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May 27, 2010

Religion and evidence-7: Uniqueness and the problem of induction

(For the complete series of posts on religion and evidence, see here.)

In the previous post, I argued that under the rules of logic, existence claims placed the burden of proof on the person making the claim to provide evidence in support of it, while universal claims required the person disputing it to provide evidence. In the case of 'god exists', which is clearly an existence claim, the burden of proof is on the believer. Similarly the claim 'there is no god' is a universal claim and again the burden of proof (or disproof in this case) is on the believer.

It could be argued that the logic argument can be turned around, and that the statement that 'a natural explanation exists for this phenomenon' is an existence claim and that 'no natural explanation exists' is a universal claim, and so positive evidence has to be provided in support of the claim that an explanation exists. But as I said in the previous post, the symmetry is not exact. An existence claim for an entity (like an electron or god) is qualitatively different from the claim of existence for an explanation or theory.

But suppose for the sake of furthering the discussion that we ignore this difference and ask what evidence we can produce that a natural explanation exists for the alleged miracle. In the absence of producing an actual direct alternative explanation, the only evidence that can be supplied is historical, that it has been the case that event after event that were once thought to be inexplicable and thus miraculous have subsequently been found to have natural explanations. Furthermore, one never sees medical miracles in which (say) an amputated limb has grown back, which would really confound all expectations. All the medical miracle claims are of extremely subtle forms where the cures do not obviously violate any scientific laws and are not obviously incompatible with natural explanations.

Of course, all this historical evidence cannot prove that the current claim of a miracle is false because of the well-known problem of induction. The problem of induction says that there is no logical reason to think that just because some pattern of events has been invariably followed in the past, that the pattern will continue into the future. As an example, whenever I have let go of something in the past, it has always fallen down. Does that mean that the next time I let go of something it will certainly fall down? I may be fully convinced that it will, but there is no logical reason why it should, just as there is no logical reason as to why the Earth will continue to spin on its axis tomorrow.

The Vatican's chief medical expert was implicitly appealing to this when he said that, "the miracle is in the particular, in the exceptional; statistics cannot prove or disprove that singular cause-and-effect relationship." (Jacalyn Duffin, Medical Miracles (2009), p. 187). One of the features of scientific investigations is its repeatability and predictability. Miracles, by definition, are one-off events defying our expectations of regularity.

But of course none of us go around in a state of panic wondering if things will suddenly fall upwards or the Earth will stop spinning. The reason for our calm is that we use common-sense logical rules that enable us to arrive at conclusions that we are confident of even in the absence of proof. What we routinely do in such situations is to place the burden of proof on those claiming an exemption to the expected pattern to provide evidence as to why we should believe their claim. The reason we are amused by the iconic cartoon of a man carrying a sign "The world will end tomorrow" is because there is no reason to think that it will. Since the world has not ended so far, we feel safe in going to sleep tonight thinking that the sun will rise again in the morning.

In the case of medical miracles, what the weight of this historical evidence does is establish a prima facie case that since so many previous miracles have turned out to have had natural explanations, the latest miracle likely has a natural explanation too. To maintain that the latest case is an exception to this trend is to shift the burden of proof back to the people making the miraculous claim.

Science operates on the principle of methodological naturalism as described by George Gaylord Simpson (Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944), p. 76):

The progress of knowledge rigidly requires that no non-physical postulate ever be admitted in connection with the study of physical phenomena. We do not know what is and what is not explicable in physical terms, and the researcher who is seeking explanations must seek physical explanations only.

Religious people may dislike methodological naturalism because it seems to shut out miracles but there is no denying that it has delivered the goods when it comes to advancing our knowledge. Abandoning it in order to allow us to say that inexplicable events are caused by god's intervention (which is really what miracles are claimed to be) is to risk losing a lot without gaining anything in return. By all means religious believers can choose to call inexplicable events acts of god. But it is perfectly reasonable and even desirable for scientists to reject such explanations if they are proffered without evidence in support of the existence of an agency that caused the event.

Philosopher David Hume in his essay On Miracles laid out a rule-of-thumb for determining how to judge whether an event is a miracle, saying "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."

