“Why Is There Anything?” – a Book Review

WhyIsThereAnything

About a year ago John Zande recommended “Why Is There Anything?, by Matthew Rave. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and not because I’m convinced it’s correct, and not even because I believe it answers the question of the book title.  In fact in the second chapter the author pretty much admits that he can’t completely answer the question (although he thinks we can make it more palatable).  I thought it was great for several reasons:

  1. It was an enjoyable, lightly humorous dialogue between 2 fictional characters (a theist and an atheist).
  2. It is a very easy read and a great introduction to questions about reality.
  3. There were tons of thought-provoking ideas.
  4. It was presented in a way that was respectful of theists, even though the author is an atheist.  A theist who wants to gain an understanding of atheists without being insulted should read this book – there are even some spots where you would be pleasantly surprised.

I would say that this is the best book I’ve read yet in its genre, so many thanks to John for a great recommendation.  If you are the type that doesn’t like to know about the contents of a book before reading it then you need to stop reading this post right now.

So Why Is There Anything (aka the WITA question)?

Matthew’s main answer to the WITA question comes from information theory.  These quotes explain: “the answer to WITA is that there really isn’t anything…not in an informational sense.  Everything exists, which mathematically isn’t that much different from nothing existing at all.”, and “the information content of a collection of things can be much simpler than the information content of a single thing.“, and then “So, if you ever wonder why there’s ‘something’ rather than nothing, you need wonder no more: there is nothing, in the sense that the infinite multiverse contains no information: it is ‘full’.”

I think he’s right though that it doesn’t completely answer the question – there is still the question of why anything at all exists even if it is everything possible.  Of all the “solutions” I’ve read for this question I don’t find any of them (whether it’s theist or non-theist versions) really answer the question.

The rest of the book is a fun dialogue mainly in support of the idea that there are many universes.  The many-worlds view is one of many interpretations of quantum mechanics, and Matthew notes that it is the interpretation which requires the least amount of axioms and thus obeys Occam’s razor (the favorite argument that we all use to support our own views).  You can learn more about the many-worlds theory on the wiki page, or by watching this video:

So I’m Still Skeptical

Even after reading the book (and parts of it 2 or 3 times) I still don’t get the feeling that I can claim that all possible universes exist.  Actually, my reasons are similar to why I reject theism. In fact some of my reasons are the same reasons that some theists have for rejecting the existence of multiverses.  There just doesn’t seem to be hard enough evidence for either idea.  I see this as a valid stance to take.  But somehow rejecting the idea of Gods conjures up all claims of bias among many theists:  “you are rejecting the existence of God because you want to live a life without rules”, or “you are rejecting God because you are not humble.”  Somehow the decision is linked to integrity rather than seen as an epistemic claim just like my claim to doubt the existence of the many-worlds theory.  And the interesting thing is that this lack of hard evidence is actually even more damning to the God option.  If a God really does want a personal relationship with its creation (which multiple universes wouldn’t) then lack of empirical evidence is a much bigger problem for that option.  The fact that “metaphysical” claims have become so entangled with integrity is a troubling aspect of a lot of religions.

Is the Question Even Answerable?

My son asked me several months ago what the biggest number was, and he said he didn’t want me to say infinity because that wasn’t really a number.  Given the axioms of math we know “what is the biggest number?” is not really answerable.  “Why is there anything?” – this question is not as clear given that there isn’t really a consensus regarding the axioms involved.  However, given that both of these questions deal with the problem of infinite regress, I wonder whether both questions are not answerable.

But as I said this book was a delight to read and I recommend it to anyone interested in getting a better grounding on some of the ideas that are shaping current research into reality.

But If You Can’t Disprove It Then Aren’t You Agnostic?

Agnostic

I don’t believe the title of this post is correct, and I’d really like input from all my readers on this topic.

But before I go there I’d like to go over my own views again.  The graphic to the right totally cracked me up and it was one of those “yup, that’s definitely the image I want for this post”.  As I promised I would a couple of times before, I’m turning a bit of a corner now in my series (you know the one which is not very clearly a series and has been going on for 9 months) and I’m going to express the other side of the story, and will share even more on that in my next post.

