Re: The Nature of Belief

Ron Resnick (
Mon, 22 Sep 1997 03:27:08 +0300

Well, I wasted 3 hours tonight trying to do some 'real' writing about
Despair in Distributed Systems,
only to realize that I was writing 2 words, erasing them, then playing
Minesweeper for 20 minutes. Repeat.

No point fighting writer's block. Might as well dig up this
morsel from Ernie and have some fun! Amazing how writers' block
instantly wears off when the writing isn't what you're 'supposed' to be
doing, huh?

At 11:10 PM 9/14/97 -0700, Ernie wrote:

>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

I'm not sure I like/agree with the tone above. A lot of implications there
that I don't share...

1. Why does someone need to be a scientist at all, to be qualified
to discuss the scientific method?
2. What is a 'card-carrying hard' scientist, as opposed to some other kind?
Are you implying that computer scientists are *not* scientists? Are biologists
not? geologists? I won't even ask you what you think of social scientists :-).
3. Why must one have a PhD to be a 'scientist'? I recall upon graduating
with my B.Sc. degree (combined honours physics/comp sci.) that my father
(PhD theoretical physics) congratulated me on my becoming a 'scientist'.
I was able to join APS (American Physics Society) at that point.
4. As to FoRKers, Wayne would appear to have a 'hard science' (by
your definition) background - but he can confirm/deny this himself. I
have, as stated, a B.Sc in phys/compsci, followed by an MSc in compsci
that had nothing to do with traditional compsci, and everything to do
with numerical solutions to nonlinear two-phase fluid dynamics. Classical
of course, but physics nonetheless. I didn't actually turn into a computing
geek until after I finished school, and entered the 'real' world.
Dirac <bra| |ket> notations, Hamiltonians and Lagrangians, Reimann spaces
and Robertson-Walker Metrics. I even vaguely recall what all these things
are :-).
Schrodinger: H Psi = E Psi, where H is the Hamiltonian operator, expressed
as a differential operator or matrix operator, E is the (scalar) energy - the
eignevalue of the equation, and Psi is the wave function - the eigenvector.
Satisfied? ;-) Want solutions for infinite wells, and harmonic oscillators?
1-D or 3-D?
5. What difference does any of this make to the conversation at hand?

>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.

I don't think these are the same. For the first 2, you define the experiment,
and establish the detection aparatus. Sure, there is an element of
faith in believing that the scatter patterns you see for colliding protons
are *really* related to physical protons. But there seems to be no problem
at all for large numbers of people to agree that the detections are causally
related to the suggested phenomena. Moreover, there is incredibly high
repeatability to such results.

But to take your 3rd case, what is the 'detection apparatus' for the
cause-effect of 'you serve Him' and 'He comes through for you'. How
do you know that it was He that came through, and not something
else? You may believe it, which is your right. But apparently there
isn't the same general acceptance for this causality as there is
for physical phenomena. And this, I think, is largely to do with
There are just too many cases of good people getting screwed, and bad
people living well, for me to accept a pattern of 'service to Deity'
leading to 'He comes through for you'. Explain 6 million Holocaust
victims that way, or famines or plagues or child abductions or ....

>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?

Oh, I think that's easy. Humans always fear what they don't know.
And they're curious about it. They make up stories about it. They
attempt to placate the evil storm gods that threaten to wipe out
their crops, or capsize their vessels. They may do this as a
sign of instinctive human nature, totally regardless for the deeper
question of 'does God exist?'.

>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.

Yes, I'd largely agree with this.

>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.

Amen Brother Ernie! I agree that we 'want' this. On the other hand,
I'm quite comfortable accepting that there may never be a worldview
that ever explains all basic observations about the universe. At
a quantum level, fundamentally we accept an inherent 'unknowability'
as expressed in Heisenberg. Certain properties of the observable
universe are simply Fourier inverses of each other, and mathematically
unknowable simulatneously. Not just *we* don't know them - God
himself can't know them! So here already is an interesting question -
how can God be all knowing if He can't simultaneously know position
and momentum?

>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

I don't accept I. as a description of my view. For one thing, I don't
accept the label 'Materialism', which is often used to describe a possession
oriented society, and 'conspicuous consumption'. The above definition
has to do with 'the universe is made of matter', while economic
materialism has to do with 'people want to accumulate matter',
and is frequently a derrogatory. These
are not at all the same thing, and using the same term for both is
misleading (to be charitable) or deceitful (otherwise).

