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V for Vulnerable November 12, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Essays, Faith, Skepticism.
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After what I consider to be a fairly emotional week last week I was planning on steering Valence towards a more light hearted topic.  Has anyone seen the Tijuana Mule video?  Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the discussion in the comments section has struck on an essential topic which I was planning on addressing eventually.  I suppose now is as good a time as ever to clarify what exactly I mean when I call Valence a place for vulnerability.

There are a couple of specific contexts that I want to highlight concerning vulnerability:

  • Being Vulnerable vs Being Safe
  • On Asking Questions Vulnerably

Being Vulnerable vs Being Safe

One of my most urgent hopes for Valence is that it would be a place where people are able to express their genuine ideas about any particular topic at hand without the threat of personal attacks or arguments ad hominem.  After all Valence is, in limited capacity, my effort to redefine my own belief system in the light of critique from a new community.  If anyone is leaving themselves open to attack it’s me so I would certainly prefer our discussions to be civil.

That being said we should not equate being vulnerable with being safe.  No argument is safe once we throw it out there and similarly here at Valence.  Arguments need strong evidence to cling to in this blustery world of ideas lest they be swept away.  Arguments are subject to rebuttal (possibly even strongly so) if we are vulnerable enough to listen.  We should not be surprised if arguments are labeled with strong words like silly, arrogant, biased or blind (all have been given to yours truly by the way).  It’s vital to keep in mind that recognizing a poor argument as such does not immediately defame the character of the person making the argument and is no cause for personal offence.  However, it is cause to better explain or defend your argument!

Where this issue of safety becomes sticky is when our arguments blend with personal experience and testimony.  Some amazing stories have been shared so far in the comments and I’m grateful for each of them.  I would never begin to question that peoples’ experiences with the divine have been transformative, sustaining and defining moments in their lives and I hope that more of us will be willing to share our own stories in the future.  These are unique windows into each others’ lives that are important in understanding how we all approach the world.  In that sense testimony is invaluable.

Conversely, once we begin to make authoritative arguments about the nature of truth based on our personal experiences we need to recognize that we have left the realm of just sharing personal history and opened ourselves up to rebuttal.  In this sense our testimonies are no longer safe and their value has different weight.  Once we make this subtle shift from sharing to arguing our testimonies inexorably become simple anecdotal evidence.

On Asking Questions Vulnerably

Early in the life of Valence one the first commenters enjoined me to ask:

“What am I looking for?” Make sure you are looking for what you want to find. If you are looking for God, you will find him. If you are looking for something else, you may find something else less valuable.

This is a really interesting premise and a perspective that I appreciate even though I ultimately disagree.  In fact, I’m not sure even the Bible supports this assertion.  Was Abraham ‘looking’ for God?  How about Jonah?  Moses was a murderer hiding out, Peter was fishing and Paul was on his way to quell a rebellious new cult when God supposedly met them.  Comparatively, I think I’m in a rather advantaged position for hearing from the divine if the divine so chooses to meet me.  That being said, I refuse to begin with the premise that the God of the Bible is the de facto answer when asking questions.  In fact I feel like this would be kind of dishonest.  Let me explain:

I posit a simple statement that seems obvious but is sometimes missed: Asking a question vulnerably implies that the answer is not predetermined nor is it limited to outcomes that would specifically affirm my already held beliefs.

I know, I know, I’m seriously flirting with losing all intellectual credibility by espousing such base platitudes but hear me out.  This aspect of vulnerability touches on a fundamental problem I have with faith as a form of knowledge.  Faith predetermines answers to questions without reliance on evidence and is rarely open to revising belief when new evidence is available.  To me it seems rather dishonest to feign vulnerability in asking a question if faith already has limited the answer set.

For example Christian friends have often supported my doubting “as long as it strengthens faith.”  Then why ask the question?  This advice seems disingenuous in that it limits the available answers and severely hinders our pursuit of truth.  If we are discussing the question “Is God loving?” but we limit the only valid answers to those that affirm a loving God are we really even asking a question?

Quick side note, to my dismay ‘skeptic’ has already begun to be used by some with a negative connotation in the comments section.  I guess this means I haven’t argued my point very well that skepticism is virtuous in its vulnerability.  Aside from my premise that we are all skeptical of outside prospective beliefs and it’s only our own that get special pleading I’d like to reinforce that I also believe skeptical to be synonymous with intellectual honesty on this point.