So applying Hume's rule, if one has a cure from an illness that is inexplicable on the basis of current knowledge, which would one consider to be more miraculous: the belief that god intervened, or its falsehood, that god did not intervene and there was a natural cause?

It seems to me that in the absence of evidence for the existence of some supernatural causation, it is perfectly rational and not at all unscientific to take the position that medical 'miracles' of the type described by Duffin are either the product of current deficiencies in knowledge or are improbable (but not impossible) events, and are not miracles in the religious sense in which the word is normally used.

POST SCRIPT: My article in The Chronicle of Higher Education

I was surprised to learn that my article The New War Between Science and Religion was the most viewed, emailed, and commented article. There were 170 (!) comments the last time I checked.

I received a nice little note of approval from Sir Harold Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry for his work on Fullerenes, which are molecules that consist of 60 atoms, all of them carbon, that are connected in a manner that in one form (commonly known as 'Buckyballs') looks like the geodesic domes constructed by the architect R. Buckminster Fuller. In following up, I found this excellent interview where Kroto talks about what motives we should have for doing something, competitiveness, science and the enlightenment, and the danger we face from irrational religious thinking by people who occupy important decision making positions.

May 26, 2010

Religion and evidence-6: Is it unscientific to reject miraculous claims?

It is undoubtedly true that what may be considered a miracle at one time may not be thought so later as science advances. In fact the steady replacement of the miraculous and the inexplicable with the natural and scientific has been the recurring pattern of history. This pattern has been so influential in shaping the mindset of the scientific and medical community that the word 'miracle' is now seen as simply another label for a current state of ignorance. As Jacalyn Duffin, author of the book Medical Miracles (2009) and who has been involved in the process by which the Catholic Church certifies a medical miracle as part of the process of canonizing a saint, says:

In Western medical tradition, all diseases are natural; therefore, all cures must be natural too, even if we cannot explain them yet, or ever. (p. 186)

[S]ome treating physicians expressed doubts about the entire [canonization] process; similarly, a few experts hesitated to pronounce on the cures, as if cooperation would constitute a betrayal their own belief systems. Their skepticism originates in the built-in commitment of Western medicine to the idea that diseases and their cures are not, and can never be, of divine origin. (p. 185)

They are confident that modern techniques of examination would have exposed the majority of the diagnoses as honest mistakes or frauds. (p. 186)

Duffin sees this attitude as dogmatic and even unscientific, and appeals to the methods and philosophy of science to support her argument.

They may be right, but their objections are metahistorical, even presentist. Medical scientists are uncomfortable with relative truth; for them, somebody must be lying or misled. This posture flows from the commitment to natural if unknown explanations cited above, and it has been a characteristic of medicine since antiquity. (p. 186)

But the so-called evidence-based method cannot really address the questions that are most pressing. On the one hand, as the Vatican's chief medical expert explained, the miracle is in the particular, in the exceptional; statistics cannot prove or disprove that singular cause-and-effect relationship. Furthermore, neither God, nor the elusive and as-yet-unknown natural explanations, which my medical colleagues are convinced must exist, can be falsified. The possibility of falsification is used to design experiments and is considered a hallmark of the scientific method. Both are beliefs, and they fall outside the realm of scientific method as we know it. Because the one belief utterly pervades the scientific community, it seems not to be a belief, but a "fact." (p. 187)

Ironically, as explained above, this confidence in the existence of an unseen and unfathomable natural explanation is a belief masquerading as fact, which cannot be falsified any more than the proposition that God exists. In this context, Woodward wrote, "to assert that miracles cannot occur is no more rational - and no less an act of faith - than to assert that they can and do happen." (p. 187)

For doctors, the medical canon is immersed in an antideistic tradition, as described above: only nature - not God - can ever be the cause or cure of diseases. For religion, all plausible scientific explanations, be they human or natural, must first be eliminated before the case becomes a contender as a reliable sign of holiness and transcendence or holiness. In both cases, what is left is that which is unknown; religious observers are prepared to call it God. (p. 189)

The problem with Duffin's argument is that falsifiability has long been shown to be untenable as a demarcation criterion to distinguish science from non-science, for reasons that I will not go into at this time. (See for example The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, The Demise of the Demarcation Problem by Larry Laudan, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes by Imre Lakatos, and my own book Quest for Truth for criticisms of falsifiability.) Even Karl Popper, the original creator of the falsifiability demarcation criterion in his highly influential 1953 essay Science: Conjectures and Refutations, later backed away from the strong formulation of it that is still used by most scientists and by Duffin in her book.

