What Will Save Us from Our Own Subjectivity?

school_athensOne thing that modern science and the Christian religion share is an appreciation for the fallibility of human beings. Both skepticism (which lies at the heart of the scientific method) and faith (particularly the Christian faith) recognize that as much as we want to be rational beings, we don’t always do the logical thing. We always have a mixture of motives in almost everything we do, and we can be highly skilled at fooling ourselves into believing what we want to believe. Both worldviews can agree to that. What they cannot agree on is how to get outside our own subjective thought processes. How can we rise above the unreliability of our own minds? What can save us from this inherent weakness?

Some would answer this question by logically analyzing the philosophical underpinnings of the two competing ideologies. Apologists championing the presuppositionalist method aim to do this. I see two major problems with this approach: 1) Using logic to analyze logic brings an obvious and inescapable limitation. You always have to start somewhere, with some basic assumptions already in place, and your starting point will invariably determine your destination. A logical argument can be internally cohesive and flawless, but that doesn’t ensure that its premises were correct to begin with. So this can only get you so far on your quest to escape your own subjectivity. 2) In their efforts to transcend the limitations of their own minds, these folks are retreating further into their own minds in order to solve a problem of which the mind itself is the cause. Not super bright, when you think about it that way :) But if a philosophical approach won’t do, what is our alternative?

We need some kind of test, some kind of objective assessment tool which stands apart from our own subjective wishes and philosophical presuppositions. We need a second opinion. For that, we turn to empirical observation. I’m submitting to you here two diagnostic questions which, if answered honestly, will reveal which of these two competing ideologies (Christianity or Skepticism)* we can trust to save us from our own personal biases. I’d love to hear from some of you about what other tests or questions you think would help us determine whether or not our worldview bears any resemblance to reality outside of our own minds.

Test 1: Can your ideology learn from its own mistakes? Does it even possess a means for revising its own beliefs or for discovering new things?

Five hundred years ago, those entrusted with healing the sick believed that illnesses came from an imbalance of the four humors (blood, black and yellow bile, and phlegm). This was a belief established by centuries of promulgation and reinforcement which led to relatively ineffective treatments like changing the temperature of your food or cutting open your veins and draining them of blood until you nearly pass out. Today you will not find a major hospital or university still operating from the four humors theory of disease because the medical profession has long since disposed of that belief. It learned from its mistakes as it increasingly came to rely on experimentation and empirical observation to validate its beliefs. In the mid- to late-19th century, Hippocrates’ ancient humorism was replaced by cellular pathology and eventually with the germ theory of disease, which has yielded a cornucopia of measurable improvements within the medical profession. Treatments today are significantly more effective in treating disease, and eventually gene therapy will likely eliminate many diseases before they can even take root. The forward march of progress continues, thanks to the scientific method, objective experimentation, and empirical observation.

What about a religion like Christianity? Can it learn from its mistakes and let go of its incorrect beliefs? Does it even possess a means for examining whether or not its beliefs are “correct?” Is it capable of acknowledging when it has made a mistake? Let’s take a handful of beliefs as a test case. Five hundred years ago, the church taught that it could not make a mistake because it is endowed with the infallible authority of God himself (by means of either the pope or else the councils of the church). Church leaders taught at that time that salvation from sin is impossible apart from the sacraments administered by the Church of Rome alone. They taught that sins must be paid for, at least in part, through acts of penance. They taught that the wafers and wine of communion literally become the body and blood of Jesus upon their ingestion. They baptized babies and prayed to dead saints. They taught that people who aren’t fully ready for heaven must first spend time in Purgatory to pay off their remaining sins, and that things done by the still-living can help expedite the departed’s passage into heaven.

Now fast-forward five hundred years and what do we find? Guess what? They still believe the same things today! Yeah, if you’re a Protestant, I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, wait a second! We don’t believe any of those things anymore! See, you’re wrong on every count!” Ah, but not so fast. Not only did those beliefs not die away (as the four humors theory of disease did), but those Christians who subscribe to those beliefs still outnumber those who don’t almost 2 to 1. The Catholic Church still teaches every one of those things. The only reason you were raised in a church that taught something else is because people were eventually chased out of the Church of Rome at the point of a sword. They had to start a totally new church, often at cost of great bloodshed. That’s the only way to “change” a religion which claims divine authority for its beliefs. In such an environment, new ways of thinking are rejected and their advocates are excommunicated—kicked out and forced to start something totally new.