Now I’ve expressed the kind of labels I think apply to my own viewpoints here and here.  I believe they still fit.  As I mentioned there I don’t see a need to argue semantics and some believe the labels are used as tactical debate moves, but that kind of stuff just irritates me – I’d much rather get at the meat of what’s real rather than win some silly debate.  I was recently invited to a neighborhood evangelistic small group and was asked why I called myself atheist when I wasn’t really that certain about the existence of gods.  My response was something like this: “I know that by strict definitions I am implicitly an atheist, and I also know that I am agnostic as well, and I frankly think possibilian fits me the best, but feel free to call me whatever you like, as long as it’s not a curse (wink) – instead of getting the right label on me what I’d much rather do is get across to you the kind of views I have, and maybe I can learn some from yours as well if I force myself to truly listen.  I am doubtful that the kind of gods that humans have described exist, but my certainty level is not extremely high on that.  I’m not so sure I am a naturalist but it’s probably fair to say I lean in that direction.  I highly value humans and all conscious beings (hide that chicken leg I’m chewing on, gulp).  If someone put a table with all possible worldviews out before me and forced me to bet which was true I’d likely choose one that had naturalistic tones to it (whatever that means), but I do wonder quite a lot about reality and whether there is something deeper to reality that perhaps transcends any experience or description that any human is even capable of describing at this stage in our development.”  Now how’s that for some cool dinner talk?

And then in this post I described some more about my somewhat relaxed view toward all this stuff, and likely confused some of my readers a little.

So a little more on point – agnosticism – I am an agnostic, but I’m not the kind that says “I don’t know and you don’t either.”Agnostic2  My agnosticism is my own and it really just means that I’m not quite so sure of my conclusions.  Perhaps I haven’t read enough or learned enough to realize that I can be sure about this topic.  Perhaps one can be epistemically justified in claiming that gods do not exist.  Which leads to my question.

I’ve seen a lot of theists (and some agnostics) say that that if you cannot disprove something then you should claim agnosticism.  But there are some analogies that kind of fly in the face of this.  The issue is not about 100% certainty – all who are well thought know that.  I’ve given the example of ghosts before.  I don’t believe the arguments for the existence for ghosts is very convincing.  Do I have proof that ghosts do not exist.  Of course I don’t.  Perhaps they exist but for some reason would prefer to only make themselves known to a select few (sound familiar?).  But should I say I’m agnostic about ghosts?  This is not how most people practically communicate their everyday beliefs.  A lot of people simply say they do not believe in ghosts.  And yes I do believe this relates to the burden of proof, but I don’t see it as a burden I need to put on anyone else – for me it is a burden on myself – if I want to say I believe in ghosts then I feel I should have convincing reasons that justify that belief.  If I don’t have them then I feel I am epistemically justified in claiming that I believe ghosts do not exist.

Take the spirit in the closet that my 6 year old son is afraid of.  It’s dark in there at night and he’s seen some movement in there (shadows maybe), and noises as well (shifting toys maybe due to gravity).  But no matter what I tell him he still wants me to make sure the closet door gets closed before he goes to bed.  Can I prove there is no spirit in there?  Actually no – in fact it may very well explain things he has heard and seen.  Ah, but there seem to be some better explanations for those things (at least to me).  But are those really better explanations?  We don’t know do we?  But why would the spirit not come out and simply reveal itself to us, or why can’t we see it when we go look in there.  Well it’s invisible of course, and we should not place any assumptions about the way that spirit thinks – for all we know it has it’s reasons for wanting to remain invisible (sound familiar?).  So then I should be forced to claim agnosticism about that spirit then right?  I’m thinking not.  I’m thinking there is some good epistemic justification there.  Is there the same for more deeper metaphysical questions that may relate to spiritual beings in general?  I’m not so sure.  Perhaps the strange experiences that so many people claim to have really do end up going a bit beyond just anecdotal – more on that in my next post.  And then there’s just the general question of existence itself – deep questions that seem strange to think about sometimes.

