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Faith Healing and Neglect March 3, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Faith, Politics, Skepticism.

As I’ve said before I’m a bit of a podcast junky.  One of my favorites is called The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe which is, you guessed it, a podcast dedicated to what they brand as scientific skepticism.  A far cry from what many imagine skeptics to be (that is, cynical), these guys do a great job of both explaining current science issues and also debunking a lot of the paranormal claims out there, all with a secure rational basis and a humorous edge.  If you boast an inner nerd, or have ever dreamt of adopting one, this is the podcast for you.  It’s usually an hour long but they also provide short format discussions tackling just one topic at a time.  One of their recent topics has been nagging at me and I’d love to hear what you guys think.

Perhaps it’s my masochistic side which thinks it’s a good idea to poke at the hornet’s nest of faith healing.  Descriptions of children dying slow horrible deaths from neglect are never pretty and I suspect that no matter the diversity of religious convictions represented here at Valence most of us will naturally distance ourselves from such extremism.  I recognize that, for most believers, the kind of anti-medical stance defended by fringe groups like Christian Scientists or the Followers of Christ Church aren’t even an option.  Don’t worry, I’m not here to point fingers and make believers defend a faith healing position they themselves don’t even hold.  However, I also think it’s a mistake to just dismiss non-mainstream faiths as misguided without wrestling with the similarities and implications to our variety of faith.  There is a tough but valuable conversation to be had here which brings up two main questions for me:

One is political: What should the limits on religious freedom be in terms of protecting the innocent?

When the innocent are children and the protection is from wrongful death I think this question is pretty easy to answer but still not without its sticky points. In the clip above Steve Novella stated that:

…when you’re trying to balance the freedom of religion and the rights of a parent over their children with the duty to protect a child and to give at least the basic necessities of life, it’s a very thorny issue.  But I think that there is a general consensus that children should not be neglected to point of permanent harm or death, regardless of what the views of their parents are.

The definition of neglect is where things get sticky for me.  I truly think the parents in question were being as genuine as they knew how.  Allow me to try and put myself in their shoes for a second.  They felt like the most responsible thing to do for their child was to wait on an all powerful God to act.  They viewed a reliance on the human medicine as betrayal to God’s promises for supernatural healings.  To betray God as such would be neglect of a different kind.  They would be neglecting their child’s soul, which would be argued to be more important than this transient life anyways.  Their definition of neglect focuses on the eternal while our political definition of neglect focuses on physical health.  Do we as a society have the right or, even better, a responsibility to impose a secular and physical perspective of neglect on those who prioritize the supernatural?  I’d argue yes, but I’ll admit it does feel intrusive to say so.

Similar to laws barring polygamy and animal sacrifice I think the government does have the responsibility to severely restrict the religious practice of parents when they threaten the health of their children.  However, “protecting the innocent” line of thought isn’t limited to faith healing and wrongful death.  The move to limiting parents’ rights also has a related argument in the choice of parents not to vaccinate their children or an even tougher correlate in whether children have educational rights which should be protected from the misguided notions of their parents.  Who decides what’s misguided?  Well that’s the rub isn’t it?

The other question hits closer to home: What can we glean from the similarities and differences between “mainstream” Christianity and its cultish cousins?

(I don’t mean to be reductionist by too clearly delineating between mainstream and non-mainstream faiths.  I’d actually argue that there is a pretty well graded spectrum from typical evangelical faith all the way to extreme examples like the Followers of Christ Church.  However, I think it’s reasonable to address the majority of those who believe in supernatural healing while still trusting in medical science as a cohesive group.)

When ‘mainstream’ Christians ask for miracles what is the proper commitment to waiting for God to act?  One thing the Followers of Christ do not lack is investment in their faith.  The rest of us often have our cake and eat it too in that we’ll pray for a miracle but still see a doctor just in case.

If your feathers are getting ruffled by that last sentence I imagine you would argue that “God can work through doctors too” and that I shouldn’t “put God in a box” for what kind of miracles count as miraculous.  Why isn’t an elegant heart bypass by a skilled surgeon just as much evidence for God’s healing power as a pure faith healing?  This is a huge topic and a great question but I’ll say briefly now that I have a problem with this stance because it seems to dilute the definition of what is and what is not miraculous to the point of losing almost all meaning.  That is, God working vs God not working becomes a moot point when we fail to arbitrate what either looks like by claiming it all to be divine.

That said, I find my sickening gut reaction (our gut reaction?) to stories about watching children slowly die in the name of faith to be telling.  I think this reaction is indicative of a moral sense that it is wrong and selfish to prioritize one’s personal faith over the health and happiness of another human being.  I think this reaction is healthy even though it runs against the biblical grain.  That is, I’m not sure the Followers of Christ Church really misinterpreted the implication of stories like Abraham who is applauded for his willingness to sacrifice his son for faith’s sake.  Perhaps they followed the Biblical call to trust in God’s healing or to suffer as Christ suffered to its intended conclusion? That is, what if their interpretation is right and it’s the biblical imperative itself that is wrong, as born out in such stark relief with these children?  Could our innate reaction to distance ourselves from these extremist groups signal that we don’t actually believe such biblical imperatives to be moral in and of themselves?  I don’t think this is an unlikely scenario, but I suspect a few of you may have something to add.  What do you think?


