the least should suggest to Christians just how inadequate we think their reasons for being Christian are.

(Based on: Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 4)

See other: Philosophical Conversations


37 thoughts on “Conversations: Faith

  1. I have an online adversary who continually insists on the words of Paul (Romans 3:4), “Let God be true and every man a liar” in order to prove the veracity of the Bible. The one thing with which I can’t seem to pierce his bubble of delusion, is that the Bible was written by those lying men.

  2. How can any discussion proceed logically with someone caught on the eternal loop of the circular argument, that the Bible is the inspired word of God because it says so in the bible? And the bible can’t lie because it’s the inspired word of God and anyone can determine that fact by reading the bible because the bible makes it very clear that it is the inspired word of God. Remember that Christian lady from Nigeria who showed up here (I think it was here) a couple of months back? For what it’s worth, another point is that these people are indeed, as you say, adversaries. Well, the chief Adversary in the bible is Satan. Therefore, it stands to reason that any adversary would be a disciple of Satan. I have two standard answers to God pushers: “Believe in whatever you want, just don’t believe it here.” and… “Don’t tell me, show me.” That last one is the one that works best. I actually developed it from reading the lines in the James letter “Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you mine by my deeds.” (Paraphrased but pretty close.) Then it goes on the make the point that real faith is demonstrated in helping the poor, and etc., not in preaching. As a “failed” Christian I discovered that the whole point of being religious is to develop compassion through detachment and humility. Any religious individual who doesn’t demonstrate these “virtues” is a fake. Any religion that doesn’t insist on its followers practicing these virtues is also a fake. I’m stepping down now, anybody want the soapbox?

  3. Kuba:
    Plato said that “knowledge is the food of the soul” – we appreciate your keeping the diner open.

  4. I like that idea, my own diner… – One day you’re whipping up gourmet Timbale de riz de veau Toulousaine, another day you’re shovelling Oklahoma mesquite sirloin.

  5. Timbale de riz de veau Toulousaine” – I may have had that the other day for lunch, along with a bowl of chile and a beer.

  6. Usual nonsense from Harris.

    An electron can be a wave and a particle at the same time. There is no dichotomy. I don’t see a reason why Jesus could not be human and divine at the same time.

    The truth or falsehood of self-referring statements cannot be established based on that statement alone. The reasoning leads either to self-consistency or to self-contradiction. But self-referring statements are not automatically false and are often used as axioms. Claiming that the idea is false because it is proclaims its own truth is the same logical fallacy as claiming that it is true.

    Self-refuting ideas or self-defeating ideas are ideas or statements whose falsehood is a logical consequence of the act or situation of holding them to be true. Many ideas are called self-refuting by their detractors, and such accusations are therefore almost always controversial, with defenders stating that the idea is being misunderstood or that the argument is invalid. For these reasons, none of the ideas below are unambiguously or incontrovertibly self-refuting. These ideas are often used as axioms, which are definitions taken to be true (tautological assumptions), and cannot be used to test themselves, for doing so would lead to only two consequences: consistency (circular reasoning) or exception (self contradiction). It is important to know that the conclusion of an argument that is self-refuting is not necessarily false, since it could be supported by another, more valid, argument.

    Note, I do not defend religion here. I simply point out that Harris’s “reasoning” is full of the same fallacies that he claims to expose. I never argue for or against the existence of God or for the divinity of the scriptures because it is simply impossible to prove anything here with reason or science. So, this “intellectual” conversation full of seemingly “sound reasoning” is an utter nonsense.

  7. Besides the fact that I suspect the Electron/Jesus analogy to be flawed, I was wondering whether you would be so kind as to point out some particular fallacies you appear to have found in this conversation. Apart from calling this exchange “nonsense” – and I hope (no offence intended) you weren’t too influenced by its source – you do not seem to have singled out any statements for in-depth analyses; this makes it hard for others to respond to your comment.

  8. I don’t see a reason why Jesus could not be human and divine at the same time.

    Largely, Agrudzinsky, because there is no evidence that the ‘divine‘ exists. If you were claiming a human and a zebra, you might have a case – both are well-documented as being real.