Vulnerability to me is putting aside the way I want the universe to work and committing to follow the evidence towards how the universe actually works all while trying to limit my emotional investment in the answer.  Is this dangerous for belief?  Sure, but honestly I’m more interested in truth than the certainty of belief.

If you challenge your belief tenets and end up as a nonbeliever, then apparently your faith was not all that sound to begin with and you have improved your thinking in the process.  If you question your religion but in the end retain your belief, you have lost nothing and gained a deeper understanding… -Michael Shermer “How We Believe”

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Comments»

1. Nancy O. - November 12, 2008

Casey,

I want to let you know how much I have learned here and how meaningful it has been. I never would have thought I would develop a genuine care for strangers on the web – but I have. It’s apparent to me that you know most, if not all, of the people in this site and they know each other. I think I am the only “outsider” but your family and friends have made me feel welcome. They are an awesome, intelligent group of people.

I am learning as I go to “listen” more effectively and open myself to new ideas. I have, like everyone else, been quite vulnerable but I always come back for more…because it is all good.

Anyway – another “thank you” and a promise to try my hardest to stay on topic!

2. caseyww - November 12, 2008

Nancy-

Thanks for the note. I appreciate it. I think you would be surprised at how many people actually know each other. Obviously I know most of those posting, some well but others not very well at all and some are complete strangers, but as for everyone else I don’t think there are that many connections.

My hope is that this community would continue to grow. But we’ll see how it develops.

Just out of curiosity, I’ve been wondering how you got turned on to Valence.

3. Nancy O. - November 13, 2008

Casey,

A friend received an email inviting him to be a part of your forum and that friend forwarded the invitation to me. Since then, I have invited a few friends, including the pastor/professor I referenced in one of my earlier comments. Hopefully he will join because he talks with students every day about the subjects touched on in this site and he has a lot of knowledge that I think everyone would enjoy.

4. Matt - November 13, 2008

“Faith predetermines answers to questions without reliance on evidence and is rarely open to revising belief when new evidence is available.”

I would say that faith is essentially orthogonal to evidence. Doesn’t the Bible describe faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb. 11:1)? It’s not about evidence at all, right?
Hm – something I’m only noticing for the first time now is that that description of faith is only describing the absence of evidence, not the presence of (perhaps contrary) evidence. Although now that I think about the rest of Heb. 11, that’s kind of given the lie, as people like Sarah are credited with faith, and I would say she did have contrary evidence about her ability to conceive (namely, menopause).
So please ignore the previous paragraph. Thanks!
-M

5. Philip - November 13, 2008

If evidence is orthogonol to faith, the Bible has weird way of making its case. These are just a few quickly drummed up quotes

“Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” (John 14:11)

“All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.” (2 Thessalonians 1:5)

“For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)

My understanding of Jesus’ time on Earth is that he was there to give proof of God’s hand, not least of which was to be through his miraculous resurrection (okay, there were other reasons too, but certainly proselytizing was one). I have to admit, I would certainly take that as proof, good proof, if I saw it with my own eyes.

The Bible, in my view, has somewhat mixed standards when it comes to evidence. It advocates faith-based reasoning but also logic. And every Christian meeting I can remember was ultimately based on collecting evidence for the Christian case, whether that was world events that aligned with prophesies or whatever.

I abided as a Christian for a long time because I ultimately thought that Christ’s message was “You don’t need to see everything to believe it, but don’t be stupid.” In other words, evidence clearly was important, even to Jesus (who needed the occasional sign, too).

What is troubling, though, is when the importance of evidence is thrown out the door. For instance, I remember asking my mother what evidence she had that their religion (Jehovah’s Witnesses) was the one true religion. Her answer was that they are fastest growing religion in the world. I responded that wasn’t even remotely true, whether you count by sheer numbers or proportions. I think I remember saying that Islam was the fastest growing religion (guessing). And she said, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter then.” Now this shows a couple things: (1) my mum is not the sharpest tool in the shed; (2) there’s a double-standard when it comes to evidence.

When evidence supports the case, it is readily and eagerly applied. But when evidence is contradictory or troubling, it’s cast as irrelevant. This isn’t really specific to religion . . . it’s a fundamental property of being human, I think–the urge to be right. Which is why (good) science and reasoning is difficult, because you have to run up against something that goes against your natural instincts to prove yourself right.