Duffin's dependence on the familiar claim that belief in god and non-belief in god are on an equal footing since "neither God, nor the elusive and as-yet-unknown natural explanations, which my medical colleagues are convinced must exist, can be falsified", runs into problems because the symmetry is not exact for two reasons. The first is that treating existence claims ('god exists') and universal claims ('god does not exist') on an equal footing is unjustifiable in terms of logic. Existence claims cannot be disproven but only proven and require evidence in support of them, while universal claims cannot be proven, only disproven, and thus require evidence against. When applied to this particular case, both require the production of evidence that god exists. In the absence of such evidence, treating the claims of miracles with skepticism, far from being unscientific, is perfectly rational.

The second is that claims for the existence of an actual entity (in this case god) are qualitatively different from the claims that an explanation exists. The former is tangible while the latter is not. It is the difference between the claim that an electron exists and the claim that a theory of electron behavior exists.

But there is one interesting point yet to be addressed and that is how one evaluates claims of uniqueness, as suggested by the Vatican's chief medical expert when he said that, "the miracle is in the particular, in the exceptional; statistics cannot prove or disprove that singular cause-and-effect relationship."

Next and final post in this series: Uniqueness and the problem of induction

POST SCRIPT: Michael Specter on what science has achieved and the danger of science denial

May 25, 2010

Religion and evidence-5: Miracles without god?

Jacalyn Duffin, author of the book Medical Miracles (2009), has an interesting professional history. A hematologist by training, she was asked in 1986 to analyze blood samples taken eight years previously from someone whose name and medical history were kept from her. Under her microscope she found all the signs of a kind of leukemia that usually results in death in at most a couple of years and so she was surprised to be later told that the patient was still alive and well. She was further surprised to discover that her analysis had been part of the process for the canonization of a would-be saint, Mere Marie-Marguerite d'Youville, founder of the order of Grey Nuns in Canada. The recovery of the leukemia patient was being credited to that potential saint as a miracle. Eventually, Duffin's expert testimony that the recovery was scientifically inexplicable formed a crucial part of the successful canonization effort, and she was invited to Rome for the actual ceremony conducted by Pope John Paul II in 1990.

This event started her on a new career path as a medical historian. Her book has some interesting background on the canonization process, which came into its modern form with Prospero Lambertini who in 1740 became Pope Benedict XIV. He recognized the important role that science and medicine should play in adjudicating miracles and before becoming pope served in the office of promotor fidei (promoter of the faith), more popularly known as the 'devil's advocate', whose role was to find holes in the case being made for sainthood. In 1983, Pope John Paul II reduced the size of this office and its importance has been greatly reduced in recent times.

Benedict XIV was the one who codified the canonization process currently in use. The process starts with a meticulous examination to make sure the person possessed 'heroic virtues' and led an exemplary life. If that is accepted, the person is recognized as being 'venerable'. The next step is 'beatification' which requires at least one miracle. For the final elevation to sainthood at least one more miracle is required. (p. 16)

Perhaps because of her role in the successful process to canonize a saint, Duffin gained access to the files of more recent Catholic saints and her book examines the role of miraculous healing in the canonization process. In the concluding chapter of her book, she says that when she speaks of her work she is frequently asked whether she believes in miracles. After years of hesitation, she says that she now answers comfortably "Yes, I do." (p. 183)

What makes this notable is that Duffin is not only not a Catholic, she describes herself as an atheist (p. 5). So what does it mean to say that one is an atheist who believes in miracles? She recognizes that this is a conundrum, that to acknowledge the existence of miracles is to challenge her own medical identity and her scientific outlook.