Misquoting Jesus February 19, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Faith, Skepticism.

misquoting-jesusIt’s easy to mistake the Bible for a Stephen King novel.  I’m tempted to try and construct an elaborate argument for how Misery was really an allegory for the obsessive tortured love that is the relationship between man and divinity.  Would Kathy Bates be God or mankind in that scenario? Luckily, I’m not going there.  Instead, the mistake we are prone to make isn’t a plot based one (at least not the mistake I want to discuss this week) but is in our assumption about the origin of the text itself.

What I mean is that as 21st century readers we are justified in assuming that when we order a book from Amazon, say Misery, we will receive a copy that exactly matches King’s original published version.  Barring the random typo, misprint or abridgement we are reading the exact thoughts of the author as they first appeared for print.  Further, if we ever discover a discrepancy between your version and my version of Misery we should be able to refer to the publisher’s original manuscript to settle the question of King’s true intent.  We have an unspoken connection with authors, endowed by the reliability of the printing press, which bolsters our confidence that we are reading accurate copies of text.

In Misquoting Jesus – The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why Bart Ehrman explains why it’s a mistake to treat the Bible with similar confidence.  Ehrman, a biblical scholar and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, concentrates on the New Testament in this book and explores the history that separates our copy of the Bible from that originally penned by the early church.  In Misquoting Jesus he focuses exclusively on the changes made to scripture by scribes copying the text.  The premise here is simple but often overlooked by modern believers.  From the time the books of the New Testament were written in the 1st and 2nd century until the invention of the western printing press in 1439 every copy of the Bible had to be hand copied.  Ehrman argues that this roughly 1500 years of transcription has left us with “error-ridden” copies of text which have been heavily influenced by the social context, personal bias and often ineptitude of those who were doing the copying.

…we have thousands of copies of the New Testament in its original, Greek language, written over a period of centuries: these copies all differ from one another in ways great and small; most of these differences do not affect the meaning of the text, but other differences are significant – some of them slightly significant for understanding an author’s nuances, others of enormous significance affecting the interpretation of an entire passage, or even a book.

Ehrman gives a rather thorough genealogy of biblical manuscripts available to us today but the real fun lies in the methodology textual critics use to discern which copies best reflect the original.  Let’s look at an example where Ehrman argues that most Biblical scholars have it wrong, that is, where a commonly accepted verse is not original but instead was added by a scribe.

Sweating Blood?

The Gospel of Luke gives an account of Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives before being arrested and crucified (Luke 22:39-46) which contains a hotly debated passage (vv. 43-44), which was probably not penned by Luke but by a later scribe.  In it Jesus sweats blood (or sweats drops like blood) due to the agony of anticipating His impending death.

39Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.”

41He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed,

42“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

43An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

45When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.

46“Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

In this specific case the earliest and most reliable manuscripts do not generally include vv.43-44, however, the passage is widespread in the later manuscript tradition.  That is, there are more copies of manuscripts with the passage included but quantity certainly does not prove quality in this instance.

First off, the structure of the passage gives us an important clue.  If we were to omit vv.43-44 the passage forms what textual scholars refer to as a chiasmus (where the first section is related to the last, the second relates to next to last, etc.) with the focal point occurring right in the middle.  In the above passage the outer brackets (vs.40 and 46) are both instructions to the disciples to pray in order to avoid temptation. The next brackets include Jesus kneeling (vs. 42) and then conversely rising up (vs.45) and the pinnacle of the passage occurs with Jesus’ ultimate prayer of submission.

To understand the importance of vv43-44 breaking the chiastic structure we must also understand the overall theme of the Gospel of Luke.  Luke’s portrayal of Jesus is unique in that he goes to great lengths to always show Jesus in complete control of every situation, confident and calm.  This is proven by the many verses that Luke borrows from Mark’s (earlier) gospel but modifies to support his view that Jesus was imperturbable.  (Quick example: Mark has Jesus wailing in despair from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” while Luke changes the scene to read, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”)  Ehrman emphasizes that Luke has a specific purpose in slanting the story of Jesus’ crucifixion:

Luke’s Passion narrative, as has long been recognized, is a story of Jesus’ martyrdom, a martyrdom that functions, as do many others, to set an example to the faithful of how to remain firm in the face of death.  Luke’s martyrology shows that only prayer can prepare one to die.

So what happens when we inject the contested verses about Jesus sweating blood into the passage of Luke 22?  The entire moral of the chiasmus is destroyed.  Instead of focusing us on the calm sustaining power of prayer the passage focuses on such deep anguish that supernatural intervention is needed.  Earnest prayer does not bring comfort; instead Jesus’ despair deepens to the point of sweating blood.  Verses 43-44 not only interrupt a convenient literary structure they plainly undermine the entire character of Jesus that Luke is trying so hard to build.