    [By the way, long time, how have you been?]

  9. OK. Here we go.

    There are people who believe certain propositions about the world we live in, not because those propositions make them feel good, but because they think they are true.

    Consider the following proposition:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

    This is a proposition on which a whole country is founded.
    But is it “true” that “all men are created equal”? Let’s ignore the sexist men and the religious created and focus on equal. What can be farther from reality? Humans differ greatly in appearance, size, and abilities. So why do people believe this factual falsity? They believe it because this belief is morally right. It is unethical to believe that some people are inferior to others because of who they are in terms of sex, race, religion, ethnicity, abilities, etc. The reasons for beliefs vary greatly and it is incorrect to say that one reason to believe is better than the other — it depends on the situation.

    It’s also far from clear what to consider “true”. Harris seems to imply only the correspondence theory requiring truth to correspond to reality. There are many more theories of truth than that. For example, most propositions of the Euclidean geometry do not correspond to any real objects (there are no infinite planes or straight infinite lines in reality), but they are considered to be true because they are coherent.

    And if one proposition is right, the contradictory proposition must be wrong. For instance, the Bible is either the word of God, or it is not.

    This is meaningless for the lack of definitions. If Harris defines “God” and what constitutes his word, we can meaningfully discuss whether any statement is a word of God within these definitions (which are likely to be ambiguous and incorrect anyway). Same applies to “divine” related to Christ. He never gives a meaningful definition of what he means by that.

    Then he declares Christianity a “delusion” never explaining why he uses this term and what it means. Again, if you consider just the correspondence to factual reality, one can call it a “delusion”. In this case, the quote from the Declaration of Independence is also a “delusion”. In my opinion, however, Christianity is more than some beliefs about material facts. It also includes a system of ethical values (like the values declared in the Declaration of Independence) which cannot be verified by any scientific experiment.

    I hope you forgive me writing too much here. This discussion comes down to definitions of such words as “truth”, “belief”, “God”, “divine”, “word of God”, etc. Once you realize this, it becomes obvious why this discussion lacks meaning. My example about the electron was meant to demonstrate that an electron may be called a “wave” by one definition and set of properties and a “particle” by another definition and set of properties and those definitions are not mutually exclusive. “A particle is not a wave” does not mean that being a particle excludes being a wave at the same time. Of course, it is silly to say that “Jesus is like an electron”. You may laugh at that all you want.

  10. Oh, no, it’s me who should apologize. I was referring to the comment by
    agrudzinsky on February 22, 2016 at 19:37 said: Usual nonsense from Harris…” I’ll blame this on my lack of “higher” ed, but I couldn’t figure out what was being said, so I deleted the email comment – by default I get all comments sent to email. Thanks for querying. Perhaps by following the thread further it’ll make sense. Ultimately, I’ll just go along with Arch’s comment above: that there is no EVIDENCE for the divine. I may say that “I know” gods exist (crazy as that seems, I do actually) but that’s the extent of my “evidence” and that ain’t worth a pinch of coon shit. I accept that rationalism because the opposite… well history tells the tale of what that leads to. As I’ve come to see it, there is nothing wrong with believing in God, gods, pink elephants or whatever. But when someone insists on shoving that down someone else’s throat, that is plain WRONG. It’s even worse when believers insist that a bunch of rules pertainting to some god have to be obeyed -OR ELSE. What’s ultimately wrong with all religions is threats and imposition. It’s as if believers live only in the hope that they can get a war going. Perhaps that’s because in their myths, their “God” was there to provide superior “force de frappe” against any perceived enemies.

  11. I’ve spent time all over the US, but I’ve never heard that expression: “…that ain’t worth a pinch of coon shit.” I’ll have to try and work that into a conversation someday.

  12. The term, “all men are created equal” in the US Declaration of Independence, means that all men (and women) are equal under the law.

  13. As for the matter at hand, indeed, it is not always evident to determine what is true, but “[the author requires] truth to correspond to reality”, as you noted, does not seem particularly odd to me.

