Give Me (and Javert) a Firm Place to Stand

While googling to nail down some of Javert’s lyrics, I ended up on his IMDB quotes page, which draws on film adaptations of the book going back to 1935.  And, looking over these selections, it’s clear a number of productions have seen Javert as some kind of atheist, possibly of an existentialist stripe.  One movie has him saying, “There is no God. There is only the law. Good and evil do not exist outside the law.”

But the Javert of the book and the musical isn’t a heathen; he’s a heretic.  (Probably a Pelagian).  Let’s watch another performance of “Stars.”

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Javert loves God, in his own way, because Divine Law is the source of order in the world.  For Javert, the absense of mercy is the greatest mercy of all, because it allows Javert to perfectly understand the world around him.  Grace is a miracle, a dirty word, a motion to suspend the rules.

A long time ago, I was trying to work through Michael Egnor’s Eight Questions for Atheists, and I was kind of non-plussed by question number three: Why is there regularity/law in nature?  We can’t imagine irregularity in nature; if we lived in that kind of world (I suggested it might look like a badly written sci-fi or fantasy novel), we wouldn’t be able to ask ‘why’ questions at all, since causality would be beyond us.

In a similar way, every miracle strikes a little at our ability to make sense of the world.  If God suspends physics to save us from physical harm (be it paper cut or landslide), soon enough there’s not enough physics left for us to understand and try to formalize.  And that’s the maelstrom that Javert fears.

Mercy unmoors the moral stars Javert navigates by, and, as an agent of the Law, he needs some kind of unfailing light to steer by.  The more precisely he understands the world, the less margin for error he needs to leave.  But, if God can break the rule that, if Lucifer falls, he will be in flame, how can Javert trust that the promise to the righteous will be kept?  Perhaps he lacks faith in God’s goodness, but I think he’s also afraid he’d have to give up a little faith in Javert.

After all, if the moral universe is as mechanical as Javert dreams, he can save himself through his own efforts.  If the rules are fixed and known, then all he has to do is follow them.  If there are no miracles and no mercy, then everything is within Javert’s understanding, and his mastery is only limited by his self-control.  God sets the rules, and Javert gets to play a fair game.

And, once again, I feel the pull of Javert’s temptation.  I want to be able to control what happens.  When I do good, I want to know exactly how much of the credit accrues to me (and I want it to be a lot).  I like setting up all the parts of a plan and watching them fall click, click, click into place.  And I’m pretty good at it.

So, the stakes have to be pretty high, before I actually want to achieve a goal more than I want to have personally been of use in pulling it off.

And mercy is unearned and unexpected.  It’s not a loophole that I’m exploiting by my cleverness or some kind of arcana that I discovered through diligent study.  It’s available to everyone, free for the asking, even if they’re not as fast and tough as I am.  It’s not something I can excel at.

To accept a world of mecy, Javert and I have to be willing to be better than we can be on our own efforts, and we’re frightened that that concession taints every victory we’ve won up to this point.  Better to lose than to cheat.

But if Javert can admit that he can’t make himself whole by himself, then he can recognize his equality with Valjean.  It doesn’t matter how far each of them has fallen; only that each man cannot reach the summit on his own efforts.  Each is guilty for all and before all, and each can receive forgiveness from each other and from God.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Doragoon

    Maybe it could be said that he could only believe in a God that followed the rules as he understands them. That is, he’s trying to define God, creating an image of God that satisfies his needs. “Perhaps he lacks faith in God’s goodness,” but God IS good. It might be clearer to say that he lacks faith that God’s will matches his personal concept of good.

    At what point would this go so far as to make a false idol of rules?

  • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy

    It comes down to giving up the credit you feel you deserve for the good you think you have done. Like the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. The older son cannot understand mercy because he thinks he deserves credit. He does not see that his inheritance is all grace too. He didn’t earn it. He lived in communion with the Father and that is its own reward. Still that comes nowhere near earning his inheritance.

  • Subsistent

    Apropos of a miracle’s being opposed to order and regularity, and “suspending the rules”: Glancing casually one day in a dentist’s waiting room at a brochure or magazine there, I came across an article asserting that the really best denture makers strive not for utterly regular straight teeth, but rather, avoiding teeth that evoke keyboard keys, seek deliberately a slight irregularity. So: a basic order and regularity assures stability and, esthetically, a certain pleasure of recognition of the familiar, and “a place to stand”; and as long as that basic order is maintained, a certain slight irregularity makes for an esthetic pleasure of surprise, I submit. (Think here, too, of a musical composition’s unexpectedly pleasing change of key, ….)
    In short: Doesn’t a slight irregularity tend to actually add to an art work’s beauty?

  • jose

    Very good point on miracles. If miracles are allowed at all, then science stops working as a way to know about the world (every outcome becomes equally likely because God is equally capable of doing anything), which is one of the reasons why science and religion can’t coexist coherently.

    Have you rejected science as a way of learning about the world, or do you not accept the existence of miracles? Can’t have both.

    • deiseach

      That objection always seems to me to be the equivalent of saying that playwriting would become impossible if Shakespeare can change his mind about whether Hamlet is killed by the pirates or survives to come home to Elsinore and precipitate the final tragedy.

      God is outside of space and time, and as the Author, can intervene to change the flow of events. Heck, we do it every time we dam a river or plant a forest! Miracles are not so much the annulment of physical processes as the collapse of time between the cause and the effect. If I eat a sandwich, that bread and fillings will be turned into flesh (my flesh). As Lewis points out, water is regularly turned into wine by the processes of grape juice and fermentation. Getting from point A (water) to point B (wine) without the intervening steps visible to humans is more like overcoming the limitations of light-speed travel by warp speed (or other technobabble).

      I think we would all agree that it’s natural for wine to arise out of water; if the miracle of Cana had been turning water to lava, I agree that would have been an unnatural intervention which wrecks the laws of nature and makes science impossible. Which is why it would have been magic, not a miracle, and those are two different things. To use a quote which Michael Flynn is fond of using, from the 12th century philosopher William of Conches in his “Dragmaticon”:

      ““[They say] “We do not know how this is, but we know that God can do it.” You poor fools! God can make a cow out of a tree, but has He ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so.”

      • jose

        That only works for certain miracles, no? Coming back to life after getting killed is certainly not natural. If Jesus had decomposed unnaturally quickly, that would fit Lewis’ explanation. Curing leprosy and blindness with your hands, bringing Lazarus back to life…

        Even for the miracles that work the way you describe there’s a problem. If you see someone, say, teleporting, you can’t decide whether he’s a normal guy with a technological gizmo that warps spacetime or perhaps he’s God. How can you tell? Concerning the Hamlet example, if the author can change his mind in each representation, then you’re unable to predict what’s going to happen the next time the play is represented. Might as well give up trying.

        Science’s solution is to reject a priori that David Copperfield is God. The initial state for science is everything that hapens is natural and let’s go from there. Progress is possible that way because the “it’s God” answer is a complete inquiry-stopper. You can’t dig further when you get to that.

        • Subsistent

          For my part, the very definition of “miracle” in Judeo-Christian thought as an event above physical laws — implies that physical laws are maintained: otherwise, there’ll be no physical laws for any miracle to be above! And so, there’ll be no such thing possible as “a miracle”.
          That everything happens by the pure free choice of God, without reference to any physical law, seems rather a view held among some (not all) Muslims than among any Jews or Christians.

      • ACN

        What does “outside space and time” mean. If someone is an agent who can be said to exist “outside of space and time” how can they also intervene inside our universe. If they can intervene in the universe, they are, by definition, not “outside” of the universe.

        Also the wine/lava example is pretty dubious: Where does the yeast come from? Where does it go? Where do the grapes come from? Where does the mash go? All questions that get cheerfully swept under the rug of “it’s natural to turn water into wine”. On top of that, if we’re to believe that the “miracle” happened by natural processes, it still subverts all understanding of chemical reactions and fermentation.

        At least the transmutation of water into lava only requires the addition of rocks and lots of heat. Frankly I might consider that to be far more “natural” since the only questions it raises are where did the rocks come from (the ground) and what is the heat source (god, obvs).

        • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

          ACN wrote:
          > Where does the yeast come from? Where does it go? Where do the grapes come from? Where does the mash go? All questions that get cheerfully swept under the rug of “it’s natural to turn water into wine”.

          Yeah, as a scientist, I find it interesting that belief in miracles tends to be supported by a failure to ask the quite obvious questions that occur to a scientist (and, indeed, to an inquisitive, bright child). E.g.,

          When the loaves and fishes were multiplied did the new loaves and fishes pop into existence ex nihilo and make a popping sound as they displaced the air? Or was it more like bacterial fission? Or did they sort of give birth to itty-bitty loaves and fishes that then slowly grew up?

          When Mary became pregnant with Jesus, did God just cause a failure of meiosis so that she somehow produced a diploid gamete (and then whence the Y chromosome)? Or did the Holy Spirit actually somehow produce divine sperm and then you had a normal fertilization?

          And, of course, most obviously, when the wine is turned into blood, why is it that no one is able to detect erythrocytes or leukocytes in this blood? After all, if there are no blood cells, it is really just plasma, not blood. (I see a theological revolution here: not Christ’s blood, but just his plasma!)

          I have no doubt that clever people can invent (implausible) answers to such questions. But merely considering this sort of scientific issue tends to take the bloom off the whole idea of miracles, rather is if someone insisted on debating in detail exactly how Harry Potter’s uttering of words can radically affect the material universe – someone obsessed with that is just not getting the point that Harry Potter is fiction to be enjoyed, not factual reality to be taken seriously.

          And, when you start really thinking about miracles… well, it becomes clear that taking them literally is really missing the point.

          Dave Miller in Sacramento

          • Suburbanbanshee

            Actually, the kinds of questions that you’re asking are very often the kinds of things that people are interested in remembering about miracles, beyond just their basic happening. For example, when St. Catherine of Siena prayed about a wine barrel and it didn’t run out for a whole year, there were a lot of the neighbors and family keeping track of the number of pitchers, able to describe the taste years afterward, making a big description of the circumstances, etc. After St. Martin de Porres and an entire class of novice monks teleported home just in time for dinner, the novices later had plenty to say about what it had been like to be teleported under the influence of a saint’s answered prayer.

            Multiplication of food is actually a fairly common miracle even in the present day. It tends to happen in soup kitchens every so often. And then of course there’s “holy fools” like Venerable Solanus Casey, around whom all kinds of weird stuff happened, who apparently multiplied ice cream cones in his desk drawer. Because somebody was going to come by with good news later, and having enough ice cream cones for everybody would be pleasing to Jesus and Mary.

            But it ain’t cheating if the capabilities were always programmed into the system, and the Programmer knows all the back doors to use them.

          • ACN

            Oh to be so naive as to think that bulk matter regularly springs into existence for the benefit of soup kitchens.

            You’re describing a VERY different universe than the one that we observe.

          • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

            Suburbanbanshee wrote to me:
            >Actually, the kinds of questions that you’re asking are very often the kinds of things that people are interested in remembering about miracles, beyond just their basic happening. For example, when St. Catherine of Siena prayed about a wine barrel and it didn’t run out for a whole year, there were a lot of the neighbors and family keeping track of the number of pitchers, able to describe the taste years afterward, making a big description of the circumstances, etc

            The problem that non-believers tend to have in discussing things like this with you True Believers is not that we have some metaphysical presupposition against miracles but merely that we apply the same criteria to judging Christian miracles as to any other claims of the miraculous.

            If the nice Jewish girl down the street announced she were pregnant, but, noooo, it’s not what you think – it is a divinely ordained Virgin Birth! – I strongly suspect you and most True Believers would be as skeptical as the next guy, even if you knew her personally, knew her to be generally honest, etc.

            Yet, Christian Believers fervently believe such a story about a nice Jewish girl two thousand years ago, without having known the girl personally, without knowing from whom Matthew and Luke got their stories, etc.

            Can any of the True Believers here grasp this simple point???????

            We skeptics are not uniquely skeptical about religious stories, we are not claiming science is infallible, we do not suffer from dogmatically naturalistic metaphysical commitments.

            We merely think about a nice Jewish girl two millennia ago in much the same way we would think about a nice Jewish girl today making a similar claim.

            I.e., we smell deception (or very, very profound mental confusion).

            The same point applies to the medieval story you relate and the similar modern tall tales: alas, human beings very often lie or get badly confused.

            Dave

        • deiseach

          You’re right, ACN! When I write a story, I absolutely cannot decide “I think I’ll have Bob go to Townsville instead of Cityburg in the second chapter” because I’m outside the universe of “Bob and the Giant Chicken of Cityburg”!

          • ACN

            Fictional stories still lie inside “space and time”.

            The ideas live in human minds, the words, phrases, and images that map the stories live on physical medium, etc.

            If you think that this is a prescient analogy, I think that either you haven’t thought very hard about what it means to be ‘outside space and time’, or that you’re parroting a standard apologetic that is designed to simultaneously place your deity outside the reach of scientific study, but inside the reach of miracles. Of course it doesn’t work, because as with most apologetics like it, it’s designed to answer a question, but also to sort of shut up an asker who is being too inquisitive.. It provides a trite explanation: “god lives outside time and space so obviously he can’t be studied by science”‘ without attempting to resolve the additional questions it raises, the most obvious of which is “what the hell does that even mean?”.

      • H2O

        Water cannot actually turn into wine by itself. You need carbon to make alcohol. Water is only hydrogen and oxygen.
        Cows can be turned into trees in nature when their bodies decompose and a seed absorbs the nutrients. If you have a broad enough definition of ‘turned into’.

    • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy

      If miracles are rare then science can still be useful. It is less useful in learning the ultimate truths about the world but still useful in learning many important truths. You simply assume no supernatural intervention in your scientific observations. You just need to remember that is an assumption.

    • leahlibresco

      Miracles have been stingy enough to still be recognized as exemptions to the rules rather than negations of the existence of rules. I believe this is why Christ’s miracles are meant to testify to him as Messiah more than solve all problems by suspending physics.

      • jose

        Every saint has a certified miracle and there are thousands of saints. That isn’t stingy. Again, how can you tell?

        • Peter Brown

          Compared to the untold billions of experiences folks have every day that do fall within the realm of what’s explicable scientifically, even thousands of exceptions won’t blur the distinction Leah’s trying to make.
          Jose, it seems like your conception of science is perhaps too absolutist to address this question fruitfully. Science doesn’t have a zero-tolerance policy for exceptions in order to be useful–indeed, in any real-world science , there are always lots of exceptions, some of which provide science with room to grow. All science needs is that the exceptions be rare enough (for some useful value of “enough”–which is determined not in any absolute terms but by the folks who are trying to use the science).

          • Alan

            It also needs that any observed exception can’t just be chalked up to a ‘miracle’ or else it can never falsify any hypothesis. That is the real problem with letting miracles in – it deprives you of the need to figure out the real reason.

          • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

            Peter wrote to Jose,
            >Jose, it seems like your conception of science is perhaps too absolutist to address this question fruitfully.

            Peter, you need to brush up on your Hume. The problem is not that we have an a priori proof that miracles are impossible but rather that all of human experience proves that we need to consider the possibility of deception, confusion, a distortion of the story as it is passed along, a misunderstood metaphor, etc.

            And, in fact, everyone agrees when looking at faiths other than their own, that such considerations explain purported miracles. That is what makes it clear that claims of miracles for one’s own faith are simply special pleading, not to be taken seriously.

            Dave

          • Iota

            Disclaimer: I confess to not having read Hume and having not enough time to do so now. I am assuming Hume’s argument is the one you stated below. Also, to avoid any confusion: I am Catholic.

            > everyone agrees when looking at faiths other than their own, that such considerations explain purported miracles

            Not necessarily… Hence, not everyone. Specifically, Catholicism seems to both not preclude that God could cause miracles for anyone he wished (both of this faith and any other) – I am unaware of any reason why I as a Catholic would have to believe a Muslim could not be miraculously healed, although there are reasons to think that would be unlikely – and that limited miracles can also be worked by (warning, trigger word in debate) Satan. Thus a miracle *by itself* is not proof or evidence of anything. This is why miracles are only the next step AFTER an investigation of virtues, in the current process of canonization.

            Furthermore, so far as I am aware, Catholicism as a system approves of testing miracles for any known form of “deception, confusion, a distortion of the story as it is passed along, a misunderstood metaphor, etc”. The fundamental difference seems to be that a certain absolutist understanding of science precludes the existence of anything that is fundamentally inexplicable (i.e. a miracle), whether due to acts of God or, say, limitations of our cognition whereas Catholicism specifically endorses miracles.

            Sure lots of people seem to think that any and every metaphysical experience they seem to have had is necessarily a miracle. But then lost of people seem to assume computers work by some kind of inexplicable magic, and that brings no disrepute to science.

            Of course you might want to argue that fundamentally Catholicism is founded on a bunch of miraculous claims about Christ. That I’ll grant, because then we’re not talking of that some people or a purported “everyone” thinks and believes. And I seem to remember St. Paul the Apostle addressing this in one of his letters, the first one to the church in Corinth. Essentially, yes, if the miracles claimed of Jesus Christ did not happen, we are all miserable fools, dupes and some of us might be traitors to truth.

            BUT… apparently, significant numbers of people have their reasons, despite doubts and even hearing this at Church, to be observant Catholics. Why?

            For me it boils down to this: whenever a person chooses a religion themselves, that they would be free to disregard otherwise, not merely as a set of moral guidelines but as a thing to live by, I am going to assume that they had to have a personal experience (or number of experiences) of such power that it convinced them.

            It is tempting to pooh pooh their experience away as anything from auto-suggestion to mental illness or demonic possession if their experience disagrees with mine. But I also think it’s wrong, because it makes literally everyone except people like me nutcases or idiots, with a sprinkling of weak-willed hypocrites on top (he’s so intelligent he clearly can’t believe this – he must be faking).

            And that does not seem a reasonable conclusion about human nature.

          • Alan

            But Iota – you have the same exact argument from those who have chosen every other religion, including ones that flatly preclude the possibility of Catholicisim being correct.

            Are they nutcase or idiots? Are they just misunderstanding those strong personal proofs? Or are you? Or is the most reasonable conclusion that there is something about human nature that makes one susceptible to those experiences in general, though they manifest towards very different conclusions given local circumstances?

          • Iota

            Alan,

            But Iota – you have the same exact argument from those who have chosen every other religion, including ones that flatly preclude the possibility of Catholicisim being correct.

            Yes, correct. Although I should point out it is not actually my argument *for Catholicism*. It is my argument for why when two people meet, with conclusions +X and –X, it is possible neither of them is a nutcase or idiot. A little bit more meta-

            (getting, a full, multidimensional argument for why I actually believe in Catholicism, all at once into a single combox is really not possible)

            Are they nutcase or idiots? Are they just misunderstanding those strong personal proofs? Or are you?

            I am not sure what they are (either individually or collectively). After all, if we are perfectly frank, I am not sure what *I* am (who exactly has guaranteed I am sane and intelligent?) The only thing I actually do think is that personal proofs are personal – they work for you and probably no one else. Conversion (or deconversion, for that matter) on most things, including religion is not reached by consensus but by a certain highly individualized process.

            Or is the most reasonable conclusion that there is something about human nature that makes one susceptible to those experiences in general, though they manifest towards very different conclusions given local circumstances?

            Full agreement.
            Thing is, probably, if you are an atheist, you are likely to mean “a cognitive glitch” of some kind without any relevance to what exists in the real world (like our propensity to fall for optical illusions). I am likely to mean an actual need for God (implied: that exists because there is a God). Those two opinions are, you will notice, predicated on what both (me and hypothetical you) believe about the probability of (some kind of) God.

            IM(NSH)O, having an opinion, judging evidence and so on are actually iterative processes, based on the opinions you already hold…

          • jose

            I don’t know Peter. The church has about six thousand saints. That means there have been more miracles than, say, eclipses in the last two millenia. But we know eclipses very well, we don’t think eclipses are super rare exceptions. Nobody says eclipses shouldn’t count because they’re so rare. Or mass extinctions, for instance. We haven’t had a mass extinction in millions of years, they’re so rare. Yet nobody says God killed the dinosaurs and that explanation is okay because God is stingy about mass extinctions.

            The problem with the miracle explanation is that you can’t tell if something’s a miracle or not. Falseability. Science fixes the problem by rejecting miracles beforehand. They don’t happen, period. That’s science. If you don’t do that, how do you make progress? If you’re a researcher with a really strange phenomenom on your hands, how can you tell?

          • Alan

            Iota – I wouldn’t call it a ‘cognitive glitch’, just cognitive reality, and its relevance to the real world is how it supports to our social structures that are an integral part of our existence as a species.

          • Iota

            Alan
            The “Sociological Explanation” as I dub it…
            I’ll try to keep in mind that this is your stance. if we ever converse again.

          • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

            Iota wrote to me:

            > For me it boils down to this: whenever a person chooses a religion themselves, that they would be free to disregard otherwise, not merely as a set of moral guidelines but as a thing to live by, I am going to assume that they had to have a personal experience (or number of experiences) of such power that it convinced them.

            Well, that is quite clearly not the case. Just ask people. Numerous believers will say things like, “Well, my family raised me as a Christian,” or “Well, I just think someone must have created everything” or “Well, my faith comforts me” and explicitly disclaim any powerful personal experience as having been a source of conversion.

            Just go around and ask a bunch of people without pushing them with leading questions. I have been doing that for fifty years, so, while my sample is not carefully chosen statistically, it does cover a wide range of people from many different backgrounds, different religions, different geographical areas, etc. Most of the people I have talked with in the real world have not claimed their faith to be the result of any distinctive personal experience.