The nail in the coffin is that three key words in the disputed verses (agony, sweat and drops) don’t occur anywhere else in the author’s vocabulary (neither in the Gospel of Luke nor in Acts).  “It appears that the account of Jesus’ “bloody sweat,” not found in our earliest and best manuscripts, is not original to Luke but is a scribal addition to the Gospel.”

But why would a scribe decide to insert such an odd verse into the passage in the first place?  Ehrman explains that often textual additions were used as ammunition in theological debates.  The early church was broiling with disagreement over who Jesus actually was.  We often lose sight that Christianity is not a homogenous set of beliefs and never was this truer than in the early church.  One group of early dissenters were the Christian Docetists who held that Jesus was purely a spirit and only seemed to have a material body.  In their context Jesus only appeared to suffer and appeared to die as God could not have, in reality, taken on human form.

Proto-orthodox church leaders who wanted to remove any textual support that benefited Docetists needed to address the Gospel of Luke specifically as it painted the most transcendently calm and ‘least human’ account of Jesus’ passion.  Second century apologist Justin Martyr shows his cards by explaining that the account of Jesus sweating blood showed “that the Father wished his Son really to undergo suffering for our sake” so that we “may not say that he, being the Son of God, did not feel what was happening to him and inflicted on him.”  Motivation for scribes to modify the text of Luke lies in their need to settle an argument over whether Christ really suffered or not.

This may seem relatively benign to us now, but we must also consider that similar arguments were raging over a wide range of topics from the role of women in leadership to a growing anti-Semitism through later centuries each leaving their own scar on the text through scribal modifications.  For those interested, here’s some other examples of verses that Ehrman notes were scribal additions to the Bible and not original: 1 John 5:7, John 8:7, John 8:11, Luke 22:20, Mark 16:17, Mark 16:18, John 5:4, Luke 24:12 and Luke 24:51.


Erhman only briefly discusses why books of the New Testament were canonized and avoids tackling whether the original texts themselves were an accurate description of Jesus’ life in the first place.  However, even without vetting these problems, Ehrman shows that there are serious impacts to faith due to the fact that the original text has been changed in thousands of ways by scribes.  One impact is to start treating the books as of the Bible as the very human books they are, shaded by biases and personalities, error prone and faulty.  Arguments over the divine inspiration of the original text become irrelevant because we don’t even have the originals.  The evangelical penchant towards a literal Christ narrative ought to be tempered by the fact that we are seeing Him not only through the faulty lens of the Gospel authors but also through the lens of every scribe whose hands those accounts passed through.

Intelligent Design? February 4, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Faith, science, Skepticism.
Tags: , , , , ,

Last week, in order to discuss the strategy of ‘academic freedom’ which intelligent design proponents are hiding behind, I introduced the evolution vs. intelligent design (ID) debate briefly.  Apparently, judging by the lack of push-back I got in the comments, it is a fairly safe opinion to hold here at Valence that ID has no place in public schools and that evolution should be taught as the factual scientific theory it is.   A fantastic discussion of this exact discussion was on These Day KPBS on Tuesday; I’d definitely recommend giving it a listen.

That being said, I have had some extremely interesting conversations offline (thank you to those who e-mailed me this week) about the soundness of intelligent design.  I’d like to take to the time this week to explore the central tenants of ID a little further and explain why I believe they hold little to no merit.

While ID parades itself as a new modern scientific theory it is fundamentally just a restatement of the age old Teleological Argument for the existence of God put forth by thinkers as early as Aquinas and Cicero.  Simply put, there are components of the natural world which appear to be designed by their sheer complexity.  In the same way that the existence of a pocket watch implies that there exists a watchmaker, natural systems which appear designed imply the existence of an ultimate designer, that is God.

Here’s a rather humorous example of the argument from design (yes, this is serious):

By the way, I’m not trying to paint all believers with the same brush here.  Ray Comfort is arguably a poor representative for believers seeing as how he’s a… well an idiot.  Admittedly, there are design arguments that aren’t so embarrassing, though I’m not sure that at their heart they don’t struggle with the same logical fallacies.  By assuming it immediately follows that any system which appears designed must have a supernatural designer (a false dichotomy and a non sequitur) we ignore the possibility that natural causes may also affect systems to organize in complex or intricate ways.

In fact, natural causes do often result in complex and intricate systems without the intervention of a divine being.  Less controversial examples would be the self organization of snowflakes or diamonds and next week we’ll explore the grand-daddy of intricate systems resulting from natural causes, Darwinian Natural Selection.  Ohh, I can’t wait!

Intelligent design specifically looks to put a modern spin on the teleological argument by setting it the context of modern biology.  The buzz phrase that ID proponents have coined to describe biological systems which they insist must have been designed is irreducible complexity.   Irreducible complexity is the idea that any biological system which must be completely whole in an advanced intricate form in order to function could not have evolved since natural selection couldn’t operate on a more primitive and thus non-functional organ.