She explains that her belief in miracles is a 'historian's belief' and explains what that means. In the course of her research, she has been impressed with the careful scrutiny that the Catholic Church carries out to ensure that what it certifies as miracles have genuinely passed rigorous tests that include the best testimony of scientific and medical experts, as well as of witnesses and contemporary records of the would-be saint. She has not found evidence of trickery and deception. As she says:

I believe in the good will and honesty of these witnesses, be they educated or illiterate, religious or atheist. I believe in the accuracy of the scribes and translators. I believe in the plausible wonder that these tales meant to the players and the people involved in their collection, transmission, preservation, and use as evidence. I believe in the remarkably careful scrutiny conducted by the Church officials with the help of the best science and medicine available at the time. These stories are true. As a result, they are indeed miracles. Rather than appealing to an abstract philosophical definition of "what is a miracle?," this ensemble defines the concept pragmatically: these events were miracles for the people involved. (p. 183)

"[T]he "miracle" - the thing of wonder - had nothing to do with breaking natural law by replacing death with immortality; rather, it lay in the contemporary inability to explain the recovery." (p. 185) (my italics)

There is nothing wrong in believing, as Duffin does, that the entire process was done in good faith and due diligence by the Catholic Church. Outright lies and frauds are usually easily discovered and the cautious Catholic Church would undoubtedly take steps to weed out fraudulent claims to spare themselves any future embarrassment that someone they made a saint became so under false pretenses. But assigning the label of 'miracle' to events that are inexplicable at the time of their investigation, as Duffin does, is problematic. The reason is that the word miracle is not usually used only in the temporary and historical way that Duffin uses, but also carries with it connotations of the existence of a causal agency that can transcend and overturn the laws of nature. When the Catholic Church certifies that an event is a miracle, they are not merely acknowledging current inexplicability. They are clearly attributing it to god's intervention via the saint. Otherwise why would it constitute evidence for sainthood? They may hedge their bets and allow for the possibility that later scientific developments may nullify the miracle but until such time, they believe that god is responsible. A 'godless miracle' would be an oxymoron in the eyes of the church.

In the next post, I will explore further the reasons why I disagree with Duffin's use of the word 'miracle' to describe the events she describes.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on miracles and sainthood

Richard Dawkins from Young Australian Skeptics on Vimeo

May 24, 2010

Religion and evidence-4: Incorruptibility of the bodies of saints

The existence of bodies which allegedly do not undergo decay after death (i.e. 'incorruptible bodies') was something I was made aware of only a few months ago but is apparently fairly well known in the religious community, especially among Catholics, and is taken as a miraculous sign from god. The Catholic Church used to make incorruptibility one of the possible criteria in support of claims for sainthood, and so exhumation of the bodies was once a regular part of the canonization process. But never having been a Catholic, I had been totally unaware of this until my friend drew my attention to it.

Even taking incorruptibility at face value as a deliberate act of god, I must admit that I found it a little odd as to why god would choose to perform such a bizarre and useless miracle. After all, what is the point in preventing the decay of a buried corpse? What is god (or the dead person for that matter) going to gain by doing it other than just to show his power, as a kind of magic trick?

In fact, this kind of interest in dead bodies adds further weight to the idea of Christianity as a kind of death cult. After all the most recognizable symbol of that religion is the crucifix, with Jesus looking agonized while dying on the cross. The cross itself, a symbol of torture and death, is worn around the necks of believers. (Comedian Lenny Bruce said, "If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.") The whole communion rite, with its eating of the flesh and blood of Jesus (whether symbolically or otherwise), signifies a preoccupation with death and dead bodies that is more than a little strange and positively creepy.

Devout Catholics tend to believe in the miraculous powers of the 'relics' of holy people and these relics often consist of bits of their dead bodies, although items of clothing are also used. As Jacalyn Duffin writes in her book Medical Miracles (2009), "Regular visitors to Catholic churches expect to find the bodies of saints and would-be saints displayed and venerated as holy relics… Beyond the miraculous preservation of the corpse itself might be many healings attributed to touching or seeing it." (p. 102)

But getting back to the incorruptibility of the corpses of saintly Catholics, at least it was offered as evidence for god and so needs to be examined. So what is going on here? Is it a genuine miracle? But as is usually the case with miraculous claims, it becomes less credible as one examines it more closely.