            Of course, a few varieties of religion – e.g., “born-again” evangelicalism – do indeed insist on a transforming personal experience. But, if you ask lots of evangelicals about this, as I have, you will find that even many of them are honest enough to recognize that it is just their upbringing or pressure from their spouse or the fact that they like the people at the local church that determined their religion, not a true “born-again” experience (e.g., not long ago, I was given the spousal explanation by a friend who is an active member of a local evangelical megachurch).

            Of course, this is all beside the point, anyway: my original point in the post you addressed was that when you think carefully about the various claims of miracles, it is hard to avoid laughing (conjecturing whether or not the Holy Spirit had holy sperm or how the loaves of bread gave birth to baby loaves, etc.).

            In cases where “personal experience” does cause conversion, but the convert avoids thinking through the sorts of things I mentioned, then all we are really dealing with is personally pleasing superstitions.

            You also wrote:
            >I am unaware of any reason why I as a Catholic would have to believe a Muslim could not be miraculously healed…

            Well… I have never spoken to anyone who is generally willing to accept the miracle claims made by competing religions. Do you know anyone who is?

            You also wrote:
            >But I also think it’s wrong, because it makes literally everyone except people like me nutcases or idiots, with a sprinkling of weak-willed hypocrites on top (he’s so intelligent he clearly can’t believe this – he must be faking)
            >And that does not seem a reasonable conclusion about human nature.

            “Everyone”? Seems as if you are casting your net a bit too widely! Aside from all the non-believers in the world, there are quite a few people who are nominally Christians but who do not claim to actually believe in the various superstitions – miracle claims, dogmas, etc.

            Of course, you are indeed still left with a large number of people who do believe in obvious falsehoods despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, clearly for various psychological reasons.

            Why on earth is it not “a reasonable conclusion about human nature” to accept that these people are behaving less than rationally?

            Seems to me that anyone above the age of five understands rather clearly that humans have an amazing ability and inclination to behave irrationally.

            Goethe remarked, “We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe,” and you can dig up similar observations from ancient writers.

            I know that the democratic dogma insists that it is politically incorrect to point out that most of our fellow citizens hold some beliefs that are simply bonkers.

            But, despite the delicacy demanded nowadays in polite company, ’tis nonetheless true.

            Dave

          • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

            Iota wrote:
            > Thing is, probably, if you are an atheist, you are likely to mean “a cognitive glitch” of some kind without any relevance to what exists in the real world (like our propensity to fall for optical illusions). I am likely to mean an actual need for God (implied: that exists because there is a God). Those two opinions are, you will notice, predicated on what both (me and hypothetical you) believe about the probability of (some kind of) God.

            No, not at all. Not even close.

            First, the easy case: obviously, a need for God simply does not imply that God exists. Personally, I feel a keen need for my body to stop aging so fast (the decades seem to go by faster and faster, alas): my need does not imply that there is actually some way to stop my aging.

            Second, no, I and many atheists are not predicating our belief that religious believers have cognitive glitches on our belief that there is no God. On the contrary, I came to the conclusion that religious believers were obviously mentally malfunctioning at a time when I thought there probably was a God. That caused me to reconsider my own opinions, and I decided that the evidence tilted a bit against the existence of a God – though I still do not find the evidence conclusive one way or the other. Maybe there is some sort of God. Maybe not.

            And, empirically, I see the same cognitive deficits in religious believers that I see, for example, in both of the extreme sides of the global warming debate – most notably, a stark unwillingness to attend to evidence. Ask most strong believers on either side of the global-warming debate why they are so sure of their opinions, and they will appeal to authority (while ignoring the authorities on the other side), assert that their views are just obviously true (even though they know none of the relevant science), etc. And, if I, as a scientist, try to bring up some very basic scientific points, they get very, very mad.

            It is the fact that I see the same behavior from religious believers – not that I have an a priori belief in the non-existence of God – that causes me to conclude that religion is due to malfunctioning minds.

            My conclusion could be defeated by contrary evidence. I could run in to a religious believer who believes for reasons similar to those a competent scientist uses to resolve a scientific question or that a competent auto mechanic uses to diagnose a problem with a car or that any normal person uses to solve daily practical problems.

            That has never happened over more than fifty years.

            The reasons that I have been offered by religious believers have always been rationalizations that would cause any sensible person to change auto mechanics if their mechanic gave them those sorts of reasons.

            Dave

          • Iota

            Dave:

            Well, that is quite clearly not the case. Just ask people.

            I didn’t explicitly point out that I AM aware of people being raised In faiths, people being „comforted” by them, people being ignorant, people being manipulated Or people being even blackmailed. The rule I outlined above does not deal with these people.

            I have never spoken to anyone who is generally willing to accept the miracle claims made by competing religions.

            I have read/heard people who generally disclaim all opinion about whether or not the miracles claimed of other religions happen and if yes, who is their author. Miracle agnosticism, if you will.

            (conjecturing whether or not the Holy Spirit had holy sperm or how the loaves of bread gave birth to baby loaves, etc.).

            I’m a spoilsport but the basic answer is: we don’t know. All of those theories above or none of those theories above might apply. No data = not binding opinion.

            Also, as a spoilsport, let me point out that the fact that something is funny or absurd is an appeal to emotion and – while that might be even true, funniness is not a criterion of reality. There are people why cannot wrap their heads around the existence of snow, because they have never experienced it, and yet snow exists. Not having a STEM degree I also assume (correct me if I’m wring) there probably is no way to explain the Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics in a paragraph in a way that does not make nonsense of “common sense”.

            there are quite a few people who are nominally Christians but who do not claim to actually believe in the various superstitions – miracle claims, dogmas, etc.

            In that case they are no more Christian than I am Muslim. They clearly are something else. Whether they happen to believe the miracle of loaves is not fundamentally important, but – for example – Christ’s resurrection (and not, say, coma) is central to Christianity. A person who believes Jesus was an ordinary well meaning man, is not, by standard definition, a “Christian”.
            I don’t say this e.g. maliciously. I’m saying this because labels generally have at least some communally established meanings. You CAN of course claim that your table is a chair. This does not change the fact that if I ask you to bring me a chair, I will probably be not satisfied with a table, unless you clearly indicated beforehand that in your house a table is a kind of chair.

            accept that these people are behaving less than rationally?

            Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. :-)

            I am willing to agree the world is a madhouse. But if you, I or anyone else wants to claim that, essentially, those *other* people are mad but me and my people (however defined) are the sane remnant, that’s a different matter. Because you bracket yourself off as a special positive case.

            In order to demonstrate, to my satisfaction, that it is warranted you’d have to prove yourself more reasonable, virtuous, mentally stable and so on (all those are required simultaneously) than the literally BEST people in the relevant other group. A paragon and exemplar. Anything less than that does not cut it. (obviously I do not expect you to be able to do so here – I’m just signalling why appeals reasonableness do not work for me) I apply the same criterion to all ideological and moral disputes, beyond religion. In other words, an appeal to your own superior reason is (or, in rare cases when that seems to happen, to my superior reason), with very rare exceptions when I have actually seen you and come to that conclusion myself, a form of appeal to authority that is really the easiest way to make me laugh. Not because it’s impossible that you indeed are the last sane men standing. But because I find it highly improbable if you also believe the whole rest of the world is one big asylum.

            First, the easy case: obviously, a need for God simply does not imply that God exists.

            Implied in my statement of belief in the cause of that need. Not implied in the sense that a need has to have a corresponding satisfying agent, as a law of the universe. I do cut down on basic explanations – I assume, wrongly perhaps – that people will be kind enough to spare me the Really Basic Arguments.

            That has never happened over more than fifty years.

            1: How many people who are not Americans have you asked? (I’m serious)
            2: For you, it seems the archetypal mode of knowing things is a hard science, physics (car mechanics are basically applied bits of physics). Obviously, you are Physicist Dave.

            But there exist other kinds of science, for example, medicine, where the interaction is not so cut and dried because you are not interacting with identical bits of matter but with human patients. There’s the whole mess of clinical trials, patient populations (we have much more clinical data about men’s treatment than we do about women’s, and we do not run clinical trials on pregnant women, while pregnancy actually is a physiological factor – I can provide an example citation if requested), there are historically recorded mistakes that would justify distrust in what you doctor told you (e.g. treatment with mercury), which pretty much make patient-doctor relations a string of appeals to authority and trust negotiations (“this drug is tested and works” IS an appeal to authority for a patient who cannot reproduce the clinical trial, because he needs the drug now and not in 15 years, and who is given it by a practitioner who does not take it themselves)

            Do you think of medicine as a science? Is willingness to submit yourself to medical procedures a sign of mental malfunctioning or not? If the answer is ambiguous, what should a doctor demonstrate to have your cooperation? Please remember that the highest price payable for extreme malpractice is death (your own as a patent or of a loved one). This also involves cases when you are not in immediate danger of dying anyway (say, if a doctor prescribes a treatment for a minor problem, that turns out to be heavily carcinogenic).

            Notice: I’m not trying to play an apologetics gambit right now – just trying to find out something about your decision making in contexts other than those derived from the physics of inanimate matter (or study of animals). Specifically, for your decision making in situations where you yourself are an unknown factor in the situation and where it wil be impossible to literally repeat (reproduce) the experience.

          • Iota

            Dave,

            It also occurs to me to ask:

            3) How many people who hold a PhD degree in physics (so basically have your background) and are religious have you asked?

            (religious scientists exist, even if they are a minority, as is postulated)

          • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

            Iota wrote to me:
            > Not having a STEM degree I also assume (correct me if I’m wring) there probably is no way to explain the Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics in a paragraph in a way that does not make nonsense of “common sense”.

            No, you are wrong. Here is an example:

            If you measure the position of a particle with great precision, and them measure the momentum afterwards, and you do this again and again, then you will get a very wide spread for the values of the momentum.

            See, a very short paragraph indeed! And, if that violates your “common sense,” well, I wonder why on earth it would. (Of course, this can be stated much more concisely algebraically, but I assume you wanted words, since you said a “paragrpah”.)

            Iota also wrote:
            > In that case they are no more Christian than I am Muslim.

            Well, i>they claim that you are the one who is faulty in your understanding of Christianity (see, for example, The Dishonest Church by retired United Church of Christ pastor, Jack Good). And, if Christianity means the actual views of Jesus of Nazareth, then they have serious Biblical scholars on their side.

            But, I’ll let you slug it out with Rev. Good and all those others who claim to be your fellow Christians.

            Iota also wrote:
            > Also, as a spoilsport, let me point out that the fact that something is funny or absurd is an appeal to emotion and – while that might be even true, funniness is not a criterion of reality.

            And, my point is that even discussing possible details about, e.g., the details of Jesus’ supposed virginal conception tends to annoy most Christians precisely because it transgresses the boundaries between uplifting narrative and utterly mundane everyday truth.

            And, that kind of spoils the whole game of religion, sort of like kids who can do multiplication and division and who point out how fast Santa would have to move to cover all the kids in the world in one night.

            No, that does not prove that Santa is non-existent, but it does sort of take the charm out of the simplicity of the myth, now doesn’t it? And, when the charm of Santa dies, so does the myth.