6. Matt - November 13, 2008

Well, Philip certainly provided the smackdown to my idea (not, you’ll note, to me – there you go, Casey! I paid attention to your post!).

So I guess we chalk this up as another place where the Bible has difficult-to-reconcile statements. For much of Heb. 11, the examples are of people believing in things they haven’t yet seen, rather than the counter-to-the-evidence type of belief that Sarah is lauded for. So there are (at least) two types of faith, the non-Sarah kind reconciling fairly easily with the passages Philip mentioned, and the Sarah kind not.

Does anybody know why it is that we as humans have such difficulty when we come into contact with evidence that supports a position counter to one we support?
-Matt

7. Nancy O. - November 13, 2008

My mother was a Catholic.

My father was an Athiest.

I was mixed up.

I asked my mother to show me that God was real. She couldn’t. She said just believe.

I asked my father to show me there is no God. He couldn’t. He said just don’t believe.

One of them was right and one of them was wrong. Who is a kid to believe?

For many faith does not predetermine answers to questions without reliance on evidence. I needed evidence and it needed to be solid.

Many point to the bible as evidence. But, as we know, that’s been debated forever.

And do we develop genuine faith and beliefs by relying on others knowledge? Some do. Some don’t. I couldn’t really truly believe in a God that I never felt, saw, or touched.

I needed proof and there wasn’t any text or person on earth who could provide that.

So I searched for myself – and you know the rest of the story.

I think the answers to what many ultimately believe are found in firsthand experience with that which you are searching for.

So even though the answers and ultimate faith and belief in certain things might not be found through others or even our own intellect, the search is still quite interesting; along the way we lose nothing and gain new relationships, knowledge, and deeper understanding.

8. Nancy O. - November 13, 2008

I think it would be interesting for people to define what “faith” (in anything) is to them.

Some say faith is religious wishful thinking, in which one squeezes out hope by intense acts of sheer will. Others might think faith believes the impossible or believes that which is contrary to fact and to evidence (a blind leap that has no relationship to fact).

Others might believe that faith is knowing and that knowledge is based on evidence leading to confidence and conviction.

9. Philip - November 14, 2008

Just one comment w.r.t. to your comment in #7, Nancy. The opposition between the mother-question (prove God) and the father-question (prove no God) is one that strikes me as unfair. Not to go to task on your childhood self, of course—it’s merely that I think lots of grown-ups confront the same contrast.

From a merely argumentative standpoint, proving a negative is almost always impossible, particularly when the supernatural gets involved, e.g. I technically can’t prove that the universe isn’t on the back of a blind, skateboarding hamster if said hamster is all-powerful and can divert the laws of time and space (although it would be awesome to see).

… as a total aside, I’m curious to what extent some of the folks who comment here have read ‘The Gnostic Gospels’ by Elaine Pagels–a classic scholarly book from the 70s based on the discovery of some ‘heretical’ Christian texts from the 2nd and 3rd century. They present a picture of belief, faith, and enlightment based on a more symbolic interpretation of the Bible that accords with many of the sentiments I’ve read here.

10. Benjamin - November 14, 2008

Casey,

I know I already posted this once, but this is where I do not follow the logic of your skepticism. Here is your simply stated problem:
“This aspect of vulnerability touches on a fundamental problem I have with faith as a form of knowledge. Faith predetermines answers to questions without reliance on evidence and is rarely open to revising belief when new evidence is available. To me it seems rather dishonest to feign vulnerability in asking a question if faith already has limited the answer set.”

Now, substitute the word “skepticism” for the word “faith” in the problem, and hopefully you’ll understand what I’m saying. Evolution, abortion, homosexuality, divinely inspired texts, scientific laws, etc… are these not the predetermined issues and answers to questions of skepticism? I’m not saying we shouldn’t reason. I’m saying that your arguments contain more presumptive faith in skepticism than they do in faith itself.

Here is another example:
“Vulnerability to me is putting aside the way I want the universe to work and committing to follow the evidence towards how the universe actually works all while trying to limit my emotional investment in the answer.”
Why? Are you obeying some sort of moral/intellectual law in doing this? Are you not ignoring self-evident evidence (desire) to pursue predetermined answers to skeptical beliefs?

