Monday, July 17, 2006

Answer

Chris asked a question of me in a comment on a recent post that I thought I would answer today.
You are a man of science and rationality. Your chosen profession of medicine demands it. You have written often and eloquently of the need for rigor in understanding scientific data. And yet, you do not seem to demand the same kind of rigor when it comes to matters of religion, even when it impacts you in a profoundly personal way.

Why?

Religious thought should receive the most scrutiny and the most rigorous examination of any human endeavor, in my opinion. Certainly, not less than science. But the kind of scrutiny is totally different. It's a different universe of discourse with different assumptions and different endpoints. Science is determined to describe the truth about the natural world we find ourselves in. It lends itself perfectly to empiric investigation. Religion (to me) is an investigation into the truth about the supernatural world. It's why we've found ourselves anywhere at all.

Supernatural and natural inquiries have different sets of rules, and because I've written a little on this before I'm somewhat surprised you would characterize my religious views as not rigorously examined. I suspect this may be a form of this idea: if you and I haven't come to the same conclusion then you just haven't thought about it enough.

Additionally, I want to go on record with some qualifiers. I am flattered that you have described me as a man of science and rationality. But one of the things that rationality has given me is a healthy skepticism for science. Science done correctly has done immeasurable good for our society. And science done badly has done (and continues to do) immeasurable harm. There are lots of reasons why scientifically accepted dogma is plain wrong. The data was measured wrong. The methodology was flawed. The analysis was biased. Over time we've improved as a society in picking out these errors and building safe-guards into the methodology. And over time the spin-masters, the marketers, and the plain liars have gotten better at obscuring the scientific flaws (perhaps sometimes deliberately). Gay issues are a major caution zone, I've noticed.

Qualifier two is that not all the rules are different for scientific and religious inquiry. Naturalism, yes. Inviolable physical laws, yes. Absolute consistency, yes. But God Himself asks us to "prove me now herewith"... to test things for ourselves. I can think of a number of "clinical trials" in the scriptures, so to speak. I can think of favorable references to logic and reason. It's a big part of what God expects of us. And far from accepting the premise of your first question, I believe my faith to be perhaps one of the most exquisitely consistent and logical of any I know. But ultimately it's a "faith" and not a "science". And therefore I'm okay when people disagree or come to different conclusions. I expect the same courtesy of them, even if what I believe bothers them. And that's the beauty of America--it was built on a constitution codifying just such a sentiment.

By the way, I've written on this before. Oh, and here and here.

18 comments:

Chris (hurricane) said...

L,

You are mistaken if you believe I posed this question because you and I have come to different conclusions about how to live our lives as gay men. For while the question of homosexuality and what to do with it is part of the equation, it is not necessarily the most important part.

My question is more broadly directed at religious belief in general. I pose it because I continue to be a believer myself, though I increasingly find myself wondering whether my beliefs are rooted more in tradition and myth than anything else.

You speak of what God wants for us and expects for us as if those wants and expectations have been delivered to us directly. But they haven't. To believe scripture litwrally is, I believe, to be ignorant of history and culture and how scripture came to us. LDS claims often come through living prophets, but these men serve as filters themselves, and they too are bound by time and culture.

We give religion a pass that we give no other area in our lives. We do not demand evidence. We take things on "faith". -- which is to say we believe without any rational basis for believing.

More and more I think this does more harm to us than good.

-L- said...

You are mistaken if you believe I posed this question because you and I have come to different conclusions about how to live our lives as gay men.

I think you've lost me here. I believe you posed the question because you think Mormonism is a load of crock, and perhaps because you also think that anyone should come to that same conclusion if they'll just open their eyes. On this we differ.

We give religion a pass that we give no other area in our lives. We do not demand evidence. We take things on "faith". -- which is to say we believe without any rational basis for believing.

We absolutely DO demand evidence, it just isn't measurable and reproducible. See? Different rules. My religious faith is built on a combination of direct and indirect evidence that rationally led to my convictions.

I don't know who you think is giving religion a pass. The participants themselves? The opponents of their social philosophy? I don't see it in either place.

The only pass I see comes in the form of disgruntled tolerance by those who think religious people are uneducated fools that inconveniently have constitutional rights. While I don't believe my own faith is without rational basis, I recognize that it may appear so to others. And others' faiths appear so to me. And hence freedom of religion is a good thing.

Chris (hurricane) said...