One fact is that the corpses are not as naturally free from corruption as advertised. Some of them have been embalmed, others have had masks put on them, and yet others have had certain features touched up. But even the cases of merely reduced corruption can be due to reasons that have nothing to do with miracles. Although the examples given are for prominent Catholics, bodies other than Catholic saints have been found in similar states of reduced decomposition.

This is not to say that it is fully understood why some bodies seem to decay at a slower rate than others. It is known that the rate of decay can vary widely depending on conditions. Mary Roach's humorously macabre book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers describes, among other things, how forensic crime investigators research this important question that gives them valuable information to help them establish the time of death of murder victims. They do this by strewing bodies all over the place under all kinds of conditions and seeing how they decompose. The rate of decay can vary widely depending on a whole host of reasons.

As one observer writes, "For reasons still poorly understood, corpses don't invariably decompose into potting soil as many assume. Instead, the fat tissue, usually in the presence of moisture, sometimes turns into a solid, soaplike substance that makes the cadaver look like something you'd find in a wax museum." The soaplike substance referred to is called adipocere and this article explains the conditions under which it forms and why it makes bodies highly resistant, but not totally immune, to decomposition.

Another fact to be considered is that reduced decomposition may not be as rare as people think. Most of the time we have no reason to exhume bodies unless for something like a criminal investigation. But the Catholic Church did have a reason. Since it was the Catholic Church that used incorruptibility as one of the criteria for sainthood, that meant that they were responsible for many of the exhumations. Since the reputation for great holiness tends to grow with time and after the death of the person, getting at the bodies of potential saints and removing parts for relics required exhumation. Thus the fact that the bodies of pious Catholic are over-represented in the records of "incorruptible" bodies may be due to simple sampling errors. If we randomly exhumed bodies and examined them, we may find that somewhat preserved bodies are fairly common and uncorrelated with religion and thus not really 'miracles' in the conventional use of the word.

All these facts have led even the Catholic Church to no longer consider the incorruptibility of a body as credible evidence of saintliness. As Duffin writes in her study of the church's policies on sainthood, "Eventually, the finding of miraculous preservation was deemed to be indistinguishable from mummification induced by environmental circumstances of humidity and temperature. Because the finding [of incorruptibility] could apply to the remains of people who had not lived exemplary lives, it constituted insufficient evidence for saintliness." (p. 102)

But Duffin has some interesting things to say about miracles that I will examine in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Door-to-door evangelists

From That Mitchell and Webb Look.

May 21, 2010

Religion and evidence-3: Evidence-based belief

One of the interesting things about letting people know that you are an atheist is that you learn quite a lot of new stuff from religious people who try to persuade you that there is more to this life than a material world that runs according to scientific laws that are either known or yet to be discovered. The arguments that you hear run from one extreme of highly sophisticated theology (consisting of mostly esoteric words seemingly designed to avoid saying anything concrete) to the middle ground of believing in a supernatural power because of miracles (events that seemingly defy scientific laws and explanations) to the other extreme of people claiming to hear voices in their heads, that god actually speaks to them.

Of these three broad groups, to me the most interesting and reasonable is the middle group that believes because of miracles. It is much harder to have a reasonable discussion with the people at the two extremes.

The highly sophisticated theologians start by pretty much defining god in such a way that he does not do anything at all (which is why I call them 'religious atheists') and thus is immune from examination. For them, this slacker god seems to be just an evidence-free idea and one wonders why they bother to invoke it at all, unless they are emotionally and psychologically unable to accept the non-existence of a divine entity, however ineffectual that entity might be. Sometimes, like John Lennox, they use this slacker god as merely a rhetorical device, to build a bunker in intellectual territory within which they can hunker down and defend their god from refutation by atheists. But once they have done so and their atheist opponents have moved on, they emerge to make extraordinary, evidence-free claims for their god that differ little from the miraculous claims of more naïve believers.

