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May 12, 2006

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Harry Celine

It is a question of epistomology. You have a faith in an a certain sort of epistomology worked out by scientists and sceptics.

Many Christians (myself included) have an epistomology in which spiritual realities can be apprehended directly with the "eye of the soul".

Which epistomology to choose seems to be an existential decision. To my way of thinking, your epistomology leads inevitably to nihilism or solipsism. I have made an existential decision that there is an ontological truth, and that God and only God can reveal this ontological truth.

Christianity is the only way out of the descent into nihilism, as far as I can see.

D. C.

Harry Celine writes: "To my way of thinking, your epistomology leads inevitably to nihilism or solipsism. ... Christianity is the only way out of the descent into nihilism, as far as I can see."

Welcome, Harry. That's a pretty conclusory statement there; could you walk us through the steps of how you reached that conclusion?

Thanks for posting it, though; it's given me food for thought for a separate post about why I disagree.

Harry Celine

For a step-by-step argument try Hans Kung "Does God Exist?"

You might also want to ask yourself this question:

"If my brain is the result of random mutation and natural selection, what justifies my belief that my philosophy has any correspondence to the way things actually are, and furthermore why should I trust any such justification which is, after all, just a product of my brain?"

D. C.

Harry, I readily accept, and in fact am 99.99% persuaded, that God exists. My posting was about we can take John's word for it that Jesus was God incarnate.

Harry asks: "If my brain is the result of random mutation and natural selection, what justifies my belief that my philosophy has any correspondence to the way things actually are, and furthermore why should I trust any such justification which is, after all, just a product of my brain?"

Harry, the first part of the question looks like you're trying to bait me into an intelligent-design argument. Sorry, I'm not going to take the bait. Whatever caused my brain to come into being, it (the "whatever") is what it is.

The second part of the question can and should be answered separately. My answer, in a word, is: Experience. Because of our gifts of memory, reason, and skill (to quote BCP Eucharistic Prayer C), we're able to learn from experience, both our own and that of others. You may be right that those experiences don't permit us to "know," to 100% mathematical certainty, that the universe is not simply a figment of our imaginations. But our experience is more than sufficient to let us blunder along in life with a reasonable degree of confidence that we're not just imagining things. Of course we can't get to 100% mathematical certainty, but to borrow the punch line of an old mathematician / engineer joke, we can get close enough.

Harry Celine

D.C.

I mentioned Kung because of his argument that a stark choice exists between faith in revelation and nihilism, explaining my original statement.

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But, where is your evidence that God exists? Remember your principle:

"The More Consequential the Decision, the More Confident We Want to Be About the Supporting Evidence"

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No need to apologise, I wasn't trying to bait you.

Certainly our brains are competent enough to blunder along in life. A Darwinian evolution requires that. The question is why you believe that a brain suitable for finding bananas and avoiding predators should be able to give good answers to such questions as "Why are we here?" or "How ought we to live our lives."

Trusting experiences doesn't cut it. Our brains supply us with experiences, so trusting experiences means trusting our brains, which is begging the question.

You might be interested in "Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?" for an argument that, with high probablity, we are in fact living in a computer simulation. This argument is sufficiently powerful to have been discussed in respectable publications.

[And if we are living in a simulation, is it so unlikely that the Programmer might not conjure up a sim the He inhabits Himself?]

Steve Jones

Wow, no need to envy me. That's an impressive post.

D. C.

Harry Celine refers to "[Kung's] argument that a stark choice exists between faith in revelation and nihilism, explaining my original statement." I'll have to look that up, but my immediate initial impression is that it's a false dichotomy.

Harry asks: "But, where is your evidence that God exists?"

See this series of postings on "Why Believe in God? Some Reading Suggestions."

Harry writes:

The question is why you believe that a brain suitable for finding bananas and avoiding predators should be able to give good answers to such questions as "Why are we here?" or "How ought we to live our lives."

An excellent question, one posed by, among others, the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne. My response: We don't know enough to give a good answer.

Let me tackle what may be your underlying question. It seems to me that mutation and natural selection are likely to be two of the Creator's tools in the continuing creation. But, I would argue, we can't rule out that the Creator might also use other tools, nor that he might somehow intervenes in our universe from time to time. One of my personal mantras is "it is what it is," and that our job is not to decree the way the universe supposedly must be, but to figure out what it actually is. (My hunch, and that's all it is, is that somehow God is involved when we have insights and intuitions — but then we have to test those insights and intuitions for validity against our [fallible] observations of the real world, viz., of what God has actually wrought.)

Harry writes: "Trusting experiences doesn't cut it. Our brains supply us with experiences, so trusting experiences means trusting our brains, which is begging the question."

If you say so. Actually, not if you say so, because your argument smacks of "it's turtles all the way down." Bottom line: I choose to trust my brain, as well as the brains of my fellow human beings — but only up to a (non-fixed) point, because I also recognize the limitations of our brains.

Harry writes:

You might be interested in "Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?" for an argument that, with high probablity, we are in fact living in a computer simulation.