Aside from the label, I don't like the wording either. I don't think
that 'all that exists is what is explicable via natural law'. I do think
that there are many things which may simply have no explanation
at all. Just because science can't answer all the questions, that
doesn't mean necessarily that religion, or anything else, can. Why
is it so terrible to accept that maybe there are simply things that
are unknowable? That have no explanation?

As to human life - biologically, of course what you say is true. I defy
_you_ to suggest that somehow flesh&blood humans are any more
than an aggregate of their cells, enzymes, organs & tissues. Does
this mean that people are not 'fundamentally' different than animals?
Look- we're different -that's clear. There are no terrestrial creatures
other than us that have the powers of reasoning and communication
that we do. But is this a clear difference in kind, or merely an
evolutionary difference in degree? Let the dolphins evolve for a few
tens of millions of years more - then come back and see if we're
so 'unique'.

>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.

Huh? That's a decidedly Christian definition of 'monotheism'. Strictly
speaking, all that the word 'monotheism' implies is that
the supreme entitiy is one,
not plural. It says nothing about covenants, shortfalls, interventions,
or restorations. Judaism is monotheistic, as is Islam. Neither one
would support the language of your second sentence here.

Besides, your I, II, III were intended to be 'broad options for explaining
the universe'. I guess you're contrasting them to my
1,2,3 which were, as I recall:
1. God (or Gods) exist, and we all know about them
2. God (or Gods) exist, and for some reason they hide themselves
3. No God

I'm not exactly sure why your distinction between Mono/Polytheism
is relevant in 'explaining the universe'. It's the existence/lack of existence
of God(s) that seems to be of issue, not the quantity of deities. Is
cardinality 0 or 1, not is cardinality 1 or N, I think is the key to our

>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?

I have the opposite reaction to this. If you believe that there is ultimately
no purpose to the universe or to man, as I do, then it doesn't trouble
you a whit that we 'evolve extraneous and counter-productive attitudes'.
Sure, humanity acts inexplicably and counter intuitively! What else
would you expect in a universe that has no inherent explanation or

On the contrary, if you believe that there *is* some overall purpose
to the whole show, why the heck _would_ we have so many bizarre

Take us as designers - say you're writing a complex software system,
full of lots of concurrent, coordinating agents. Don't you try to ensure
overall system integrity and correctness? Don't you work hard as designer
to weed out the agents that are mucking with the resources of others?

Now if God was our designer, why would he leave all the flaws in the mix?
Isn't a flawed, chaotic, randomly evolving system more consistent with one
that has no designer? A system
that just seems to stagger along, Brownian motion style?

Again, unlike Dan, I'm not saying empiric observation proves lack of God,
or even offers 'overwhelming' evidence, or _any_ evidence. I'm just saying
that much as Dan can't prove no God based on observation, I don't
think you can prove God's existence with similar techniques.

> 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.

So atheism is weak because it can only be traced to about Spinoza?
Then I suppose you have no patience for market theory a la Adam Smith,
or computability a la Turing/Church, or pasteurized milk, either?
I suppose believing that the Earth isn't flat is also a weak belief, due
to its recent origin? Newfangled ideas are always suspicious, after all...

I.e, if the ancient Greeks didn't do it, and modern Man has only been
doing it since the Renaissance, then it's 'anomolous' and hence

Come now, what kind of an argument is that? Most of the things we take
for granted in the modern world have only been understood & accepted
in recent years.

For one thing, atheism actually does
have roots dating back to ancient Greece, if one really wants to give
it a prestigious history. But more importantly, what difference does
it make how long something has been understood or believed, when
judging its plausibility? 'Time doesn't make right', any more than
'might makes right'. Only 'right' can ever make 'right'.

> 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

In the tens of thousands of years that homo sapiens has lived in
somewhat organized societal life, that one century you describe is
but one period of history that underwent substantial turbulence. Besides,
that turbulence was confined to a very localized subset of human society-
it didn't affect ancient China of that time, or the Americas, or... And, it
was no more monumental than other epic times, such as our own century,
with its world wars, birth (and death, in many places) of communism,
etc. Every time is an epic time to those who live in it. Why make such
a big deal about one epic, in one place? Islam's turbulent century of
Mohammed (7th century CE), or the Israelites leaving Pharoh's Egypt
were just as momentous to them.