Questions: If you are a theist, can you see that there may be cases where things cannot be proven yet we would still say it is fair to claim they do not exist?  What other thoughts do you have on this?  If you are not a theist, do you feel you are epistemically justified in claiming that you know gods do not exist (not 100%, but enough practically speaking), and if so how would you formulate that?

The Unknowable Is Not Worth The Worry

ReligionsToChoose

Has there ever been a time in your life where you’ve thought deeply about ultimate questions?  Whether you call it religion, philosophy, metaphysics, or just important life questions, many (not all) people wonder about these things.  For some it even gets to the point of worry or fear when they begin to realize that they are human and may be wrong about what they believe.  Perhaps it is worry about the afterlife.  Or maybe just general worry about not having the correct answers to ultimate life questions.  For example, Robert Kuhn, host of Closer to Truth, has said in some of his interviews that the question of whether or not God exists has even tormented him.

There were several times in my life that these questions tormented me, but I no longer see any benefit from allowing them to control me.  I still have what I like to call a healthy interest in ultimate questions but I don’t let them get to me in the way that they did years ago.  Two periods in my life stand out very clearly to me – the first was right before I converted to Christianity, and the other was around the time that I left Christianity.  The second period especially was a very dark time for me, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to a noise fearing that God was about to punish me.

Fear is a natural thing and it saves us many times from getting badly hurt or killed, but it can be distorted and used in the wrong ways if it is applied toward “the unknowable” region of ultimate questions.

While I am not a Buddhist, many times what people of eastern religions say seems much more healthy to me than the more traditional mono-theistic religions.  What Ananda Guruge says in this particular video really resonated with a lot of what I have been thinking for several years now (especially the last part about the man shot with an arrow):

The “parable of the poisoned arrow” has a lot of wisdom in it that I believe we can all learn from.  This link explains it even clearer than the video and it’s worth the read.

My point is not that we should entirely give up on thinking about and exploring uncertain questions – obviously trying to understand the truth about reality is an important part of life and has the obvious benefits of improving our lives the closer we get to the truth about that reality.  That is what scientific, philosophical, and all other fields of investigations are all about.  By all means that should continue, but a healthy balance and understanding of uncertainty is also an important part of that process.

There isn’t too much I can say to people who don’t believe ultimate questions are elusive, that’s just something that some people begin to realize at some point in their lives, and some people never get there.  I’ve shared some of these ideas in the first few posts of my blog – much of it has to do with the realization of our humanity and ability to be wrong, especially as knowledge claims become more and more removed from our sphere of experience and more nebulous (or inscrutable) as far as probability claims might go.  But if you have gotten to that point then it should be very clear that worrying about these elusive questions cannot end up being healthy for your life in any way.  All that it does is physically stress your mind and your body with no productive purpose or conclusion to help it reach to.  In fact in some cases stress can negatively impact our rational decision making process – so in effect allowing these questions to torment you can possibly cause you to form the wrong conclusions about the very questions that you want properly answered.  If you want to learn more about the mind, fear, stress, and ways to overcome fear this post by Victoria N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ is a great place to start.  Victoria has a lot of information related to the mind and has studied a great deal on the subject.

During that dark period of my life I described before, I searched several different religious traditions, spent a lot of time with several different religious groups, and met weekly with my former pastor to discuss and read many different books related to religious questions.  There came a point where I realized that the torment was hurting me more than helping me so I decided after a year or so to take a break.  I ended up spending several years very rarely reading or thinking about religion.  What is interesting is that instead of that being a dark time in my life, It ended up being filled with light – filled with life, love, friends, family, falling in love, getting married, having children…  It was after that long period that I was able to return to a more balanced, healthy, and much more enjoyable exploration of ultimate questions.

Philosophical Arguments for God

Continuing in my current series trying to explain why I doubt the existence of gods, I’d like to start talking about the philosophical arguments for gods (the popular ones are formed as trying to prove a traditional monotheistic God, so I’ll stick to those.)