Again, this is not personal. I have come to this point many times, over many issues. Without ignoring any evidence, including my own self, I would have to say that a fundamental part of my personal beliefs comes from choosing to believe in what I want. The funny thing is, that with this reasoning, I have more in common philosophically with Nietzsche than any faith-based philosopher. Why deny it? I want to believe and not believe. I choose from the choices provided, and I have no problem (and in fact, greatly respect the vulnerability) with those who do and admit the same.

11. Benjamin - November 14, 2008

Might as well make a counter-argument too.

Given that personal desire is a constant element to every action, belief, and willful expression of every person, why not use it to root out reliable beliefs?

Applied to religious beliefs, it looks something like this to me. I want to be happy (a constant in all people), so look at what the gods offer to my happiness. Unselfishness here is just an ignorant faith in a social ethic, so I’m not interested in it. 42 virgins in heaven? Honestly, that sounds kinda limiting, and pretty silly to me. If we’re going for sex and servants, I want an unlimited supply. Peace and tranquility for eternity? Yeah, I could have that here, so long as my dealer doesn’t run out of supply and I don’t run out of banks to rob. I could spend the rest of eternity living “in the white room, with black curtains” and “buying a stairway to heaven” here without a monastery or temple. Buddhism and gnosticism, as well as some Catholicism, are out. It just doesn’t sound ultimately appealing. Hinduism is out, because I enjoy hamburgers and living the life of a top-of-the-food-chain thinking animal eating other animals rather than being reincarnated as one. Plus, have you seen divinely inspired pictures of Hindu and Buddhist gods? Ugly, wicked looking things. No thanks. Or, let’s go athiest: Time just stops when I die. Boom, lights out, and I left a “legacy” or “good life” that I’ll never see. I love plants and flowers, but seriously, just fertilizer? Screw that noise. Space aliens on a comet? Hey now, that sounds fun!! But what the hell are we doing to do? I’m sure it would be amazing, just not amazing enough for me.

Okay, now here’s something, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, for whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” A god who loves me and gives me eternal life. Not bad so far. “I will uphold you in my righteous right hand” and “in my right hand are treasures forever.” So, I’ve got a kick-ass powerful God who is a badass and knows it, holding me. Treasures forever? Sweet, sweet. “That beats peace and tranquility, as well as time stopping while I’m six feet under.

And on and on we can go. Screw sacred texts as a source. Just find another message better than this one. There is no God like my God. A loving badass who is more powerful and loving than anything ever and isn’t afraid to show it. “freely give you all things…” Excellent. “whatever you ask will be done for you…” Holy shit, nice. “I am the Lord, I do not change.” Yes, unlike my ex-girlfriends. “I have called you by name, you are mine.” Beats a one-night stand. “Do not fear, I will help you.” Sold. Show me a god who offers more than mine, and I’ll worship it/him/her/they/nothing whatever.

Now, given our constant that personal desire is always an element to every action, belief, and willful expression of every person, what other god would I believe in besides the One I do? Can anyone or any sacred text offer anything better?

12. Eric - November 14, 2008

Matt — you may be interested in reading this article published in Salon.com earlier this year. I’m in the middle of reading the book that this article is kind of a summary of, and it’s very illuminating.

Benjamin — I can’t tell how much sarcasm (if any) you intend to be expressing in your comment just above. But as long as we’re playing that game: the reason why I’m a skeptic and interested in logic, reason, and science is because that promise made by these notions (which is sometimes even delivered) is that there’s a path leading to truth that I can, in principle, arrive at without anyone else’s help. That’s some empowering shit right there.

13. Nancy O. - November 14, 2008

Casey,

Will you give us a few specific examples of what you are skeptical or doubtful about and for which you are searching the truth for?

14. Nancy O. - November 14, 2008

If the “truth” being discussed here is “God” then there is a path leading to Him that we can arrive at without anyone else’s help.

15. Sivad - November 14, 2008

Good afternoon all. Hey, I’m new to the blog and found the above conversation interesting and would like to share a few thoughts. Most striking was Benjamin’s comments, so if I may, I’ll start there. The peace that you found in your “badass God” is the same peace found by the faithful Moslem, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, Budhist, Jain, and Zorasterian. We all find comfort in our personal expressions of God, who, for the most part, you did not choose, but it was your environment that chose. Had you been born in Israel, no one could convince you that praying at the Wailing Wall everyday or in Jordan that praying 5 five times a day was wrong. To a large degree, you my friend, in the words of Senator McCain, are a product of your environment.