Like the fantastic and candid scientist he was, Darwin was actually the first to note that his theory of evolution by natural selection could be falsified by the existence of just one proven irreducibly complex system:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. (On the Origin of Species)

The main advocates of ID (namely Michael Behe, William Dembski and Philip Johnson among others) claim that they have indeed found such cases that Darwin could not.  Perhaps the most popular example (and certainly the easiest to explain here at Valence) is the supposed irreducible complexity of the eye.

ID claims that if you remove any portion of the eye (ie the lens, cornea, the photo receptor cells or even the molecular proteins that trigger the neural relays to the brain) then the eye ceases to function.  Evolution implies that modern eyes are the result of modification from less complex eyes in our ancestors.  But if those less complex eyes weren’t functional, how did natural selection favor increased performance?  This seeming paradox is where ID insists that supernatural intervention is required.  To further bolster their claim that a designer is necessary they often cite the impossible odds of a complete system like the eye coming together by chance.  Anyone up for the proverbial tornadoes building 747’s or chimps typing Shakespeare?

As we’ll see next week, the example of the eye as irreducibly complex (and similar systems) and the appeal to impossible odds really betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of natural selection as a mechanism on the part of ID proponents.

Behe in Darwin’s Black Box focuses further attention on cellular (bacterial flagellum) and molecular (blood clotting cascade) examples which are a bit more advanced but still essentially the same claim.  For all you A students out there, quality discussion of each can be found here and here.

For the rest of us, let me just note that no irreducibly complex system proposed by ID has actually been shown to be irreducible.  In fact evolution researchers have thoroughly debunked each of ID’s concerns and ID has produced no recognized scientific research to back up their claims.  That is, there is absolutely no reputable argument about whether the eye (for example) is irreducibly complex.  It’s not.  Multiple researchers have time and again provided compelling evidence for the natural evolution of proposed irreducibly complex systems like the eye.

Behe himself, as he testified in Kitzmiller vs Dover, admitted that many of his initial critiques made in Darwin’s Black Box have been answered and that in the 20 years of ID research not one peer reviewed ID article has been published in a respected scientific journal.  (For you A+ students, NOVA did a great special on the Kitzmiller trial that I highly recommend.)

That being said, it is perfectly valid and probably even healthy for the scientific process to be challenged by the problems that IDers have noted.  Science thrives on challenges and grows by having people try to falsify its theories.  However, there is an intellectual dishonesty in clinging to those initial critiques of evolution after a preponderance of evidence has proven you wrong.  This kind of dogmatic persistence actually hinders scientific progress.

Bringing the issue back home.  What confounds me is, if ID research is so inflated and paper thin (which is the case I’m making), why does the majority of the religious community still hang our hat on their theories?  There are the few scientists like Ken Miller and Francis Collins who strive to reconcile an adherence to strict evolution with Christian faith but I think we can agree they are in the minority here in America.

For the most of us, we seem content to largely ignore the formidable case for evolution by concentrating on the fringe dissent that is ID, that is if we think about the evolution at all.   But is this really an honest treatment of the issue or is it a case where the religious community has subconsciously (or consciously for that matter) predetermined which research it will back based who is arguing for God?  If intelligent design is shown to be untenable, what are the responsible implications for our faith?

On Motivation December 16, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, Faith, Skepticism.

Our discussion recently in I Must Be Dreaming of whether God speaks through dreams or not has brought up an interesting point that I want to explore further. Some commented that:

…those who don’t believe God will speak through dreams will probably never be spoken to or at least won’t hear Him. Some may, but that’s not the norm. It often requires the belief or hope first, then the result second. Why? Because God operates through faith. For those who need the proof first, I’m truly sorry I have nothing to offer here except that God is faithful to those who TRULY trust in Him.

(By the way, I’m not looking to pick on this specific commenter. Instead it seemed to me that this was a pretty consistent sentiment expressed across the board and I thought this was the most concise quote.)

 This is a great comment which I think we can agree has broad implications far beyond the issue of divine dreams.  There’s a strategy implied by faith which assumes that truth is most accessible to those willing to hope and trust.  “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”( Hebrews 11:1)

Further, I would agree that ‘believing before seeing’ certainly makes one more inclined to the supernatural but could this inclination lead us to believe things in error?  Does the strategy of ‘believing before seeing’ make for a good approach when pursuing truth?

To explore this question a bit deeper I want to reference a study by social psychologist Ziva Kunda with Princeton titled “The Case for Motivated Reasoning” in which she argues that:

There is considerable evidence that people are more likely to arrive at conclusions that they want [hope] to arrive at, but their ability to do so is constrained by their ability to construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these conclusions.

In short, Kunda argues that we all bias the ways we interpret evidence in order to arrive at the conclusions we most desire to be true.  However, we try to avoid the logical dissonance that arises if our desires are too far removed from reality so we will often feign objectivity by inventing, manipulating or wrongly remembering evidence in order to support our claim.  Ah, the pitfalls of human reason!

