Responsible Religious Belief Q&A

responsible belief, SASHAThis video records the Q&A after talk I gave to the University of Missouri SASHA club (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, and Agnostics). The title was “Responsible Belief,” and I shared with them a model of how beliefs are formed and evaluated responsibly. That went about 30 min. Then, we had Q&A and everyone stayed. It was a wonderful conversation and one of the highlights of 2015 for me. At some point, I may post the original presentation.

I’ve broken the 30 min of Q&A into 3 separate videos, and this is Part 1. If you’re interested in how a Christian might respond to being put on the hot seat in front of a lot of smart people, you’ll enjoy this!

 

Is There Scientific Evidence for God?

evidence, scientific evidence for God, science

I thought this would be a nice follow up on my recent podcast, where Dr. Kenny Boyce and I discuss this very same question about scientific evidence for theism. This video captures a message I gave at First Baptist Church of Holton, KS two years ago. In the talk, I aim mostly to encourage and equip Christians, but there are certainly great principles of persuasion applicable to anyone! Some will detect the influence of William Lane Craig on my presentation. I studied with Dr. Craig at Talbot School of Theology and he continues to be an intellectual and spiritual role model. Feedback is welcome. Do you think these arguments constitute scientific evidence for God? Why or why not? If not, what is your definition of ‘evidence?’

Stephen Hawking, Philosophy, and Theism, Part 2

hawking, authority, testimony, science, physicsMy second “official” podcast  (on Stephen Hawking) is now available on iTunes! Here’s the iTunes link. If you don’t have iTunes, you can listen on Sound Cloud. Feedback on the podcast, including production features, is welcome.

I continue my interview with Dr. Kenny Boyce, Asst. Prof. of Philosophy at the University of Missouri. This episode focuses on the work of Stephen Hawking, who passed away on March 14, and the implications of his work for philosophy and theology.

In part 2, we focus on three main topics, all centered around the epistemology of science. First, we discuss the difference between realism and anti-realism in science and how this affects arguments for or against God. Second, we explore whether science can say anything about the evidence for God. Third, we talk about the “god of the gaps” objection to theism that is commonly raised by skeptics.

This one is a bit longer than the first, and I still have enough material left over for another podcast! We’ll see if it ends up becoming Part 3.

Thank you Dr. Kenny Boyce!!!!

Kenny Boyce

Dr. Boyce (the one on the right.)

Kenny’s website.

 

Stephen Hawking, Physics, and Theism

hawking, authority, testimony, science, physicsMy first “official” podcast  is now available on iTunes! Here’s the iTunes link. If you don’t have iTunes, you can listen on Sound Cloud. Feedback on the podcast, including production features, is welcome.

I interview Dr. Kenny Boyce, Asst. Prof. of Philosophy at the University of Missouri. This episode focuses on the work of Stephen Hawking, who passed away on March 14, and the implications of his work for philosophy and theology.

We start with a discussion of Hawking and his contributions to science, and then delve into how his work on the origins of the universe affects two important arguments for theism. These two arguments, the “cosmological argument” and the “fine-tuning” argument” both face challenges from Hawking. If you aren’t familiar with these two arguments, you can see an excellent explanation for each in these videos:

Hawking’s ideas about how the universe may have started pose a problem for the Kalam version of the Cosmological argument, and his work on the possibility of a multi-verse can undermine the strength of the fine-tuning argument. In the podcast, Dr. Boyce and I explore these challenges and offer some possible responses in defense of theism.

Next Episode

My next episode will be Part 2 of the interview with Dr. Boyce and will take us a little deeper into the philosophical implications of Hawking’s theories.

Kenny Boyce

Dr. Boyce (the one on the right.)

Kenny’s website.

 

Fear and Reason

subconscious, fear, politicsDo your subconscious fears influence your political beliefs? As much as we might all like to think that our political positions are the result of careful, rational investigation, they aren’t. A fascinating article published in the Washington Post last November has been making the rounds on social media, claiming (roughly) that feelings of safety will cause more liberal political leanings. Before you dismiss this as nonsense or fake news, hear me out and then take a few minutes to read the article. It should take about 6 minutes. Here’s the link.

First of all, this kind of research is inductive, which means that it does not prove the conclusions — it only gives us good reasons to accept the conclusions as true. Second, this research only identifies one potential factor in how our political inclinations are formed. Many other causal factors go into explaining why people vote or believe the way they do. Third, this study uses statistical reasoning to conclude things about the general population, which does not automatically mean these things are true of you, personally. And fourth, I don’t see anything wrong with admitting that my emotions and fears sometimes influence my beliefs. I’m human, after all. And this doesn’t mean that all my thinking falls short of being ideally rational, just that some of it may. In other words, don’t freak out.

The Takeaway

open hands humilityWhat I takeaway from research like this is the importance of intellectual humility. We are finite, fallible creatures who possess many biases and mental shortcomings. Thus, we ought to hold more lightly to many of our beliefs, remaining open to new evidence and amendment. Secondly, research like this moves me to reflect on my own reasons and fears, and to honestly ask myself if this rings true. It’s ok to be wrong. It’s not ok to let my hubris get in the way of correction and growth.