L, my criticisms are about organized religions and religious faith in general, and are not directed toward Mormonism. Mormonism is the experience I know best, so it's the experience I draw from most effectively and credibly.


Yor wrote: We absolutely DO demand evidence, it just isn't measurable and reproducible. See? Different rules. My religious faith is built on a combination of direct and indirect evidence that rationally led to my convictions.

But key to your faith are a number of propositions--including the very existence of God--that no one can truly know.

You and other religious believers--myself included--accept fantastic propositions about God that we would accept in no other areas of our lives. And we make significant and lasting life decisions as a result. We make public policy as a result.

I'm no longer inclined to believe that this is a good thing. In many instances I think it is a demonstrably bad thing.

I don't know who you think is giving religion a pass. The participants themselves? The opponents of their social philosophy? I don't see it in either place.

Society in general gives religion a pass all the time, particularly on matters of public policy where declaring one's position is an extension of one's faith often places it beyond any rational or logical discussion.

The only pass I see comes in the form of disgruntled tolerance by those who think religious people are uneducated fools that inconveniently have constitutional rights.

As I'm sure you would point out to me--and have, frankly--we all see what we want to see sometimes.

While I don't believe my own faith is without rational basis, I recognize that it may appear so to others. And others' faiths appear so to me. And hence freedom of religion is a good thing.

I never said anything about freedom of religion. We should all have the right to believe whatever sublime or damn fool thing we want. But just because an idea is rooted in religion doesn't mean it should be tolerated.

mark said...

Perhaps I can throw another wrench into this debate ;)

When a person seeks out a true religion, the person examines the beliefs of a particular system, tests these against certain criteria, perhaps experiments with the teachings by trying to live them, and sees what types of fruits these produce. I am going to take that as my starting point.

Now, how does the seeker determine what criteria to apply in making this assessment? What are these criteria? Is there only one set of criteria that can be applied, or are there are a variety of sets? Why or why not? Who determines which criteria are good and which are bad?

How does the seeker assess the fruits of living according to a belief system? Is the proof in being happy? in being successful? in obtaining power over self and/or others? in obtaining enlightenment? in being at peace? all of the above? none of the above? some of the above? Does every seeker have to assess the fruits by the same criteria for their assessment to be correct?

What I am getting at is this: when I investigated the LDS church in my teens, I entered into the process with certain preconceived ideas about what would make for a true church. First, I had the idea that there could be only one true church. That was my first assumption. Second, I assumed the Bible was God's word, and that one could test all teachings against that standard. So I studied Mormonism from that framework, along with all of the beliefs I had come to accept as being true through my study.

At some point, I came to accept the idea that if there was one true church, God would tell me what it is if I asked Him. That, again, was an assumption. I acted upon that assumption; in essence, I exercised faith in that assumption (as I had exercised faith in the previously-mentioned assumptions). I got what I believed to be an answer to that question but, again, I made certain assumptions about what the answer would be like, and drew certain conclusions from what happened.

Three years ago or so, I came to the realization that there are many people who are religious seekers who have come to different conclusions that I did about which church was true (although talking about a "true church" is, itself, another assumption I made) based on using different criteria of assessment than I had accepted. In other words, the questions they asked were somewhat different than the questions I had asked, and they led to a different answer. And these people claimed experiences which, while perhaps not in conformity with the experiences or fruits that I accepted as being "evidence" of a "true church", nevertheless they took to be that type of evidence that the church or faith to which they adhered was true or right or divinely-inspired.

I realized I had made a lot of assumptions that I had never examined. And that I should be a little more humble about thinking that my assumptions were more correct than those of others.

Of course, I still make assumptions. Eventually, I think that we all have to make a certain number of assumptions in order to live. In a certain way, these assumptions are like the system software that runs our brain. Without it, we wouldn't function at all.

Anyway, all this to say, I am not advocating a moral relativism...that is something I still feel really uncomfortable with...but I am advocating a cautiousness about believing too much that one has, once and for all, "found the truth" about God, the universe, whatever. I like something that Learned Hand, the great American judge of the first half of the 20th century, said at a rally in 1944:

"What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest."

I think I could exchange "spirit of liberty" for "spirit of truth" and come out with the same thing. Either way, it expresses my viewpoint, for what it's worth.

mark

-L- said...

Chris:
But key to your faith are a number of propositions--including the very existence of God--that no one can truly know.