As an introduction to this topic I’d like to talk more generally about my own perspectives regarding arguments for and against the existence of God.  I’ve found some theists who have expressed my own ideas better than I can.  I’ve tried my best to not twist their quotes out of context but I’ll include links to all of their interviews from the Closer To Truth website so my readers can make their own judgments.  There are tons of related interviews on that website with both theists as well as atheists that I’ve spent way too many hours listening to, but I’ve found many of them helpful.

While many of my readers (perhaps all) don’t need to hear this, it is important for some believers to hear that philosophers agree that we cannot get complete certainty from philosophical arguments for/against the existence of God (actually uncertainty in philosophy extends way beyond this subject).  This seems to be the consensus even among conservative theistic scholars.  Some theists go further than only suggesting that you can’t get complete certainty and those are the perspectives I’d like to share here.

First a short clip from Peter van Inwagen:

This may have been one of those one off comments but it fits the context of what he was expressing in the interview.  Either way It matches my own view.  Take a look here at polls of philosophers on different topics.  What I see from that is that opinions are all over the map on many different topics.  Not only is there lack of complete certainty but there is much honest disagreement on deep philosophical questions.

Next a longer one from John Cottingham:

Cottingham doesn’t get into much detail here but his points are well taken – for many people these arguments likely won’t get them anywhere and they are even unhelpful.  I’m sure Cottingham would agree with me that there are exceptions to this, and frankly I want philosophical discussions to continue because the pursuit of truth needs to continue with all ideas on the table and discussed back and forth with rigor – but the point is that we need to have a practical as well as respectful view of the fact that these arguments at least at this point remain intellectually unconvincing to many who are both sincere and well informed.

People can provide their air-tight syllogisms and tout philosophical rigor above those they disagree with but they should be aware that many of those they disagree with are quite aware of the difference between logical validity and logical soundness. They are very aware that the premises of many of these arguments are questionable often in several different ways, and that it is mainly the discussion of the premises where the confusion and honest disagreement always lies.

Then there is more insight from William Dembsky:

Similar things here regarding this kind of perspective regarding arguments.  I totally agree with him regarding the ontological argument and many (not all) of the theists interviewed tend to express the same concession.  Like him, I also feel like the ontological argument is a word game where the existence of God somehow “pops out”.  Usually after reading these kind of ontological arguments I end up feeling similar to how I feel after I’ve been scammed by a sneaky telemarketer.  I don’t plan on discussing the ontological argument much, although I would say that I think that some laypeople (even theists) who speak against it don’t properly understand the argument.  Some feel that it just says “if you can think about something then it exists”.  This isn’t quite right, but either way many experts who are better informed (both theists as well as atheists) agree that the argument is fallacious.

Dembski precisely hits the nail on the head regarding the problem I’ve always felt plagues the Cosmological argument and frankly I don’t understand why people are so enamored with this one.  Since it is so popular later on I will likely post on some of the other issues with it.  Quoting Dembski on this: “…explanations always run out at some point.  There’s a natural resting place or final resting place of explanation, and it seems we can end it in nature or we can end it in God.  I’m not sure you can adjudicate that on any sort of logical grounds that stand outside and can say ok well it’s really God and not nature.”  If he was being more precise he would have exhausted all possibilities by saying “we can end it in something natural or we can end it in something not natural”, but this was an informal setting.

Dembski expressed that he is personally persuaded by the moral argument (Cottingham is also) as well as intelligent design (irreducible complexity) as you can see in the rest of the interview.  I’ve already discussed why the moral argument is not convincing to me.  While the moral argument is a popular one, Dembski seems to be in the minority among theist philosophers interviewed regarding intelligent design.  This is likely because the consensus among scientists in the field is against this view.  Francis Collins is one of many well informed theists who disagree with Dembski on this.  Which brings me to another very interesting point – there seems to be much disagreement among theists about which arguments are convincing and which are not, even among the experts.  Again, par for the course when it comes to philosophy.  I’m not all that negative on intelligent design, but I’ll need a separate post to fit all the ideas I have on that (sorry I keep doing that).