            Just as the myth of Christianity is dying.

            Dave

          • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

            Iota wrote to me:
            > I am willing to agree the world is a madhouse. But if you, I or anyone else wants to claim that, essentially, those *other* people are mad but me and my people (however defined) are the sane remnant, that’s a different matter. Because you bracket yourself off as a special positive case.

            I made no claim that I and other atheists are sane or insane, now did I? In fact, I am quite certain that quite a few of my fellow atheists are as loony as the day is long.

            Iota also wrote:
            > Implied in my statement of belief in the cause of that need.

            I’m sorry, but I honestly cannot parse that as an English sentence — it does not seem to grammatically be an English sentence: I really do not know at all what you mean.

            Iota also wrote:
            > How many people who are not Americans have you asked? (I’m serious)

            Most of the non-Americans I have known in the real world have been non-religious. I’ve asked lots of non-American believers on the Web, same result as with American believers.

            Iota also wrote:
            > For you, it seems the archetypal mode of knowing things is a hard science, physics (car mechanics are basically applied bits of physics).

            I think we know many things in history. However, I do agree with nearly all professional historians that historical knowledge has to follow the critical method. Many scholars have applied that method to Christianity (in your traditionalist sense of the term) and concluded that it is most certainly false.

            I think they make an airtight case for that conclusion.

            Dave

          • Iota

            Dave,

            Here is an example:

            I’m going to have to believe you that this works as an explanation.
            (to be clear: I don’t simply mean that you should be able to provide an equation or a rule but also explain what it implies or results in, in the world we live in – I am possibly very stupid, but if I didn’t have some hazy idea about the principle already, the explanation provided would have only made me say “Yeah, and?” It is a description, more than an explanation, to me).

            tends to annoy most Christians precisely because it transgresses the boundaries between uplifting narrative and utterly mundane everyday truth.

            We partly agree here. Though in my unsolicited opinion, anyone who can get worked up about breads ”plopping” into existence in the desert has never really considered the idea that they proclaim that Jesus Christ, the everlasting Word became man.
            If you want an uplifting simple myth, I fail to understand why you should choose Christianity. It is neither simple, not universally uplifting (and obviously, I believe not a myth). Choosing it for those reasons is like choosing to do manual work in a quarry because it’s relaxing and easy…

            That said:
            a) Discussing ANTHING related to, say Jesus’ conception is a little more problematic even IF you don’t want to be intentionally insulting (because we do have a stronger taboo around such topics in general, as Western societies)
            b) But in most cases you and I both know (I assume) the answer actually is “We don’t know” so you aren’t really trying to find anything out. Asking the question will not result in getting an answer.
            c) In which case it might seem you are asking the question for a different purpose. Possibly to have a laugh. And laughter is potentially aggressive (as a rule, not just when people talk about religion). If someone perceives your laughter as aggressive, I wouldn’t be very surprised if they retaliated. Regardless of whether you are asking about religion, politics, or family morals.
            > sort of like kids who can do multiplication and division and who point out how fast Santa would have to move to cover all the kids in the world in one night.
            Flawed analogy IMO. You are (in my opinion) equating an appeal to emotion (oh look how gross/funny/disturbing this is!) with a substantive argument (if my calculations are correct and Santa is human, he cannot be real).
            > Christianity is dying.
            You do realize that even if it were (I beg to differ) it would be irrelevant for your argument or for Christian (specifically Catholic, but I also suspect Orthodox and significant parts of Protestant) theology?
            On the Christian end, AFAIR, we aren’t promised that we will just grow and grow as a Church until the whole world bursts with Christians. I.e. we aren’t promised there will be more and more of us. On the atheist end – especially if you think most people are loonies – the fact that an idea is crazy (in your estimation) doesn’t mean it will die out since there is no necessary intellectual progress in a madhouse and one crazy idea dying out does nothing but leave a place for a new one.
            > I made no claim that I and other atheists are sane or insane, now did I?
            If you meant to say religious folks are insane because they are religious but you are possibly as insane for some other reason, I rest my case. Fair enough.
            I WAS getting the impression that you think yourself saner than the rest of the inmates. (Note: I really don’t want to make it sound insulting; for me it’s a question of honesty – if all or almost all people are bonkers, by what authority would I pronounce myself sane?)
            > I really do not know at all what you mean.
            Apologies. It isn’t an English sentence. It might make more sense to write it all out after all:
            I happen to believe (as Alan suggests) that “something about human nature that makes one susceptible to those experiences in general, though they manifest towards very different conclusions given local circumstances”
            I also happen to believe (unlike Alan, I assume?) that that’s because there is a God.
            But that is not because there must always be something to fulfil a need (as a law of the universe). It just so happens that because God exists (I believe), the need for metaphysical experiences (in most people, anyway, – as observed both by atheists and theists) is His doing. There happens to be both a need and a legitimate fulfilment of that need.
            Clear enough?
            > I think we know many things in history.
            I’m sorry but it’s my turn to say “I didn’t say that”. I was asking you specifically to explain something of your decision process, not about your relationship to Christianity (at this particular junction).
            Of course you can skip any question you want. But I want to signal that is not an answer.

            I also, frankly, fail to understand why group identity with Christians ought to be appealing. The higher moral ideals a group sets up, the easier it is to look not like a saint but like a hypocrite (when you fail to live up to that ideal). On top of that, at least if you’re Catholic, you also self-identify with all the appalling people who did appalling things either in the name of or in spite of their supposed Catholicism. You are not allowed to shrug them off as “people who only seemed to be Catholics” (which you could possibly try if you believed only n an invisible Church, I’d assume) nor to say, as most atheists would of other misbehaving atheists “I have nothing in common with these guys”.

            Yes, upon having read extensively about the Crusades and the Inquisition (which were not as bad as common narrative would have it but were still way too bad) I decided to stay Catholic for the company. Upon seeing people who drink too much alcohol, people who love money too fervently, people who abuse power, I decided to stay connected them with a visible label because it’s appealing?

            That does not make sense.

            (this is getting LONG…)

          • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

            Iota wrote to me:
            > I am possibly very stupid, but if I didn’t have some hazy idea about the principle already, the explanation provided would have only made me say “Yeah, and?” It is a description, more than an explanation, to me).

            I’m afraid that that is how science works; perhaps this is why you are not, as you say, a STEM person.

            Iota also wrote:
            > You are (in my opinion) equating an appeal to emotion (oh look how gross/funny/disturbing this is!) with a substantive argument (if my calculations are correct and Santa is human, he cannot be real).

            The point I am trying to make here is that to seriously argue about, say, transubstantiation, is bizarrely surreal., just as surreal as arguing about Santa covering all the houses in the country in one night.

            The wine has turned into blood? Okay, where are the erythrocytes or leukocytes in this blood?

            If it has no erythrocytes, leukocytes, platelets, etc., then it is not blood – it is at most plasma. And, we could check that, and we’d find out that it is the wrong salinity, pH, etc. to be plasma.

            And everyone knows this. We all know it is not really blood.

            Now, of course, I have been around this argument so many times that I know all the answers: e.g., that I just do not understand Aquinas’ doctrine of substance/accidents.

            Except I do understand it, but I also understand that what makes blood what it is is not an arbitrary pasting-on of accidents of redness, etc. It is blood because it has erythrocytes, leukocytes, etc. in it, and, indeed, it is red because it has erythrocytes that have oxidized hemoglobin.

            Or I am just demonstrating my dogmatic commitment to scientific naturalism. Except that I am not: if the wine did suddenly and miraculously acquire erythrocytes, leukocytes, etc. in it, I would cheerfully admit that something was happening that science could not (yet) explain.

            The debates between True Believers and skeptics seems to always consist in you guys telling us what we believe, although we do not believe it, and our quoting beliefs that you folks admit you hold and our pointing out that you are only willing to believe such things, contrary to evidence, in the realm of religion. (Okay, there are some dimwits who will believe anything about anything – crop circles, UFOs, “pyramid power,” etc. – but that is not the case with most of the religious True Believers I have talked with, and I assume it is not true of you.)

            I admit that maybe some sort of god exists, thought I doubt it (mainly because of the “problem of evil” and the simple lack of evidence). I don’t claim that physics explains everything – quite to the contrary, I and many physicists agree with philosophers such as Colin McGinn that it is very difficult to see how physics can explain consciousness.

            Can you see our point at all??? We find it nearly inexplicable why you guys insist on applying radically different criteria of judgment to religious claims than to any other sort of claims.

            Except for one thing – it is how you prove your loyalty to your religion.

            You wrote:
            > I also, frankly, fail to understand why group identity with Christians ought to be appealing.

            Me, too. I find it utterly repellent and horrifying, very, very much like people who felt a deep need to affirm a group identity as Nazis.

            But there were such people, in the millions, alas.

            And, I have similarly been told by numerous people, again and again and again, that their membership in some Christian group is very, very important to them.

            I find that very, very sad.

            Dave

          • Iota

            Dave (warning, this is long)

            I’m afraid that that is how science works

            I’m aware of the notion that science is descriptive. Yet, when I see it discussed in a popular fashion (or taught on a pre-university level ), it usually ends up also being explanatory. And the explanatory part seems necessary for applied disciplines to then manipulate the universe and create new interesting stuff. Or am I worng?

            #1 On evidence
            (a) members of both groups tend to talk past each other in the “You believe…” way.
            (b) I believe things without evidence (or sometimes contrary to what other people think is sufficient evidence) in much of my life. In fact, the state of there being no conclusive evidence is normal and, IMO, the case where we can replicate experiments as often as we like and be unaffected by the process itself is an exception, not the rule.

            I cannot trail-run a psychotherapist, though I can trail-run a car mechanic (at least if I have an extra car….). I can only trial run a doctor insofar as I can see if they have not, so far, committed gross malpractice, but nothing guarantees I won’t be the first case. I cannot, also, trial run a friend to check if they will leave me stranded.

            In some disciplines we end up creating e.g. rules for burden of proof. But Mr. Smith either murdered Mr. Brown or he didn’t, the rule “innocent until proven guilty” notwithstanding. The universe works in a certain way regardless of whether we have discovered the rules, or even whether we can ever discover all of them.

            So, for me, life is always a kind of gamble. I back whatever I consider most reasonable, but I expect to have no sliver-bullet-proof. In fact, I expect to be questioned and told I’m wrong. I except to have doubts. Religion is just an area where other people are more likely to question my choices – most people who offer comments about the fact I’m religious probably never think about asking me about my medical choices…

            I have limited resources I can and should use to interrogate whatever I believe (remember I’m Catholic, so I’m not a fideist – I am not obliged to believe it’s bad to ask questions). If I should ever come to the conclusion Catholicism is wrong, I would consider it morally necessary to stop identifying as Catholic. But right now I can discuss this possibility in much the same way I can being certifiably crazy – “I have no guarantee I’m not, but I don’t think so.”

            You probably heard this before but just in case: I think you and your hypothetical adversary are having a fight about language, to a large extent.
            [Disclaimer: I’m not a theologian – you should run this though an actual expert on Catholic doctrine.]