Anyway, Jews similarly believe that it 'must' be the case that Moses
got the Torah at Sinai, because it's inconceivable that we would have
records of a whole people standing in the desert, seeing it happen, if it
didn't really happen. And Muslims believe that Mohammed ascended to
Heaven. It's the right of anyone to believe in any one of these accounts,
or in all of them. Just like it's the right of some of us to believe in none
of them. As perplexing as it might be to Ernie that I can't come to grips
with the rising of Christ, why doesn't it trouble him that I similarly don't
believe that Mohammed rose on Temple Mount, or that Elijah was carried
off in a burning chariot? Every religion, including native American shaman
religions, Eastern faiths, etc., have their Great Stories, including wondrous
miracles, witnessed by hordes of people. Do you believe in all of them,
for these reasons alone?

>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.

Islam has had a huge impact upon humanity. So have Buddhism,
Hinduism, and others. Why not believe in their inevitable Truth for
similar reasons?

> 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

Trotsky got an icepick in the back for his troubles. There's no shortage
of martyrs for causes of dubious value. Besides, it was Jesus himself
who got the short end - not the Apostles. Paul, as I understand it, lived
quite happily years after, and did a TravelMan stint to shame Rohit :-).
Too bad they didn't have 'frequent sailor and donkey route' miles in those
days - Paul could have joined Platinum Elite status.

>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).

Oh, come, we've been through this. Philosophically, I can have my angst
about absolute/relative good&evil. But we all seem to agree, God-fearers
and otherwise, that practical life in society implies holding on to some
kind of golden rule of 'do unto others', just so the whole thing doesn't fall
apart. We differ on *why* to keep it from falling apart - for you, it's
God wills us to be good, and 'do unto others'. For me, sure the universe
is indifferent to whether or not we butcher each other. But so long as we're
here, we might as well try to get along. I think atheists have as much
right as anyone to act morally, and to use terms like 'cruelty and horror'.
Especially since, as you note, those who stand for religion have frequently
stained their morality as well. We are all equal, either before the eyes
of the Lord, or the eyes of our fellow men.

> 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.

? Alleviation of suffering? I would credit modern medicine and the Geneva
convention with far more of this than the Church, or all religions put
? Literature, art? There's as much good secular art as there is sacred,
I would think. And for the sacred parts, why is Church (i.e. Christian)
art somehow more influential and awe inspiring
than, say, Muslim architecture in Spain,
or the Taj Mahal, or Shinto shrines in Japan?

Again, just trying to point out that because there is great Christian
art, doesn't seem to me to be a reason that (a) Christianity is the
True religion (b) that any religion is the true religion.

>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.

Well, here is where Dan's quotation of Sagan does make sense. Invoking
Sagan's words in the quest for existence/lack of Deity, as I said then,
is off the mark. But invoking him in a debate with a Christian who suggests
that the Christian God isn't hiding, but is obvious to those who look - I
think works
very well. How to explain the Bible's wide divergences from the physical
world we know? How to explain dinosaur bones in a world created 6000 years
ago? How to account for clear signs of evolution of men from apes, in a
world containing Adam&Eve and the Garden of Eden? Either you toss the
Bible, or else you have to admit that God and his Word are purposefully
evasive and ambiguous and playing hard-to-get with His own creatures,
who are merely using the faculties of reason He created us with.
Why would God create fake dinosaur bones unless he was being coy
with us? And if the bones are real, and the planet is 4billion years old,
and Jurassic Park really did look like that, why doesn't His Book's account
of creation say so? Again, because He's being coy with us?

>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

Just to be clear: I'm not trying to convert Ernie, or anyone, away from their
beliefs (much as I don't think Ernie is trying to convert us). The intent is
exchange of ideas, based upon the belief that rational discourse can
serve to educate, not necessarily convince. I may not believe in Ernie's
argumentation, he most likely won't agree with mine either. Where I
try to poke holes, it's in the chain of reasoning, not the underlying beliefs,
which as we all take pains to note, are not subject to attacks of logic
anyway. I'm not saying "Ernie is wrong to be Christian." I'm saying
"these facts and lines of reasoning Ernie uses to explain why it
seems 'obvious' to him that Christianity is true seem to me to suffer from
such and such flaws of logical continuity". I hope that distinction
was clear above, and that no one, Christian or otherwise, took any
offense. If they did, I sincerely apologize - that was not the intent.