And last but not least a kind offer of respect from theist John Polkinghorne:

I just love Polkinghorne’s attitude here.  He mentions Steven Weinberg and I am similar to Steven in that I often talk about religion with my friends who have an interest in it.  Face to face these kinds of discussions can actually be enjoyable even with lack of agreement because a lot of my theistic friends can have a similar attitude as Polkinghorne.  Unfortunately, given the nature of the online medium it is much more difficult to have this kind of conversation (but not impossible) in the virtual world.

In my next post I will dig deep into one of the more popular arguments.  Likely fine-tuning.

You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling

I’d like to close out a series of posts about “knowing in the heart” that I blogged about in the following posts:

In the first of that series I mentioned that while my main reasons for converting from Judaism to Christianity were what I perceived to be strong evidence of it’s truth, there was a strong feeling in my gut as well that it was true.  It’s been about 22 years since then, but there are a few things I remember very clearly about the feelings that I had.

As I mentioned before, in my high school years and freshman year of college before I became a Christian I was not religious, but thoughts about meaning and purpose did come into my head sometimes.  When I finally decided that Christianity was the truth and decided to commit myself to it I finally felt like I had the answers to purpose, meaning, morality, and simply how to live my life.  The amount of comfort and peace that came from this fulfillment of the desire for certainty about the big questions was actually quite intense. This was a very real feeling for me and back then it was clear confirmation for me that what I had found was true.  What I realize now is that the feeling in the gut of truth that I had was mainly from the thought that I had the answers to the ultimate questions of life – who wouldn’t be absolutely ecstatic over that!!  I am fully convinced however that if I had converted to a different religion (e.g. Islam, Baha’ism, Mormonism, Taoism, Odinism, etc.) the feelings would have been the same because all religions offer this same certainty (to differing degrees) on the answers to the big questions of life.  So in the end this could not be a confirmation of truth. I believe that this is a big part of the “know it in the heart” that people of many worldviews seem to express.

Another thing that comes up in discussions of religious (definitely Christian) experience is the “relationship”.  I fully believed that Christianity was true in my first year of belief, but no matter what I did or didn’t do that relationship never materialized.  I truly believed the mantra “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” and I really believed that over time that experience would come to me, but it never showed up, even during the months that I was so sure of what I believed.  Don’t get me wrong – I prayed, read my bible, fellowshipped with several different Christian groups (Campus Crusade, Great Commission Ministries, as well as 2 off campus Messianic Jewish congregations), but although I always witnessed to others about the fact that Christianity is about a relationship with God, I always wondered why I never quite experienced that aspect.  Perhaps I was expecting it to be like the relationships that I was used to in “real” life, but I still don’t understand why you would use the same word when it is actually very different.

As time went on the doubts that I had had before converting came back, more problems within the bible as well as the worldview cropped up, and the hiddenness of this God I was seeking kept nagging at me.  I kept this up for 4 years because deep down I kept thinking that my prayers would be answered.  I prayed the doubter’s prayer (“Lord I believe, help me overcome my unbelief”) so many times, but the doubts kept mounting until I realized that the positives I had seen in the worldview previously were simply outweighed by all of the negatives that had added up.

There was a lot more I wanted to write about other sources of that “know it in the heart” feeling, but I think I have written enough on this for now.  Maybe I’ll come back to this if I ever see a need to.  For now I’m ending this series.  I keep writing so much more than I think I will.  I originally saw this blog as lasting at most a month.  I cannot predict it, but as long as I can find the time I can see this blog lasting quite a bit longer now.

William Lane Craig’s Holy Spirit Epistemology

Here’s a video of William Lane Craig’s advice to a Christian who is experiencing serious doubts about their faith:

There are tons of responses on the internet to this approach, and my post won’t be anything new really, but perhaps focused a little differently than some others.  At least it will stand among the many as yet another vote against this kind of approach to finding truth.

I did take some effort to try and get a better understanding of exactly what Craig means in this video, so I read the following a couple of times to make sure I truly got a thorough and proper understanding of his views.  To be honest his writeup didn’t really give me much of a different impression than what was said in the video, although he did go into more depth on his reasoning behind the things he mentioned in the video.

