Re: The Nature of Belief - part 2 of 3, on

Dr. Ernest N. Prabhakar (ernest@pundit)
Mon, 22 Sep 97 07:56:03 -0700

I wrote:
>Why do primitive societies - without exception - give of their
>hard-won possessions as offerings to Gods and demons?

You wrote:
>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?'.

Well, that just appears to dodge the question. Great, we all agree
that this is deeply embedded in human nature. The question remains,
why? If I understand evolutionary biology at all, the objective
function of natural selection is somewhere between individual survival
and genome propagation. I just think that religious behavior under
those circumstances - celibacy, offerings, altruism - is highly
contra-indicated, and should have been eliminated.

I could accept that it was just a fashionable way to burn off excess
energy and resources, except for the fact that the -most- primitive
and resource-scarce societies have the most "flagrant" waste of
resources on religious ritual. What possible evolutionary advantage
is that?

I suppose you could just lump this in with your list of "things which
can not be explained", but that reinforces my statement that
Christianity has broader explanatory powers than naturalism (which is
probably a better term than materialism; it just didn't occur to me at
the time, sorry). Yes, it is an esthetic preference to believe that
more complete theories are truer, but that's a separate point from the
one I was trying to make.

>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'

While you may be comfortable with both, those are two different
things. The laws of physics can explain all observations, even those
it can not predict. The a priori unknowability of what happens at a
singularity (where our current laws break down) is very different than
the a posteori unknowability of a single particles momenta, given its

>So here already is an interesting question - how can God be all
>knowing if He can't simultaneously know position and momentum?

C'mon, this is freshman philosophy stuff, like can God build a rock
so big he can't lift it. God is not bound by physical limitiations,
but is still bound by logical ones. The all-knowingness of God in the
quantum case means he knows the results of all measurements before
they are performed (and yes, I've prayed about the decay products of
collider experiments once or twice).

> 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?

Well, OK, maybe this is one area where it *does* matter that I'm a
card-carrying physicist. Part of my indocrination is the implicit
belief that the universe is, in principle if not in practice, knowable
and explicable. Granted, most of my peers would not necessarily
extend rationality to non-physical studies, but the very suggestion
that there are parts of the universe that a priori could not be
understood would set their teeth on edge, as it does mine.

As I said above, this is an esthetic preference, that more complete
and elegant theories are "better." I can't defend it, I merely state
it. I do wish to point out that I state it as a physicist, not so
much as a Christian (heck, most Christians would take -your- side in
arguing for the unknowable).

This does not mean that we will answer all questions, but that it is
at least possible to approach answers. Perhaps the belief can be
stated as "there are no well-defined questions which can not be
meaningfully addressed," though perhaps they may not be answered.

> I defy _you_ to suggest that somehow flesh&blood humans are any
>more than an aggregate of their cells, enzymes, organs & tissues.

How's this: "I suggest that somehow flesh&blood humans are
more than an aggregate of their cells, enzymes, organs & tissues."

So there.

Well, okay, I suppose your point was that you want me to meaningfully
defend the statement. Well, my theology (and my physics, if you
allow Penrose) allows me to define a "mind" which is intertwined with
yet not explicable solely in terms of the "brain." It is an open
question whether this statement can be answered by neurobiology, but
at the moment I believe any answers (on either side) are based on

> Does this mean that people are not 'fundamentally' different than animals?

Well, by fundamentally different, I do mean things like moral
responsibility and free will and all sorts of things which you
presumably believe are merely a matter of genetics, conditioning, and

I've actually sort of wondered about guilt. One could make a case
than pet dogs acquire a sense of guilt and shame from their owners.
Has anyone observed this sort of thing in the wild, say among chimps,
or only among those animals in extended contact with humanity?

I wrote:
>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.
You wrote:
>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.

I was using monotheism in the historical sense of
Judaism/Christianity/Islam (okay, apologies to the Zoroastrians), and
I do believe it fits. All three believe that God ordained a system -
whether sacrifices, Christ, or shi'a law - which He revealed to men
that they might become His people,and without which they would be
lost. Islam may not be as touchy-feely as Christianity, but they
still speak of Allah as the all-merciful, and describe themselves as
being in submission to him. It is not the friend/bride/lover
relationship of Christianity, or perhaps the august creator of
Judaism, but it is definitely a relationship, one that is
linguistically impossible with Tim's pantheistic Force.