Christianity and Certainty

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Guest Post by Exrelayman

It seems to me that there are three approaches to certainty. These would be, science, philosophy, and faith. I will delineate what I mean by these terms and discuss their relative merits and weaknesses. I recognize that my use of these terms may not accurately reflect how someone else thinks about them, but I have tried to think clearly. How well I have succeeded in this I leave to the reader.

Faith basically means accepting that which cannot be investigated, that which you do not choose to investigate, or that which has been investigated with results contrary to the proposition accepted by faith. The strength of faith is that it requires little work to attain. You simply accept what you have been told, or accept that your own thinking about the matter is sufficient and true. A weakness of Biblical faith is that great apologetic effort is required to protect faith from facts (some support of this contention to follow). Another weakness of Biblical faith is that the emotions of hope and fear are used to inculcate and reinforce it, emotions being less reliable means of knowing than reason. A weakness of faith in general is that a bias is established in the mind in favor of the proposition believed, clouding judgment. So that, as is often observed, the person attached to a faith proposition tends to seek information confirming the bias, and downplay information that disconfirms it. Faith often attempts to use the other approaches to certainty for confirmation, but generally misuses them because of the bias faith entails.

Philosophy is simply thinking more in-depth about things than accepting what you are told, or believing your first thought about the matter in question. It uses logic and constructs arguments (in the logical sense, not the disagreement sense, although logical argument often is used in disagreement arguments!). Philosophy thus has the merit of using logic and order to organize the thinking. But philosophy as generally understood (or misunderstood) means thinking about things without empirical testing. Some will object, and say science is a branch of philosophy. This may well be technically true, but my usage here reflects a rather common view of philosophy: sophisticated thought not necessarily grounded in the tangible world. It is stronger than faith by virtue of using the tools of rationality, but weaker than science by being divorced from empirical confirmation.

Science is basically applied common sense. It should thrive in Missouri, the ‘show me’ state. It recognizes that we all have biases, and strives to minimize their effect using investigation and logic. (Of course science doesn’t do this, men thinking scientifically do.) Thinking in a scientific manner means subjecting the mental model to empirical test. It is thus stronger than philosophy (as used herein) by virtue of seeking confirmation in the real world. One observes some aspect of reality, or some proposition. One thinks, ‘how can I go about learning why that phenomenon occurs, or whether that proposition is true’. The thinking will then consist of, ‘If X is true, I would expect Y’. Examination of the real world seeks to observe Y or ‘not Y’. There cannot be certainty about X. Finding Y offers confirmation of hypothesis X. Finding Y repeatedly, while never finding ‘not Y’, is greater confirmation of X, but always some miniscule possibility of a ‘not Y’ result remains. Thus all knowledge is provisional, with the level of confidence proportionate to the amount of evidence. While this is true, vast, overwhelming quantities of evidence support most established science, so that withholding belief in well established science is not reasonable. Out on the frontiers of science, there is less confidence because the evidence is less.

But nota bene: in science, ‘not Y’ results have equal power and serve to disconfirm proposition X. More investigation is then indicated to attempt to learn if this investigation is flawed, or proposition X is flawed. One application of this principle to the faith proposition that there was a Christ who was crucified and resurrected approximately 30 AD is as follows. Earthquakes, and the resurrections of many dead saints are said to accompany this occurrence. If X is the proposition that these things occurred, then Y would be the expectation that they are so remarkable that some contemporary non-Christian historian or writer about natural phenomena would have noticed them and written about them. Since we in fact have ‘not Y’, proposition X has disconfirming evidence and is questionable. Though this be but one example (brevity for the sake of a blog post), instances of disconfirming evidence to Bible story elements are plentiful, to the extent that belief in the Bible as a reliably true document is not reasonable. The more so, as incredible rather than credible stories are predominant.

In recognition of many such weaknesses in Biblical accounts, and in response to enlightenment thinking, some Christians have resorted to ‘metaphor’ and ‘allegory’ to exculpate Bible elements that are clearly contradicted by real world observations. They then are apparently Godlike in their ability to rightly discern what is metaphor and what is not. The fact that other equally sincere and equally intelligent Christians divide the Word differently, so that Christianity disintegrates into myriad sects and factions, troubles them not. Those more scientific and skeptical entertain the proposition X, that if the Bible were a revelation of a God who wanted us to understand it and worship It, then Y, it would be clear and understandable, as evidenced by the one united church. We see instead ‘not Y’, another disconfirming evidence.