I've studied and written on epistemology and I'm pretty sure one can know about the existence of God. No wait, I know so. :-)

You and other religious believers--myself included--accept fantastic propositions about God that we would accept in no other areas of our lives.

I know I would never accept non-religious propositions without direct proof. Like a man walking on the moon. Ridiculous. I'm always amazed by the number of people fooled by a few fake photos and a propaganda campaign that reaches into all sorts of textbooks when it's just plain obvious that such a thing is impossible.

I think I've already addressed why accepting propositions that are fantastic by one standard is necessary and appropriate in another context. It's all about the context.

We make public policy as a result.

You and I don't make public policy. The public makes the policy. And in order to do so there is hopefully a lively debate about the pros and cons of all points of view. This seems healthy and desirable to me and I see it going on all around me. Don't you? It's when people start spitting in one another's faces that I get annoyed. You'll just love my next post.

When one's position is an extension of faith, that doesn't remove it from the discussion. Rational evaluation still takes place. But people are still free not to concede their views despite criticism and the majority should rule. Not a perfect system, but I haven't devised an alternative I'm comfortable with except me as supreme dictator of everything.

We should all have the right to believe whatever sublime or damn fool thing we want. But just because an idea is rooted in religion doesn't mean it should be tolerated.

Well, amen to that. We agree on at least that. Overall I appreciate this dialog. I do think that the very fact we're having this discussion demonstrates that religious views are challenged.

-L- said...

Mark, what a beautiful quote. And a very provocative comment.

Because of the different rules used in religious investigation, there are bound to be differences in approach and differences in interpretation of data. There are bound to be opportunities to learn and grow and develop a greater insight into spiritual truth throughout life. So, I whole-heartedly agree that humility is of utmost importance in approaching the problem.

And judging others' faiths is really not very useful. I know that people charge the LDS church with doing so all the time, but it's far more complex than that and the whole discussion irritates me. The church's view on non-relativistic truth while accommodating accountability for a given level of light and knowledge makes me feel glad. It sounds right to me. It feels right. It makes sense. It bumps up my confidence that such a doctrine is true.

Just because one has found a truth about God doesn't mean one must be guilty of having found the truth. Just how much truth should one apologize for having? I agree with your sentiment that assuming unquestioned loyalty to something one "knows" can be a bad idea. And yet I also believe being certain of something is possible. Where you draw the line I don't know. I'm still trying to logically reason it out and rationally weigh the evidence. ;-)

Chris (hurricane) said...

L:

I've studied and written on epistemology and I'm pretty sure one can know about the existence of God.

Assume I'm stupid (which I might be). In a nutshell, tell me how we can know about the existence of God.

(Or don't if you feel like you've already covered this ground. I'm coming to these questions for myself anew, which is why I'm pushing them with you.)

I know I would never accept non-religious propositions without direct proof.

So why accept religious ones?

And the simple truth is that religious people are seeking direct proof all the time! Descriptions of miracles, stories of answered prayers, FARMS... what is all of if not an attempt to find direct proof for God?

I think I've already addressed why accepting propositions that are fantastic by one standard is necessary and appropriate in another context. It's all about the context.

Indeed. But the context ought to include a very careful look at history, culture, language and on and on and not rely merely on emotion, feeling and myth. I know you think I'm trying to go after my former Mormon faith, and I'm really not, but let's look there for some examples. Now that I've taken a step (or several) back from Mormonism, it seems so obviously to be a product of 19th Century frontier America. From the doctrines it emphasized in its beginnings to the themes of the Book of Mormon to the testimonies of the witnesses and on and on. When placed in context, it seems very clearly (to me) to be a product of the time and place of its founder and his followers.

So, yes, I agree. Context is critical.

I do think that the very fact we're having this discussion demonstrates that religious views are challenged.

Just trying to play my part as the resident unrepentant homosexual apostate.

Another Other said...

-L- said: I know I would never accept non-religious propositions without direct proof.

Chris said: So why accept religious ones?

AO says: Uhh, -L- was joking. Very cleverly, incidentally. Don't want to enter the very interesting dialogue, but wanted to point that out.

Chris (hurricane) said...

Fine, so L was joking and I missed it.
But the reason I missed it is because what he said is generally true of most people. We don't accept propositions--particularly those that help us understand and order the world--without some direct evidence that they are valid propositions.

-L- said...

