Sunday, January 30, 2011

Is "Belief" consonant with "Knowledge"?

My latest intellectual influence, Dr. Jerry Coyne, has another interesting blog post on the intersection of faith and science. He attended a dialogue on the subject of his book, "Why Evolution is True" where he spoke with some liberal Methodists in Chicago yesterday and it is worth reading (in fact, his blog is something I encourage all to follow - it isn't all New Atheist argument - he has a deep affection for kitty cats and features his variety of cowboy boots, he also has a great sense of humor).

The quote that interested me helps me frame my comprehension of some of my friends' faith claims in response to a question I posed on an earlier post.

Dr. Coyne reporting on his conversation with liberal Christians:
"The 'different ways of knowing' trope arose several times. One person compared religion to poetry (i.e., an emotional response to the world) and science to prose (a rational and empirical approach to the world). I mentioned (and this was difficult to say before such a group) that I didn't think that religion was a way of knowing anything: that different religions had different dogmas and different answers to questions like 'What is the proper place of a woman in society?' . . . what religion really helps us 'know', and how can Methodists be confident that what they 'know' is true and the different things 'known' by Muslims, Hindus, and Southern Baptists are wrong."
This follows my understanding of the nature of belief (it's commentary on reality doesn't extend beyond human facility for aesthetics).

How do you know that your belief is "knowledge"? What methods do you apply?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

" . . . moving my perspective from religious de-bunker to religious skeptic"

I wrote in a recent post that I am moving my perspective from de-bunker to skeptic.

First when I was a de-bunker I thought I was practicing skepticism. I wasn't.

I was practicing angry resistance towards a former set of beliefs that once were my core truths which I came to see as contradictory to their claims because I came to see these core truths needed to operate in half-truth or lies to assert absolute truth.

I was pissed off at myself for my credulity and ashamed at what I saw as unintended arrogance wrapped in undeserved piety.

So I unofficially joined the skeptics community listening to podcasts like Point of Inquiry, Reasonable Doubts, The Bible Geek, and Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot. And joining blog communities at Debunking Christianity, Why Evolution is True, and Common Sense Atheism.

The problem that I've encountered is that my anger-fueld rhetoric is unsupported by an advanced understanding of nuanced theology or philosophy yet I tried to engage arguments that had a facility for these things and just fed my anger.

I became burnt out.

Last weekend I listened to the latest Point of Inquiry podcast where Joe Nickell was interviewed and he spoke of his work with Skeptical Inquirer magazine and made a distinction about being a skeptic of supernatural claims vs. a debunker of supernatural claims.

A skeptic accepts with neutrality the supernatural claim made by the believer and then designs tests to estimate the probable validity of that claim while the debunker comes to a supernatural claim with a bias that assumes all supernatural claims are derived from idiotic special privilege.

Nickell said that he once was the latter but has found the former more enjoyable and one need not risk epistemic contradiction to claim atheism or agnosticism towards supernaturalism while entertaining a real joy in investigating and learning the basis for the supernatural assertions.

The question is not if supernaturalism is real but what drives people to believe it is real.

Becoming a skeptic allows me to admit that biblical literalism, Reformed Christian theology, and Roman Catholicism fascinate me. I don't think the claims made by any of those entities are phenomenologically true but am open to vetting arguments from those that do and then investigate if the assertions made have the truth stated.

I find this position is less stressful without me abandoning the epistemic breakthroughs I've made as I've become a Calvinist Christian apostate while allowing me to enjoy being a student of the supernatural, theology and philosophy.

I might even avoid stepping in unintended arrogance or undeserved piety in atheism, unlike my experience as a believer.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Subjective Ingredient in Faith and Science and Properly Basic Knowledge

I really like all the comments that are responses to my post from yesterday.

Thanks to all who chose to respond.

A recurring theme that rises in all the responses is the notion of subjectivity and this is fascinating to me.

One reason why I'm fascinated is because of how the responses use subjectivity as a faith justification to rationalize the faith and science divide but to me that choice seems to illustrate the faith and science divide even more (relative to examining and discerning what is real).

The responses offer illustration to how variable fact can be when subjective experience becomes evidence for a faith commitment.

Our ability to discern the meaning of our own experience is a poor data set to confirm a phenomenon.

For example, I wonder if the Reformed Epistemology of Alvin Plantiga would have its properly basic epistemic merit if he were to have been born in Thailand. Or, would that cultural context have made him a Theravada Buddhist rather than a Calvinist Christian?