Kunda breaks the term ‘want’ into two classes of motivation.  When trying to determine truth one can either be motivated to arrive at an accurate conclusion or motivated to arrive at a particular, directional conclusion.   The difference between the two being that,

…accuracy goals lead to the use of those beliefs and strategies [ie. evidence] that are considered most appropriate, whereas directional goals lead to the use of those that are considered most likely to yield the desired conclusion.

That is, when motivated by accuracy goals we are more likely to prioritize arriving at conclusions which are factual regardless of our emotional investment in the answer.  Conversely, directional goals are those for which there is an emotional payoff in arriving at a specific conclusion and are the more error prone of the two motivations because we have a greater personal stake in skewing evidence to support our hopes.

I would argue that the faith issues at hand like dreams, healings and miracles are questions which fall into the directional goal class of motivation.

Directional motivations can skew our decisions and lead us to believe false claims in a number of subtle but important ways.  Thomas Gilovich in “How We Know What Isn’t So” summarizes some of these influences which commonly lead to errors.  Motivations will influence our beliefs by…

…skewing the kind of evidence we seek towards that which supports our claim.  We are likely to ask ourselves, “What evidence is there to support my belief?” which provides an initial bias away from any evidence which may contradict our belief.

…skewing the outside opinions we choose to consult.  We generally surround ourselves with people who believe very similar things to ourselves.  On the example of divine dreams, does it surprise anyone that by sharing these dreams at church or bible study that there is generally no challenge to their supernatural origin?

…skewing not only the kind of evidence we consider but also the amount.  Gilovich explains that, “When the initial evidence supports our preferences, we are generally satisfied and terminate our search; when the initial evidence is hostile, however, we often dig deeper, hoping to find more comforting information…By taking advantage of “optional stopping” in this way we dramatically increase our chances of finding satisfactory support for what we wish to be true.”

It seems that having a motivation to arrive at a directional conclusion like ‘God spoke to me through my dream’ or, dare I say, ‘Jesus was born of a virgin (Merry Christmas!)’ can seriously handicap our pursuit of truth by heavily skewing the evidence we consider.  In other words, the mere act of wanting our faith to be true almost removes any chance of actually being able to judge if it is true.

It is an unfortunate reality that the things we are most invested or motivated to believe are the very things we are the most prone to be wrong about and consequently the areas we must be most vigilant in guarding ourselves from bias.

Now I understand that we can never really remove motivation from our decision making.  None of us, especially not me, have any hope of being truly objective.  But perhaps we can mitigate the pitfalls of directional goal motivation if we are mindful of our hopes and effort to be motivated by accuracy instead.

That is, when we think God has spoken to us in a dream (or when considering whether someone’s testimony of a miraculous healing is true, etc.)  it is vital that we at least consider: “Could my belief be based on skewed evidence which is an artifact of my personal motivational bias instead of an actual interaction with the divine?  Is it possible that my hope is drastically inflating an otherwise benign natural phenomenon?”

The quote at the beginning of this post implied that asking these kinds of questions may disqualify those with the gumption to prode because they run counter to faith and trust.  But what does it say about a phenomenon, supernatural or otherwise, if it disappears when one looks critically at it?  Is the ‘truth’ of God’s interaction in these experiences so fragile that even cursory questions can keep us from recognizing it?

No, I hold that if truth is anything it is robust.  It doesn’t depend on our hopes or trust to reveal itself.  I’ve written before that “if our faith is true, in the cosmic sense of true, the everlasting and omnipotent brand of true, then it certainly should not be threatened by our prodding.”  Further, if propositions of faith (like divine dreams) disappear with critical investigation isn’t it more probable that evidence which initially supported them is an artifact of confused perception which, when corrected for by considering our motivations, should not be used to reasonably support belief?

Part of being personally vulnerable for me is being willing to admit when there is insufficient evidence to ground my beliefs and letting those things go which may have only stood on my hopes instead of reality.

I Must Be Dreaming December 3, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Faith, Skepticism.
Tags: ,

Before we jump into this week’s post a little back story on where I’m coming from will help.  I attend church in San Diego at a community called Coast Vineyard, pastored by Jamie and Michelle Wilson.  One of the things I appreciate most about Coast is that, from the top down, they welcome difficult questions and value discussion of the topics raised on Sundays.  In that vein I’d like to take Coast up on their invitation to engage in tough questions by providing some comments on this week’s sermon.

