Thursday, March 30, 2006

Wait, Er, Check Please?

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

In my last post, Claim Check: Introduction, I listed a number of assertions about Christianity that I believe I can support and I promised to expand on those. However, in a comment there and also in A Theory, Not a Law, Ernie requested that rather than simply present arguments against Christianity that I also present an alternative, a null hypothesis against which these claims can be compared, so I will try to spell that out a little first. I also have a question for Ernie that comes up when I compare A Theory, Not a Law with his prior post Reality Check.

In response to my introductory list of claims, Ernie brings up a valid question. When I make various claims against Christianity, what do I mean be Christianity? This question has come up before, in Ernie's It Takes Tao to Tango and I responded in The (No So) Terrible Tao's with:

  1. Monotheistic, but...
  2. Jesus is/was God
  3. Jesus' death and resurrection enable our salvation
  4. Bible is revealed or inspired scripture

This question about what Christianity is is a bit difficult, because it does mean so many things to different people. Sometimes it seems that any assertion you make about Christianity will be contradicted by someone who claims to be a Christian. I am not disputing those claims, nor claiming that this problem is unique to Christianity, but just saying that it makes things more difficult. Despite my list above, for instance, I know personally a devout Christian who denies that Jesus is co-equal or identical with God, a position he reached after much struggle and research into the beliefs of the early church.

Early on in A Theory, Not a Law, Ernie proposes categorizing Christianity as "a theory about divinity", where divinity is "that which is ultimately, non-contingently real". Earlier, in Altimeters for Divinity, when Ernie first introduced this definition of divinity, he said

Christian theism asserts that divinity is

  1. singular
  2. transcendent, and
  3. self-giving

Based on these two lists, and I think unsurprisingly, we agree that Christianity is a monotheistic belief system. That sets up a contrast with atheism, but Ernie sees a difficulty there:

Given that Christianity is a theory, then what is it a theory about? Well, Christianity has always primarily presented itself in terms of beliefs about God, so hopefully that aspect is non-controrversial. However, defining Christianity as "a theory about God's existence" would make atheism "a theory about God's non-existence", which are difficult items to compare; zeroes and infinities are always problematic in formal systems, as anyone who's used FORTRAN knows. :-)

That is why I propose we instead view this as a contest between different theories about the nature of ultimate reality...

If I were to propose alternative belief system to contrast with theism, it would be naturalism, but not because I think naturalism necessarily reflects ultimate reality, but only that there is insufficient evidence (or reason) to go further. I do not recall if I have mentioned this before, but part of my "deconversion" was an explicit decision to believe "less", to remain undecided about matters that are uncertain. I am more certain that Christian theism is "false" than I am certain that naturalism is "true".

Given that asymmetry, I am a bit uncomfortable with "view[ing] this as a contest between different theories about the nature of ultimate reality". Would it be assuming too much to say "observable reality" instead? Also, I expect that Ernie, physics Ph.D. that he is, would grant that there are natural explanations for some things, so that rather than comparing N (naturalistic theories) to T (theistic theories), we would be comparing N to N + T. But this reduces to arguing about whether T is "zero" or "non-zero"; in other words we are back to N being the null hypothesis and arguing for and against T.

I can appreciate Ernie's preference for two competing theories, but I am not sure if N vs. N+T qualifies in Ernie's view, nor do I have anything beyond N to offer. What do you think, Ernie?

Before I wrap up, I wanted to raise one other question related to Ernie's complex vector belief field. In Reality CheckErnie defined "imaginary beliefs" as

Belief A is imaginary if A is true if and only if someone believes A is true

As an example of an imaginary belief, Ernie offered "Money is valuable." Later, he said,

So, in these terms, I fully concede that belief in God is partly imaginary.The question is, can Alan offer compelling evidence that it isn't really complex?

It seems to me that given this definition of imaginary beliefs, the truth of imaginary beliefs is just about as contingent as is possible. But as we saw earlier, Ernie suggested the definition of divinity to be "that which is ultimately, non-contingently real". Ernie, can you clarify?

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