    Having said that, since you go on to state that “Christianity is more than some beliefs about material facts.”, I begin to understand your qualm with the author’s position a little better.

    Moving on, as for your comments:

    a. “This is meaningless […] means by that.”

    b. “Then he declares […] what it means.”

    I’m afraid I have to take issue with these comments since working definitions are indeed provided by the author in the opening paragraphs of his book. We should further note that a lot of these definitions are not ‘provided’ by the author but ‘taken’ from a large representative sample of people who describe themselves as Christians. (Even this wide scope is not without its problems I grant you, but it at least clarifies the author’s position.)

    You are right to say that this discussion comes down, largely, to definitions of such words as “truth”, “belief”, “God”, “divine”, “word of God”, et cetera. But that fact that a lot of these terms are sticky or even meaningless does not make the conversation itself meaningless. After all, this conversation is a critique on the way some people use these terms.

    PS Euclidean geometry can be shown to work in ways that bear no relation to the metaphysical, so I do not understand its implication in your argument.

  14. Now I understand agrudzinky’s argument much better. The statement, “All men are created equal” in the US constitution, for example, is indeed meaningless. In fact it was from its inception because the USA as constituted legalized and institutionalized slavery; even the signers of the constitution owned slaves. And of course coming to the present, we can all see that the original statement was a fanciful work of utter hypocrisy, never intended to work, just a sop for the sheeple asked to die to support a new group of elites in setting up a new empire. Alas, the more things change, the more they stay the same (or in today’s world, get worse.)

  15. Your reference does not clarify any of his definitions. My disrespect for Harris comes from the intellectual dishonesty in which he engages while trying to accuse his opponents of the same techniques he uses himself. He also disregards centuries of philosophical thought to produce a furror with statements like “science can solve moral problems”. All this serves well to sell his books. Otherwise, his reasoning is worthless. Existence of God is not a scientific hypothesis. It is untestable. It cannot be proven false or wrong by any amount of experiments in principle. Engaging science to prove anything in these matters reveals the lack of understanding of what science can and cannot do. It just surprises and upsets me that he appeals to so many smart and educated people like yourself.

    Not all ideas have to be scientific and factual. Religious or ethical beliefs do not have to correspond to reality. The belief that “all men are equal” or “all people are under the law” does not correspond to reality. There are all sorts of privileged people, and human rights are violated every day even in the U.S. Religion is exactly what Harris blames it for and what religion admits itself – a belief in impossible. I don’t think it’s unethical of silly to have such beliefs. That’s the kind of belief and determination that people have when they set out to colonize Mars or cure cancer. While considering the technical details of the Bible (divine or not divine), and bogging his readers down with his misapplied logic and making unwarranted assumptions about his imagined opponents, he seems to miss many points about religion, beliefs, and science.

    I don’t mean to sound confrontational. Harris just has a way of annoying me. There are many of his fellow atheists (Sean Carroll, Dan Dennett, Massimo Pugliucci on whom he seems to have a similar effect.

  16. science can solve moral problems

    Can the god you seem to be defending solve moral problems?

    If you want to argue that your god can do whatever he wants, and that he is beyond accountability and culpability for what he does, in doing so, you lose any claim that god is the source of morality. At best he is a capricious being who demands humans live certain ways simply because he tells them to. You have, in effect, turned god into a do as I say, not as I do father.

    I’m not seeing that any god is any solution to moral problems. So if not, where does it lie? With us.

  17. Archaeopteryx1, where did I defend God here or even say that God exists? God doesn’t solve moral problems. This is done through faith in moral principles, whether they come from religion or not, but not through science as Harris suggests. Because those moral principles are not testable facts of reality.