Everyone accepts indirect evidence for everything all the time. And when there's a question about whether the evidence is credible you go for direct, personal, first-hand. Religion is similar. Would you know there's a God if he appeared to you and slapped you in the face? "Hey, Chris! Quit being the resident unrepentant homosexual apostate! I've prepared a short instructional series of miracles for your benefit." ;-) I am SO getting fire insurance.

Lots of philosophers have questioned whether we can ever know anything at all. This makes sense when you think about us as biological creatures with fluid nervous systems. It all depends on a combination of memory, stimuli reinforcement, and health. How you define knowledge makes all the difference. I define it as having enough evidence for some idea that the probability it is true is higher than some particular level. Different people have different levels and I can't imagine how the level can be anything other than arbitrary (or at least, individualized). The higher you set your level of necessary proof, the less likely you'll be fooled, the more certain you can be about something and the more you will be unable to function in a society that relies on experts and trust. You can't be so hellbent on proof that you cripple yourself (i.e. refuse to believe anything you read in the newspapers about the weather, the traffic, etc. until you've got DIRECT evidence), and you can't be so gullible that you're willing to accept every snake oil salesman who comes along.

People can't (or shouldn't) base testimony on FARMS work because that's not the way it works from an LDS point of view. It's amusing and interesting stuff (ahem, to some), but somewhat irrelevant as far as determining spiritual truth.

the context ought to include a very careful look at history, culture, language and on and on and not rely merely on emotion, feeling and myth...it seems so obviously to be a product of 19th Century frontier America

I don't know about obvious. You and I interpret the data differently. The same goes for other historical, scientific, and ethical issues. I accept all the types of data (direct, historical, emotional...) but I don't necessarily prioritize them the way I do in science. The reason is that you CAN'T do so when the whole system of belief is contingent on faith. There's the real answer, and ultimately I think some are okay with that and others aren't. There are plenty of things I don't get. But there are plenty of things that make far more sense than you seem to be giving them credit for.

mark said...

So how do you determine spiritual truth? What are the questions one asks? What are the tools one uses to make the assessment? Is it Moroni 10:3-5? Something else?

Chris (hurricane) said...

L, we of course all accept indirect evidence on daily basis. But most of our existence is dependent on someone somewhere along the line relying on hard evidence that things work. Except when it comes to religion, where tradition and myth carry the day.
_______

Thanks, Mark. That was my next question.

Chris (hurricane) said...

You and I interpret the data differently.

True, but as mark pointed out above, we also have to start our examination of the data with a number of faith-based assumptions. Faith is a choice, and it is an irrational one.

-L- said...

But most of our existence is dependent on someone somewhere along the line relying on hard evidence that things work.

So, in terms of religion this would take, what, a prophet? They're the spiritual experts, so to speak. And whether or not you believe them, trust them, or investigate for yourself parallels the secular situation.

Faith is a choice, and it is an irrational one.

What you have faith in is a choice, but whether or not you put your confidence in something you aren't absolutely sure about is a necessary part of life. It stems from a lack of omniscience.

I can appreciate how hard you are trying to associate faith and spirituality with irrationality, but it's not a necessary connection and I can only say we disagree on that a certain number of times before I'm going to get carpal tunnel. You have faith in absolute limitations of faith. I'm still investigating.

-L- said...

Mark, thanks for your questions. I certainly don't have ready answers for them all, but they are thought provoking and I'll see if I can work out a future post on it. It sounds fun.

I like discussing things with you.

Chris (hurricane) said...

I can appreciate how hard you are trying to associate faith and spirituality with irrationality, but it's not a necessary connection and I can only say we disagree on that a certain number of times before I'm going to get carpal tunnel.

I associate faith and RELIGION with irrationality. Spirituality seems to be an inherent part of the human condition and one that I think is entirely worth embracing.

Chris (hurricane) said...

So, in terms of religion this would take, what, a prophet? They're the spiritual experts, so to speak. And whether or not you believe them, trust them, or investigate for yourself parallels the secular situation.

Prophets seem to have no more access to "hard evidence" than the rest of us.

-L- said...

What do you consider to be hard evidence if not miraculous visions and face-to-face encounters with God? Prophets by definition have more access.

And spirituality vs. religion is a great debate, but not one I'm up for right now. It's all the same in my mind for the purpose of the current discussion. They both involve faith and neither is inherently rational or irrational. [Also, my wrists are starting to tingle. Hmm...]