Another way to put it would be to take the trust towards properly basic information and assess its usefulness against a geographic variable.

For example, none of the faith assertions thus far to the question I raised seem properly basic in the way elements of simple deductive arguments are. 2+2=4 is true in both a Reformed Calvinist and Theravada Buddhist tradition but the meaning of God's character and the impact this being (person, force?) has varies wildly depending on the cultural context in which the god concept resides.

In the face of the potential false positives rendered by subjective faith commitments I feel more humbled and confident deferring to the scientific method because it is designed to factor subjectivity in and mitigate against it.

And this is where I see the break between faith and science.

Science admits that our subjective experience is fraught with input error and creates a method to mitigate the probable mistakes this subjective interpretation might make while faith commitments in contrast don't seek to falsify a subjective experience but rather seek confirmation of the subjective experience with subjective experience to make its assertions credible.

This is not an argument against the usefulness of how faith can factor into one's personality (I think that is pretty evident because belief usually precedes behavior) but rather can a faith commitment tell us what is real or does it articulate a subjective experience towards what we wish to be real?

I think the way of knowing reality remains divided between faith and science.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why "faith" once one understands "evidence"?

Dr. Coyne has a great post at his blog "Why Evolution is True" where he criticizes a recent column by The Templeton Foundation (religious think-tank) supported Elaine Ecklund and her hypothesis that Ph.Ds are more religious than observations suggest (even observations one would derive from her data and methodology if they weren't being financed by an institution whose purpose is to defend and promote religion).

Readers of this blog know that I used to identify as a Christian but that was before I engaged atheist arguments or understood how science worked.

My last two years have led me to see that my religious assertions were not real because they relied too much on emotional pleading rather than testable data.

I've come to see that the religion I once asserted could offer emotional uplift but that phenomenon was more in line with aesthetics.

It might have an ontological interest (the branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being) but had no physical reality and therefore the moral conclusions that it claimed were mercurial and self-focused.

It stopped working when I found myself in dialogue with people using their religion like a ventriloquist's dummy to assert whatever emotional bias they might prefer. This sometimes could be wonderful like my friends who spend their time serving the poor or it could be awful when powerful and privileged people argued for things like "Biblical Capitalism" or how Jesus would support George Bush and his pro-war stance.

My doubts with my cultural religion have led me to doubt all religious assertions because I've not seen how any supernatural claims operate as real.

They aren't any more real than one's preference for the uplift found in an artistic genre or culinary category.

I am okay with that if folks want to share their experience with their imagined worlds but no longer find experimental supernaturalism as anything more than an act of imagination and therefore it is dangerous because it is a disconnection from reality.

It can't help us understand what it means to be a living human being in a physical world that demands we cooperate and make choices to sustain life because it defers to a realm that is subjective in its foundation rooted in qualities that can't be observed in an independent frame outside of the person asserting the necessary qualities.

An open question that I'd love to get a response -- why is there an insistence (like Ecklund's) to demand empiricists concern themselves with supernatural assertions?

When one has moved passed a faith-based way of knowing for the more testable world of empiricism (evidence) is it fair to dismiss faith's validity? Why? Why not?

What benefit does religious faith (defined here as a belief that invisible/non-material forces affect reality) have for someone who understands and is curious about how observable phenomenon affect reality?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Prophecy as Post-modern Adventure

I enjoyed a new novel over Christmas Break.

It isn't an easy read but one that enchanted me.

The novel is broken into eight books with a prologue and epilogue and centers on the ruminations of JohnThomas Didymus who operates as hero and pseudonymous author.

It begins with the hero's stay in a mental hospital travels through an alternative Christian resurrection story down to various theories on the unification of reality and finally lands on an apocalyptic first-person perspective wrought with subjective meaning.

The novel reads like post-modern scripture and renders an implicit argument to the effect that deep religious certainty is best held within advanced autism and solipsism.

The choice of the author (who shall remain nameless here but for disclosure's sake is a colleague and friend) to attribute the authorship to his hero is an essential creative device in amplifying the novel's theme.

The theme is best stated by the author in Book 5 "The Temptations",
"Life and existence are a riddle
But a good riddle
Is a good fiddle
You may want to play to any tune which suits your fancy."
The nature of religious conviction is exposed as the hero journeys by way of religious epiphany towards ontological certainty. Didymus embodies hints of St. Paul in his sense of glorified persecution, Mohammad and Joseph Smith in their revelatory convictions and St. John of Patmos in his yearning apocalyptic.

