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August 02, 2005

Comments

Derek

Thanks for the comments. There's much good stuff here to chew on.

I'd never encountered Gould's notion before. I think what I'm talking about is a bit different because he's specifically talking about non-overlapping areas. I'm talking about living with a multiplicity of worldviews which necessarily overlap. That is to say, I think that most people's quotidian working definition of reality is a composite drawn from a number of sources that only roughly cohere with one another. More often than not, this working model works fine. The problem is when there are important cases of overlap. Crises that we have no control over seem to bring this up. When I was sick as a child my mom would give me medicine, bundle me in bed, feed me chicken soup, and open up the windows to air out the room. I read at least three different worldviews at work here--one based in faith in pharmacology, one based in Appalachian home remedies, and one still reflecting Elizabethian notions of humours. Here there's overlap but no real conflict--expect maybe with theories that outside germs shouldn't be let in. Thus, I entirely agree with your point that "religious concepts can indeed threaten or impact non-religious domains." But let's face it, most of the conflicts that I--and probably you--face in our every day lives don't pose a threat to our health and well-being (with the potential exception of my incense addiction :-D).

You stated: I don’t understand how anyone can “believe” something to be true* when it isn’t supported by observed evidence from the testable realms of God’s creation. I believe that this was in specific reference to my religious claims. My counter-answer would be this--the experiences of power qualify for me as "observed evidence." Granted--it's subjective evidence and I can think of no way to meaure it empirically...except through documentation of how I behave towards my neighbors. My own question in return would be, Do you recognize the existence of anything that is not quantifiable? Must something be measurable for it to be true or real?

One material correction: Where Derek goes astray here is in his seeming opinion that hope is necessarily tied to belief in the Christian creeds. I don't think that I either said or implied this. I think some people could and would. I don't. I see hope as universally accessible. Naturally, I also see it as a theological virtue, but I would in no way restrict it to Christians. I'd even agree with your next line: "To my thinking, hope goes hand in hand with trust in God, viz., with faith. As one grows, so does the other."

Does empirical materialism have the answers? Can it provisde more than a two-dimensional world? Are truth and beauty biochemical chimeras?

Anyway, thanks again for the thoughtful response.

D. C.

Derek --

1. I appreciate your having posted your response here. I wrestled with whether to post my own thoughts above as a comment on your blog instead of as a separate essay. I think that, under blogging etiquette, that should be the presumption, given that you did all the work of writing your original posting. But my response ended up being so long, I figured it was best to post it here, instead of taking up space on your blog.

2. You ask: Must something be measurable for it to be true or real?

No. (It's a categorical statement, and as I noted before, all categorical statements are wrong, including this one.)

I imagine there are countless things that we would provisionally take as real, as belonging to the physical universe, even though as yet we cannot measure or perhaps even detect them.

3. You ask: Do you recognize the existence of anything that is not quantifiable?

At the risk of committing a Clintonism, it depends on what the meaning of "recognize the existence" is.

I cannot "recognize the existence" of God in the sense of mathematical certainty. I can't prove he exists in the same sense that I can prove that the sum of the angles of a triangle in Euclidian space is 180 degrees.

But I can be (and am) sufficiently persuaded of God's existence that I'm willing to live my life as if he did exist.

=======================================

4. Your question in # 3 above reminded me of another that has been posed to me from time to time by traditionalists: How much proof do I need before I will "believe" that Proposition X is true?

As framed, the question clearly is incomplete, because it focuses on belief in the abstract.

Better, I think, to focus instead on action: How much proof do I need that Proposition X is true in order to act as though it were true?

The answer depends in part on factors such as (i) the nature and likely consequences of the particular action; (ii) the likelihood of an error; and (iii) how non-recoverable an error would be.

For example, in OJ Simpson's criminal trial, the jury concluded that the prosecution had not presented enough proof of Simpson's guilt to justify sending him to prison. We require proof beyond a reasonable doubt before we will deprive a person of his liberty. In part, this is because you can't give him back his years of imprisonment if it turns out you were wrong.

Later, in Simpson's wrongful-death civil trial, the jury concluded that the proof was indeed sufficient to warrant ordering him to pay millions of dollars in damages. Most of his property was confiscated and sold. The legal rationale is that it's only money, and money can be restored if there's a mistake.

Different actions and consequences: different standards of proof. We find other examples in a variety of places, such as Torah and the U.S. Constitution to name but two (each of which requires that certain crimes be proved by the testimony of two witnesses).