  18. That is an interesting question isn’t it?
    I would argue it is possible to formulate hypotheses about whether things exist, perhaps even regardless of what those things may be. That is why I feel the statement “[The] Existence of God is not a scientific hypothesis. It is untestable.” goes too far, since the pursuit of trying to prove whether god exists (we’ll employ the broad definition ‘a supernatural being’ in this example) is logically akin to a hypothesis such as ‘Particle A exists in space Y at time X.’
    An experiment set out to prove whether for instance the hypothesised particle A does exist in space Y at time X could show unfavourable results, but that is not to say the hypothesis is untestable, it merely brings up negative results. I’m sure you will agree it does not even definitely prove the nonexistence of particle A, just the fact that the hypothesised A was not observed in space Y at time X and remains therefore a fantasy for the time being.

    Secondly, the statement “Not all ideas have to be scientific and factual. Religious or ethical beliefs do not have to correspond to reality. The belief that “all men are equal” or “all people are under the law” does not correspond to reality.” is interesting. But I wonder whether it’s true for ethical statements as well: are not all people created – a tricky word there – equal in the sense that they are born human, into the family of man – a mammal of the hominidae family, so to speak?

  19. OK, I did lump both into one. Both arguments you make are rational arguments. And, further more, I can understand exactly what you are saying. That isn’t meant as flattery, I’ve tried to express similar thoughts myself and couldn’t do it. “Things” exist outside a physical/material sense. Personally, I’ve never had difficulties accepting that. Your explanation validates what I “sense” to be true.

    Your second comment deals with, and clarifies, as well as both, expands and narrows, the meaning of “reality.” What is reality? Either there is only one reality, that encompasses absolutely everything, material, physical, mental, spiritual, imaginary… or there must be an endless number of realities for every different conception of life we experience. Personally I choose the pluralistic view as it tends to make me less judgmental of those who ascribe to a different reality. To ascribe to one reality is akin to ascribing belief in a one God concept. The outcome is to force “non-believers” to accept my one and only reality to the detriment of all others. Attempting to explain here: if I ascribe to one reality, as both religious fundamentalists and die-hard evolutionists do, means closed-mindedness. I choose, “believe all things, believe in nothing” as an approach to life, allowing for its complexity and ever-changing nature.

    I want to comment on the “all men are created equal” concept. The word “created” is a misnomer, and “born” is much more accurate. For that to remain true, however, we have to stop right at the moment of birth. From the next instant, few are “born equal” from a social standpoint and the claim is meaningless as we can observe. There is no “reality of equality” nor would the “System” tolerate it. Even in the same country, there is a law for the rich and one for the poor, for white and for blacks, for men and for women, for adults and for children, for bosses and for employees – often in statute, certainly always in interpretation. “Equality” is a meaningless concept anywhere on earth – it’s a work of fiction. “Entitlement” is the proper term.

  20. First, I think comparing God to a particle (or an orbiting teapot or a flying spaghetti monster — all popular comparisons in this kind of debate) is incorrect. Particles and teapots are physical material objects which can be detected, in principle, by physical material means. God, in my understanding, is an idea. And, as such, God is immaterial. Trying to “detect” God using material tests is similar to solving an equation x^2+1=0 in real numbers. There are no real roots of this equation, but there are 2 complex roots. I’m using an analogy here as well and you may or may not agree if it’s an appropriate analogy.

    Is it nonsense to say that God is an idea? Ideas are different from physical objects. Perhaps, we can say that they exist, but they “exist” in a different sense than physical objects. Ideas may exist in form of neural activity in our heads, or as a text in a book (an ink pattern on paper). Or as spoken words (audio waves). The same idea can be expressed using words and text or using images. Detecting neural activity, audio waves, ink patterns, or magnetic patterns on a tape or a disk is not the same as detecting an idea.

    Ideas are not identical with physical objects they may represent. E.g. an idea of a tree as a structure with branches growing from a common root can be represented by a variety of physical plants of different shapes, sizes, and botanical species. Or by a computer file system, or a tree of zoological species, or by someone’s genealogy. Note that the statement that a computer file system is like a plant may appear very strange.

    Analogies are quite interesting by themselves. They are an integral part of human cognition. Essentially, understanding of what we do not know comes through analogies to what we know. People tend to find similarities and differences in everything — that’s how people learn. But analogies are “in the eye of the beholder”. E.g. is electron really similar to a wave that you see on a water surface? Or do electrons form “clouds” similar to the clouds in the sky? Those similarities are meant for illustration only. They are mere mental images used to understand and communicate ideas.