At the other extreme, what can one say to people who say they believe because they hear voices in their heads that they think is god speaking to them? One can suggest that they seek treatment because hearing voices that others cannot discern is a symptom of psychosis and needs to be investigated and treated before it takes a turn for the worse and leads to danger for themselves and others. But such advice, however well-intentioned, is not likely to be well-received by religious people and I do not recommend offering it unless you know the person really well.

One can, however, talk with the middle group of believers because such believers are at least appealing to evidence, to the existence of phenomena that seem to defy scientific principles, and one can have a reasonable discussion about whether the phenomena are actually miracles or not by looking at the evidence proffered and seeing if there are alternative and non-supernatural explanations.

(I include in this group only those who offer specific events, such as the claim that in one case transubstantiation of the wafer the wafer during the communion service actually occurred and the wafer actually became the body of Jesus with all the characteristics of physical flesh and the wine became his globules of blood. I exclude those who simply assert that the whole of creation is so miraculous that it must have been done by god. These latter kinds of claims are so broad that one cannot even begin to address them. The people who make them have essentially rejected science altogether and there is no point talking with them because there is no common ground.)

On my trip to Sri Lanka recently I had a long and thoughtful conversation about atheism with an old friend. He has known me from the days when I was a religious believer and we had both attended the same ecumenical church youth group. He was still a Catholic but had been reading my blog and was curious as to what had caused me to abandon my religious faith. During our conversation, he offered as evidence for religion the fact that their religious faith had been the basis for courageous action for people such as Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela.

I was not aware that Mandela was especially religious or had claimed that his religion had driven his actions. I read later that his mother converted to Christianity when he was seven, his father died when he was nine, and he was sent to missionary schools. Mandela is grateful for the values he learned from his religious education and is definitely not anti-religion, but it is not clear that he was driven by religion the way that King clearly was and Tutu is.

But that is incidental because, irrespective of the specific case of Mandela, no one will deny that there have been a huge number of people (both well-known and anonymous) who have been inspired to do great and noble things, to fight for justice and the poor and oppressed, because they felt that god called them to do so. My friend pointed to such people as evidence for god.

But this been discussed many times and is an old argument. There is no evidence that religious people are any more moral than non-religious people (see also the book Moral Minds (2006) by Marc Hauser) and for every person to whom we can point who has been inspired by their religion to do great and good things, we can point to others who have been inspired to do truly awful things.

What was new to me and more interesting was when my friend later sent me an email that had photos of the bodies of 16 Catholic saints that when exhumed had revealed that they had not undergone the usual degeneration that we think rapidly follows death. (See here for some images.) He said that this was evidence for god.

Now this is a concrete claim of evidence that one can address and I will examine this phenomenon in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and transubstantiation

What might happen if transubstantiation really changed the wafer and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus?

May 20, 2010

Religion and evidence-2: Belief in belief

In their study of people's religious beliefs, Michael Shermer and Frank Sulloway identified the seven strongest predictors in favor of belief in god:

  1. being raised in a religious manner
  2. parents’ religiosity
  3. lower levels of education
  4. being female
  5. a large family
  6. lack of conflict with parents
  7. being younger

Four of the factors that favor being religious applied in my own case. I was raised in a conventionally religious manner. My parents were religious but not overly so. We went regularly to church but not every Sunday. We never said grace before meals or had family prayers or were otherwise openly devout. Religion was seen as a private thing and we did say individual prayers. Also in favor was that I was a younger (middle) child and had no conflicts with my easy-going parents.

The three factors that should have pushed me away from religion were that I was male, we were a small family (three children), and I had a higher than average education. So in my case, it seems to have been basically a toss-up as to whether I would end up religious or not.

I think that for a lot of people, whether they believe or not is based on whether they feel the need to believe in a god-like entity and whether they want to believe for whatever reason, perhaps even just to blend in with family and society. If the answer to either question is yes, then they will look for reasons to believe and will make up something that serves their needs.

Harold Kushner, for example, is a rabbi and writer who is perhaps best known for his book Why bad things happen to good people. In this recent NPR interview he discusses the problem of suffering, the major difficulty that religious believers have to confront.