Second, to what degree does God play in your life? Does God order your steps, choose your job, spouse, heath insurance, or where to eat dinner. Does God answer your prayer when you ask to win the lottery or heal a sick child? You see, if “He” (the use of the pronoun in the scripture you quote is another debate, which I’m sure this blog has already entertained) does, that’s called Escapism. When I was young I tried to tell my father that I could sit on the couch and God will magically send me a spouse. Yea, God could, but I doubt it. I’ve grown since then. I don’t believe God works that way. I’m a Christian humanist, which isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive. I believe God has given humanity a beautiful mind, that can reason, use logic, and answer many of our tough questions, heal our sick, and even talk someone into given us a job. We don’t need a “badass” God to pull out a silver spoon and feed us gold and silver to prove that we are blessed, we have Capitalism for that:)

So, what do we need God for? Salvation. Complete salvation, and not just salvation in the afterlife but here, right now, on earth. The Christian tradition focuses, I think incorrectly, on salvation in the afterlife and fails to address salvation in this life. What about the mind, body, and soul? That’s were the non-Abrahamic religious come into play. They focus on salvation now. They address such issues as human suffering. The Christian traditions says that suffering is part of human life with the reward coming in the afterlife. Life is more than suffering or a warped prosperity gospel.

Let me finish by bringing in Casey’s concept of vulnerability. I think we, humanity, should openly dialogue with people of other religious traditions. Not in an effort to convert them to Christianity, something we can’t do anyway, only God can convert, but with an effort to walk a mile in the shoes of another. We may learn that the 40 virgins in eternity is a metaphor for eternal bliss in human terms just like the Christian metaphor of hell as eternal seperation from God. Vulnerability says that I will LISTEN to others and make myself open to the wisdom of someone else. I call that a theology of dependence. I am dependent on other religious to either fortify my own faith, enhance my faith, and not to condemn my faith. And yes Benjamin, your God is an awesome God, but your God is bigger than you can ever believe. Your knowledge of God represents a single drop in all the seas, oceans, lakes, and ponds combined. God is active in all of humanity. We just need to look for God’s activity and not assume that God only works within the Christian tradition. Peace and long life> Sivad

16. bear - November 14, 2008

Wow–everyone is a preacher while not trying to preach. We are all doomed. 😦

17. Sivad - November 14, 2008

How about pew theologians:)

18. Michelle Wilson - November 14, 2008

Although I appreciate and agree with the wrongness of foregone conclusions, I think we have to admit that when we search we are always looking for something. Better to be honest and upfront with ourselves about the biases and underlying questions and make sure they don’t preclude things we would not like to rule out. I have to agree with Benjamin in questioning where the parameters come from. How do we decide what is relevant?

I know I said things like this already, but there is a long way to go back if we are really going to question everything. i.e. What is the nature of reality? Where is square one? I think, therefore I am?

19. caseyww - November 14, 2008

A couple of things.

First, Philip and Sivad, thanks for your comments and welcome to Valence! I hope we’ll see more of you around.

Second, Ben, welcome back…

(RE: Comment #10)

While I was writing the post I went back and forth on whether I wanted to extend the conversation into science or just limit it to faith. Since the post was getting a bit long I thought I’d address just faith and see if someone would call me out and so you win the prize for seeing the apparent disconnect I wanted to address originally. The disconnect being that I deny the vulnerability of faith because it presupposes answers while not addressing science which presupposes natural causation.

Whether this apparent disconnect is hypocritical on my part or not really depends on the kind of question or claim we are evaluating. I know you didn’t agree with my post Truth and Evidence but I need to reference it just a little.

I don’t think it’s a disconnect to say that science presupposes natural answers nor do I think this is a reduction in vulnerability. It’s really only a definition. Any evidence humans can observe is natural. Therefore, when trying to establish truth based on evidence it’s not unreasonable to assume science is limited to giving us natural information.

I don’t deny that truth may exist outside of evidence. I called this kind of truth “Untestable” and I concede that it would be drastically hypocritical of me to presuppose natural answers to these types of questions. In this sense, if you want to believe that Christ is going to give you a better afterlife than Vishnu then go ahead. You’ll get no objection from me…except I think this ignores the multiplicity of faiths who disagree with you as Sivad has pointed out.