Here’s the most frequently quoted portion of this video: “The way in which I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the holy spirit, in my heart. And that this gives me a self authenticating means of knowing Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence. And therefore if in some historically contingent circumstances, the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I don’t think that that controverts the witness of the holy spirit. In such a circumstance I should regard that as simply a result of the contingent circumstances that I’m in, and that if I were to pursue this with due diligence and with time, I would discover that the evidence, if I could get the correct picture would support what the witness of the holy spirit tells me”

Craig calls this “Reformed Epistemology” and he links it to what he calls “properly basic beliefs” which are foundational beliefs which can’t be fully proven, but philosophers agree are so basic and self-evident that we can be justified in believing them.  I discussed these kinds of beliefs in my previous post.

Simply put, I am very opposed to this kind of approach to finding truth (although it doesn’t seem like it can even be fairly described as an attempt to find truth given that it seems the truth has already been found by Craig).

First the clearest problem here is that this is not at all consistent with the famous mantra of Christians exhorting non-believers to “follow the evidence wherever it leads”.  That was exactly what my Christian friend had urged me to do when he was introducing his faith to me, and back then I didn’t realize the hypocrisy of this.

Now when I became a Christian I also had this feeling deep within my heart/soul that the Christian message was correct including belief in an inerrant bible.  While my main reasons for converting from Judaism to Christianity were what I perceived to be strong evidence of it’s truth, there was a strong feeling in my gut as well that it was true.  I will explain in another post where those feelings came from because I am derailing myself a little here. 🙂

That was when I was a sophomore in college and it was my high school friend who had introduced Christianity to me.  He was the only person who I had ever met who was so completely certain of his answers to the big questions of life and this was very attractive to me.  And I wasn’t to meet anyone else outside of mainstream evangelical Christianity who had this kind of 100% certain belief until my senior year in college.  Until then I had always thought that it was probably true that people of other faiths had that kind of deep certainty, but I passed them off as somehow not the real thing.  When it was right in my face I simply could no longer take the feeling in my heart as an objective feeling, because this other person’s certainty in his heart was very clearly a real genuine feeling as well, yet his beliefs were incredibly extreme and diametrically opposed to what I believed in (it was in an ultra extremist biblical belief that we should literally follow verses like Matthew 19:21).  At that point in my walk I had already accumulated a ton of doubts about my faith, but this one at least was clear confirmation that the feeling I had in my heart was subjective, and it was abundantly clear to me that what I had thought was the Holy Spirit of mainstream evangelical Christianity was not the only source of this kind of certainty.  I started to think more about the sources of these kinds of feelings (again, I’ll discuss more in later posts.)

So I am understanding of my friends who believe in their own faith based on this feeling, because I understand that they may have never actually met someone with opposing views who has this kind of deep gut feeling as well.  Without experiencing it for themselves, although they may have a hunch that people of other religions possess this, it isn’t smack in their face so they don’t have to really deal with it.

However, I have a very difficult time thinking that Craig has not met people like this given that he speaks to so many different people all over the world about Christianity.  Surely he has met at least a few people like this.  And I bet that his response is that those people are simply wrong (perhaps because of evil spirits that give them this feeling).

I’ll have to continue in my next post because I’ve gone way over my goal of less than 700 words per post.

Faith and Foundational Beliefs

In my last post I listed a bunch of rules and methods which I believe are useful in attempting to make truth less elusive.

In this post I want to go back and explore something I had alluded to in my first few posts.  Some of these foundational methods rely on both good reasoning as well as the fact that the methods have shown to be successful and reliable in the past.  However, in epistemology there is the idea that if you keep breaking your beliefs like these down by questioning the reasons for them, you will finally get to foundational beliefs which can no longer be proven.  One example would be the question of whether or not the external world around us is real or just an illusion.  There is simply no proof we could provide for this.  It could possibly be that the world around us is a virtual Matrix type world and all our senses are illusions.  In epistemology, this idea that we can continually break down our beliefs into these “foundational” beliefs which we cannot give reasons for is called the problem of infinite regress.  This actually becomes very important because I will bring this up again very soon when I talk about William Lane Craig’s “Holy Spirit epistemology”, which I have strong reasons for rejecting.