I'd heard of this speculation but had not read the paper; thanks for the link. Bostrom makes a very clever argument, but he falls flat on his face in his very first paragraph, where he says:

Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct).
(Emphasis added.) Bostrom assumes facts that are very much not in evidence. It reminds me of the old joke about the physicist, the chemist, and the economist, stranded on a desert island with cases of canned food but having nothing with which to open the cans. The physicist and chemist start working on how they might use available materials to get the cans open, whereupon the economist says, "stop worrying, fellas, we'll just assume we have a can-opener!"

Our understanding of consciousness is still at the level of stone knives and bear skins (to quote an old Star Trek episode). If that were not so, we would be far better than we are at dealing with mental illness, criminal behavior, educational disabilities, etc. We can't rule out that a sufficiently fine-grained simulation of a mind might attain consciousness. Neither can we categorically rule out that we're living in a computer simulation. But for us today to assume that either is true is risible. We all have to make choices (if in fact there is such a thing as free will); personally, I'm happy to take my chances that I'm living in a real world and not in a simulation.

Harry writes: "[And if we are living in a simulation, is it so unlikely that the Programmer might not conjure up a sim the He inhabits Himself?]"

If we make the simulation assumption, almost any scenario seems at least possible. But there's that big "if" again.

Thanks for the comment, Harry; it was fun to read and ponder.

Harry Celine

QC:

I thank you for your interest and patience in following me into some unlikely places. Bear with me for one more post.

I can't find in your collection of posts any evidence for the existence of God which would withstand the sort of prosecutorial cross-questioning you gave St. John above. This isn't surprising because if there were there would be many fewer atheists. My question to you is, why is faith in a Creator God acceptable to you, but faith in an Incarnate God unacceptable?

To my mind, you are swallowing a camel and straining at a gnat. The God of Creation is very much like the Programmer of the Simulation, according to my conceptions anyway. The Programmer of the Simulation is outside space and time (from the sims point of view). The Programmer of the Simulation may simulate Himself. Analogously God may become Incarnate.

Further, how is it that you can accept God influencing our brain chemistry (implied by you belief that God can change our thoughts), and yet balk at God influencing our reproductive chemistry so that a Virgin might conceive?

You seem to have set your level of faith at a pretty precise location. I have no criticism, you must act according to your lights. But you might be a bit more understanding of us who have a very slightly more expansive faith.

D. C.

Harry Celine writes: "I can't find in your collection of posts any evidence for the existence of God which would withstand the sort of prosecutorial cross-questioning you gave St. John above."

I have to disagree. The physical evidence supporting an inference of a Creator, as summarized in my collection of posts, has been scrutinized pretty rigorously by skeptical and even atheistic scientists. Not all of them agree with the conclusion that the existence of a Creator is likely, but a number of them do, not least the former-atheist philosopher Antony Flew and the late, atheist astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle.

The physical evidence isn't conclusive. But in my judgment, it's good enough to warrant cautiously proceeding as though a Creator did exist.

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Harry writes: "The Programmer of the Simulation may simulate Himself. Analogously God may become Incarnate."

I don't disagree that God could become incarnate. The question is, did he? Personally, I find the supporting evidence unpersuasive.

In positing a possible a cosmic simulation, you implicitly raise a good question, which is whether the Creator gives a damn about us. What if we're merely lab rats, or even slaves, manipulated by a Creator who cares little or nothing for us except for what we can do for him? As a teenager I read a science fiction story, Microcosmic God, by Theodore Sturgeon. As described by an Amazon.com reviewer:

The story involves a brilliant scientist named Kidder, who has absorbed the sum total of man's knowledge and is frustrated by the fact that he will not live long enough to witness future breakthroughs in technology. The logical solution of course, is for him to create his own race of beings (called Neoterics), with a faster metabolism and shorter lifespan (about 12 days, I think), so that he can observe their evolution and eventually learn from their discoveries.

I can make a case, admittedly conjectural, that this is not likely to be humanity's situation. Here's the argument:

* We seem to be, as one theologian puts it, created co-creators. My own surmise is that we seem to be part of a cosmic construction crew in the continuing Creation, gradually creating order and holding back the forces of disorder in our little corner of the universe. (A metaphor that comes to mind is that of the earliest English settlers in North America, various groups of whom landed in different places and promptly began clearing forests and planting farms and towns.)

* If we were simply lab rats or slaves being manipulated by an uncaring Creator, we'd eventually figure that out. Being a willful and somewhat cantankerous lot, we'd rebel. That likely would screw up the "lab experiment," and possibly the construction project as well.

* It seems logical that a Being intelligent enough to create a universe, or a simulation of one, would foresee all this, and therefore would choose not to start down that road. (Of course, that doesn't mean it has to be that way — we can't rule out that the possibility of our rebellion might be part of the experimental design in the first place.)

* So (I conjecture), for the time being, it's worth making the bet that the Creator is likely genuinely to care for us, and doesn't see us as mere lab rats or slaves.

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Harry writes: "But you might be a bit more understanding of us who have a very slightly more expansive faith."

I try very hard to understand those folks who profess, say, the Nicene version of Christianity. Unfortunately, few if any of them seem to be able to come up with any persuasive arguments why I should accept their faith but not that of the Mormons, the Muslims, the Hindus, the animists, etc.

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Harry, don't feel you have to stop responding and commenting; I'm happy to continue the conversation, which has been challenging.

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