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Atheism/What about these statements?

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Question
Hi Jeff, It has been a long time. What do you think about these statements? Science is a search for certainty in an unsure world. Faith is what empowers curiosity. It assures you of a depth to reality we can never completely plumb. It is the precondition for truly exploring the unknown. Faith assures me of the intelligibility of reality and says look as deeply and extensively as you like, you never need worry things will really be absurd or ultimately meaningless. Even scientists MUST make a kind of pre-faith leap in order to do science; they must ASSUME that reality is ultimately intelligible and that human beings are capable of knowing the truth. They cannot proceed without such an act of 'faith.’

Answer
“Science is a search for certainty in an unsure world.”

I completely disagree. Science is a collaborative search for truth and set of empirical methods for progressing towards the truth. It is the belief system with objective criteria that is truly open-minded[1]. Science, to its very core, is comfortable with uncertainty because when one is testing hypotheses one is considering alternatives and the evidence needed to justify favoring one idea over another. As a scientist, I engage in this sort of activity all the time and my career incentives really are to establish the facts, not generate interesting stories.

Science has a reputation for being axiomatic and deductive, therefore some people mistaken believe it necessarily requires building assumptions on top of assumptions. Its a sad state of affairs that so many are so poorly educated in science that they don't even know how it works. Indeed, it is only through a conditional or statistical view of the universe that it is possible to gain knowledge while simultaneously maintaining a realistic assessment of certainty.

Philosophers of science turn to a Bayesian interference[2] as a model for the scientific process. For a great primer, I would recommend this talk by Richard Carrier[3] - I don't think I can explain it any better than he does. If you start with a set of hypotheses and you can calculate the probabilities that each of those hypotheses are true, then you can calculate how you should update those probabilities based on new evidence if you also know how well each of those hypotheses fit the new evidence. Maybe this seems like too many requirements to be useful, but this is precisely the sort of information that scientists actually have. It demonstrates that scientists actually learn things when they do experiments and how they could they can know if they are being overconfident. Another point is that by expressing knowledge in probabilities, alternative hypotheses form an integral part of the inference.

Maybe it doesn't like “real” knowledge to simply update the probabilities based on available information. If you go from a 50% chance that something is true, to a 99.9% chance that something is true - can you say you “know” anything if you still can't say anything with absolute certainty? Yes. You do still know something. An individual can act on a 99.9% percent change in a way that they could not act on a 50% chance - it updates the expected consequences (in a way that approaches 100% certain knowledge). One can formally quantify information content using the concept of entropy, seen in information theory[4] (in computer science philosophy) as well statistical physics [5][6]. This formal definition of information is consistent with the description I just gave.

One should not mistake the cautious knowledge of science for the false certainty of sophistry. Its an anti-science canard to set up this false equivalence between empirical methods and divine revelation. Science represents real knowledge - there is no conflict between upholding a scientific description of the universe as a set of reasonable conclusions while simultaneously criticizing any religious description as baseless speculation. The difference is that scientists actually know what they are talking about. Here of course, I'm not so much comparing the typical scientist to the typical clergyman, but rather the ideals of Science versus the ideals of Religion, in the way Carrier argues here[7]. But as a concrete example, I have previously criticized William Lane Craig for putting on airs of scientific sophistication while actually putting forth a highly superstitious argument[8]. His argument is more credible than that of Intelligent Design proponents, but ultimately they are both engaging in the same sort of project.


“Faith is what empowers curiosity. It assures you of a depth to reality we can never completely plumb. It is the precondition for truly exploring the unknown. Faith assures me of the intelligibility of reality and says look as deeply and extensively as you like, you never need worry things will really be absurd or ultimately meaningless.”

I disagree again. The therapeutic benefits of faith are widely touted and never demonstrated. In general, I think we should recognize that knowingly cultivating delusions is not recommended medical practice, whether self-administered or administered by a charismatic community speaker. In fact when it comes to legitimate therapy, one effective approach is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy[9] which is formed around identifying delusions, helping the patient acknowledge them, and helping the patient get past their delusions.

My basic problem with this kind of justification of faith in this - Anyone who can say “I need to believe this in order to cope” should also be able to say “I don't need to believe this in order to cope”. Because if they aren't incline to believe without the emotional consequences, than that means that if truly don't believe it when they are honest with themselves. And if they are capable of coping without truly believing in it, than there is not reason why should say they believe it. And if fact, the cognitive dissonance[10] required to maintain a false belief introduces its own problems.

There is a way for the mind to accept difficult truths by confronting them instead of embracing the comforting falsehoods faith. This psycho-philosophical alternative to faith is what I refer to as absurdism, after a similar idea espoused by Albert Camus[11].

Faith, even if it could be shown to have therapeutic benefits, seems particularly ill-suited to encouraging curiosity. Assuming something that is either not true or dubiously true, closes one off from the true possibilities (again I recommend [1]) and can lead to even more wildly erroneous conclusions[12].