I know that some of the readers here at Valence also attend Coast but most do not so it’s probably prudent for me to start with a short summary of the topic at hand.  I don’t want to ‘assign homework’ here but if you’re interested you can listen to the entire sermon otherwise you’ll have to make due with the following:

Dream Interpretation and the ways that God supposedly speaks through dreams was the topic of Jamie’s sermon which was set in the context of the story of Joseph (specifically Genesis 40 and 41).  For those of you not familiar with the story of Joseph here’s the low down.  Joseph has been sold into slavery to Egypt by his brothers who are jealous of his coat of many colors (a gift from his father).  Sound familiar now?  In Egypt, after being wrongly accused of slipping the naughty to his master’s wife, Joseph finds himself in prison where he discovers a penchant for interpreting dreams.  News of this talent gets back to Pharaoh who just so happens to be having some trouble making sense of some dreams of his own.  He keeps dreaming of seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows and seven shriveled heads of grain swallowing up seven good heads. Freud would have a field day here. You know what?  We better let Donny Osmond bring it home…

Needless to say Pharaoh does find his man.  Joseph takes charge of Egypt’s agriculture and the famine is averted.  Yeah!

All kidding aside I do actually want to explore what this story has to tell us about the usefulness of dreams in our modern context.  Why am I so concerned about what seems like such a benign religious claim here?

Good question.  I’m not trying to nit-pick but I do take issue with the advice implied by Joseph’s story and Jamie’s sermon that we should be making life decisions for ourselves and others based on what is perhaps the most unreliable of all human experiences, dreams.  In fact, I would argue ‘divine dreams’ cease being benign quickly lest we start using them to sleuth out whether the old woman in our village is a witch or if we should quit our job.  Things can become very serious very fast.

I also suspect that it is precisely in such mysterious corners as dreams that we are the most likely to start invoking the divine in error.  Because the results and interpretations of dreams can be so ambiguous it is easy to assume supernatural intervention where there is none.

First, is the story of Joseph (or, as Jamie pointed out, the similar story of Daniel) credible evidence that God speaks through dreams?

I don’t think so.  It’s useful to keep in mind that the stories of Genesis, if not mythical in their totality, are the result of hundreds of years of oral tradition.  Once recorded these stories were subject to copying errors, reinterpretation and outright modification.  Further these were tales written by a people who spent extended time in exile or persecuted and so would have reasonable motivation to invent hopeful stories about how one of their own climbed to the highest ranks of politics.

It is certainly not surprising that the story of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar so closely resembles Joseph’s assent to power considering the Jewish exile to Babylon.  Instead of providing evidence for God’s continued presence in our dreams, the similarities between Joseph and Daniel seem to show that the Jewish people found dream interpretation a convenient literary device for explaining an unlikely rise to power.

Even if these stories were accurately reported, I have to seriously question whether we should be trusting the cognitive explanations and weight ascribed to dreams from a prescientific people who had little to no conception of the brain’s activity.  The idea that dreams had cosmic significance was an understandable mistake made by a people who relied on outright magical interpretations of the world but a mistake nonetheless.  We need to think very seriously about dreams and their naturalistic origins before following them down this rabbit hole.

Is dream interpretation a reliable way to discern truth?

Maybe. I wouldn’t argue that dreams don’t have meaning at all.  Sure, dreams are commonly motivated by actual events in our lives and so they may very well indeed reflect the truth of our subconscious processing.  But this is certainly a material function of the brain and a far stretch from claiming that dreams have prophetic significance or their interpretation is a conduit for revealed knowledge.

The problem with retrospectively claiming revealed truth or direction from our dreams is that studies have shown dreams to be fluid and extremely malleable in our memories.  It is very common to connect concepts and events that may have been dreamt weeks apart into one cohesive tale; especially, if someone externally is providing an ‘interpretation’ that motivates you to agree or evokes an emotional response.

The very sad reality of human experience is that our personal memories are so acquiescent that they can rarely be trusted as credible evidence.  This commentary is doubly true of dreams.

Thomas Gilovich in his book How We Know What Isn’t So (The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life) puts it this way:

Dreams are particularly suspect…because their multi-faceted, kaleidoscopic nature makes them something of a ‘one size fits all’ premonition that is easy to fulfill.  Psychologist James Alcock cites intriguing evidence of the retrospective nature of many prophetic dreams: Those who claim to have such experiences report that their prophetic quality disappears after he has them record their dreams!

Therefore the evidence we have for supernatural dream interpretation claims seem inherently unreliable.  At best we have the reports from subjective personal experience which is anecdotal and subject to the pitfalls of memory and at worst we have mythical accounts which may have never happened at all.

Further, evidence for dream interpretation is probably not gathered evenly.  That is, we don’t hear about all the prophetic dreams that go unfulfilled, instead we only hear about the rare cases which appear confirmed.  The fact that we are only conscious of ‘positive hits’ can strongly and dangerously bias our perspective.

In conclusion, I know it is fruitless to try and ‘prove’ that God cannot speak through dreams and this certainly isn’t what I’m trying to accomplish here.  Divine dream interpretation is an unfalsifiable claim that cannot be disproved (similar to the Flying Red Elves) but I think it’s appropriate to lean on Carl Sagan a bit and assert that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” before investing in belief.

