JT on Faith and Evidence

JT on Faith and Evidence December 6, 2011

JT Eberhard spoke at Grand Valley State University on Thursday, giving a talk entitled “Dear Christian.” It was about all of the standard arguments he has heard for Christianity and his answers to them. And the audience was most made up of Christians from the GVSU Campus Crusade for Christ, who co-sponsored the event.

After his talk there was a lot of questions from the crowd, most of them rehashing tired and incoherent arguments that we’ve all heard a thousand times. And I thought JT made a good point of responding to questions about basing one’s beliefs on faith by asking the questioners how they would respond to a Muslim or a Hindu making the same argument. After all, adherents to all other religions, which they consider to be false, defend their beliefs on the basis of faith as well.

The problem, as I’ve pointed out many times, is that faith defends all positions equally well and thus defends none at all. Faith provides no way to discern a true claim from a false one. A Christian who asserts the validity of his beliefs on the basis of faith has no way of disputing a Muslim or a Wiccan who asserts the validity of their beliefs on the basis of faith without undermining the validity of faith itself.

This is not true of science and reason, of course. In geology, for example, if you have two possible explanations for the depositional environment of a given formation you have a clear way of figuring out which one is true, of discerning the valid explanation from the invalid one. You do this through logical reasoning; each of the explanations will have a set of implications, usually phrased as predictions — if a given sandstone formation was deposited underwater, for example, it will have certain features that will not exist if it was deposited in a terrestrial environment, and vice versa. Each explanation leads logically to those predictions and we can then tell which one is the valid explanation by which one predicts the nature of the evidence better.

This is not possible when one makes a faith argument. If faith is a valid defense of Christianity, it is just as valid a defense of Islam, Hinduism or Zoroastrianism.

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  • matty1

    I don’t think the based on faith thing is an argument in the sense of something that’s meant to convince others. It’s more the emotional reaction of someone too stuborn to admit they lost the argument.

    “I have no defensible reasons to hold this opinion but I’m going to anyway so there” that’s faith

  • If faith is a valid defense of Christianity, it is just as valid a defense of Islam, Hinduism or Zoroastrianism.

    Exactly. Strangely enough, the world is full of people who scoff at others who are doing exactly what they do: taking things on faith. The net result is that every faith tradition is opposed by a majority of the world’s people.

  • “Is there an idea so ludicrous, so at odds with reality, that faith cannot be advanced in its defense?”

    From “Dear Christian”. 😉

    Thanks, Ed. You flatter me.

  • PS – If anybody’s interested in the talk, I posted the transcript.

  • MikeMa

    JT, good points. I have heard and rejected faith as a basis for anything since I was a teenager arguing with my catholic buddy about death. Nice to have a well stated argument.

  • “Is there an idea so ludicrous, so at odds with reality, that faith cannot be advanced in its defense?”

    In fairness to the theists, I think most of them would (quietly) acknowledge that they’re expected to have faith in things that are UNproven, not in things that are DISproven.

    Also, while there may be no use in having faith in the existence of God(s), Heaven, Hell, etc., there are many circumstances where people who are trying to do the right thing have to rely on faith that their actions will do someone some good, because there’s no evidence (yet) to support that belief. Case in point: corporate whistle-blowers.

  • Having grown up overseas and being exposed to several different religions, I had always goggled in amazement at people for whom the idea of different religions existing just never entered into their heads, never mind the implications of what it means that one of those non-Christian religions is followed by 90+% of the people of a given country.

    The question of “WWJD” makes almost no sense in most of the countries that I lived in. Jesus is only slightly more understood in Japan than Vishnu and barely makes a blip in Taiwan against the Jade Emperor. When posing the question, “What would Jesus do?” most Japanese and Taiwanese would likely respond with, “Who?” or, “Jesus isn’t important,” or merely, “I don’t believe in Jesus.”

    Of course, people in Taiwan and Japan know that there is a world out there with many religions that are not theirs. They understand, too, that other people can’t all be wrong about religion, and they can’t all be right about religion. They are likely to accept the view that their explanation makes sense to them (no matter how blinkered it might be), and questions about the correctness of religion therefore make little to no sense in that context.

    Put in another perspective, I have come to believe that the Christian viewpoint (especially in the US) has become too complacent in its position of implicit popular adherence that the arguments of its adherents have become shallow, failing to recognize the difference between belief and reality; mistaking their cultural presumptions of the divine as something that can be (and should be) advanced to the ultimate ends.

    For any of you who’ve read Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, I think you know what I’m talking about.

  • Michael Heath

    Faith is an infantile character defect. We need to be aggressive in deriding faith as a failure in character, because it demonstrably and systemically results in sub-optimal results when primarily relied upon.

    What I find interesting is how many of the most financially successful religionists compartmentalize faith. They do so by discarding with it altogether in business while relying on faith when considering religious matters. It’s particularly annoying because these people then point to their business success as an argument we should concede their religious beliefs when in fact even their example argues to discard with faith to better assure success.

    As a jock, I think the biggest harm sports does to our culture is celebrate faith. Sometimes athletes and sports pundits even describe certain successes as examples of faith overcoming adversity when a credible analysis reveals faith had nothing to do with said success.

  • As a jock, I think the biggest harm sports does to our culture is celebrate faith.