If I, walking through the wards of a hospital, have to face the fact that either god is all-powerful but not kind or thoroughly kind and loving but not totally powerful, I would rather compromise god's power and affirm his love. So the conclusion, the theological conclusion, I came to is that god could have been all-powerful at the beginning but he chose to designate two areas of life off-limits to his power. He would not arbitrarily interfere with laws of nature. And secondly, god would not take away our freedom to choose between good and evil.

Note that after laying out what he see as the two possible options for god that explain the existence of suffering, Kushner declares that he gets to decide which kind of god he wants to believe in and thus can bring that god into existence. God seems to have no say in what kind of qualities he can have. Kushner emphasizes that he has arrived at what he calls a theological conclusion, as if that added weight to it, though what he has done seems to be purely self-indulgent wishful thinking. Is it any wonder that theology is such a useless discipline, capable of accommodating any and all wishes of those who want to believe? Kushner, for whatever reason, only wants to believe in a certain type of god and, presto, that is the god that exists. The interviewer does not ask the obvious question of the basis for that particular choice because when one is confronted with a 'person of faith', especially someone who seems as nice and humane as Kushner seems to be, it is impolite to ask exactly what that faith is based on.

Actually, the alternative that Kushner rejected, that god is all-powerful but not kind, makes a lot more sense logically. If you postulate a 'thoroughly kind and loving' god as Kushner wants, you then have to tie yourself up in all kinds of knots to explain the existence of suffering and evil and injustice. But if you postulate the existence of an omnipotent but evil god who enjoys toying with people's lives and making them suffer, everything makes a lot more sense and the otherwise intractable problem of why there is suffering goes away. An evil god is much more plausible than a loving god.

Kushner seems to be a fideist, a useful label that I came across while reading Michael Shermer's book How We Believe (2000). On page 9 Shermer describes what a fideist is by recounting an interview with someone who labels himself that way:

Martin Gardner, mathematician, former columnist for Scientific American, and one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement, is a believer who admits that the existence of God cannot be proved. He calls himself a fideist, or someone who believes in God for personal or pragmatic reasons, and defended his position to me in an interview: "As a fideist, I don't think there are any arguments that prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Even more than that, I agree with Unamuno that the atheists have the better arguments. So it is a case of quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds." Credo consolans, says Gardner – I believe because it is consoling.

The phenomenon of fideism seems similar to what Daniel Dennett describes as 'belief in belief' (Breaking the Spell, 2006), that while people deep down don't really believe in the existence of god, they somehow see belief in god as a good thing that they want to be a part of. So they find some reasons for believing. It seems to me that Kushner, like many religious believers, is a fideist, someone who believes because he needs to, and thus searches for something that he feels comfortable believing in. Such people seize upon a "quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds."

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on The Enemies of Reason

Part 1:

(Part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.)

May 19, 2010

Religion and evidence-1: Why people believe

The main reason that atheists deny that god exists is because there is no credible evidence for him/her/it. In trying to meet this challenge, religious people tend to split two ways, those who accept the need for evidence and those who think evidence is unnecessary for belief.

Ordinary religious believers tend to say that yes, they do so have evidence. When asked to specify what this evidence consists of, they tend to talk of personal experience of the presence of god, miracles, and things they consider to be deep and insoluble mysteries (like the origin of life or the universe). The problem is that what they mean by evidence is not anything that meets the normal standard of evidence in science or a court of law. It is not hard to show that these types of evidence are really weak. After all, personal 'experiences' of god's presence are indistinguishable from hallucinations, delusions, or plain wishful thinking. Close scrutiny of miraculous events usually result in them turning out to have plausible material explanations. And the origins of life and the universe are no longer deep mysteries but merely scientific puzzles that are being systematically investigated.

Deep down, religious people must know that these kinds of evidence are not convincing and this is why there are desperate attempts to find evidence that is more concrete, such as conducting studies on the efficacy of prayer or the claim that the Shroud of Turin is genuine, or the search for the remnants of Noah's Ark (the latest claim of success occurring on April 27, 2010), and other attempts to find things that corroborate claims in their religious texts.