The claim that there is supernatural knowledge being imparted to people in their sleep by God is certainly extraordinary.  Do we similarly find the extraordinary accompanying evidence to validate belief here?  I don’t think so.  What do you think?

Can We Do Without Certainty? November 18, 2008

Posted by Antony in Article Review, Essays, Skepticism.
Tags: ,

”The Certainty Epidemic” by Robert Burton is an article referenced in the comments section of “V for Vulnerable” that I’d like to discuss further.  I think the article touches on one of the central issues here at Valence: that is, how should we handle conviction – both our own and others’?

Here’s a brief summary of the article if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet: I take the central argument of this article to be that certainty is a feeling (that is, related to emotions) which originates in a different part of the brain from the rational cognitive processes. Burton accordingly calls certainty “the feeling of knowing” as opposed to “having knowledge” (which is the way we tend to think of it).

In the article, Burton presents what he sees as the everyday implications of this neurological discovery. Because rational thinking and feelings of certainty have different neural origins, Burton believes that we can analytically separate them and deal with them independently. Thus, a feeling of certainty is not evidence for or against the quality of knowledge, and vice versa, the quality of knowledge does not determine the intensity of feelings of certainty.

For Burton, putting certainty aside allows us to recognize two things: (1) All of our “I know” statements are actually “I believe” ones. Of course, he qualifies this, reminding the reader that not all “I believe” statements are equal; some are more probable than others. And (2) human beings need to become aware of our biology. As he states, “Our minds have their own agendas.” By which he means that some of our biological traits, such as the feeling of certainty, are ill-adapted for some of the demands of modern society.

– –

Okay, so I love-hate this article and I could nitpick just about every paragraph. But here I want to focus on the big picture problem I have with Burton’s line of argument: I think his separation of rational thinking from feelings is a problematic way of understanding humanity.

The advantages of being able to separate claims to knowledge from the feelings of knowing are obvious. Putting aside strong feelings of certainty makes us more vulnerable. When we deny ourselves the advantages of certainty when defending our beliefs, it makes us focus on the beliefs themselves (not our personal stake in them), which helps keep our minds open. And I totally agree; this is a good thing for us to be able to do.

My problem with Burton’s approach is that once he analytically separates the feeling of certainty from rational thought, he fails to bring them back together. Burton falls into a soft dualism: there are feelings and there is rational thought.

Certainty remains merely a feeling that may have had evolutionary advantages, but it’s now an obstacle to thinking clearly. On one hand, Burton is right – sometimes certainty should be put aside because it does prevent us from really investigating why we believe something. We take the feeling of certainty to mean that the case is closed, all the evidence is in, and the discussion is over. This can be seriously problematic, not only in social and political circumstances, but for our own internal checks and balances too. Certainty sometimes protects ill-founded beliefs from the self-scrutiny that would overturn them in favor of better-supported beliefs.

On the other hand, Burton is wrong to keep the feeling of certainty at arm’s length because it’s such an integral and unavoidable aspect of the way that human beings experience the world. This failure leads him to conclude that science is a ‘cold vision’ always at a disadvantage when faced with worldviews that offer ‘purpose.’ But the ‘cold vision’ is not science’s vision, it is Burton’s – a consequence of a method that keeps feeling and thought separate.

For Burton, this means that we today are faced with a choice between a cold, thinking answer (science) and a feeling-based answer that provides purpose (such as, religious belief). But this is a false choice because we as human beings are thinking and feeling animals, and so, our understanding of the world ought to be one that is both thinking and feeling.

This leaves me with two questions – one very specific and one very general:

(1) What role should the ‘feeling of knowing’ (certainty) play in evaluating my own beliefs? How about the beliefs of another person?

(2) To what extent is it fair to line up science with rational thinking and ‘purpose’ with feeling? Can the two be brought together?

V for Vulnerable November 12, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Essays, Faith, Skepticism.

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”

On Skepticism October 14, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Skepticism.

I suppose before we go any further, I had better answer a fundamental question about myself. Why doubt? Some may see what I’m doing here as a gamble with the highest stakes. Why risk my everlasting soul on matters that are probably beyond human comprehension anyways? Like Pascal, why not be safe and take the sure bet, defaulting to faith? Why be skeptical?

First, I believe the term ‘skeptical’ has frankly gotten a bad wrap. It is so often wrongly equated with ‘cynical’.  Defaulting to blunt and clumsy denial of belief in general is the realm of the cynic, which, to me, reeks of bitterness and isolation. Skepticism really has no problem with the act of belief itself. However, skepticism does concern itself with the methods and tools which are appropriate to establish belief in the first place.

Simply stated, skepticism looks for adequate evidence before accepting a belief as true. ‘Adequate evidence’ is admittedly a slippery term that we may have to spend time in future blog posts parsing out. For now it’s sufficient to establish that there is a range of skepticism that we all fall into. We all look for evidence when making decisions; it’s just a question of how much evidence we require and of what quality. Like most things in life healthy skepticism is a balance between requiring too little evidence (gullibility) and demanding too much (blunt denial). Further, skepticism holds that all beliefs are open to modification, affirmation or even outright trashing as new evidence comes to light.