            The Doctrine of Real Presence states, AFAIK, that the Blood of Christ behaves in all physical ways like wine. You can measure it’s pH and it will be the pH of wine. It does not contain erythrocytes. I suppose you could even get drunk, on a sufficiently large quantity.

            That said, while the Blood behaves in all senses like wine, there is some literally meta-physical (I.e. beyond all physical properties) way in which it really is the Blood of Christ. Even “worse”: AFAIR the whole of Christ is present under each species (this is why it’s not necessary for a Catholic to receive booth species during communion).

            AFAIR (PLEASE run this though someone more competent to make sure) Aristotelian physics is not a necessary component of the dogma. The point is that the Body and Blood behave in all physical ways as if they are bread and wine but there is some more important sense in which they really are the Body and Blood of Christ.

            That will obviously make no sense to you. For you X is X because it has the physical properties of X. If you argued with me like that my response would not be that you don’t understand something. It would be that I don’t understand it EITHER. But if Christ is the Son of God with all the attributes that entails, if Christ said that it is literally His Flesh and Blood, there must be some way in which that statement is literally true. How? I don’t know. The dogma of Real Presence doesn’t explain this.

            Of course, you can reject any of the premises. You can say Christ wasn’t being literal (you end up with the notion that the Eucharist is just a symbol, which Catholic teaching rejects). You can say He never said any such thing (you end up with the notion that the Gospels are false), you can say that even if Christ said it, Christ is not God. You can redefine being “God”. And so on.

            Only IF you first (for some reason) accept the premises do you end up with transubstantiation. Without those premises (one of them being that God can literally do stuff we will never even be able to comprehend or explain, including locally messing up physics) transubstantiation makes no sense at all.

            #3 On group identity
            I could say “Godwin’s Law” and leave it at that. Unfortunately, I’m not easily insulted…

            The problem is this: I actually hold (and held even when I was not a practising Catholic) the idea that we are all, to an extent collectively responsible whether we like it or not. As an American (I assume), you live in a land drenched with the blood of Native Peoples and built partly on rather horrific slavery. I’m not better – my ancestors simply started this process at least some 800 years earlier than yours, (this is when first written records appear) and it involved more wars (tribal and then inter-state ones), without slavery but with feudal serfdom (better, I think, but not good really).

            Incidentally, I think there was a philosophical inquiry into this notion of collective guilt in post-Nazi Germany, Karl Jaspers’ The Question of Guilt (Shuldfrage) – I’ve only heard a summary of the argument the book supposedly contains though.

            You can apply the same principle to our position as citizens of developed nations (who clearly have enough spare time and resources to post blog comments…). In general, We both doubtless have ancestors who were honourable and good, but also had criminals and madmen in our respective histories.

            In this sense, Catholicism can be – in a limited way – a bit more “honest” since it forces me to admit that relation, which I would otherwise rather discount. But the idea that this kind of metaphysical connection to everybody, both saint and monster, is simply “comforting” is preposterous to me. IMO, it shouldn’t be comforting.

            Digression: that connection is, of course, something totally different from aiding and abetting a crime – I am “not allowed” to do that consciously, although of course there are limits to my moral responsibility. It would also be unethical to self-identify with a group whose core ideas (doctrines) logically lead to evil. But Catholic theology isn’t like the NSDP programme. Both the Crusades and the Inquisition are, IMO, not the results of core theology, but it’s abuses.

          • Iota

            Also apologies for varied typos and formatting issues.

          • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

            Iota wrote to me:
            > I’m aware of the notion that science is descriptive. Yet, when I see it discussed in a popular fashion (or taught on a pre-university level ), it usually ends up also being explanatory. And the explanatory part seems necessary for applied disciplines to then manipulate the universe and create new interesting stuff. Or am I worng?

            Well… you are wrong about the case you yourself chose to ask me about, i.e., the Uncertainty Principle, as I discussed above.

            As to your broader point, well… part of what I am trying to get at in this discussion is that theists who are non-scientists tend to spout off with a great air of certainty about some area of science they actually know nothing about (very, very often quantum mechanics, which happens to be my field of expertise) in a supposed defense of their theistic beliefs.

            They almost always get the relevant science wildly wrong, so that the science they are trying to appeal to does not really support their argument at all.

            And, what is then so frustrating to us scientists is that when we point this out, we tend to get a cavalier response somewhat along the lines of “Well, okay, I blew that example completely, but surely you, dear scientist, will agree that there are other examples from science which really do prove my point.”

            And, when we, who actually do know a great deal of science, reply, “No, we do not think there are other examples in science that prove your point, since, if we did know of such examples, then we would agree with your point, and we don’t!”, then we get accused of being close-minded, dogmatic, etc.

            And, then we get a long lecture by people who nothing about science at all about how we scientists are presupposing “metaphysical naturalism,” or assuming that only physical explanations count, etc.

            There are of course always small variations in the pattern, but I trust you can see how the twentieth or thirtieth (more, I think, for me!) time we go through this, we get more than a little annoyed.

            Anyway, you wrote:
            > You probably heard this before but just in case: I think you and your hypothetical adversary are having a fight about language, to a large extent.
            [snip]
            > That said, while the Blood behaves in all senses like wine, there is some literally meta-physical (I.e. beyond all physical properties) way in which it really is the Blood of Christ.
            [snip]
            > The point is that the Body and Blood behave in all physical ways as if they are bread and wine but there is some more important sense in which they really are the Body and Blood of Christ.

            Yes, I have of course heard all that before, more times, really, than I can count.

            Iota also wrote:
            > That will obviously make no sense to you. For you X is X because it has the physical properties of X.

            No, you are just plain wrong here.

            Again, this is the sort of problem that most human beings have in communicating with Christians.

            As I said very clearly and explicitly in my previous post, “I don’t claim that physics explains everything – quite to the contrary, I and many physicists agree with philosophers such as Colin McGinn that it is very difficult to see how physics can explain consciousness.”

            I’m not a physicalist or a materialist, never have been.

            That is not where I disagree with Christians. Again, a strong majority of the human race are not Christians, and yet many of those non-Christians are most assuredly not physicalists/materialists!

            Iota also wrote:
            > It would be that I don’t understand it EITHER. But if Christ is the Son of God with all the attributes that entails, if Christ said that it is literally His Flesh and Blood, there must be some way in which that statement is literally true.

            No.

            After all, extraordinarily dogmatic, literal-minded evangelical fundamentalists (I grew up around these people) generally read that statement in the New Testament as an obvious metaphor.

            I would be very surprised if you do not interpret other obvious metaphors in the NT as metaphors: surely, you do not believe that the validity of Jesus’ parable about the house built on sand depends on whether he is referring to some actual house some dude actually built on sand. That is missing his point (again, even rigid fundamentalists also acknowledge this).

            No, almost all non-Catholics (at least in the West: I have no idea where Eastern Orthodox now stand on this) – from rabid atheists to rigid fundamentalists – read the NT “This is my body” passage as an obvious metaphor.

            We are in fact driven to this by the interpretative “principle of charity.” Interpreted as a metaphor, it is quite easy to see what the NT evangelists meant and why they wrote it.

            As you admit, interpreted your way, you yourself “don’t understand it.”

            So, why insist that the true meaning is a meaning that you yourself don’t understand instead of a meaning that makes perfectly good sense?

            We all know the answer: you wish to belong to one particular religious community that somehow backed itself into a corner of making this weird claim. Anyone who wishes to prove their loyalty to the Catholic Church can do so very nicely by claiming to believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, even though they themselves, as you admitted, cannot understand it!

            As a matter of trying to understand the NT text, it is utterly and mind-numbingly bizarre. But as a shibboleth, as a means of showing membership in a group, it works absolutely marvelously.

            Which returns me to my central point: “Religion is a badge of group identity.”

            Dave

          • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

            Iota wrote to me:
            > The problem is this: I actually hold (and held even when I was not a practising Catholic) the idea that we are all, to an extent collectively responsible whether we like it or not. As an American (I assume), you live in a land drenched with the blood of Native Peoples and built partly on rather horrific slavery.

            I confess that that view seems as out of contact with reality as transubstantiation. I never held any slaves and never condoned slavery; similarly, I never slaughtered any Native Americans.

            Iota also wrote:
            > In general, We both doubtless have ancestors who were honourable and good, but also had criminals and madmen in our respective histories.

            Well, no doubt: my second cousin tells me she can trace our descent back to Charlemagne (whom I consider more a criminal than an honorable man), as can, I suppose, hundreds of millions of other people of European descent.

            But, while it is mildly amusing that I may be descended from Charlemagne, it really does not matter to me. His crimes were his, not mine.

            I did not choose my ancestors, any more than I chose for T. Rex to gobble down all of those innocent herbivores.

            You may note that this and the topic of the previous post are closely intertwined: You have a very, very strong tendency to embrace some group identity. This explains not only your religious perspective but also your perspective on “collective guilt.”

            Dave

          • Iota

            Dave,
            Response accidentally posted at the very end of the thread: here

      • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

        Leah,

        Hmmmm, have you ever seriously addressed Hume’s point that if you honestly consider whether a purported miracle really occurred then you have to take into account the rather high rate at which human beings are known to get confused, to lie, to distort reports when passing them on through a long chain of testimony, etc.?

        I’ll spare you the mathematical details of the Bayesian analysis, on the assumption that you can do that yourself, and merely point out the obvious: in any particular case, unless you have an extraordinarily high prior for that case being a miracle, the odds of human dishonesty or mistakes are going to be much more likely than the odds of a true miracle.

        That does not prove that miracles are truly impossible, but it does indicate that most purported miracles are fake. Of course, everyone nowadays acknowledges that fact for all religions except their own: even hard-core evangelicals cheerfully agree that most Catholic miracles are not real.

        Dave Miller in Sacramento

        • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy

          you have to take into account the rather high rate at which human beings are known to get confused, to lie, to distort reports when passing them on through a long chain of testimony, etc.

          I don’t know that this is true. Would it not invalidate all of history if it was? The fact is that Jewish and Christian sacred texts have no evidence of this. It is more people irrationally dismissing evidence they don’t like than anything else.

          A lot does depend on your metaphysical assumptions. If you are willing to rationally consider that:
          1. God exists
          2. God wants to reach out to us through miracles
          3. God can protect the testimony of those miracles from human distortion

          If prior to engaging in reason you have by your creed excluded these things then Hume’s numbers will work for you. But it is not rational. It is purely a metaphysical assumption based on no evidence and no argument. It is your religion.

          • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

            Randy wrote to me:
            > I don’t know that this is true. Would it not invalidate all of history if it was?

            No, it does not mean that at all. It does mean that all historical evidence has to be approached critically, and that is what all competent historians do.

            You do not, for example, assume that what Jefferson Davis said or wrote during or about the Civil War is unbiased or even true: rather, you look for internal inconsistencies and special pleading, you cross-check against other accounts, you consider external physical evidence, you ask where Davis himself got the information he claims to present, etc.