We also find examples in everyday life: If a doctor wanted to freeze a noncancerous growth off my skin during a routine physical exam, I'd quickly agree. But if he wanted to amputate my arm, right there on the spot, to stop the spread of what he claimed was a malignant skin cancer, you can be sure I'd be talking to my wife and getting a second medical opinion before agreeing.

Let's go back to standards of proof in the context of belief.

Suppose that John Doe believes the planet Zebulon to be ruled by giant cats who have access to universal wisdom. In and of itself, that's probably not a particular concern. John Doe may well recognize that his belief is unsupported by any real-world evidence -- in effect, that it's just a hunch -- and therefore he's not going to take any action based on it. In that case, I don't have a problem with his belief, wacko as it may (and does) seem.

But now suppose John Doe is convinced (i) that the Cats of Zebulon have ordered all dogs on earth to be killed; (ii) that their orders must be obeyed; and consequently, (iii) he is duty-bound to break into my house and shoot my dog. His belief has gone way beyond a mere hunch; to put it mildly, I would definitely have a problem with it.

Let's back away from this extreme. Suppose John Doe is a candidate for an astrophysics job at NASA, and I'm the one having to decide whether to hire him. I'm certainly going to have a problem with his belief about the Cats of Zebulon, because it makes me seriously question his grip on reality, which is not an unimportant job qualification.

It seems we have a line-drawing problem: When do we start having problems with other people's beliefs?

I can't come up with an exhaustive list, but personally I have a problem with other people's beliefs (i) when their actions based on those beliefs cause "harm" to others without "good cause," however we might define those terms in any given circumstance; or (ii) when their beliefs cause me to lose confidence in their judgment.

That's a long-winded answer to your questions; I'm grateful for the thought-provocation.

D. C.

Derek, I realized I forgot to address two other questions of yours (I was finishing a lunch break and had to get to a meeting):

5. Derek says: One material correction: Where Derek goes astray here is in his seeming opinion that hope is necessarily tied to belief in the Christian creeds. I don't think that I either said or implied this.

Derek's original comment in his own blog posting was:

One of the reasons that I allow the creeds to trump science too is because of hope. I hope that there is more to life and existence than empirical materialism.

Faith in the creeds allows a belief in the mundus plenior, a world where reality cannot be bounded only by what can be weighed and measured.

I'll accept that the word "allows" could be read as non-exclusive, i.e., that it doesn't completely foreclose other ways to get to hope than by faith in the creeds. But I do think the strong first impression of the quoted text is that hope

6. Derek asks: Does empirical materialism have the answers? Can it provisde more than a two-dimensional world? Are truth and beauty biochemical chimeras?

I don't regard myself as an empirical materialist. Empiricism is perhaps the most important tool in my personal philosophical toolbox, but it's just a tool.

I don't have any reason to think that the "material" world we can currently perceive is all there is; dark matter / dark energy are reason enough to doubt that proposition. Consequently, "materialism" doesn't seem like a defensible worldview.

As to truth and beauty being biochemical chimeras: I definitely don't feel that way about truth. God is what he is, and he has created what he has created. If truth were a chimera, quaere whether empiricism would work as a tool; it clearly does, suggesting that truth is not a chimera. As to beauty being a chimera, I suspect it has to do with the Logos, but that's a subject for another essay (after a great deal more thought).

Derek

I'm certainly going to have a problem with his belief about the Cats of Zebulon, because it makes me seriously question his grip on reality, which is not an unimportant job qualification. Okay--so it's not just me... I have to get you to talk to our HR people... :-D

On 2-4, it seems that my burden of proof requires a smaller degree of certainty than yours. I find myself willing to make a stand and act a certain way based on a belief I can't prove rather than going to the intermediate category of "acting as if it were true." Naming the category in that way puts my teeth on edge.. As a Gen-Xer maybe it just seems too full of potential for hypocrisy. (Not that I'm accusing you of this, of ocurse, I just more willing to state a full out belief in something. And I'm prepared to be wrong about said things.)I hope this doesn't mean that I'm completely credulous, but I am willing to assert things as truths *for myself* and offer them for the trial and edification of others even when I cannot prove them.

5. I now see what you're talking about. I missed that before and didn't intend it. I was thinking of the first chunk there and missed the potential positivism in the second. I needed to throw a "for me" qualifier in there--I was not intending to speak categorically.

Thanks for the thoughtful response.

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