We thus observe that science works, and that as more and more scientific study is conducted on the world around us, hypotheses converge into one theory accepted by the vast majority of scientists. While as more and more people perform exegesis (or eisegesis) on the Bible, division of thought, and more and more sects, ensue. This is in contrast to the results of the most effective approach to knowing.

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7 Comments

  1. Karen the rock whisperer

    I take issue with the notion that science is applied common sense. Common sense relies on intuition based on universal human experience, but reality, as observed scientifically, is often counter-intuitive. But that’s a minor quibble to an interesting essay.

    Reply
    1. Brian

      I agree with Karen’s point and suggest that perhaps the term ‘uncommon sense’ might better be used to refer to applied common sense handled by Science. And the scientific method is used because “a bias is established in the mind in favor of the proposition believed, clouding judgment.”
      Not only do we begin by not knowing, we often carry a bias. This can and does occur in science as well but if the method is rigorously applied, it is uncovered and bias is at least reduced. We might always be wrong but Science does seem to decrease being wronger over time.
      When I meet God and/or Michael Pearl uptown, I see their big rod of correction and am biased towards them, agreeing with them on many many points till I get out of reach.

      Reply
  2. August Rode

    The point in the final paragraph about the convergence of science (toward explanations that work) vs. the divergence of religion is is an important point and one that shows that religion has no mechanism by which consensus of understanding can be achieved.

    However, in the third paragraph from the end, there seems to be a clear confusion between ‘absence of evidence’ and ‘evidence of absence.’ In the scenario the author describes, we *don’t* have ‘not Y’ observations; we have an absence of ‘Y’ observations. Absence of ‘Y’ observations is, at best, weak evidence that ‘X’ is false.

    The only circumstance in which absence of evidence can be reliably used as evidence of absence is when the search area for that evidence is well defined and can be searched in finite time and this isn’t the case with the supposed occurrence of earthquakes & zombies that reputedly accompanied Christ’s (supposed) death. We can’t know the names of all contemporaneous writers and we can’t search the writings of authors we don’t know nor can we search any of their works which may have disappeared due to the ravages of time.

    That zombies walked the streets of Jerusalem when Christ died is a ridiculous claim, not because there is an absence of independent contemporaneous accounts supporting it but because dead people can’t suddenly spring back to life. That earthquakes accompanied Christ’s death (assuming that Christ existed) is *not* a ridiculous claim (earthquakes are not infrequent) but the claim that the earthquakes occurred because of Christ’s death is an extraordinary, unsupported claim and makes a mockery of our current understanding of geologic processes.

    Reply
  3. exrelayman

    Nice to see this re-posted, if a bit embarrassing to see I misspelled occurrence.

    Karen and Brian: I stole the applied common sense line from either Asimov or Feynman.

    August: There are degrees of merit to ‘absence of evidence’ arguments. This has been kicked about a bit on the web. I am aware of the distinction. I still think the argument has force, more so when many such similar astounding NT claims also remain unverified by any independent contemporary source. I guess if I was confused I still am!

    All: I gotta go with Johnny Carson’s refrain: tough audience tonight!

    Seriously though, thanks for the feedback.

    Reply
  4. Geoff

    Putting it a little naïvely perhaps, I’d simply say that absence of evidence is, indeed, evidence of absence if there might be expected to be evidence. And this is actually quite a powerful test in the sort of circumstances we discuss on this site. For example, claims that miracles have occurred never survive this test; there is no evidence for any miracle having ever occurred (defining miracle simply as an unexplainable interference with the natural order). On this basis I conclude that miracles don’t happen.

    Reply
  5. Michael

    Minor differences and minutia aside…the points the author makes are valid. Absence of evidence or evidence of absence…makes no difference. When we as the “enlightened” start splitting hairs over this crap…we start sounding like the people we are trying to disprove. In reading the remarks, it reminds me how religious people from different faiths argue about the minutia but don’t see that they are disagreeing about the minutia of something that was impossible in the first place. For instance…

    Matthew’s gospel is the only one that mentions the above mentioned zombies coming to life when Jesus was nailed. So people will argue that if only Matthew saw it (which it wasn’t him that wrote the book), maybe the zombie rapture didn’t happen. When in fact…these people should be talking about how impossible it was for Jesus to come back to life…SCREW THE ZOMBIES.

    Reply
  6. Brian

    Minor differences aside SCREW THE ZOMBIES indeed.

    Reply

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