Are We Being Fooled? (RJS)

Are We Being Fooled? (RJS) July 25, 2013

Several years ago I read an article in Science that led to a post on the idea of knowing – and the reliability or unreliability of intuition. The questions raised in that post are worth looking at again. None of us can know everything in every subject. We all trust intuition, common sense, and authorities.  But authorities cannot say just anything. We tend to trust authorities when they put together a story that makes sense, matches at some level with our common sense and intuition.  Sometimes this leads us astray, and we can find appalling examples of this in history. But most of the time this combination of common sense, intuition and authority serves us quite well.

Are intuition and common sense trustworthy guides? How do we know when they are or are not?

Tim Keller in his book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism claims that we all know that God exists. He concludes Ch. 8 The Clues of God and sets up Ch 9 The Knowledge of God saying:

In the next chapter I want to do something very personal. I don’t want to argue why God may exist. I want to demonstrate that you already know that God does exist. I’d like to convince the reader that, whatever you may profess intellectually, belief in God is an unavoidable, “basic” belief that we cannot prove but can’t not know. We know God is there. That is why even when we believe with all our minds that life is meaningless, we simplty can’t live that way. We know better. (p. 142)

This intuitive belief in God, some kind of God, is widely recognized and acknowledged, even among secular scholars. But is this intuition reliable?  When pastors and Christian scholars lead us in ways that seem consistent with this intuition, should we trust them?

An interesting essay was published a number of years ago in Science Magazine [Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science, P. Bloom and D. S. Weisberg, Science 312, 9960-997 (2007)]. This short essay discusses resistance to ideas that conflict with common sense and intuition and are reinforced by trusted authorities. An important point is that intuition and common sense are not always right as intuition is based on limited experience. For example consider a ball exiting a curved tube. Which picture best illustrates the motion of the ball?

Many college students will select A – based on an intuition that motion should continue as before. The correct answer, of course, is B – the ball will continue straight. Our intuition recognizes this as obvious if we simply change the illustration from a ball to water:

The point of this illustration is simply that intuition is not always right and must be questioned – something every teacher, every professor, especially every science professor, knows very well. Quantum theory for example is not exactly intuitive or obvious. Evolutionary biology is, perhaps, more intuitive – but still conflicts with “normal” expectation. Is the basic belief in God that Keller describes one of those intuitions that must be questioned and ultimately rejected?

Bloom and Weisberg, the authors of this Science article, as well as Richard Dawkins and others, defend the position that “scientific” naturalistic thinking is counter intuitive but correct, while religious thinking is intuitive and wrong. Our innate belief that the universe has purpose, meaning, or plan is “unscientific” and in error. A belief that we are more than a fortuitous agglomeration of electrons, protons, and neutrons is a comforting and comfortable fairy tale. The authorities in our society who reinforce this errant belief should be confronted and replaced.

Many scientists at all levels disagree with the pure naturalist view. Francis Collins (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief) is one well known example. He denies the assertion that our sense of right, wrong, meaning and purpose is little more than an evolutionary accident. John Polkinghorne is a another well known example. I could name a number of others as well.

Owen Gingerich, Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science Emeritus at Harvard University is another example. Gingerich has written a small book, God’s Universe, in which he contests the idea that science and our understanding of the Universe eliminates purpose or design. This is an excellent book, very well written and enjoyable to read. There is no “center” of the universe – but this does not mean no purpose and no plan. Our understanding of astrophysics and astronomy does not lead inevitably to the view that the earth is insignificant and unexceptional. It is reasonable to consider the possibility or probability that God planned the emergence of intelligent creatures “in his image” and that this was programmed into the universe.

It was Galileo who wrote that the reality of the world was dually expressed in the Book of Scripture and in Nature, and these two great books could not contradict each other, because God was the author of both. So just as I believe that the Book of Scripture illumines the pathway to God, I also believe that the Book of Nature, in all its astonishing detail – the blade of grass, the missing mass five, or the incredible intricacy of DNA – suggests a God of purpose and a God of Design. And I think my belief makes me no less a scientist. (p. 79)

Accepting our intuition as correct, that there is a meaning and purpose in the world makes our Christian faith both reasonable and plausible. Gingerich reflects on this in the epilogue of his book.

If we regard God’s world as a site of purpose and intention and accept that we, as contemplative surveyors of the universe, are included in that intention, then the vision is incomplete without a role for divine communication, a place for God both as Creator-Sustainer and as Redeemer, a powerful transcendence that not only can be a something but can take on the mask of a someone; a which that can connect with us as a who, in a profound I-Thou relation. Such communication will be best expressed through personal relationships, through wise voices and prophets in many times and places. (p. 120)


Within the framework of Christianity, Jesus is the supreme example of personal communication from God. When the apostle Philip requested “Show us the Father,” Jesus responded, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the father.” When Jesus, hanging on the cross and slowly suffocating, cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” the nature of God’s self-limited, dappled world became excruciatingly clear. God acts within the world, but not always in the ways most obvious to our blinkered vision (p. 121)

So, back to Keller and our intuitive knowledge of God. I think that one of the most important point of conflict in the science/faith debate in our western culture is located right here. Collins, Gingerich, and I think that our intuition is reliable on this issue (and I could add many more names of scientists to this list). Dawkins, Bloom, Weisberg, and many others believe that our intuition misleads us.

What do you think?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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