    There is an idiom “comparing apples and oranges” used when people believe two things cannot be compared. Apples and oranges can be compared indeed! Here is the proof :-). People can always argue whether analogies are good or not. And that’s fine. All analogies work in some respect and don’t work in other, and people choose which analogy works better for them.

    are not all people created – a tricky word there – equal in the sense that they are born human, into the family of man – a mammal of the hominidae family, so to speak?

    Of course, they are. But you have to specify the context and the meaning of the word “equal”. If ideas discussed with different definitions in mind, the discussion is meaningless. And I usually find that most discussions between atheists and believers about the existence of God suffer from sides using a completely different vocabulary. This is why when Harris makes presumptions about Christian beliefs, there are Christians who immediately say “I don’t believe any of that, and I am a Christian”. So, Harris criticizes some particular brand of Christianity which most Christians would criticize as well while making his statements appear to apply to ALL Christians and even ALL believers causing outrage and debate around his statements which helps selling his books. This is the “strawman” technique and an example of the intellectual dishonesty that I dislike in Harris.

  21. IF there be gods we cannot help them, but we can assist our fellow men.
    We cannot love the inconceivable, but we can love wife and child and friend.
    — Robert Ingersoll —

  22. “God is immaterial.” Your words – case closed.

    That would be a great closure to any “God” argument, except for one annoying fact, that billions believe God is incredibly “material” and a valuable commodity. The entity, God, may be both, immaterial and immaterial (no, that’s not a typo, nor repetitive) to some, but the concept/idea “God” can never be immaterial (irrelevant) as long as one single individual still has faith in it. No idea held, true or not, can ever be declared unreal. The subject of the idea may be proved unreal, but the idea itself, by itself, has to be real – the idea, being expressible, exists in the reality of ideas. Do I get a “pass mark” in this one? :-)

  23. Understand sir! Targeting common sense is always a bit tricky from here. Even after adjusting my vectors, I was a bit worried about the velocity. But I think we’re right clear of the double-meaning belt, admiral. Now with some reality astrogation, we can safely navigate through the understanding phase using acceptance mode…

  24. You know, I thought that once, but then I sobered up and realized that the parking meter I was chatting with had no idea what I meant – I know how it must have felt.

  25. “God, in my understanding, is an idea. And, as such, God is immaterial.”
    (That is of course merely one understanding, but that is not a point I wish to pursue here.) I would hold that the immaterial is not necessarily immeasurable. By some definitions, a concept such as consciousness is immaterial, but measurable for instance in the way of neural firings in the brain.
    On the other hand, if we were to argue that neurological activity is something that is as material as a my fist hitting a desk, then concepts such consciousness, love, despair, et cetera are indeed material things in the sense that they demonstrably exist in the form neural firings. Love, one could argue, would not be there is a brain was not there.
    Furthermore, following this reasoning, it would become possible to argue that thoughts – as the neurological activity that they are – are in fact material too. Would that make an idea material? Or would it merely make the thought of the idea material?
    On a related note, I maintain that I think it possible to formulate hypotheses about whether things exist, perhaps even regardless of what those things may be.

  26. If we compare the idea of God to other ideas, the closest, perhaps, would be the idea of infinity, because of all the “omni-” things usually attributed to God. Infinity is a useful idea widely used by scientists. Yet, it leads to many logical paradoxes, does not exist in reality, and, certainly, is not measurable or detectible. It’s just an abstract idea.

    Religion uses the concept of infinity in the domain of human relations – “infinite love”, ” infinite joy”, “infinite suffering”. They also do not exist in reality – we can’t love everyone and there is a limit to what we can suffer. But they may be useful concepts still.

    Criticizing religion because it is based on an abstract infinite concept that does not have a proper analogy in real world is similar to criticizing calculus because it’s based on concepts of infinitely small quantities. Yet another analogy.

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