Saturday, March 25, 2006

On History, Experience and Sundry Modelling Details

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

After a bit of a hiatus, Ernie is back with Altimeters for Divinity. The "altimeter" idea comes from my earlier post Belief Optimization, in which I described a sort of quasi-mathematical model for describing systems of beliefs, where our goal is to find the global minimum of contradiction in our beliefs.

Ernie had previously alluded to a possibly similar concept, and he has now highlighted a difference between our models, as I have described a multidimensional vector field of real (in the mathematical sense) values, where Ernie would use complex (in the mathematical sense) values. I had previously understood him to be using complex only in the sense of non-scalar, not specifically in the sense of complex numbers. While Ernie has not explained just what each such value means in his model, I will note that such numbers are composed of both real and imaginary parts. I will refrain from commenting about Ernie's imaginary beliefs at this time. ;-)

Ernie listed four of my previous posts that he had to "chew on", and I just want to clarify that, for whatever it is worth, I had not considered The Ugaritic Pantheon to be part of this dialog. That may or may not have contributed to Ernie saying

However, the larger issue is that Alan appears to evaluate Christianity in historical terms, whereas I judge it on empirical grounds.

I am not quite sure why he says that I appear to evaluate Christianity on (solely) historical terms when we have spent so much time talking about the problem of hell, for instance. I do think that it is important to understand the historical development of Christianity, but that is not my sole basis of evaluation. Similarly, whether or not historical considerations contribute to Ernie's personal evaluation of Christianity, he has made various claims about its history that I have taken to indicate that he attaches some importance to it. For instance, in A Post-Modern Faith in Jesus, Ernie wrote:

I believe (and am willing to defend) the following to be true and knowable according to traditional scientific standards of evidence:


f. That *someone* and *something* -very unusual- happened in the first century AD that gave birth to the Christian movement, in a way that allows enormous diversity yet amazing continuity across both space and time.

Later, in The Tao of Hell (or perhaps vice versa), he wrote

Further, I believe I can justify -- and would willingly attempt to defend -- this position [the consequences of ignoring the Tao]:

  • scripturally
  • historically
  • anthropologically
  • psychologically
  • philosophically

Still later in Truth or Cons[ist]equences?, Ernie wrote

Thus, all I can really say a priori is that "I believe" certain things are true: ... I believe in transcendent virtues such as justice, humility, and love, and that historical Christianity demonstrates both a deep understanding of those virtues and a remarkable power to nurture them.

My stress of some of these historical considerations was partly due to statements such as these, so I think that Ernie's contrast between my "historical terms" and his "empirical" grounds is a bit unfair.

For that matter, some of what Ernie goes on to say also touches on historical considerations. For instance,

Further, it [Christian theism] claims that we can and do know this because of the testimony and person of Jesus Christ, as reflected in both those who knew him while he lived on earth and those (including myself) who have had spiritual encounters with him afterwards.


In particular, I believe that I can demonstrate -- both historically and theoretically -- that the resulting claims have far greater explanatory power than those built on alternative assumptions, especially atheism.

I am, no doubt, blowing this out of proportion, and perhaps I misunderstand what Ernie is trying to say, but it bothers me that Ernie has provided a contrast that appears inaccurate to me.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's look at the meat of Ernie's post.

Because of this, I believe Christianity (my "theory of Christ") makes a range of specific, testable predictions that apply to the modern world (i.e., "acts of faith" are essentially experiments, providing noisy, but still valid data). In particular, I believe that I can demonstrate -- both historically and theoretically -- that the resulting claims have far greater explanatory power than those built on alternative assumptions, especially atheism. For example, I predict that individuals and communities at every point in the continuum would be improved by more accurately understanding and experiencing the divinity represented by Jesus Christ.

This isn't to deny that all other systems may have *some* explanatory power (to Alan's point about non-Christian conversion stories). However, I assert that their (lesser) power can be plausibly explained by demonstrating their implicit or explicit adoption of a subset of Christian theism (thus my allusion to presuppositionalism earlier, even if I'm still not sure what that means :-). Conversely, if Christianity is just a crude approximation of reality -- as Alan seems to assert -- then the onus would be on him to show that his "divinity" (mind, matter, reason, whatever) provides greater predictive power than mine. That is, he would need to explain not just why "belief in God" works well in certain regions (as he admits), but also where and why it fall short of his superior naturalistic explanation.