However, if you want to claim that Jesus healed your neck miraculously you’ve now made a ‘physical’ claim that is not beyond the bounds of evidence.

20. Benjamin - November 14, 2008

Sivad and Casey,

A slight misunderstanding. Sivad, the faiths and religions I have been exposed to, in fact, that I exposed myself to, were not in my environment (unless, of course, by ‘environment’ you meant ‘everything you’ve ever known or experienced’). If you knew me better, or seen me interact with religious groups, you’d know that I’m not exactly the conformist type, especially in regards to how I grew up myself. I am not at all limited to ‘my environment’ when I say I believe in what I want. I’m referring to that which offers the most to personal happiness, which I believe, is a universal desire. You can test this if you would like by comparing the promises/rewards of following a Moslem, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, Budhist, Jain, and Zorasterian both individually and collectively with those of my faith and each other. As for other people’s peace in their faith, that’s great, but I rely on the fact that I want more for myself than these faiths have to offer and that is why is believe in what I do. I do not pretend to know peoples’ personal peace in these religions (though I’m not sure how you have figured out how much peace those people or myself have, including the fact that you say that mine and theirs are the same). I’m establishing rewards and happiness based on the faith itself, not my perception of the faith’s followers.

Casey, I understand a little more of the disconnect. But my argument here is that desire or “want” is one of the testable truths because it is universal, even if emotional and ‘unscientific’. Consider the fact that people can lose their physical senses, but rarely (if ever?) do people completely lose emotion or desire. Given that, it is simply a matter of using reason and desire together as evidential guides to truth. In other words, the product of our reason (intellectual conclusions) and desire (ultimate happiness) is the evidence we use to establish our beliefs. I don’t ignore anything or any other faith. All of them, no matter my nor their environment, can be subjected to this test. I’m completely open to it, and anyone else can be too. Why not use desire as a guide?

Again, the complete undoing of my present faith would be this: show me a god who offers more than mine, and I’ll worship it/him/her/they. I promise I will listen intently because, as I’ve stated many times, I believe in what I WANT. I realize I’m kind of arrogant, but even if I change my spiritual mind tomorrow, I am quite certain that the God I believe in right now is a considerable badass. That’s really the only reason I use a capital G. I’d bet on him in any contest, that’s all.

21. Eric - November 15, 2008

Ben — I’ll go ahead and agree with your self-assessment: you are indeed kind of arrogant (and so am I, so in my arrogant opinion, you’re in good company). Do you really believe that by exposing yourself to other faiths, however deliberately and openly, that you can achieve an understanding of them that can really compete with the understanding you have of your chosen faith, which is the dominant faith (minor details aside) of the culture you were raised in? I took this to be what Sivad was saying: that the deck is stacked in favor of the dominant religion of your environment, the one you were exposed to during your formative years, and so on. A good analogy would be language: after a certain age, you can take all the language classes you want and even move to a place where they don’t speak your original native language, but (like the vast majority of people) you will probably never achieve the competence in a second language that you have in your first language.

Also, I’d like to address this statement:

Consider the fact that people can lose their physical senses, but rarely (if ever?) do people completely lose emotion or desire.

This is simply false, but thinking it’s true is in large part a result of the general ignorance we all have of mental disorders as opposed to physical disorders. There are plenty of people who lose (aspects of) senses of emotion and desire; we call them psychopaths and sociopaths (and probably a variety of other terms I’m unfamiliar with). The loss of these senses is completely parallel to the loss of physical senses, including the “aspects of” caveat I mentioned above: people who are technically blind or deaf, for instance, aren’t typically completely devoid of those senses, it’s just that there’s a functional definition of sight and hearing that we subscribe to that blind and deaf folks do not possess. (That’s why we sometimes distinguish “legally blind” other forms of blindness, for example.) Or take the sense of touch: you rarely if ever hear of anyone who has completely lost their sense of touch (though it could happen, in principle), typically there is localized loss of this sense (say, numbness in some extremity).

22. Sivad - November 15, 2008

Eric,
Thanks for the pigback. Language is an excellent analogy. One has to engulf themselves into a culture to truly understand, appreciate the culture of another, which can only come by becoming vulnerable. Even then, our environment keeps us from fully absorbing all that we see, hear, or learn. I had the occassion of observing a Sikh worship service. It was awesome. The love share was incredible. Benjamin, my only point is that if I understand your comments, I can hear the peace in your words for the Christian God and in listening to people of other traditions, I hear the same peace. It’s all about listening instead of defending the faith. And that’s cool, I have also made the same choice pretaining to the Christian God.