    I totally agree. When athletes shove their “faith” in people’s faces, and when churches join hands with sports teams, they poison their religions with the most odious features of athletics: tribalism, groupthink, in-group-vs-out-group identity politics, contempt for intellectuals and intellectual discourse, contempt for individualism (exacerbated by unearned social privilege), hype drowning out thought, and flat-out bullying, both physical and social. Organized religion has too much of that sort of thing without the arrogant stupid jocks.

  • Cue the inevitable “you just have faith in science” non-response.

  • “In fairness to the theists, I think most of them would (quietly) acknowledge that they’re expected to have faith in things that are UNproven, not in things that are DISproven.”

    People rising from the dead and walking on water.

    JT

  • Modusoperandi

    JT Eberhard, surf zombies?

  • Abby Normal

    I’ve said it before, I’m almost as big a fan of faith as I am of reason. I don’t accept faith as a means to knowledge, but as a driver to action. I have faith that people can achieve more than they can predict through reason. Reason is too limiting, requires too much caution. At some point one must do what’s unreasonable. Attempting what appears to be impossible and attacking it with faith that I will succeed has allowed me to do more, achieve more, experience more than a fully reasoned life would ever have allowed. Throw yourself into a relationship, even though the overwhelming majority fail. Open a business you love, even though most go under. Take on the big guy, try to right what’s wrong, fight the good fight, even though you probably won’t make a difference. Do it all with faith that you will succeed even though there’s no reasonable foundation for believing you will be the exception.

    The way I see it, discarding faith is as big a mistake as ignoring reason. Ideally they work together to take us further than either one alone. When I come to my end I don’t care to look back and say “I led a reasonable life.” I will look back and say, “I made my life extraordinary!”

  • harold

    I pretty much agree with all of what is said here, although trying to talk other people out of religion is not a big thing for me. (Trying to talk them out of jerky behaviors, yes, trying to talk them out of abstract beliefs and emotional support mechanisms, not my major concern).

    (Part of it is that I don’t think the beliefs always drive the behaviors. In the case of the very young, maybe. Most people who stick to a bigoted religion would be bigots anyway, though, and they chose a religion that reflects their preferences. The post-modern version of Christianity as narcissistic wish fulfillment with no responsibility for them, and callous harshness toward everyone else, that the religious right “believes” in, is fairly new. My impression is that they invented it to fit their own psychology.)

    However, I must take mild issue with this –

    Simple: A self-replicating molecule formed when a series of fatty acids congealed into vesicles which, made permeable by convection cycles in a prebiotic Earth, trapped nucleotide monomers which self-ligated via hydrogen bonds and covalent bond ligation, polymerizing within the vesicle to form a primitive cell after which the surrounding ions increased the osmotic pressure allowing the cell to acquire lipids from other vesicles, which catalyzed competition and, thus, evolution. See? Simple.

    Obviously I think that life on earth had a natural origin, obviously I get what you’re doing here, and obviously much of what is here is likely to be part of a good model of abiogenesis, when one emerges.

    Having said that, we don’t have a good complete model of abiogenesis right now. It’s an exciting field of study, but we have to be aware of how many challenges remain.

  • harold

    In fact there’s a typo, as well as the unintentionally but potentially confusing representation of abiogenesis as something that we know the details of already.

    A self-replicating molecule formed when a series of fatty acids congealed into vesicles…

    That should be “cell”, not “molecule”. The paragraph overall briefly summarizes a highly hypothetical scenario of how something that could be termed a cell could have formed.

    Not trying to be pedantic here. The paragraph does tersely summarize major aspects of mainstream hypotheses of the origin of at least the cell membrane and genome, or at least, allude to the major elements.

  • DaveL

    Having said that, we don’t have a good complete model of abiogenesis right now. It’s an exciting field of study, but we have to be aware of how many challenges remain.

    I agree, but I’d like to emphasize that our studies of abiogenesis have already yielded fruits far and above anything creationists can offer. For one thing, we’ve got a set of specific questions we expect a proper model of abiogenesis to provide answers for – answers backed up with evidence, answers that couldn’t just as easily apply if observed reality were different. What are the origins of biological chirality? Which came first – metabolism, encapsulation, or replication?

  • briandavis

    @13 Abby Normal

    I don’t accept faith as a means to knowledge, but as a driver to action … Throw yourself into a relationship, even though the overwhelming majority fail. Open a business you love, even though most go under.

    This sounds more like a description of taking a calculated risk than a description of the faith the religious talk about. Saying “I’ll try even though I’ll probably fail” is a far cry from “No amount of evidence will ever convince me that I’m failing.”

  • organon

    I have to agree. You attempt to succeed in a relationship because you know it is possible and has been done plenty of times, and the value of succeeding in it so heavily outweighs the costs if you fail. Likewise with the other scenarios. Pursuing the possible because of its value to you, and knowing that success is only a possibility rather than guaranteed or easy does not qualify as faith. Also, I’m not sure of the conception of logic and its proper use that would lead one to the notion that logic is somehow limiting.

  • Abby Normal

    @17 & 18

    Perhaps our understanding of what faith means is different. I call faith any belief that is not based on evidence. I belive my current relationship will lead to marraige and a lifetime partnership. I have no proof. In fact every test I’ve run up until now, as in every relationship I’ve had, tells me it’s not going to go that way. But I have faith in us all the same.

  • harold

    Dave L –

    I completely agree with your comment.

  • John Phillips, FCD

    @Abby Normal, but for all the problems an individual might have with forming lasting relationships, you at least know that such relationships do occur quite often. After all, you only have to look around you for the evidence. Thus in this case, it is not quite the same as faith in a supernatural being, for which there is no evidence at all.