It shouldn’t surprise us that philosophers are somewhat divided on how to solve this infinite  regress issue, and I’m still not clear on all the details, but from my readings it seems that many agree that there are some very basic foundational beliefs that are so self-evident that we are justified in believing them without a proof.  My own honest approach to this is that if I don’t have a proof then I truly don’t know for sure whether or not they are true.  However, if I did not take them to be true (e.g. do I exist?) then everything I even talk about becomes entirely useless and impractical.  Also, it seems that basic beliefs such as these can be taken as true and can then lead to consistent and objective conclusions and predictions about our world when we build upon these beliefs.  The agreement on the laws of math and logic as being true are also examples of this and they have been used in many fields of study to come to solid predictions about the ways in which our world works.  If we don’t assume that some of these basic beliefs are true then even our very own language becomes totally meaningless.  Another test I often use in deciding whether or not something is a foundational belief to be assumed is to think about how many people I have met or how many books I have read that give good reasons to doubt the truth of those beliefs.  Examples like “I do exist”, “this external world is real” or “the rules of math and logic are true” pass this test with flying colors.  So in summary, while I can honestly admit that I don’t have full assurance, I take them as true because doing otherwise creates an entirely absurd world for me.

And that is where the word faith comes in.  If someone defines the word faith to mean what I just said in that last sentence of the previous paragraph then I don’t have a problem admitting that I do have faith in these basic beliefs.  However, the vast majority of religious (or spiritual if you like that better) people who use the word faith actually mean something more than just that.  First of all, note that I can honestly admit that I don’t know these things with 100% certainty, but I just assume them to be true and build from there.  Also, while I am not capable of dreaming up how, if evidence was shown in the future that proves these beliefs wrong I would adjust and change them.  While I know there are some religious people who can express this same sentiment about their doctrinal beliefs, a great many of them do not admit to this.  Further, faith is also typically used to justify so much more than these very basic beliefs.  It is used to justify beliefs which do not satisfy the criteria above.  More about that in my next post.

Summary of Foundational Methods

I’d like to go back again to try and summarize some things (and add/clarify a little) from my first few posts on foundational methods for trying to find out what is true and real:

  1. We are all human and thus capable of mistakes, and therefore can be wrong in any of our beliefs about reality.
  2. 100% certainty is not achievable (because of #1), and all statements of knowledge can and should be expressed as relative to other conclusions.
  3. Some fields of knowledge and study are inherently more certain than others (as discussed here).
  4. The rules and base definitions (axioms) of math and logic are to be trusted.
  5. Deductive reasoning (i.e. use of logical methods) will provide certain conclusions assuming the premises (assumptions) of the arguments are trusted and we haven’t made mistakes.
  6. Inductive reasoning can only be trusted to give conclusions that are probable and the certainty levels in this will range all over the map (I have not discussed this yet).  By the way, the scientific method uses inductive reasoning extensively (as well as deductive of course).
  7. Critical reasoning and objective methods (with the scientific method being an example for science related fields) are to be relied upon in the pursuit of truth.
  8. More subjective methods can be used only to form best guesses about truth (hypotheses), and cannot be trusted to any high degree of certainty unless they have been subjected to the rigors of the methods discussed above (including extensive peer reviews).  Some examples of these methods are:
    1. Intuition or gut feelings
    2. Anecdotal stories
    3. Personal experiences
    4. Coincidences
    5. Feelings deep within my heart or soul
  9. Certainty levels for conclusions will grow with the following (assuming the methods above are used in all the cases listed below):
    1. Increased amount of studies performed confirming the conclusion
    2. Increased amount of experts in the applicable field confirming the conclusions
    3. Increased amount of fields of study that agree with the conclusion
    4. Increased cultural, religious, political (etc.) diversity within the people confirming the conclusions
  10. If the conclusions contradict my own experiences of my 5 senses then the certainty level is reduced.  Care needs to be taken with this because subjective biases could easily be injected here.
  11. Because I am a layperson to so many fields I will have to rely on reports of experts (the more the better) who I feel have implemented the above methods.  This unfortunate fact will cause my certainty levels in a lot of conclusions to be somewhat low.  Once again discussing certainty as levels relative to other conclusions helps to bring clarity.

