Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What evidence?

I recently watched a debate between Keith Ward and Arif Ahmed on belief in God. On the theistic side, I'm sympathetic to Ward's philosophical idealism, as well as his belief that faith is fundamentally experiential. Still, overall I was underwhelmed, particularly by his Q&A.

On the atheistic side, I found Ahmed's argument very standard, and he expresses it very well. In particular, he drove home on more than one occasion the central tenet of his empiricism: one should only believe on the basis of evidence. By contrast, he says, you should not believe something because you want it to be true, because you believed it when you were a child, or even if it makes you a better person.

It's the third point of that list that struck a chord with me. This form of empiricism seems to be now a sort of modern orthodoxy, so that even devout Christians seem more often than not inclined to nod assent to it. Permit me to be a heretic.

What if this central tenet of empiricism is false? Maybe the point of believing something is to be a better person. In some sense this doesn't actually change the positive requirement of empiricism, which is to believe things only on the basis of evidence. But it does change what kinds of things you might accept as evidence.

Whatever tenets of empiricism philosophers may profess, science is sold more often than we realize on the basis of making us better people. Modern cosmology makes us humble in the face of our own smallness. The theory of evolution teaches us how many weaknesses and biases we naturally inherit, in the hopes that we will be mindful of them. The same theory also teaches us how little difference there really is between what we call different "races" of human beings. Technology in general and medicine in particular allow us to help others like never before. And the list goes on.

Certainly, having a false impression of how the physical world works usually hinders you being a good person. False views of economics, for example, will harm your ability to help the world's poor, no matter how good your intentions. False views of science will make you blind to the harm we've done to the environment. Again, the list goes on.

But what about that which does not concern physical phenomena? If believing that love itself is eternal, that goodness, beauty, and truth unite in one infinite, eternal being--if believing that and acting upon it causes you to grow into a better person, what are we to make of that? Are we to presume it is false, simply because it doesn't help predict physical phenomena?

If one tries to tear truth and goodness in two, then I suppose you end up with atheism. But I don't think we should do that. Your search for truth should ultimately be one with your search for goodness and beauty.

One application would be in response to the Poseidon question. This was a question from the audience to which I think Keith Ward gave the most disappointing response of the debate. The questioner asked whether substituting "Poseidon" for "Jesus" in all of Ward's arguments would have made any difference.

The answer is that Poseidon does not lead us any closer to what is good. Pray to him all you want, you won't be any better acquainted with the mystery of transcendent love. Ancient pagans prayed and sacrifice to their gods to appease them, essentially as a way of sanctifying political power. Jesus has nothing to do with that.

Poseidon is the god of the sea. If you believe in gods of different things, you are still far from believing in anything truly transcendent. The God of classical theism is not attached to any one particular thing. One does not pray to God in order to appease Him or to gain power over this or that object, but rather to know and love the very essence of the whole universe.

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