Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Enlightening Bug

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

Just as the holiday weekend was starting, Ernie posted Enlightenment?, his reponse to my Dark Forebodings posts, and followed up today with Of Truth and Trust. Tonight, I will try to address only the earlier post.

First, let me quickly address Ernie's challenge to explain the historical impact, ongoing relevance and positive social good associated with Christianity. I believe all of those can be explained without reference to or reliance on a deity, just as the corresponding effects of other religions can be so explained. That is not to say that each religion has had the same impact, relevence and social good as all the rest, just as various religions differ in the historical accuracy and internal coherency of their sacred writings and in the evil done by their adherents. While atheism does not have any sort of scripture as a basis for comparison, the social impacts (both good and bad) have similar explanations and the same could be said about various political ideologies.

Ernie questions whether I have

grasped my point that "justified belief" requires:

  1. honest examination of all relevant evidence
  2. a choice of paradigm to determine what is "honest" and "relevant"
  3. axiomatic, non-pardigmatic belief to tell us which paradigms are worth trusting

I think part of our problem is that you sometimes felt I was arguing against (I).Nothing could be further from the truth...

Using that framework I would have thought our difficulties were with (II), not (I). The time we spent developing a common epistemic framework was aimed at (II) and (III), and while we apparently have some work remaining there, I think it has been clear for awhile that that was something we needed to develop.

Contrary to Ernie's suggest that I "didn't seem to recognize that [my] selection of evidence itself depended upon a very specific paradigm (II), whose underlying assumptions [I] didn't seem to either be aware of, or consider worth questioning", this was something that I spent a great deal of time thinking about before leaving Christianity, as was the connection between trust and knowledge. The assumptions that I had not bothered questioning were those that I held while still a Christian. The difficulty that I have with subjective forms of evidence is not an unthinking dismissal of their worth, but a recognition of the low signal-to-noise ratio they possess. I would claim that neither objective nor subjective forms of evidence are sufficiently strong to warrant belief in Christianity (depending, as always, on exactly what specific assertions are wrapped up in that label).

Ernie suggests the existence of a love->trust->knowledge chain. I have no problem with the trust->knowledge link. The love->trust connection does not make sense to me in this context. For example, the trust I have in the process of empirically-tested, peer-reviewed science requires no love that I can recognize. Based on Ernie's query about my love of truth, I expect he might say that in science, scientists' love of truth is the basis for the trust I place in them. But the rules of the game of science work regardless of whether individuals love the truth or whether they simply love to win the game. "Love" then comes to mean nothing more than "motivation".

Thus, when I read "The best test of a community's viability is both what and how well they love", it seems almost tautological, in just the same way that "survival of the fittest" seems tautological. Communities motivated to do that which increases viability will generally be more viable. So, given that Christianity has survived for two millenia, we should not be surprised if the practices it advocates lead to viability. (Consider this contrast with Mithraism, a competitor to Christianity that did not survive.) We need to be careful about what conclusions we draw from that viability, and that is where I am concerned about Ernie's paradigm as I (poorly) understand it.

Ernie, if you want to try to explain the "love connection" again, feel free. So far it's not working.

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