Hovering over all these attempts is an unspoken paradox. If god did want to reveal his existence to us, why does he choose such oblique and unconvincing ways to do so? Why not simply show himself openly? And if he does not want to reveal himself, why leave any clues around at all, like an inept criminal?

The more sophisticated theologians and philosophers realize that the kinds of evidence that are produced in favor of god can be easily shot down by skeptics and so now they don't even try. They tend to make the best of a bad situation by finding ways to pooh-pooh the whole notion of evidence, saying that we atheists are wrong to be tied to such mundane matters as material evidence or even raise the question of the actual existence of a god, and must open our eyes to appreciate the deep and sublime truths about the nature of god that evidence cannot touch.

This strikes me as total hogwash, the kind of pseudo-reasoning that only an intellectual can come up with. At least ordinary religious people realize the need for evidence, even if they cannot produce any credible evidence.

In Michael Shermer's book How We Believe (2000, p. 249) he quotes the results of a 1998 survey that he collaborated on with Frank Sulloway which explored the reasons that religious people give for belief. When people were asked why they themselves personally believed in god, the responses broke down as follows:

  1. Good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe (28.6%)
  2. Experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us (20.6%)
  3. It is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3%)
  4. The Bible says so (9.8%)
  5. Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something (8.2%)
  6. Raised to believe in God (7.2%)
  7. God answers prayers (6.4%)
  8. Without God there would be no morality (4.0%)
  9. God has a plan for the world, history, destiny, and us (3.8%)
  10. To account for good and avenge evil in the world (1.0%)

Responses 1, 2, and 7 can be grouped together as evidence-based reasons (at least they are considered to be evidence in the eyes of believers) and make up 55.8% of the responses. Responses 3, 5, 8, 9, and 10 can be grouped as emotional and wishful thinking reasons and make up 27.3%, while the remaining two reasons 4 and 6 (about 17%) are based on habit or deference to authority figures.

But when the same people are asked why they think other people believe in god, the results are as follows:

  1. It is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life. (26.3%)
  2. Raised to believe in God. (22.4%)
  3. Experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us. (16.2%)
  4. Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something. (13.0%)
  5. People believe because they fear death and the unknown. (9.1%)
  6. Good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe. (6.0%)
  7. The Bible says so (5.0%)
  8. Without God there would be no morality (3.5%)
  9. To account for good and avenge evil in the world (1.5%)
  10. God answers prayers (1.0%)

Emotions and wishful thinking (1, 4, 5, 8, 9) now rise to the top (53.4%), habit and authority (2, 7) comes second at 27.4%, while evidence (3, 6, 10) comes in last at 23.2%.

What is interesting about these results is that believers tend to think that while they themselves have rational reasons to believe in god, they think other people do so for emotional or irrational reasons. What that indicates to me is that even though religious believers value evidence, they either don't think that their evidence for god is convincing and/or they do not have much respect for the rationality of fellow-believers.

I recently received an email from someone who wanted to know the numbers in 'Einstein's constant'. Apart from the fact that there is no such thing as 'Einstein's constant' other than his cosmological constant term in general relativity which is not a numerical constant in the way that (say) pi is, the wording was a little strange. She was not asking for the constant but the numbers in it. When I queried her what she wanted it became clear that she wanted to explore the work of Ivan Panin, who converted to Christianity and spent his life looking for hidden messages in the Bible using numerical patterns. While one might wonder what kind of god would put secret coded messages in the Bible, the point is that my correspondent (and Panin) were looking for evidence in support of their beliefs. The very fact that they try so hard and have to look in such obscure places is a measure of how weak they themselves think the evidence for god is.

This also explains why there is so much pushback to the arguments of the new atheists that there is no reason or evidence to believe in god. Although religious believers say that faith in spite of contradictory evidence is central to belief, they really like to think that that only applies to other people, and that they themselves are rational people who do use evidence. It also explains why so many religious people and accommodationists keep telling us that we should not cast doubt on beliefs that other people find consoling.

I must say that I found the result that people tend to value reason and evidence as important bases for beliefs to be a good sign, a measure of success for the widespread adoption of Enlightenment values, even if the evidence they produce is so unconvincing.

POST SCRIPT: God's plan