Re: The Nature of Belief - part 3 of 3, on meaning and motive

Dr. Ernest N. Prabhakar (ernest@pundit)
Mon, 22 Sep 97 08:06:14 -0700

Ron writes:
>Sure, humanity acts inexplicably and counter intuitively! What
>else would you expect in a universe that has no inherent explanation
>or purpose!

Um, well I'd expect it to have the ordered precision of the physical
world, or at least the plausible predictability of the animal kingdom.
As Mark Twain said, "If you take a stray dog in, feed him and heal
him, he will not turn and bite you. This is the principle difference
between dogs and men." Most animals seem pretty good at predicting
each others behavior -- what evolutionary advantage would we gain from

>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 quirks?

If you believe that mankind was created for perfection amidst
diversity, but chose to fall away, it makes a great deal of sense.
And if there is no standard, why do we use words like "bizarre" as if
they had some universal meaning, rather than just personal preference?
Are we merely linguistically lazy, or are we implicitly appealing
to some platonic form of Bizarreness?

>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?

Well, there's a lot of assumptions in there to tease apart. One is
that your world appears purely random, whereas I find it purposeful
but noisy. Also, I see the choice as between a world defined by
physical and evolutionary law, vs. one guided by a divine purpose.
Call me a biased physicist, but I would expect a world governed purely
by natural law to exhibit symmetry at a high-level (say the
ecosystem), even if it appears random at a low-level. As it is, the
human world looks non-random to me - sort of like finding a preferred
direction in the universe.

>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,

Not at all. I was just saying it is *hard*. You (or Dan) made the
point that -theism- seems a difficult belief to hold. I was just
staying that atheism is the unusual belief which requires work to
understand and sustain. This could be taken as an argument in favor
of atheism (progress and all that) but I think it does refute the
earlier point.

And that is assuming atheism takes hold, and does not just end up as
a twentieth-century fad, like totalitarian communism seems to be
becoming. Even Greek atheism was a sort elitist philosophy of the
sophisticates, if I recall, and got mished into polytheism by the
masses. From what I've seen in the US and heard about Russia, the
practice of atheism tends to degenerate into spiritism and
superstition. Not to say that this means it is false - the same often
happens to Christianity - but that it does not seem to be a natural
'ground state' for humanity.

>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.

Well, you gave one good reason yourself. 7th CE. Sure, the birth of
Christ may have been just a single event, but it happened at such a
place and time, and influenced those who influenced others, to such an
extent that the entire world dates itself according to that event.
Admittedly this is only one data point, but it is a pretty significant
one: anyone who knows what year it is has an implicit introduction to
Christ. Can any other religion make a similarly grandiose claim?

The philosopher Peter Kreeft made the point that if Socrates woke up
today, his first question would be what year it is, and the second why
we date our calendar the way we do. (Well, OK, after "I drank

[Regarding why would the Apostles make up a story which would cause
them so much trouble]
>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 :-).

Not unless you have access to some other historical records than the
ones I know. All the disciples except John were killed for their
faith, and as for Paul:
"I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been
flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.
Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I
was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have
been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in
danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from
Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger
at seas; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled
and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and
have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked."
(II Corininthians XI:XXVI on)

Granted, parts of that sound like Rohit's treatment of Adam, but
Paul's life was no jaunty round-the-world. Unless you count the
questionable comfort of Roman palace gaurds, Paul did not get very
much out of his conversion to Christianity. Especially given that
there were no Frequent Shipper Miles.

Sure, at various times and places it has been fashionable and easy to
be a Christian. But Christianity has generally grown the most, and
strongest, when it was downright dangerous to become one. Like China
today. Put that in your statistical analysis and smoke it!

>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.

Okay, so we have a universal moral law, but again, why?
It would seem that any evolutionary-favored law would be more
implicit and universally understood, and make it impossible for people
to posit societies which are self-destructive. Yet it seems odd that
we are always in this tension between good and evil, that every
society not only has a moral code, but that it always falls short of

>? Alleviation of suffering? I would credit modern medicine and
>the Geneva convention with far more of this than the Church, or
>all religions put together.

Well, lets ignore the the religious roots of Pasteur for the moment.
Modern medicine is great, for those who can get it. What good
would it do for most of the world if it wasn't for the Red Cross, the
World Visions, and the medical missions and leprosariums which still
provide the only modern care in much of the third world. Even the
Hindu hospitals in India are a response to the Christian hospitals,
not any innate charity in Hinduism.

And if you take that route, where do you think the Geneva convention
got its ideas from? From Native American or Chinese traditions of
torturing captives? From Celtic cultural norms? From the Marxist view
of the dictatorship of the proletariat? A lot of religions tell you
to love your neighbour, but very few tell you to love your enemy.

And even if you are enlightened enough to believe all men are equal,
you'd be hard pressed to find any pre-Christian society which preached
that, much less practiced it. Even Christian nations would not have
faced up to it were it not for William Wilberforce and the
abolitionists. Slavery is one institution which does make good
evolutionary sense, after all.

[Several good points, but I'll just pick one for simplicity]
>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

Let's do this reductio ad absurdam. Let's use your example, so
somewhere in Genesis God says, "By the way, this all happened over 4.4
billion years, so don't take all this to literally." The questions
a) would this make any sense to the people who received it?
b) would it really make you believe?
i.e., does it really help for God to confuse a hundred generations so
that a few scientific literates would have a little more evidence?

My take on this is that God spoke to the people in the language of
the time (probably not Hebrew, since I don't think that was around at
the time of the Exodus). They copied and translated it as best they
could, but obviously perfect transmission accuracy is not
linguistically possible, leaving some ambiguity in the wording.

And I'm sure you know of various purported scientific claims from
scripture -- like the fact of Orion and Pleiades being gravitationally
bound clusters -- and don't find them convincing. Why? Or have you
not examined those claims?

But tell me this: if someone found a verifiable Carbon-14 dated
version of Genesis from 4000 years ago which had all sorts of explicit
scientific facts (which later editors had apparently dropped) would
a) believe it was a fraud despite all proof
b) commit your life to loving and serving God
c) credit it to some other agency (time travel or aliens)
d) admit it might be true but still live your life the way you always have

I'll admit the question is partly rhetorical, but I am prepared to be
surprised by the answer.

-- Ernie P.

P.S. Ron's disclaimer was beautiful, so I'll incorporate it here by