If you don’t think your particular denomination suffers from this same rigid inflexibility, then I’d suggest an experiment: Choose a core belief of your group and challenge it, then see what happens next. For example, you could walk into a Southern Baptist church (the largest Protestant denomination, incidentally outnumbered by Catholics 75 to 1) and suggest that the Bible can be wrong about some things: Suggest that same-sex relationships are valid expressions of love, or that women should be allowed the same leadership positions as men, then see how they respond. Can dogma legitimately be questioned, or do people just have to start a separate group in order to follow their own teachings? More to the point, how does one even determine which teaching is “right?” Do you consult a book? What if the book is wrong? What is your criteria for determining if what you believe bears any resemblance to reality? Subjective impressions? You feel it in your heart? This leads me to my second reality check for our two competing epistemologies.

Test 2: Does the passage of time produce an increasing convergence of interpretations and conclusions about important things? Does your worldview move progressively towards consensus, or does it just keep splintering further and further into competing sects?

This second test is related to the first, since any ideology which can learn from its mistakes will be always improving, while the inflexible ones remain static. When the germ theory of disease came of age in the late 19th century, people still thought that “night air” was bad for you, as if some diseases were caught through impurities in the atmosphere. During every transitional phase of scientific discovery you will find a similar divergence of thought, not to mention an almost vicious battle for the minds of the general populace. But when you move forward in time, you see that those previously-held scientific ideas which cannot survive further scrutiny fall away until most folks eventually acknowledge the facts that have been discovered. For example, among scientists today you will not find a significant number who reject the Tectonic Plate Theory of the Earth’s crust and continental drift, nor will you find many who reject the Bohr model of the atom. Come to think of it, after the Higgs boson was confirmed in Geneva this year you will have a harder and harder time finding scientists who will impugn the Standard Model of particle physics. Among biologists today you will not find a significant faction denying common ancestry of the species (as best as I can gather, it’s less than one percent, and those are strictly for religious reasons), nor will you find a significant proportion of climatologists in denial about global warming (most surveys put the number just under three percent). Those last two remain controversial in popular American media only because of the lingering cultural presence of evangelicalism/fundamentalism (and because of FOX News, which panders to that demographic for significant profit). In time, these controversies, too, will die away as the steady march of scientific progress continues. Soon the deniers of evolution and global warming will look like today’s Flat Earth Society, whom no one takes seriously. Eventually consensus becomes obvious and the old ways of thinking die away.

But what of the consensus among practitioners of religion? Is there one? After three or four thousand years, has a majority of the world’s religious practitioners even decided upon the correct number of gods, much less what they want from us? Even those who have decided there’s only one true God disagree with each other (quite violently at times) about which one is the right one. Come to think of it, even those who agree on the Christian God cannot agree on how he wants to be worshiped. Their disagreements have famously multiplied over time so that Christianity is now comprised of over 41,000 denominations, each one disagreeing with the other on how things are supposed to be done. The majority of those are even using the same authoritative scripture canon, yet they cannot even manage to worship under the same roof on Sunday mornings because their disagreements are so sharp and non-negotiable. After 2,000 years, you’d think the disagreements would decrease in number (especially since Jesus named Christian unity as a proof of his legitimacy). That’s how it works in the sciences, anyway: Over time, a consensus forms because they demand hard evidence for their views, and whenever a better explanation comes along they get rid of the old one and adopt the new. Not so with religion, for theology is an exceedingly subjective enterprise. Even the experts in that field cannot reach an agreement about the most basic things after many centuries.

My Christian friends are fond of disparaging science (always a bad sign) and reminding me how many times science has gotten things wrong in the past. “See? You can’t trust science!” they tell me. But hold on a second there. How would you even know that science got it wrong if it had not been for further science exposing the flaws of the earlier views? In other words, what they fail to acknowledge is that science is correcting science—it’s improving upon itself—which is perhaps the most convincing demonstration of the superiority of science over faith as a way of discerning reality. The very fact that science can learn and grow and revise its views is the most impressive thing about it. Theology cannot do that, and faith cannot reconsider or revise its dogmatic assertions because one of its assertions is that you have to believe even when empirical observation appears to contradict it. That’s why it’s called “faith.” It’s diametrically opposed to empiricism and skepticism by its very definition (at least as presented in the Bible).