            And, that is what competent Biblical scholars do, too. And, they find numerous inconsistencies in the Bible, numerous places where the Biblical story is contradicted by other sources, numerous places where the Bible makes claims that disagree with our knowledge of physical nature.

            There are now numerous readable discussions of this available: I like Bart Ehrman (no, I do not take him on faith – I cross-check him against the Biblical text, etc.), but there are a number of other readable introductions by historical-critical scholars that you can read.

            Randy also wrote:
            > A lot does depend on your metaphysical assumptions. If you are willing to rationally consider that:
            1. God exists
            2. God wants to reach out to us through miracles
            3. God can protect the testimony of those miracles from human distortion
            >If prior to engaging in reason you have by your creed excluded these things then Hume’s numbers will work for you. But it is not rational. It is purely a metaphysical assumption based on no evidence and no argument. It is your religion.

            Utter, disingenuous nonsense.

            I am willing to consider the possibility that God exists, as I have said many times. But, even if God does exist, an honest person has to wonder if the Bible is really his Word, given all the obvious contradictions, etc.? Or is the Quran really his definitive word? Or the Bhagavad Gita? Or none of the above?

            Your God is too small. You suppose that if someone grants the possibility that some god exists, then it is obvious that your God fits the bill.

            Of course, my pointing this out will not affect you in the slightest. “Religion is a badge of group identity.” For me to point out that your religion is most certainly false is like my pointing out that the Houston Astros are probably not going to win next year’s World Series to some guy who is a huge Astros fan. You become an Astros fan to join the group of Astros fan, not because you made a detailed calculation of how good a team the Astros are.

            Similarly, I have never met a human being who joined a particular religion because he or she carefully considered the evidence for the various competing views and rationally concluded that one religious view was probably right. It always seems to be a matter of which religious group you wish to join or identify with.

            Dave

      • Pete

        Isaac Troki discredited the idea that Jesus was the Messiah:

        http://faithstrengthened.org/FS_TOC.html

        This simple article is a good place to begin if you don’t have
        time for Troki’s work:

        http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/jewsandjesus/

        Everytime a Christian says that Jesus is/was the Messiah, they
        thumb their noses at 2500 years or so of Jewish opinion and
        scholarship about the issue.

    • Ted Seeber

      Is your definition of a miracle ONLY the supernatural? Or does it also include the natural?

      To me, the natural order is in and of itself a miracle- for by our current understanding of quantum mechanics, there is absolutely NO reason to suspect that the natural world should be ordered, or that causality should exist at all.

      • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

        Ted Seeber wrote:
        > for by our current understanding of quantum mechanics, there is absolutely NO reason to suspect that the natural world should be ordered, or that causality should exist at all.

        Ted, as I think you remember from our past discussions, I am a physicist (Ph.D., Stanford, 1983).

        You badly, deeply misunderstand quantum mechanics.

        I cannot teach you QM in the comments section of Leah’s blog, but if you are seriously interested in truly learning about QM, let me know and I will suggest some resources.

        Dave

  • deiseach

    Speaking as a Javert/Saruman/Elder Brother type myself, I agree that he’s not an atheist. He has a very definite belief in law and order, and that presupposes an authority to set the laws and maintain the order, an ultimate judge of perfect and incorruptible righteousness. What he forgets or ignores is the counterpart of charity, which also exists in God, and thus mercy is possible since mercy is the uniting of charity and justice.

    Javert could be a Pelagian, or an old-school Calvinist (there are the Elect and there are the Reprobate, and trying to be nice to the Reprobate is just wasted effort since their fate is fore-ordained).

    To end up, I’d just like to compare part of the lyrics of “Stars” and another extract from “The Ball and the Cross”, which seemed to me to complement each other in showing how Javert’s world-view leads him astray:

    “Stars
    In your multitudes
    Scarce to be counted
    Filling the darkness
    With order and light
    You are the sentinels
    Silent and sure
    Keeping watch in the night
    Keeping watch in the night

    You know your place in the sky
    You hold your course and your aim
    And each in your season
    Returns and returns
    And is always the same
    And if you fall as Lucifer fell
    You fall in flame!”

    “As the white-robed figure went upward in his white chariot, he said quite quietly to Evan: “There is an answer to all the folly talked about equality. Some stars are big and some small; some stand still and some circle around them as they stand. They can be orderly, but they cannot be equal.”

    “They are all very beautiful,” said Evan, as if in doubt.

    “They are all beautiful,” answered the other, “because each is in his place and owns his superior. And now England will be beautiful after the same fashion. The earth will be as beautiful as the heavens, because our kings have come back to us.”

    …Then after a swift silence that took them out across St. James’s Park, he said: “The people must be taught to obey; they must learn their own ignorance. And I am not sure,” he continued, turning his back on Evan and looking out of the prow of the ship into the darkness, “I am not sure that I agree with your little maxim about justice. Discipline for the whole society is surely more important than justice to an individual.”

    Evan, who was also leaning over the edge, swung round with startling suddenness and stared at the other’s back.

    “Discipline for society – ” he repeated, very staccato, “more important – justice to individual?”

    Then after a long silence he called out: “Who and what are you?”

    “I am an angel,” said the white-robed figure, without turning round.

    “You are not a Catholic,” said MacIan.

    …The being in the prow turned slowly round; he looked at Evan with eyes which were like two suns, and put his hand to his mouth just too late to hide an awful smile.

    “And how do you know,” he said, “how do you know that I am not God?”

    MacIan screamed. “Ah!” he cried. “Now I know who you really are. You are not God. You are not one of God’s angels. But you were once.”

    • leahlibresco

      Deiseach, don’t you know I have Christmas gifts to read? (I have just sent The Ball and the Cross to my kindle).

      • deiseach

        Real Life? Why would you possibly need to engage with that? Just spend all day and all night reading – it’s what I would do! Why no, I didn’t read under the desk when I was in Sixth Class and the teacher knew anyway but ignored it because I was reading stuff like “History of the Fall of the Roman Empire for Children” (that is, leaving out the sex and blood but keeping in the political intriguing) instead of the history textbook we were supposed to be reading. No, nothing like that ever happened at all.

        *evil laughter*

        If I ever become Absolute Despot of the Earth (I’m scaling back on the ambitions to take over the galaxy), one of my Iron Laws Of Keeping On Pain of Pain will be that everyone will have to read “The Man Who Was Thursday” at least once.

        A month.

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  • atucker

    Interesting!

    I’m somewhat approaching it from the perspective of success within a given model, and noting the limitations of that model. Javert fails to update his model of morality when Valjean spares him, but somehow noticed that Valjean isn’t going down in moral flames. Valjean on the other hand, takes the bishop’s example as a different kind of life that he could be leading, and that further crime is not inevitable.

    Javert is very attached to a particular model of morality, and is not willing to update when the mercy comes, and so the mercy is unbearable.

  • Dfulton

    I think Javert’s issue is less the ability to change models of morality and more the sentiment that mercy renders morality incomprehensible or even void. If the Good by which all other goods are judged can choose to call the imperfect perfect, then Javert fears that it can no longer function as a standard. Hence the Crucifixion: God cannot condone sin without entering a paradox, but he can take it upon himself and be condemned in the sinner’s place, because he hates the transgressions, not the transgressors.

  • Val

    Is the essence of ‘virtue ethics’? That one does good to ‘accrue credit’?

    • leahlibresco

      No, this is the essence of one of the ways in which I suck.

  • http://www.lewiscrusade.org John C. Hathaway, OCDS

    I was just rereading the passage of his suicide in the book, and it says that he only believed in the Church so much as it was a necessary part of social order, but other than that he gave religion little thought, and Valjean’s act of mercy made him consider that God was really his master, and not his superior.
    So while he’s not an intentional atheist or heathen, he’s more of a cultural Catholic of the “Right” (as opposed to a cultural Catholic of the “Left”).
    It’s also important to keep in mind, given the story’s many themes, that Javert’s mother was a prostitute.

    • Erp

      And his father a convict and he was born in prison. One wonders whether he was ever loved or loved (Valjean had his elder sister and her children). BTW what do you think of chapter X, book 1, volume 1 where the bishop meets the former member of the Convention?

      Note the author, Victor Hugo, was very anticlerical (he refused to have a Catholic burial) though seems to have been a theist of a sort.

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  • Cam

    Ebonmuse (Adam lee?)’s objection in the “every miracle strikes” link is very convincing to me, and I have not seen it answered by you or anyone anywhere. Why did your god not create us as disembodied minds? For which of god’s purposes can the amount of natural evil in the world not be considered vastly more than the minimum requirement? I bet I could test humanity with much less natural evil than god seems to need. This eats away at his alleged omnipotence.
    And if natural evil is mechanical in a way that god can’t have done differently (problem for omnipotence again) then how is a coherent universe better than a universe without natural evil? I would rather live in a bizarre universe than a universe with earthquakes and flesh eating worms and rape.

    • http://www.thecatholicbeat.com Gail Finke

      Cam: Perhaps we would all like to live in such a universe, but we don’t. I’m afraid I don’t see the point of what you’re saying. “Ah-ha! Things SUCK” is not really an argument; it’s a statement. It does not disprove God. It does not prove or disprove anything.

      • Cam

        Gail, I think my objections run along the lines of Rowe’s evidential argument from evil:
        http://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-evi/

        1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
        2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
        3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

        Theistic objections to the argument are also listed at that link, such as skeptical theism, the free will defense, and so on.
        But the problem of evil has been flogged to death and personally i’m more intrigued by efficiency than evil. The world we observe seems so lumberingly inefficient, disastrous and pointless when measured against the purposes and designs ascribed to God in most theologies, that i’m left either questioning the existence of God or his nature and intent. Again, for which of your god’s purposes can the amount of natural evil in the world not be considered vastly more than the minimum requirement?

  • Cam

    To clarify my objection: God could have created any type of virtue and tested it by any sort of means. If the concept of a ‘blank slate’ applies to anything, it applies to god and the creation.

    He could have put us in a universe without natural evil. The common objection is that this would be an incoherent world, but then, for example, he could have created the virtues of ‘kazhag’-reconciling incoherency, or ‘blogmarf’-using artistic ability to fashion coherent things. Instead he went with flesh eating worms.

    • ACN

      Mmmmm…delicious, delicious decaying organic matter :)

  • Iota

    #1 Clarification: the only point I WAS trying to make is that things can sound absurd without being untrue. You might remember that’s kind of my original point. (I think somewhere up there is also an example about snow, which is not quantum mechanics, so should be less controversial ?). I was NOT trying to say that science (however you define it),including quantum physics or any other branch supports religion.

    And I asked about the principle of uncertainty specifically (again: it wasn’t my only example) because the way it was usually explained (where I could hear it) was as a kind of law whereby “You can either know how fast a particle is moving or where it is, not both things at once”. Your description was an educational experience. At least I got something out of this discussion. :) Apologies if it irritated you.

