Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On Doubting

From The Reason for God by Timothy Keller: 

Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts--not only their own but their friends' and neighbors'. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. And, just as important for our current situation, such a process will lead you, even after you come to a position of strong faith, to respect and understand those who doubt. 

But even as believers should learn to look for reasons behind their faith, skeptics must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B. For example, if you doubt Christianity because "There can't be just one true religion," you must recognize that this statement is itself an act of faith. No one can prove it empirically, and it is not a universal truth that everyone accepts. If you went to the Middle East and said, "There can't be just one true religion," nearly everyone would say, "Why not?" The reason you doubt Christianity's Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith. 

Some people say, "I don't believe in Christianity because I can't accept the existence of moral absolutes. Everyone should determine moral truth for him- or herself." Is that a statement they can prove to someone who doesn't share it? No, it is a leap of faith, a deep belief that individual rights operate not only in the political sphere but also in the moral. There is no empirical proof for such a position, so the doubt (of moral absolutes) is a leap. 

Some will respond to all this, "My doubts are not based on a leap of faith. I have no beliefs about God one way or another. I simply feel no need for God and I am not interested in thinking about it." But hidden beneath this feeling is the very modern American belief that the existence of God is a matter of indifference unless it intersects with my emotional needs. The speaker is betting his or her life that no God exists who would hold you accountable for your beliefs and behavior if you didn't feel the need for him. That may be true or it may not be true, but, again, it is quite a leap of faith. 

The only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then to ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it.
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Truth is...there is very little knowing in this life; just looking at clues and making a call.


  1. There's a false equivalence too often, however. Bayesian reasoning is a good way to go about this; you have your "priors" that weight the results a certain way (what you call faith) but as evidence accumulates, older evidence affects the prior. Eventually you may have a weighting that shifts the scales over.

    This is what occurred with me. And since my starting point was so devout, it took a huge amount of counter-evidence to tilt the scales; however, now tilted, it would take *that much more* evidence going back the original direction to make faith claims viable again.

  2. Okay, help me out here...I'll do the research sometime to know what Bayesian reasoning is, but I already know what the English words "false" and "equivalence" mean...just don't know what you're referring to when you put them together.

  3. Sorry about the delayed response; for some reason my notifications aren't working.

    False equivalence is where you equate things that are not equal. For instance, if a suicide bomber kills 8 people, and a bomber kills hundreds; they are both "people killed other people" situations, but their difference in degrees is substantial.

    Bayes Theorem is the gold standard for handling probabilities when your foundational assumptions aren't necessarily correct, and it provides a way for you to really start with anything for a starting assumption, and gradually improve it as evidence accumulates. A good introduction is here: http://yudkowsky.net/rational/bayes

    So in my case, my starting assumptions were wildly pro-theistic; an awful lot of evidence had to accumulate before the baseline began to reflect a point of possible doubt. After several years of this I found myself at the opposite side of the spectrum.

    Hope that makes sense.

  4. So far so good...now...just what is being falsely equated in the above book quote?

  5. The false equivalence is this:

    Because a "leap of faith" is required by the believer and the nonbeliever (per your post above), there is no privileged place of critique for the nonbeliever; that's the gist I get.

    However, this is a false equivalence because the nonbeliever is *abstaining from making extraordinary claims*. They may not be 100% sure or correct on everything, but they're not claiming to be 100% sure. But the believer claims certainty in an incredibly extraordinary being called God; the two forms of "faith" are not at all commensurate.

  6. I would submit that saying faith makes extraordinary claims and non-faith doesn't is a judgement call that requires faith. In other words, to claim there is NO god is just as much a statement of faith as to claim there IS one. That's really the point of this whole piece.

  7. They are of the same *kind* (ie., both assertions/faith claims), but they are not of the same *degree*. This is where Occam's razor is useful as a heuristic. It's not a "proof" of a position, but as a general rule of thumb, the less assumed the better.

    *If* you were arguing for a non-interventionary God that exists outside the universe and merely "kicked things off" (the Deist position, more-or-less) or if you argued for a God that manages every quanta and every moment (the Occasionalist position); neither of those are provable, and neither of those are contrary to any evidence whatsoever, and it's strictly a matter of preference whether you opt for one, the other, or a strictly naturalist approach.

    But that's not what you're arguing. You're arguing for a God that is historically present, interacting with, communicating with, and transforming the actual world in a movement back and forth with humanity. This is a *much more complicated* proposition than any of the three positions sketched out above, and by admitting God's encroachments into space and time, it subjects itself to being testable (which none of the other claims are) and therefore, falsifiable.

    And I would argue that it is this specific, Christian faith that *has been falsified* and therefore must retreat to either a "God of the philosophers" (a functional atheism) or no god at all.

  8. And I would submit that it has NOT been falsified and repeat the above conclusion: Truth is...there is very little knowing in this life; just looking at clues and making a call.

    You've made a judgement call based on your presuppositions and the presented evidence...as have I.

    Can we agree to disagree agreeably?

  9. I feel like you've been agreeable, and I feel that I've been, as well.

    I disagree about our disagreement, but perhaps this warrants a cup of coffee sometime, instead.

    All the best.

  10. BTW...I absolutely agree that the conversation has been civil and agreeable. My suggestion that we agree to disagree agreeably was not meant to imply otherwise. Peace and respect...