With a solution, without a solution

There is a sense in which the whole problem of the existence of supernatural powers such as God is soluble. You try to come up with the best broad picture of the universe. You pay special attention to phenomena that have traditionally been explained as due to gods and demons, spirits and ghosts. If a naturalistic picture ends up doing the best job and holds the best promise for further progress, you say that the gods are most likely not real.

There is another sense in which the problem is insoluble. Everything in debates over the gods tends to be contested. Many believers think that the broadly scientific approach I just described is not appropriate for this sort of problem. It becomes very hard to find common ground while seeking a solution, since whatever common ground we think we have will crumble if religiously-significant ideas ever come under threat during the debate. The goalposts are always on the move. The debate is constructed to systematically undermine the possibility of agreement between the faithful and the skeptical.

So unsurprisingly, whether one believes or not depends closely on personality and temperament. This in itself is no big deal. For example, you need the right sort of brain to understand physics. It’s very arduous and difficult to train people to have the appropriate temperament and outlook for doing physics. But also, in doing physics, we can plausibly set aside personal and political matters to engage in debates over physics. In discussing religion, this is not the case. Very often the debate is precisely over a person’s deepest commitments. The threat is that without God, a whole moral perspective and way of life will unravel. And this threat hovers over the whole debate in a way that does not happen in even the most heated discussion of physics.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    If we use as our yardstick for the success of discussion with our opposites the number of conversions then we are not going to be successfull (maybe with a few exceptions) for the reason you cite. That is not a good measure of success, however, because there is a lot of distance between religionists and non-religionists that can be bridged well short of the end point of conversions. By this alternative measure these arguments/discussions/debates arguably are successfull and could even have society wide impact if they happen on a large enough scale. For example, sharing an understanding of how our approaches to justifying beliefs differ, even absent an agreement on which approach is bestcorrect, can help dispell misunderstandings and result in some religionists becoming more comfortable with non-religionists.

    If we assume that many religionists are religionists and many non-religionists are non-religionists because of inherent personality traits then this lesser goal is a worthwhile goal precisely because there are always going to be these two groups that will tend to be antagonistic towards each other. I am not convinced that people are set in stone from birth or even once they reach 40. But it may be true that personality is an important factor, maybe more so for some people than others. We may be endowed with both belief flexibility and inflexibilty. We may be naturally resistent and hesistent to revising our beliefs but clearly we can, especially with regard to beliefs concerning particular details as opposed to bigger generalities.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    In the larger picture (thinking in terms of centuries) the mere fact that you can have a discussion or debate about the existence of God or gods and not be stoned to death or burned at the stake is itself a sign of great progress for humankind.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    “There is another sense in which the problem is insoluble. Everything in debates over the gods tends to be contested. Many believers think that the broadly scientific approach I just described is not appropriate for this sort of problem.”

    Hypothetical reasoning can be put to use here: IF the scientific approach to this issue is the best approach, THEN we should reject belief in God and gods. It would be a major step to get a believer to acknowledge this hypothetical claim, even if he/she rejected such an approach to the question.

    The believer who rejects a scientific approach to the issue needs to be pressed for his/her alternative approach. This goes back to Hume’s central point about religion and belief in God or gods – you can either have a concept of God that is relevant to human experience or not. If your concept of God is relevant to human experience, then an empirical approach to the question makes sense, but if your concept of God is irrelevant to human experience, what is the point of believing in God? Is “God” merely a logical or symbolic construct with no causal influence or impact on what happens in the world?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    There are much more data (or many more facts, or many more valid premises) than the phenomena that science studies. The intelligibility of the physical universe, how beauty feels like, basic beliefs such as the principle of induction, etc – are not phenomena. The greatest fact of all, namely our consciousness, is not a phenomenon either; rather it’s the necessary space in which we find out *about* phenomena. So, while thinking about reality, if one takes into account only phenomena then one ignores a huge part of the data there is; no wonder one ends up suggesting worldviews that turn out to be quite problematic.

    Science is about discovering order in the phenomena it studies, and science has proven to be very successful in that. But to arbitrarily apply science outside of its natural field is unreasonable. After all there are many logically possible realities that would produce exactly the same phenomena that science studies, so one needs an epistemology beyond science’s in order to discriminate between them.


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