I would argue that, while the term ‘skeptical’ may still sound too abrasive for most of us to adopt outright, we are all still secretly skeptical at heart. Let me explain. Think of all the countless beliefs or faith traditions that you think are bunk. The beliefs which are available but rejected surely outnumber the scant few we actually invest in. Okay, now seriously, take a second and think of just one proposition out there in the world that you personally think is utter trash and hold on to that for me.

Whether it’s alien abductions or Joseph Smith’s golden plates or the claim that the Comet Hale-Bopp could have borne your soul to heaven’s gate with its 1997 passing, for these things most of us practice perfect skepticism and we do so easily. But let me ask, why do we find it so easy to dismiss these claims? Why didn’t more of us commit suicide back in 1997 as we heard the news reports about the Heaven’s Gate cult in order to join them on their ‘journey’? Why weren’t we also swayed?

The answer here is typically so obvious that it feels a bit elementary to even regurgitate for you. We just ‘knew’ they were wrong. Their claim about the spiritual implications of a comet ‘didn’t make enough sense’ to translate into such drastic action. These thoughts are so secondhand that they tend to pass unnoticed through our heads. Since we’re not even tempted to action by such wild cultish claims we don’t identify the rigorous test we subject these claims to. But there is an important underlying rational system here that each of us constantly taps into which is worth recognizing. We all have a filter for establishing truth which, for 95% of the propositions we hear, defaults to doubt before investing in belief. Let me rephrase that. For all those things we don’t already believe, scrutiny is inherently skeptical in that it starts at doubt and then sees if there is sufficient evidence to transition to belief. 

This system is beautiful in its simplicity. We are constantly protected from acting on dangerous new beliefs by an underlying skepticism which naturally seeks tangible evidence before getting us into too much trouble. There is a problem here though.

Here comes the wrench. While our filters typically work perfectly on all those outside beliefs, we can have a very hard time applying the same standards for ‘adequate evidence’ to beliefs that have already been accepted. That is, we all have the tendency to loosen the standards for what constitutes ‘adequate evidence’ when it’s our personal beliefs that are being scrutinized.

Admittedly, this evolved tendency to stop applying close scrutiny to already accepted beliefs is almost essential. 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.

Unfortunately, beliefs can often be let inside our bounds and subsequently go unchecked in error. In fact, when it comes to larger matters of belief (at least larger than chocolate) I would argue that the very nature of faith and religion often demand a lower criteria for what constitutes appropriate evidence. We often believe on the advice of authority alone or because of a highly subjective personal experience or sometimes because we have incomplete information or we misinterpret data. The reasons we can positively “know” things that aren’t actually so is a big subject that I think may also be another topic worth returning to in a later post, for now let’s move on.

To compound the issue we tend to treat beliefs like possessions. Even our vocabulary for talking about the act of belief betrays how possessive we can be over faith. We talk of holding, adopting or even buying a belief. You may even now be saying, “I don’t buy all this crap, Casey. This blog sucks.” I hope not. Anyways, the personal nature of belief itself can insulate us from being critical in those most important monumental decisions of faith where our worldviews are shaped.

I posit that it is for those beliefs that we hold most dear that we need to apply the highest levels of skepticism. It is precisely because these accepted beliefs are those which daily drive our actions and decision-making that we need to maintain the utmost level of intentional questioning about their validity, being always careful to demand appropriate evidence. Unnatural and sometimes uncomfortable vigilance.

In regards to my own faith, this is where I have taken a step back and restarted. I don’t want to commit the hypocrisy of submitting my traditional Christian faith to less scrutiny than I would the Heaven’s Gate cult just because it’s already been allowed inside my bounds of belief. The level of what constitutes adequate evidence for belief should be the same for both claims.

Further, if those beliefs we have accepted on the authority of our pastors or the personal experiences we have while singing together are in fact true then they should be never be threatened by this form of skepticism. Truth cannot be damaged by investigation.  That which is transcendent by definition cannot be changed or affected by the healthy skepticism each of us practices for those ‘other’ 95% of propositions out there.

Okay, in conclusion, I was asked in the comments on the “Invitation” post which specific claims of Christianity I am skeptical about? In light of the way we’ve been discussing skepticism here I’d have to answer: All of them, but none of them more or less than I am about Islam and Heaven’s Gate or evolution and the existence of black holes. I’d like to redefine the question a bit if I can (which I know I can…oh the power of running the blog! Mua-ha-ha-ha!…). Instead, of asking which biblical claims I’m skeptical about it would really be more accurate to refocus the question on which claims have been believed or defended on inappropriate evidence. This is a fantastic question that unfortunately is meaningless unless we agree on what constitutes ‘appropriate or adequate evidence’ first. Let me then end this post by throwing the question back to you guys to see if we can work towards a consensus. How do you think we should define what constitutes ‘appropriate/adequate evidence’ for belief in general?