The Nature of Belief

Dr. Ernest N. Prabhakar (ernest@pundit)
Sun, 14 Sep 97 23:10:05 -0700

Y'know, I really love FoRK. There aren't many places which, with
equal seriousness and civility, can simultaneously carry on
discussions about testicles and theism. It reminds me of a debate on
capitalism and international socioeconomics I had while Salsa dancing
with a girl: the world would be a better place if all such
discussions were carried out in that context....

I can't hope to compete with Ron "Dances with Quotations" Resnick for
a point-by-point commentary, so I will merely make some more general
observations. I rather enjoy the fact that I am most closely aligned
with CobraBoy! on this matter. Tim and I share belief in:
- a transcendant purpose to existence
- the value of the individual
- the goal of humanity being to transcend their limitations

I had originally pegged Tim as a shallow hedonist, for which I
publicly beg forgiveness. I believe Tim best qualifies as a
pantheistic humanist, which is a much richer tradition, both
historically and intellectually. The major difference between us is
that I believe God is a person who loves me, and that it is only by
His help and sacrifice that I am able to transcend my limitations.
Which is a big difference, but arguably a much smaller gulf than that
between Ron and I.

I must say, I was somewhat surprised by those who claimed their
atheism springs from the scientific method. Last I checked, I
thought I was the only card-carrying hard PhD-scientist on FoRK, all
the rest being engineers or computer scientists (Adam, do you have
thge tally?). Well, I don't carry the union card around anymore, but
I think its still around here somewhere. I've certainly paid enough

In my freshman physics labs, where we'd teach the scientific method,
I'd point out that physics never promises certainty, and that
everything we do is a matter of faith (as Ron says, atheism is as much
a matter of faith as theism). However, I'd make a big deal about the
difference between "blind faith" and "active faith." Blind faith
merely passively assumes something might be true. Active faith puts
the pedal to the metal to see whether the assumptions hold up in

You believe matter is composed of itty-bitty pieces? Okay, lets'
smash stuff together and see if they bounce the way you say they will.
You believe the body can organize defenses against diseases given
enough time? Okay, lets inject you with progressively stronger rabies
specimens and see if you live. You believe in a loving, forgiving
God who has promised to provide for you if you trust in Him? Okay,
let's see you put your time and money into serving Him rather than
yourself and see whether He comes through for you.

Mounting my Physics Pedestal, there are a couple of other points that
I have a hard time with. One is the confusion between axioms and
proofs, which Dan almost (though not quite) seemed to make, though I
think Ron refuted. Forgive me if I'm attacking a strawman, but I
don't often get the chance, so indulge me.

Sure, science assumes strict cause and effect, with no non-repeatable
causes, and this has proved extraordinarily useful for explaining the
physical world. But frankful, apart from some intriuging insights
from evolutionary biology, naturalistic reductionism seems extremely
inadequate to explain humanity. Frankly, from a mechanistic
Newtonian perspective, or even a Darwinian biological viewpoint,
humanity behaves in some truly inexplicable ways.

Why do primitive societies - without exception - give of their
hard-won possessions as offerings to Gods and demons? And yes, why do
we have such an "unbelievable variety of sexual positions"? Someone
(Wayne, was it Lewis or Chesterton?) made the observation that if man
was just an animal, why do we joke about sex and fear the dead? Sex
to animals, while arguably pleasant, is still serious business. And
dead people are easily the last ones we need to be afraid of. So why
do we react the way we do? What is it that we fear might be out

A related point is that physics, like all the hard sciences, is based
on repeatability, and thus has very little to say about historic
fact. We can tell you whether something is likely or unlikely to
have happened, or how it would have happened if it had, but that
doesn't prove it did or did not take place. Such discussions are
more appropriate for law, paleontology, or history. Christianity,
like other historical religions, relies much more on those disciplines
than empiricism.

My point is that physics - or science in general - is a well-defined
discipline, with its own standards of truth and regimes of
applicability. And thus may not be applicable to everything. Sure,
one can state that questions unanswerable by physics are invalid, but
that itself is clearly a metaphysical statement of philosophy, not at
all one answerable via the scientific method.

So, on to philosophy. We all appear to want a worldview which is
most succesful at explaining all the basic observations about the
universe. This is somewhat unusual in this anti-rationalistic age we
live in, but I think it is one of the things I find attractive about
FoRKers. We believe in observability, rationality, causality, and all
those things necessary for considered discourse.

For simplicity, let me assume there are three broad options for
explaining the universe:

I. Materialism: All that exists is what is explicable via natural
law. Human life is not fundamentally different than animal life or
inanimate matter, and there is not explicit purpose or meaning to

II. Deism/Pantheism: The universe was created/is permeated with
some sort of impersonal, non-interactive purpose. Humanity has some
well-defined destiny which they should pursue and realize under their
own power.