Moreover I find the premise that “philosophical or scientific conclusions lead to existential anxiety or depression” to be itself dubious. More likely I find that the psychological substrate of an individual affects how they react to the events in their life and the thoughts that they have. When a brick-layer has anxiety about whether they are engaged in a meaningful profession, their concerns get marginalized. When a philosopher has anxiety about whether or not the universe is meaningful, their pathology can become contagious. Scientists are people to, but I haven't seen a gloomy or frantic view of the universe gain any traction with the scientific community. I think this has to do with ability of scientific process to hone in on objective facts. Scientists as a group tend to have several advantages when it comes to their own mental health - their profession is engaging, well-respected, well-compensated, and flexible. But for those who do experience a sense of overwhelming fear or dread, it would be highly irresponsible to just recommend them a religion and then tell to move on.


“Even scientists MUST make a kind of pre-faith leap in order to do science; they must ASSUME that reality is ultimately intelligible and that human beings are capable of knowing the truth. They cannot
proceed without such an act of 'faith.’”

And I disagree with this last statement. Although I would say that the first two quotations are just poorly established claims that fall apart under scrutiny, the problem with this last statement is not so obvious. Indeed, Hume, who admire a lot and is known for being a rigorous atheistic thinker, essentially agreed with this[13]. It should be mentioned, that he felt this foundational assumption should be regarded as a problem shared by all approaches to knowledge, not just secular ones.

Okay so now on to the debunking. First of all, it is no assumption whatsoever to say that reality is intelligible. Anything can be described in an infinite number of different orderly ways, so what you call “unintelligible” is simply the highly complex. I've said this to you before[14]. So really, what you are asking is “why is the universe so simple”?

The answer to this is that simple things are more likely. This is known as Occam's Razor[15]. What's simple? That which is mathematically simple - i.e. existing in patterns or having a mathematically concise definition. An equivalent, but much clearer formulation of Occam's Razor is given in the Principle of Parsimony: “That which explains the most and assumes the least is the most likely”. This was Hume's foundational assumption and he felt that it was so useful that it could not be rejected. Indeed, you used it implicitly when you implied that assumptions should be avoided when possible. It may be so ingrained in the core of our psychology that we cannot function without it - our brain fills in the patterns naturally[16].

But modern philosophy can do even better than that holding parsimony to useful, necessary, or unavoidable. Solomonoff Induction (I'd recommend starting here[17] and here[18]) purports to demonstrate that the Principle of Parsimony follows from the mathematical definition of probability and the mathematical definition of complexity. I give a visiting lecture on Solomonoff Induction here[19][20]. Philosophers argue whether or not (and to what extent) Solomonoff Induction is hindered by underlying assumptions and important caveats, but if you do not presently find it to be a satisfactory justification of parsimony it makes me think it will be possible to fully articulate one in the future.


Links:
[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T69TOuqaqXI
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayesian_inference
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHIz-gR4xHo
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy_(information_theory)
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy_(statistical_thermodynamics)
[6] http://bayes.wustl.edu/etj/articles/theory.1.pdf
[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyrKMIDSVYE
[8] http://en.allexperts.com/q/Atheism-2724/2010/8/Kalam-argument.htm
[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rational_emotive_behavior_therapy see also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_behavioral_therapy
[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance
[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism
[12] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_explosion
[13] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_induction
[14] http://en.allexperts.com/q/Atheism-2724/2013/3/blind-watch-maker.htm
[15] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam%27s_razor
[16] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gestalt_psychology
[17] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomonoff%27s_theory_of_inductive_inference
[18] http://lesswrong.com/lw/dhg/an_intuitive_explanation_of_solomonoff_induction/
[19] http://jseldred.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/solomonoff.ppt
[20] http://fermisocietyofphilosophy.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/inductive-inference-and

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Jeffrey Ellsworth

Expertise

I am well versed on the arguments for both sides about the existence of God and am especially aware of the philosophical ramifications and psychological reactions to atheism. Also, if you have a question about atheism as that pertains to Science or Skepticism, I may be an especially good pick. However my knowledge of non-Judeo-Christian religions and Biblical archaeology is generally limited to knowledge about directions to more informative resources.

Experience

I've been an atheist for 14 years now, open about it for 9 years after being raised in a Roman Catholic family. In that time I have held many different philosophical perspective on the subject and had different emotional and psychological reactions to atheism. I have absorbed many internet articles, video debates, atheist publications, and secular podcasts in my process of understanding and supporting the atheist movement. I routinely hold conversations on the subject.

Publications
One article in If Journal, an interfaith publication.

Education/Credentials
I have a BS in Physics and Mathematics from the College of William & Mary I am pursuing my Ph.D in Physics at Indiana University at Bloomington. I have very little formal training in philosophy or sociology.

Awards and Honors
I was president of the William & Mary Students for Science & Secularism before graduating.

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