23. caseyww - November 15, 2008

(RE: Comment #13 and #14)

Nancy-
Thanks for the interest. I certainly will be giving more specific examples as the blog moves forward. I think this post will probably be one of the last “preliminary” ones.

24. caseyww - November 15, 2008

(RE: Comment #18)

Michelle-
I agree it can seem daunting to suggest that we question everything and I’m actually not in favor in this strategy. I think I addressed this issue back in On Skepticism:

For example, we can’t constantly be assuaged by doubt over whether bread satisfies hunger or not. Once this belief is established we need to move on and focus our attention on more critical matters of truth and existence. Important things. Like whether chocolate is truly an aphrodisiac. You know, critical matters of faith! Seriously though, the bounds each of us individually sets around what is functionally true and what is not (ie. what we believe and what we don’t) allow us to focus most of our critical resources outwards where they can do the most good. However, the healthiness of this natural tendency is dependent on one thing:

Those beliefs that have made their way inside the bounds of belief must in fact be true.

My concern is that if we don’t employ the same skeptical methodology to the beleifs that we personally do hold as we do to all those beleifs we don’t hold that we run the risk of protecting untruths.

In this sense, you’re right, I am stepping back to square one. I want to be equally critical of of my “cultural religious tradition” as I am of all other belief systems. However, I don’t think this requires us to suddenly start questioning the nature of reality. But even if it did I think the pursuit of truth would be worth the trouble.

25. Michelle Wilson - November 15, 2008

RE #24
Hi Casey!
I don’t think “Who is God?” and “What is the nature of reality?” are separable. If you limit evidence to what you perceive to be the physical realm, you have already answered part of those two questions for yourself ahead of time and limited who you are willing to believe God can be. And, as you said, the pursuit of truth is surely worth the trouble.

26. Nancy O. - November 16, 2008

Yes, indeed, the “pursuit of truth is surely worth the trouble” and it is good to pursue the truth for a lifetime.

I think God wants us to use our reasoning powers and prove to ourselves His reality. But I think we all know that with our limited human knowledge, there are things we will never fully comprehend. If it were possible for people to attain a full understanding of God and His works, then having reached this point, there would be no further discovery of truth, no growth in knowledge, and no further development of mind or heart; God, in our minds, might no longer be supreme.

I have found for myself, when searching for the “truth” there is abundant evidence to be found. It can be found through experience and it can be found in God’s word. When I have opened the Bible without reverence and without prayer, my mind is full of doubt and I walk away void of any understanding. But when I open it with reverence and prayer, it is very plain and simple to understand and it becomes a spiritual voice of God.

27. Philip - November 16, 2008

Re: Comment #25

What other kinds of evidence do you think there are, Michelle, outside the physical realm? I’m guessing you might say spiritual? That’s the only thing I can think of. If that’s the case, I’m not sure what spiritual evidence is, if not the sensation of faith (which I would hazard actually has physical correlates as well).

In general, I don’t think it’s necessary to answer Plato-style questions of reality/dreamscape before one attempts to substantiate or disprove much more basic claims for which we do clearly have evidence one way or the other. Even if there are forces/powers, etc. out there that influence us and the world around us, I’m not sure I know what the point in acknowledging them is if it can’t be measured. The same applies to stuff like string theory, which I find interesting and elegant, but there seems to be no point in believing it because there’s no way of telling (in this universe) whether it’s right or wrong.

28. bear - November 16, 2008

Phillip et al. I am reading a Brief History of Time, by Hawking, and it is blowing my mind. One of the things that is particularly “mind-blowing” is the way that these brilliant scientists of our generations are (so incredibly smart) and imaginative. The search for Unified Theory seems not unlike what Nancy is talking about in 26…or the way that the term, “Ether” was created to somehow understand how light traveled…or even the discrepency of relatavity and Quantum theory etc….now before you all get itchy at your computer desks with corrections etc…I am not claiming full knowledge of these things I mentioned, nor am I trying to use them to prove a point (or want further explanations of these points) I am merely pointing out what I find to be a very interesting and similar approach to science and faith when dealing with the “unexplainable things” i.e. when Nancy says something like….