III. Monotheism: The universe, and humanity, were created by a
personal deity to be in some sort of covenant relationship with Him.
Humanity has fallen short of that, and is in need of some sort of
divine intervention to restore that purpose and relationship.

As I've said above, I just don't find materialism to be an adequate
explanation of humanity. There is too much it leaves out: love,
guilt, beauty, humor, forgiveness, hope, mysticism/religiousity, etc.
If people were merely the product of random chance and natural
selection, why would we have evolved so many extraneous behaviors and
even counter-productive attitudes? As M. Scott Peck says, "If man is
merely an animal, why then when I behold my beloved naked do I feel
awe, rather than merely lust?" In what I suppose is the opposite
bias of Dan, the materialistic explanation of humanity offends -my-
scientific esthetic, by hand-waving away too much data.

Pantheism a la Tim does at least offer a reasonable explanation for
the 'urge towards transcendence' which characterizes every human
society, even to a large extent our own. I must say I find it
surprising that Ron and Dan think belief in divinity is so difficult.
From a historical perspective, I would argue that atheism is the
anomalous belief, and it is only the dedicated work of a few hundred
years of philosophy that makes it even possible to consider it as a
viable alternative. It also sounds like your arguments are directed
against my type of monotheism, but have no grounds for criticizing an
impersonal deity or "God-ness" like Tim would espouse.

As for monotheism in general, or Christianity in particular, I freely
admit that trusting in something intangible like that is a matter of
faith (then again, as a physicist, I would argue trusting in
observation and tangibility is also a matter of faith :-). However,
I personally believe that, in toto, the orthodox Christian tradition
offers the best explanation of not just historical fact, but the human
condition in general. A bold statement, which I can't entirely
justify in one post, but let me at least elucidate:

I would be willing to concede (for purpose of argument) that the
scriptures are not necessarily the verbatim word of God, but
translations, interpretations, and editions of things God said or did
to people at various times and places. However, I would affirm that
the core message of scripture, particularly the Gospels, reflects
actual events about actual people, with at most the usual amount of
confusion and misunderstanding common to eyewitness accounts.

Further, I believe that the most logical explanation for both the
written record and the incredible transformation which swept the first
century Roman Empire was that:
- There was a man named Jesus who claimed to be the Jewish God
- He was crucified and killed in Jerusalem by Roman soldiers
- His followers saw Him risen from the dead
- They immediately went into the world preaching forgiveness from sin
in His name

Frankly, the scope and impact of the Christian church upon the human
drama is something I find inexplicable in terms of any of the
alternative interpretations. Yes, it is fantastic, but I personally
find it easier to believe than that some unlettered fishermen and a
rogue rabbi managed to concoct some of the most beatiful literature
and amazing stories ever recorded - falsely - when all they got in
return was censure, rejection, and death. Obviously, your mileage may

I am well aware that the Church has also been responsible for some
incredible cruelty and horror (though I am always bemused when strict
materialistic atheists use such value-laden terms). However, I would
argue that the wrongs of the church are no different from that of any
other powerful human organization. But on the flip side, the
contributions of the Church to humanity in terms of literature, art,
philosophy, allevation of suffering, and elevation of humanity are
truly without peer. It is not surprising that the Church reflects
human nature; what is suprising is that it also seems to reflect
something more than that.

I could go further and talk about the verification of both the
intellectual and experiential side of Christianity in my own
'experiments', but perhaps I'll save that for another essay. Better
yet, perhaps I can live it out in front of you.

I should add that it doesn't particularly bother me that God might
create a world where it is possible, but non-trivial, for people to
know Him. For one thing, as a physicist I have learned the hard way
(on several exams!) that just because something doesn't make sense to
me does not mean it is untrue! But at a deeper level, obviousness is
in the eye of the beholder. I suspect that we as human beings go to
a great deal of effort to -avoid- God, and that is -us-, not He, who
have erected the barriers.

I know I do. God is a scary person, because Perfect Love is a
terrifying thing, especially to one who is manifestly imperfect and
all-too-often unloving and unlovable. LIke me. And yet, if one can
make it past the fear, it is the most amazingly wonderful thing in the

As one of the most profound theologians of history put it:

Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to Him belong
They are weak but He is strong

Yes, Jesus loves me,
Yes, Jesus loves me,
Yes, Jesus loves me,
The Bible tells me so.

Yours truly,

-- Ernie P.

Dr. Ernest N. Prabhakar
"And ourselves, your servants for Jesus' sake." -- II Cor 4:5b