Now there are obviously a lot of details missing from the above list, but at this point I think this is a good summary.  I can go further into details later if the need ever arises.  However, I do think I should at least have a post about inductive reasoning because it is so important.  It should go without saying that I am not an expert on epistemology, so take the above for what it’s worth (or not worth).  I would encourage people to study on their own and develop their own list.

I discussed a few reasons before for why I use some of the above as my base assumptions (aka presuppositions).  Some could say I take these as faith, but that depends on what your definition of faith is.  I will discuss this in my next post.

More Definitions

Continuing on with definitions:

agnostic: As George Smith in “Atheism: The Case Against God” writes, the definition of this word can also be obtained from breaking it up into two pieces: “a-gnostic”, and thus means without knowledge.  It was coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869 and he was using it in reference to theism, so in that application it means someone who doesn’t know if gods exists.  The differences between this and implicit atheism are actually quite subtle and I don’t think it’s too useful to go into too much detail, but one thing to keep in mind is that strict agnosticism with regards to theism claims that it is impossible to know anything about deities.  Implicit atheism does not make this claim at all.  Wikipedia labels this type of agnosticism as strong agnosticism (aka hard, closed, strict or permanent agnosticism).  Weak agnosticism (aka soft, open, empirical or temporal agnosticism) would then describe the view that the existence of gods is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable.  I fall into the weak agnostic category by these definitions.  And by currently unknown I am making a statement about my own knowledge and not a broad statement about what all of humanity knows (wasn’t quite sure if Wikipedia made that distinction).

Smith didn’t say it in exact words, but if you read his section on agnosticism (especially page 12) he is basically saying that the colloquial usage of this word has come to mean “implicit atheism”.  I agree with this assessment and that is one of the biggest reasons I most frequently use the term agnostic instead of atheist to describe myself.

possibilian: This is a very new word invented by David Eagleman, but already has a Wikipedia entry and a web page.  I first found this word on the Finding Truth blog and I liked it right away.  I really liked Eagleman’s 20 minute video on his website.  Here is his definition: “Possibilianism is a philosophy which rejects both the idiosyncratic claims of traditional theism and the positions of certainty in atheism in favor of a middle, exploratory ground”. (as an aside, he is using the colloquial use of the word “atheism” here because he describes it as a position of certainty)  The main thing that hits me out of this is not the “rejection of stuff” part but the exploratory part.  While I do believe some aspects of the big questions in life are not capable of being found by scientific methods and critical inquiry I definitely do not believe it is true for all aspects of our big questions.  I am a huge fan of exploring these questions with the best objective methods that humans have found, and I hope that scientists give this more thought (though I realize the difficulties).  While atheism and agnosticism don’t necessarily rule out exploration, their definitions do not explicitly promote exploration, while possibilianism does, and this is why I am a big fan of this label.

Just a few more words about why I do not prefer the word atheist (beyond what I mentioned before).  While I know that the more vocal atheists of our time (seem to be called New Atheists) do not express certainty about the non-existence of gods, they do express that their beliefs are essentially close enough to certainty.  Not only do they express this about deities they express this about any supernatural or “spiritual” entities as well.  Most of them seem to be naturalists.  While I may lean a little bit in their direction I do not express anywhere near the level of certainty about naturalism they seem to express in their writings, and it is yet another reason I tend to stay clear of using the word atheist.  While I most definitely share their approach of using the objective methods of reasoning and science to find truth, that is very different than the philosophical statement of naturalism.

While the last word is not a label it is so important for me to define it here because I have and will continue to use it a lot:

epistemology: The study of human knowledge and understanding.  If you have ever thought “how can I or we really know anything at all” then you have thought about epistemology.  I tried to lay down a framework for my own very foundational beliefs about how to come to truth about stuff (i.e. epistemology) in my first 4 blog posts and now I plan to go back to that.  I plan on applying these methods later on (keep in mind no method is perfect), but I really feel it important to build a strong foundation first and I’m not sure how long that will take.