    #2 I wasn’t actually trying to generalize that you’re a materialist, just that in this case the argument seems to be that transubstantiation cannot be true for physical reasons. It would have, perhaps, been clearer if I wrote: “For you, it seems from what you wrote, what is in the Chalice after the consecration cannot be/is not Blood because it behaves in no way like blood and does not have blood fractions” (or did I misunderstand even that?) But, frankly, it didn’t even occur to me to clarify and formulate disclaimers – YOU TOLD me you aren’t a materialist. I have no particular interest in making you. Si I used a shorthand version.

    #3

    So, why insist that the true meaning is a meaning that you yourself don’t understand

    Apologies in advance – I think a pretty long explanation is necessary here, if I’m to respond at all. Most of it will probably bore you to death, especially if that was supposed to be a rhetorical question.
    a) Because when Christ speaks in parables, I would argue it’s pretty clear from the text it’s a parable. When it comes to the teaching on Body and Blood he’s basically confronted with his listeners disgust… and the text doesn’t add ANY clarification. That, of course, is by itself not a sufficient reason, since anyone can say they have a competing interpretation of scripture.

    b) Because early Christians were repeatedly confronted with claims they practices cannibalism and they didn’t just go out and collectively say: “Oh no guys, it’s all symbolic – we just eat bread and drink wine to commemorate Jesus”. There is repeated insistence, at least among a significant number of Early Christian writers I know of, that in some way the bread and wine ARE the Body and Blood.

    c) AFAIK Eastern Orthodox do believe in the Real Presence [Reference]. I have no first-hand references, but AFAIK Oriental Orthodox do to. It’s not an exclusively Latin (i.e. Roman Catholic) idea. The fact that the longest-standing communities both in the East and West believe in the Real Presence is not proof enough, but I propose it does suggest that that was historically a very significant (I’d actually say majority) view, unless you want to suggest they all just had a penchant for creating stupid theology (“unlike the sensible Protestants”). This also relates to your idea that we’re dealing with “one particular religious community that somehow backed itself into a corner of making this weird claim”. Whatever we’re dealing with, it’s not “one particular religious community”. And, on top of everything else, it might be good to remember that e.g. Greeks are Eastern Orthodox and for most other purposes they are considered a Western nation, as far as I know.
    d) Then there are Anglicans, some of whom also believe in some form of Real Presence (I don’t know the details). Even among protestants some e.g. believe not in the symbolic meaning of the Eucharist but in consubstantiation. And if transubstantiation is crazy, then that’s just a different way of being “crazy”.
    So in order to apply the “principle of charity” in interpreting the Gospel, I’d have to dump a pretty historically significant about the Eucharist, that is NOT contradicted by the Gospels, mainly because “don’t understand how it works, so it can’t be true” But if that were a good motivation, then EVERYTHING I personally don’t understand can’t be true…

    The thing is: I think not understanding does give the option of saying “I don’t understand therefore I refuse to even care about this” but not “I don’t understand, therefore it cannot be true”.

    #4

    You have a very, very strong tendency to embrace some group identity

    Embrace? No. I’m not unequivocally happy about the fact that parts of who I am derive from certain groups. It is, however, History 101 – the past has consequences, even if you didn’t choose that history. They aren’t measurable in the same way results in the hard sciences are, but I posit they exist.

    Now, it’s my personal ethical choice to believe that while I’m not at fault for what happened in the past, I cannot overlook the fact that some of that stuff was bad. And since part of my success in life IS the result good historical conditions, it’s only fair that I help fix the bad stuff, if possible. For this to work, I do need to have an ethical awareness broader than “I didn’t do or choose this so it’s not by business.”

    For me it’s more “collective ethical consciousness” than “collective guilt” although the bad-responsibility part is more important in practice (if something is splendid, there’s no reason to do anything about it.)
    If that sounds loony to you, I give you full permission to think I’m loony.

    #5 – I think at this point it’s so likely you are just offering rhetorical questions that I’ll just shut up unless you actually WANT me to continue.

    • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

      Iota wrote to me:
      > And I asked about the principle of uncertainty specifically (again: it wasn’t my only example) because the way it was usually explained (where I could hear it) was as a kind of law whereby “You can either know how fast a particle is moving or where it is, not both things at once”. Your description was an educational experience. At least I got something out of this discussion. Apologies if it irritated you.

      Oh, as I think you figured out, I kind of like shooting down this misconception about the Uncertainty Principle! Many of my fellow physicists are partly responsible for the widespread confusion: I am afraid a lot of them (especially in the older generations) secretly wanted to be philosophers and wished to sound deep and profound.

      I think scientists should resist the urge to sound deep and profound and should instead try to be clear.

      Iota also wrote:
      > AFAIK Eastern Orthodox do believe in the Real Presence…

      That’s why I limited my comments to Western Christians.

      Iota also wrote:
      > I have no first-hand references, but AFAIK Oriental Orthodox do to. It’s not an exclusively Latin (i.e. Roman Catholic) idea.

      Well, I think we both agree that Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics were the same religious community at the time the dogma developed.

      There were other Christian groups, you know, in ancient times, and we know that, for example, the Ebionites and Arians did not hold some of the views that modern skeptics find incredible (do we know their views on the Eucharist? I don’t know).

      And, no, I have recently been looking into the world history stuff and have not seen many historians who include Greece for the last thousand years or more as part of “Western Civilization”: it’s Byzantine versus Western in all the world histories I have looked at.

      I think the broader issue we are dancing around here is fideism: I know that you personally and Catholicism generally are officially non-fideist.

      But, looking back over your posts, you repeatedly say things that seem to imply or assume that I and many other science-based skeptics are simply arbitrarily choosing some philosophical presuppositions: e.g.,
      > The fundamental difference seems to be that a certain absolutist understanding of science precludes the existence of anything that is fundamentally inexplicable…

      On the contrary, all scientists whose opinion on the matter I am aware of assume that in any chain of explanation there has to be something that is “fundamentally inexplicable,” a mere brute fact about reality. Otherwise, your chain of explanation would go on forever.

      Illustrating that was part of the reason I replied to your question about the Uncertainty Principle: the world just is that way.

      Or when you said:
      > The only thing I actually do think is that personal proofs are personal – they work for you and probably no one else.

      Again, that implies a necessity in choosing for oneself what to believe that is the antithesis of the attitude of scientists: our goal, quite often achieved (vide the sphericity of the earth, the heliocentric hypothesis, etc.) is to accumulate such overwhelming, overbearing evidence that it is literally impossible for any normal person to doubt our conclusions (try, for a moment, to really convince yourself that the earth is flat!).

      In a narrow legalistic sense, scientists of course generally support freedom of thought.

      But, in a broader cultural sense, we scientists are aiming for a situation in which it is not really possible for people, try as they may, to doubt the scientific worldview. I think we are well along towards that goal. To be sure, many of my fellow scientists would not put it so bluntly, but, believe me, it is implicit in what they say and how they behave. I’m just the unsubtle guy who says it out loud.

      A lot of the opposition to science, e.g. from Creationists, is due to people grasping the fact that science is, in a sense, a kind of “cultural imperialism.” I understand their anger; I think and hope there is nothing they can do to stop us.

      So, from my side, that is basically where I think I differ from you and most modern Christians with whom I have discussed this subject: most of you, while not perhaps “fideists” in the narrow sense, support the idea that religious beliefs are properly chosen from a subjective personal standpoint and that everyone should be nice about accepting this. On the other hand, you folks generally do not think we should cheerfully accept people choosing from their own subjective personal standpoint whether witches should be burned at the stake, whether Jews should be subjected to pogroms, etc.

      I disagree: I think people should reject the idea that they are morally free to believe as they wish in all areas relating to the nature of reality and instead do everything they can to enslave their beliefs to the iron whip of reality. If you have read Richard Dawkins, I think you may agree that he shares that perspective with me: indeed, that is probably the main reason so many people hate him (his supposed “dogmatism”).

      At one time, the idea that religion should, morally speaking, not be a matter of personal choice but rather of provable facts about external reality was standard Catholic and Protestant teaching. No more: I think because religion is on the defensive and finds a more relativist stance to help in that defense.

      There are, of course, a few Christians who still agree with me on that general point, but the religious views they are trying to defend as provably true are so absurd that they cannot convince most people.

      Incidentally, I have no particular quarrel with your desire to undo past wrongs to the degree that can be done: I, for example, would like to see justice for Palestinians, even though neither I nor my ancestors were among those who treated them unjustly. It was just the idea of “collective guilt,” which you mentioned explicitly, that bothers me.

      Dave

      • Iota

        #1

        There were other Christian groups

        I am not a Church historian – you are advised to check this/do your own research.
        AFAIK, they almost always believed something else you’d find crazy. So invoking them as allies is like saying “There were people who didn’t think the world was flat… oh wait, they believed it’s a the shape of a ziggurat…”

        I’d honestly have to do research on those specific guys. My general impression though is that in early Christianity the point of contention was not so much whether something does not square with physics but rather whether, to put it in general terms, God would deign to interact with matter. So you get, for example Docetism that comes to the conclusion it is improbable God would do any such thing, so Christ never suffered the Passion and the Eucharist is not the Body of Christ (He did have “a spiritual body”, however – how does THAT work?)

        #2 Yes, I think some sceptics DO choose philosophical presuppositions (see below for an example). I have no statistics on whether there are “many” or only “some” such people. And I generally TRY to not be too definitive about what I think a particular person talking to me thinks (e.g. Dave Miller form Sacramento). I do admit to creating basic hypotheses. But they can always change – they are only there because without some sort of hypothesis a conversation wouldn’t even be possible.

        I don’t think those presuppositions are necessarily “arbitrary”. They are a result of something. Even if, say, I think they are wrong. Some of them might not be consciously chosen, and might result, say, from upbringing, culture or temperament (that hardly makes them arbitrary). Others are chosen, more or less consciously.

        #3

        all scientists whose opinion on the matter I am aware of assume that in any chain of explanation there has to be something that is “fundamentally inexplicable,”

        In that case, I seem to have met (online) many people whom you disagree with but who believe in some sort of Science where EVERYTHING is explainable (inexplicability is just a temporary glitch)…
        #4

        we scientists are aiming for a situation in which it is not really possible for people to doubt the scientific worldview.