There is even a hint to the technical Christian philosophy of men like Alvin Plantinga or Richard Swinburne and New Age theoretician Deepak Chopra in the author/hero's insistence that his scientific scholarship while non-falsifiable remains valid due to its inner conviction to its personal meaning. Our hero/author explains while speaking of himself as both observer and reporter,
"He lived dangerously on the edge of mental chaos at which he was free to expand unlimitedly beyond mere synthesis; explore new conceptual approaches to old problems, armed with a magicians hat which imposed no binding pre-conditions of logic in the divergence of his mind to infinity."
Men like Swinburne and Plantinga misuse the mathematics of Bayesian theory to argue from probability the likelihood of miracles without giving assent to the necessary zero-probability of miraculous priors. Chopra speaks of Quantum events as if small-scale physics is related to the numinous feelings he packages. "Confessions of God" uses the musings of its hero to contextualize the category of serious modern theologies and exposes them all as a complicated self-deference.

I enjoyed this book and if you are given to choose fantastic entertainments that conceal their ideological arguments in technical craftsmanship like David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest"; the magical realism of Salman Rushdie; or the films of Darren Aronofsky then I think you will enjoy this book too.

Strong recommendations for "Confessions of God" as an intelligent expose on how religious certainty begins and ends with self-centered conviction.

What Conservative Rage?

I think it is time to be honest about the violent rhetoric and rage that masquerades as patriotic feeling in light of yesterday's murder of Judge Roll and 5 others including a 9-year-old girl. The Tea Party is to tax policy as Joseph McCarthy was to national security.

It is a phony political entity projecting its paranoia to force fear buttressed by violence.

It simplifies the complexity of a social phenomena and asserts the answer lies in the exertion of power and force.

I'm not saying the Tea Party ordered yesterday's shooting but what I am arguing is that the Tea Party made threats to the effect that shooting Rep. Giffords (albeit behind a symbolic smoke-screen) would be a good thing.

Sarah Palin placed a rifle scope over Representative Giffords district as a symbol of the derelict Governor's political passion in helping the conservative candidate win the Arizona 8th congressional seat from Giffords. Representative Gifford's opponent raised money by offering an M-16 target practice session as a viable political action rally. 6 people are dead as collateral damage in the wake of an assassination attempt that targeted Representative Giffords. I think one can infer the beliefs of these "Patriots" as an input to real behavior without mistaking correlation for causation. Tea Party patriots have raged with superficial machismo behind their 2nd Amendment rights as if they were people seeking liberty in the wake of an invading army occupying their land.

The psychology of the 2nd Amendment
was based in the need to avoid the type of forced obedience the colonial territories suffered under the Crown and the British armed forces. It was not written so white people afraid of difference could gather and assert violence as some American heritage when difficult times demand we think.

The current mood of the American Conservative and the G.O.P. bullied by Tea Party rhetoric is violent and to deny that is to be naive. Then when a sick individual acts consonant with the empty originalist libertarian rhetoric the Tea Party asserts, conservatives try to walk it back as if there is no connection between the two events. To not consider the recent past pronouncements of self-asserted "Patriots" as an input into yesterday's events is silly. The kid was mentally ill but resided in Arizona where heated Tea Party rhetoric to the shooting of Rep. Giffords was given approval as legitimate political language. What more evidence do we need? But the idea that it is simply heated language that killed Judge Roll and the others yesterdays seems to me to ignore real cause.

We don't have humane policy positions in this country in regards to health-care or gun c
ontrol and to ignore that when responding to this event seems to be planting the seeds for the same ugly fruit to flower later. This happened not just because of inflammatory language. It happened because one of our major political parties thinks that government should not regulate our freedom in responsible ways. If Loughner had been given proper medical care when he was kicked out of Pima Community College and if he was not allowed to buy a Glock, conceal it and carry it then a nine-year-old girl would still be alive. You will not hear mea culpas from the Right. They are already using this event as an excuse to argue for more lax gun control (e.g. "If more people were able to carry concealed weapons at the event then they could have shot Loughner before he shot others.") Watch, this will become about the necessity of Libertarian freedom (as if a 22 year old boy with bi-polar disorder has Libertarian freedom).
I think it is foolish to allow McCarthyite bullying to define the American experience and it needs to be opposed. I'm all for avoiding the post hoc fallacy but am done giving assent to the violence espoused by Tea Party "Patriots" after the fact that violence has happened. Rep. Giffords was targeted by the Tea Party with intimations of violence against her. She is recovering from a head wound today.

Seems like a logical inference can be made.