“I think God wants us to use our reasoning powers and prove to ourselves His reality. But I think we all know that with our limited human knowledge, there are things we will never fully comprehend. If it were possible for people to attain a full understanding of God and His works, then having reached this point, there would be no further discovery of truth, no growth in knowledge, and no further development of mind or heart; God, in our minds, might no longer be supreme.”

This is not totally unlike the imaginative reasoning that starts the conversation about the relationship between types of relatvity, or wether the universe is constant or moving, or if gravity affects time. All require thought and rsiky imagination—I suppose the difference comes when we can start, in science to start proving things that are true…and to consider more concisely Casey’s point….scientists–Eisntein included, were humble enought to say when their theroies fell short, or when a better theory came along–in fact, the truth of the discovery is dependent on the ability to be open to skeptiscim and further reasonings…

Anyway, an interesting journey…

Bear

29. Nancy O. - November 16, 2008

Hey Bear,

Since you mentioned Albert Einstein 🙂 I thought I’d take this opportunity to insert one of his quotes that I find interesting and which relates to some of the discussions in this forum:

“Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior than that of man…in this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.”

30. caseyww - November 16, 2008

(RE: Comment #26)

Nancy-

I have to admit that I have a problem with your closing quote:

When I have opened the Bible without reverence and without prayer, my mind is full of doubt and I walk away void of any understanding. But when I open it with reverence and prayer, it is very plain and simple to understand and it becomes a spiritual voice of God.

I can’t escape the inherent assertion here that the truth of the Bible will only be revealed to those who are approaching it with reverence and prayer. If the biblical narrative is true it should stand up to the highest levels of critique and doubt without trouble.

If one must assume a posture of faith before even reading in order for the story to be revealed as true this seems a bit circular to me. This posture of faith presupposes the story will be true and then is validated by a less than skeptical reading which proves the faith posture was right…and around we go.

Honest question, not an attack: Does it bother you that if you approached the Bible skeptically God seems to withhold understanding and truth?

31. caseyww - November 16, 2008

(RE: Comment #29)

Nancy-

Thanks for the Einstein quote. I certainly agree that his was probably one of the most brilliant minds of the past century, if for nothing else for his pure ability to think about the very fabric of time and space in new ways.

That being said, I’m interested in what you take away from the quote you included. How does this quote speak to you?

I ask because it’s my understanding that Einstein lived his life as an atheist. Granted, he did give plenty of quotes that referenced an inherent spirituality in the universe, however, he also made it pretty clear that he did not believe in supernatural forces or a personal God. When he speaks of spirituality it is my understanding that he is really speaking of a “religious like” response of awe to the complexity of natural laws.

32. Nancy O. - November 17, 2008

Casey,

Regarding my comment about reading/understanding the bible:

I meant to include the word “spiritual” in the first sentence. It should have been written: “When I have opened the Bible without reverence and without prayer, my mind is full of doubt and I walk away without any SPIRITUAL understanding.”

I completely agree with you that most people can read the bible, just like any other text, and gain understanding of what most of it says. But, at least for me, I have found that to gain a “spiritual” understanding, I need to pray and ask for God’s assistance before I read and yes, of course, that requires faith in Him. This isn’t to say people cannot gain a spiritual understanding without praying first (God can do anything) but for me personally – prayer is key.

Regarding the Albert Einstein quote:

What I know of Einstein, besides his brilliant mind, is that although he could not believe there was a God who would allow evil and suffering in the world, he said he believed in “Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists.”

Regarding his thoughts about people calling him an atheist, he said, “In view of such harmony in the cosmos, which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views. I am not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist.”

From my understanding (and believe me, I am no “Einstein” when it comes to Einstein :)), it appears that he struggled with believing in a God who was not a puppeteer type God who manipulated human behavior so that everything in the world would be perfect. So, in his mind he made up some other type of God that made more sense to him and then acknowledged that this God was responsible for the creation of the universe. I think in the end he became a deist, a believer in an impersonal creator of God (whatever that means).

To answer your question: What I got out of it is that one very brilliant scientist concluded that the universe did have a beginning and he attributed the beginning to whatever interpretation he had of God or non-God. It doesn’t matter to me what God or non-God he believed in; the main point that I find interesting is that his conclusion was that the universe had a created beginning.


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