        A few different things here. Remember, each of those statements actually starts with “I think” (I just don’t always write it explicitly).
        a) I don’t think of you as “a scientist”. I think of you as “Dave Miller from Sacramento, physicist, [insert temporary hypotheses]. I don’t think it’s possible to be “a scientist” in all decisions. Simply because some decisions do not fit the paradigm of decision-making that I assume is typical of hard sciences that don’t involve human subjects. Maybe your experience proves otherwise -this is why I asked you about your decisions, say, concerning, medical treatments.
        b) Chief among such decisions are ethical decisions, i.e. when you EVALUATE what to do. You had suggested that science is descriptive, and I further suggested that applied science is partly explanatory and concerned with doing things. So it might answer questions what and how, but, I don’t think science can answer the question “is this a good idea?”
        c) Given this I don’t think there exists such a thing as a “scientific worldview” that would encompass ALL of human experience. First, because there are disciplines of knowledge that aren’t science, have a much more non-definite way of reaching conclusions, but are useful for knowing stuff (such as history and, more controversially, psychology). Second, because sometimes a procedure may exist for ascertaining something but it is too costly to be applied all the time. And finally, because some questions aren’t ever answered by science as such.
        d) I have no problem with science doing it’s thing in the realms where it normally does a splendid job. Say, discovering whether the earth is flat or not (although I admit I personally find photographs from space – i.e. results of applied science – more convincing than, say, calculations). In my country I hadn’t even ever MET a creationist who wasn’t “culturally imported from the US” (e.g. a Jehovah’s Witness). The whole “Religion creates people who think science is of the devil!” argument is completely foreign to me. If I object to a scientific procedure, it will be on ethical grounds (say: embryonic stem cell research). At this point the scientist whose work I object to can usually only try to convince me to their ethics. Simply insisting they are a scientist so they know what they’re doing won’t work (because science doesn’t normally answer questions of ethics).
        e) The fundamental claims of Christianity (e.g. existence of God, resurrection of Christ) will lay OUTSIDE of the domain of science if Christianity is true (because religion cannot be proven by science). What science could do is falsify Christianity, if it were proven that a doctrine actually contradicts fact. I think that isn’t likely.
        f) A significant point of contention is what do you do with a claim that is not falsifiable? It cannot actually be disproven (since you cannot prove non-existence). Most atheists I’ve talked to pull out Ockham’s Razor, make an argument from probability or an emotional appeal. None of this are actually “conclusive evidence”. It surely IS possible that an absurd or unlikely thing may actually HAPPEN. It’s that you don’t think it did, but that kind of means you’re putting your conclusion in your premise. It’s understandable given how science operates, but it’;s not convincing on a question that I think lies outside the realm of science.
        g) Of course, you CAN argue that faith inherently undermines “the scientific worldview”. Because if believers ignore the argument that God is unlikely, “unnecessary”, or improbable. aren’t they likely to also believe that everything is (im)possible? In other words, isn’t any belief in things that science can’t disprove (but an atheist scientist thinks extremely unlikely) an attack on all science?
        h) For me God’s interaction with the world is a special case, not a typical one. Hence I am likely to listen to a scientific opinion, so long as I trust the general discipline (e.g. I’m seriously sceptical of evolutionary biology). Although I do reserve the right to think about something even if, say, my doctor declares it “unlikely”, because I have seen unlikely things happen.
        i) The problem with God can, maybe, be illustrated like this. Say a guy with a diploma in neuroscience came up to me and told me “Your friend X doesn’t respect you”. This contradicts my actual experience (which is, however, NOT based on hard proof). I might be convinced, but it WILL take more than a mixture of appeals to emotion, ad hominems and arguments from probability or from standards of proof (a.k.a. Can you PROVE your friend respects you? If not, why believe it?). What the guy tells me had better be rather watertight, because – seeing as I have an experience that contradicts his thesis – I AM going to poke holes in that argument. Now, if I at least had serious doubts about my friend’s respect, it would be much easier . But the problem is I believe (and have a personal, largely non-transferable, experience that indicates) I am respected. So we’re going to have a pretty fundamental disagreement here until you really have something that looks like evidence.

        #5

        At one time, the idea that religion should, morally speaking, not be a matter of personal choice but rather of provable facts about external reality was standard Catholic and Protestant teaching.

        Really? I can’t speak for Protestants but I really would like to know where you got that idea for Catholics. I will concede at once that Catholics think theism, of the “personal God creator exists” variety is discoverable from the natural world – in principle – (we still do), although that is not the same as saying everyone WILL discover it. But it’s a far cry form “religion is discoverable via provable facts about external reality”. If that were true we would have blamed , say, Angles for not becoming Christians after around 60 AD despite not having the Gospel.

        A point of confusion might be that you frame it in terms of “personal choice” when I would term it “personal experience” – people are convinced of different things, because they have different temperaments, different perceptions, different cultures. An inhabitant of Saudi Arabia, who has never so much as seen a Bible (their distribution is illegal) and generally thinks it’s forged (viz. Islamic teaching on it) will not, under normal circumstances, interpret metaphysical experiences as having come form Christ and will not begin to do so if he or she just “hears about the Gospel” (in the strictest formal sense). I’m not aware of the Church blaming them for it. That is the cornerstone of the teaching on invincible ignorance. I’m under the impression that at least St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) used this technical term. I’m not sure if it appeared earlier, but even if it didn’t, I expect the concept to be older.

        #6 the idea that religious beliefs are properly chosen from a subjective personal standpoint and that everyone should be nice about accepting this

        I support the idea that religious (and not only religious, also moral and philosophical) ideas are accepted for (or at least strongly influenced by) subjective reasons not because I like it but because I think it’s psychologically true. People vary by temperament, perception, experience and so on. I assume you don’t honestly think this (all of it being subjective) is irrelevant?

        I don’t think anyone has to be “nice about it” as a matter of universal principle. There are conditions where the exact reverse is required (e.g. if you catch a Catholic trying to burn someone). But in a situation where that particular person is not engaging in anything immediately or predictably destructive, being intentionally insulting and/or mocking is IMO mainly likely to make things worse.

        And if you insult or mock people for what they believe in, you shouldn’t be surprised when they retaliate. So “I compared you to a child abuser/I said you are a witch-burner/a primitive towelhead/a totalitarian twit/a cow worshipping idolater and now you’re angry – you are being EMOTIONAL! Gotcha! Proves you’re wrong!” is a VERY weird line of thinking to me.

        • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

          Ioata wrote to me:
          > I support the idea that religious (and not only religious, also moral and philosophical) ideas are accepted for (or at least strongly influenced by) subjective reasons not because I like it but because I think it’s psychologically true. People vary by temperament, perception, experience and so on. I assume you don’t honestly think this (all of it being subjective) is irrelevant?

          Well, of course, everyone knows that many, many people are indeed not just influenced but pretty much controlled by such reasons; after all, my claim is that all religious believers are controlled by such factors: “Religion is a badge of group identity.”

          Where I think we disagree is that you seem to think that this is unavoidable and really not that bad. I think it is quite avoidable and the root of most of the large-scale evil in the world.

          I.e., I think that people should exert a great deal of effort to prevent their judgments on important matters relating to the nature of the real world from being determined by subjective reasons, personal experiences, etc., and I think they can largely succeed if they work really hard at it.

          Iota also wrote:
          > I will concede at once that Catholics think theism, of the “personal God creator exists” variety is discoverable from the natural world – in principle

          That was my point.

          Iota also wrote:
          > I don’t think it’s possible to be “a scientist” in all decisions. Simply because some decisions do not fit the paradigm of decision-making that I assume is typical of hard sciences that don’t involve human subjects.

          Another point on which we strongly disagree. That is why I pointed out somewhere above that critical historians (which most modern historians aspire to be) do apply the same method of strenuously doubting their sources, carefully looking for disconfirming information, etc. that scientists use. Of course, historians do not use microscopes, but then neither do astronomers! The detailed techniques differ between the different sciences and between natural science and the humanities, but the general approach should be the same: i.e., in a sense, yes, historians should use the scientific method.

          There are a lot of scholars who do just this in studying the Bible, and they come to very different conclusions (as far as I can tell all of them do) than you do.

          Iota also wrote:
          > Chief among such decisions are ethical decisions, i.e. when you EVALUATE what to do. You had suggested that science is descriptive, and I further suggested that applied science is partly explanatory and concerned with doing things. So it might answer questions what and how, but, I don’t think science can answer the question “is this a good idea?”

          I agree, as I think almost all scientists do, with Hume’s “is” vs. “ought” distinction: ordinarily, a moral statement is an expression of a decision or of an emotion or of agreement or disagreement with some set of rules taken for granted for the sake of the discussion.

          Of course, given a set of clear rules, it may be a factual matter whether some action is consistent with those rules. Similarly, given certain goals or values, it is a factual matter whether or not certain means will or will not attain those ends.

          This “fact vs. values” distinction is of course old hat for more than two centuries.

          Iota also wrote:
          > Given this I don’t think there exists such a thing as a “scientific worldview” that would encompass ALL of human experience. First, because there are disciplines of knowledge that aren’t science, have a much more non-definite way of reaching conclusions, but are useful for knowing stuff (such as history and, more controversially, psychology).

          Well, as I pointed out above, most modern historians try to follow a “critical” method that is essentially the scientific method applied to their field. And, certainly, there is a long tradition in psychology of trying to apply the scientific method: admittedly, it was a bit of a joke for a long while, but with the rise of cognitive psych, neural science, evolutionary psych, etc., I think they are starting to make real progress.

          So, in that sense, yes, I think that “ALL of human experience” is amenable to the scientific method in the broad sense, to the degree that we can attain knowledge at all.

          Now, perhaps you are merely pointing out that, say, the taste of crème brûlée is not something to be adjudicated by science. True, but that is because the taste of crème brûlée is not a fact that is true or false: it is merely an experience to be enjoyed (or not, by those who happen not to like crème brûlée).

          I think one of the points on which we differ is that you seem to think that experience and truth are almost the same thing. On the other hand, I think that those who highly value personal experience as a touchstone of truth almost always horribly deceive themselves as shown by the fact that wildly inconsistent thought systems – Hinduism, Randian Objectivism, Freudianism, Christianity, etc. – are all based on personal experience.

          I therefore think an honest pursuit of truth should be based on a zealous attempt to free ourselves from the fetters of our individual personal experiences.

          I get the impression that that is not a freedom you are eager to pursue.

          Dave

          • Iota

            > Where I think we disagree is that you seem to think that this is unavoidable and really not that bad.

            I don’t attach a “good”/“bad” to this. It just IS that way. Maybe it would be better if it worked otherwise. It doesn’t. But yes, I do think it’s unavoidable as part of human psychology. If someone claims they have purely objective reasons for believing something (notice the difference between believing and knowing) or having an ethics, no whiff of cultural influence , personal experience, temperament, no possible influence from the way their particular brain is wired… I could possibly believe that – if they had proof. Which, I take it, might be hard to obtain.

            > I think one of the points on which we differ is that you seem to think that experience and truth are almost the same thing.

            Of course not. Truth is not the same as personal experience. In the desert I might personally experience a mirage of an oasis, but it does not follow that there is an oasis.

            What I would say, without hesitation, is that the notion you can always ignore your personal experience is illusory. In some situations you can do it very easily (say once we agreed on normalized units of weight, if we have scales, if they are good, my personal experience of how heavy something is doesn’t matter – if the scales are bad, however, it starts getting tricky), in others it’s a gamble, and yet in others it’s basically impossible, because those attitudes don’t even have to be conscious and I fail to see how you could successfully prevent an unconscious factor from interfering.

            > Another point on which we strongly disagree.

            You will notice I wasn’t asking about Christianity here. I still quite honestly have no idea how you make decisions in certain parts of your life (and it really doesn’t have to be religion) I would dearly love to know. Just out of curiosity.

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