Regarding the prediction about individuals and communities improving based on more accurate understanding and experience of Jesus Christ, the inclusion of "improvement" here would require us to agree on what constitutes improvement. Does that require ethical judgement? We have not agreed on an ethical framework, but we have agreed that epistemology precedes ethics (other than epistemic virtue), so I wonder how we could proceed on this point. If the notion of improvement does not imply ethical consideration, what kind of improvement are we looking for?

For that matter, how will we know what understanding and experience of Jesus Christ is more accurate? Is that not part of the question we are seeking to answer?

Regarding the explanatory power of other religious systems, Ernie suggests that this is due to their adoption of some subset of Christian theism. He specifically mentions my "point about non-Christian conversion stories" (see Making Change), but I want to emphasize that point again here. The specific question was, do changed lives provide evidence for the truth of what one believes? Ernie may claim that Mormons' lives are changed because Mormon beliefs overlap with Christian truth, but the Mormons could likewise claim that Christian' lives are changed because Christian beliefs overlap with Mormon truth. Unless the changes are materially different between Mormon and Christian believers, it remains hard to see how changed lives could be evidence for one and not the other. (Mormons might not agree with my distinction between Mormonism and Christianity, but it is merely that some difference in beliefs exists that matters. We could contrast Catholicism and Protestantism, for that matter.) What little research I have done into non-Christian conversion stories leads me to believe that changes reported by Christians are not sufficiently different to warrant any particular evidentiary weight.

As for explaining why belief in God "works well in certain regions" under naturalistic explanations, I will try to develop that more fully in another post, but let me make a distinction between "works well" and "causes change". I assert that beliefs do cause change, and I agree that those who describe the changes are likely to describe them as good changes. My stress in discussing this subject is not on whether I consider those changes good, but that reports of changed lives speak more about the relationship between belief and behavior than about the truth of the beliefs.

Finally, Ernie finished with

We've already agreed that "more accurate knowledge enables more accurate predictions", so this seems a suitably neutral altimeter.

Fair enough, Alan?

In the context of my quasi-mathematical model of beliefs, predictions are belief statements concerning the results of future observations, like "I believe the voltmeter will read 1.5 +/- 0.2V when connected to a fresh AA battery, with confidence 95%." The actual observations become further belief statements, possibly very concrete beliefs, like "I believe the voltmeter read 1.47V when I connected its probes to the battery, with confidence 99.9%." As long as I keep making the same prediction, each confirming measurement lowers my measured belief altitude and each disconfirming measurement raises my measured belief altitude. If I modify my predictive beliefs, the altitude measurement begins anew with further tests.

In other words, I agree that predictions are one means for measuring belief altitude. Since belief altitude as I have described it is a measurement of total contradiction, predictions create opportunities for contradiction to occur. However, a static analysis of currently-held beliefs can also reveal contradiction. I have not thought much about how to tie that together with claims of understanding, of preference for simpler explanations (Ockham's Razor), and so on. Whether this distinction between the roles of prediction and contradiction in the model really matters to our discussion, I believe it does, but only with a confidence value of 55% (that is, +0.1 on the -1 to 1 scale).


Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Alan,
My apologies if I misunderstood or mischaracterized your line of argument as "historical." I agree that we're unlikely my current line of reasoning won't work well without some ethical framework, so we may as well go there next unless you have a better idea...
-- Ernie P.

Alan Lund said...


I have certainly offered and would continue to offer historical arguments, but I believe your statement characterized my entire evaluation of Christianity as being historical in nature, which is not so. Further, you appeared to contrast that with your own empirical approach, despite your prior appeal to historical considerations. Since I had offered the historical arguments in part because of these prior references on your part, I thought that trying to contrast our two evaluations in this way was misleading.

What role do historical considerations play in your belief system?