Muhammad Ali said, “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” I think the same thing about the history of a religion. If your ideological tradition believes and teaches the exact same thing today which it taught two hundred years ago (or five hundred, or two thousand!), that doesn’t instill me with confidence. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’d rather go with an epistemology that is capable of self-correction, self-improvement, and continual learning and growing. If your ideology can’t pass these two tests, maybe you should reconsider if it bears any resemblance to the real world.

Care to add any diagnostic criteria of your own? What test do you find helpful to determine the objectivity and reliability of your own worldview?

_______

* Some will object that you can be both a Christian and a skeptic, but they’re not using the word the same way I’m using it. For my purposes here, I am using the word “skepticism” to refer to that philosophical orientation which does not accept claims which cannot be supported by repeatable experimentation and objective empirical observation. Skeptics/empiricists reject religious claims which cannot be supported by demonstrable evidence.

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About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school Geometry teacher, a tutor, a swim coach, a father of five children, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil mostly writes now about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.

  • Lee

    It will be fascinating to see what religion produces centuries or millennia from today. I suspect the stories supporting such religions will continually develop into increasingly elaborate and extravagant stories (Mormon, Scientology, etc.) to alleviate any pressure Science may place on it’s claims. I hope the human pursuit of truth will eventually eradicate supernatural beliefs, but the more I study the more I’m convinced some humans have a genetic predisposition towards lazy thinking (lack of critical thinking or curiosity). Maybe one day the greater world societies will start treating such beliefs as delusional…no different than treatment for people that let less crazy delusions rule their life. It gets harder and harder to imagine a world with no religion, but it still brings a big smile to my face when I do :)

    • Lee

      Ran across an interesting article today that suggests religiosity may indeed have founding in our evolutionary design (see link). Now…how to address the shortcoming and evolve “faster”…

      http://m.motherjones.com/politics/2013/11/seven-evolutionary-reasons-people-deny-evolution

      • Lee

        I should have added that though I believe there do exist certain predispositions to faith, I am more convinced that it’s most powerful proponent is the indoctrination of our children.

        In today’s world of an almost perverse access to information via technology (thanks Science!), I do think children raised in an unbiased dogma-free social environment will not default to faith, instead opting for curiosity and the pursuit of things that are “true”. I am witnessing it in my own children’s decision making when it comes to these types of difficult questions. When given information from both sides in as relatively unbiased manner as possible, they easily gravitate to the more rational.

        To me, this is where the atheist movement should focus. I think it will prove to be the most effective and efficient manner of eradicating extremist faith systems down the road. Unfortunately, in most societies the household is run more like a dictatorship/oligarchy than a democracy. I am often guilty of the same. Which is odd when you think about it. Though they are inexperienced and often do not know what’s best for them, the same could be said of most adults/parents who demand “democracy”. I challenge all parents to consider their “household government” structure…do you rule a dictatorship or a democracy…somewhere in between?

        I realize the democratic approach to parenting is not always feasible and every situation demands different tactics, but when it comes to these types of questions, I firmly believe in providing the varying viewpoints in as unbiased manner as possible and letting them figure it out. To that end, I fell in love with Dawkin’s recent book “The Magic of Reality” and recently bought it for my 12 year old. Lots of “A-ha!” moments for him (and me) during that read and I strongly encourage it to any pre-teen/teenager or ill-read adult.

        Indoctrinating your children in any evidence-less belief system encourages gullibility and when followed into adulthood perpetuates a lazy approach to life’s big questions. Parents…teach your kids to think critically, to challenge everything that lacks significant support or evidence! If they’re not challenging your commands on a daily basis, you’re doing it wrong.

  • http://pandasthumb.org RBH

    That’s as succinct as one could hope for. Unfortunately, steadfastness in faith in the face of contradictory evidence is positively valued in many churches/denominations. For a very recent example, Pope Francis warned against the “worldly spirit of curiosity.” And in Protestantism, Martin Luther inveighed against reason, saying

    “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”

    That attitude is common today. For example, a few years ago I offered to lend Francis Collins’ book “The Language of God” to a fundamentalist of my acquaintance. When he learned that Collins accepts an old Earth, he refused it, saying “I don’t need to read anything I don’t agree with.” Very sad.

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