The Rationality of a Flu Shot

flu shot, vaccine, doctor, reason, rational, epistemologyI don’t like shots, in fact, I avoid them. Ironically, I visited my doctor yesterday, and left with a band-aid on my arm. I didn’t plan to get a flu shot, in fact I’ve never had one and never wanted one, but he talked me into it. I thought the whole dialectic was interesting, so I’ll share it with you. I think it illustrates some valuable principles of rationality and good belief formation. (The doctor actually said some of these things, and some of them I said to myself during the conversation.)

The Conversation

“Have you considered getting a flu shot?”
“No, not really. I never get them.”
“Would you be open to the idea?”
“Isn’t the flu a whole range of viruses rather than only one virus?”
“Yes.”
“But aren’t flu vaccines just aimed at one strain of the flu? That means that it protects you (imperfectly) against one strain out of many, which doesn’t seem very helpful. It would be like having an air bag that only inflates when I hit a red car.”
“Actually, the vaccine is aimed at multiple flu viruses, based on the most common ones from last year.”
“Ok, that’s good to know. But still, I hardly ever get sick or get the flu.”
“Well, even if you have a very low risk of getting the flu, the shot will lower the risk even more.” (The CDC website says that, “flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population.”)
“Yeah, that seems right. But I’m still not sure it lowers the risk enough to make it worth it.”
“What’s the downside of getting one, especially if it’s free?”
flu shot, vaccine, doctor, reason, rational, epistemology“I don’t like shots. Yeah, that’s not a great argument, I suppose.”
“Consider this: Lowering your own risk also benefits family health and public health. If your chance is lower, that lowers the risk of your kids getting sick or anyone around you getting sick, like in your church. That’s just good for everyone in Columbia.”
“Ok, I’m starting to realize that I don’t have any good reason, or enough good reasons to justify not getting a shot.” (He did address the concerns many people have about the vaccine causing various side-effects or illness, though I wasn’t worried about it. The chances are negligible. He also explained that the vaccine they use is protein-based, which means it doesn’t contain the actual virus, so it can’t give you the flu.)

So, next thing I know, the nurse comes in with the syringe. I tried to relax and remember that this is a very fleeting pain. Happily, the nurse was quite skilled and I hardly felt it. The arm is a bit sore today, but that’s the only negative effect.

The Takeaway 

What’s the takeaway here? 1) Be open to dialogue. You might learn something. You also might discover that your reasons, once they are out on the table, turn out not to be very strong. 2) Irrational fears shouldn’t guide our actions. The fear of a shot, for us needlephobes, is generally way over-blown and not realistic. I.e., it isn’t as bad as you think. 3) Public health may not have occurred to you as a relevant factor, but it should. It isn’t just about *you*.

For the Flu Shot Skeptics

skeptic faith thinkingNow, I know people worry about certain dangers of vaccines or flu shots. But I researched it a little (perhaps inadequately), and I couldn’t find any documented sources citing scientific evidence about the dangers of today’s flu shots. Flu shots have been modified over the years to eliminate anything that was discovered to be harmful.

“But what about the dangers we have yet to discover?” True, we must always admit the possibility that we’ll discover a dangerous chemical  later, after the damage is done. But it simply isn’t reasonable or practical to live your life dodging mere possible dangers. There would be no way to avoid everything that could harm you. We should try to avoid probable harms — things that we have good evidence for. That’s the only feasible way to live. Right now, the research says that flu shots are safe. Also, if you avoid flu shots based on a few bad stories you’ve heard, you’re probably falling prey to the availability bias (I might be doing this as well) or the fallacy of probability neglect.

“But given that we’ve repeatedly found new dangers in some medicines and treatments, shouldn’t we expect that there are lots of undiscovered dangers lurking in these drugs?” That’s an inductive argument, and I think it’s weak. Here’s why: medicine isn’t progressing slowly, like repeatedly adding 1 to a number and watching it grow. It progresses more like multiplying. So not only do we detect and solve new problems every year, but our methods for detecting, solving and preventing problems gets better every year, multiplying the effectiveness of medicine. That’s my perception, but I could be wrong.

Feedback

Persuaded? Let me know what you think. I’m open to hearing the arguments on the other side, provided you have documented evidence from reliable sources.

Bad Thinking, Part 2: Mood Matters

Law and Order: SVU. (Start the video at 9:36, but you may have to watch some ads.) Notice the shift in mood.

Scene: detectives asking a restaurant owner (Lyla) to look at the photographs of two criminal suspects, a man and a woman. Seemingly frustrated, she looks at them but doesn’t recognize either.

Lyla: I’m not really good with faces. I’m more of a word person.

Detective #1: Here’s a word. Focus.

[Lyla abruptly hands the photos back to the detective and walks away, obviously offended.]

Detective #2: What my partner means to say is that maybe you’re just underestimating yourself.

Lyla: [still mad] I don’t think so.

[Detective #2 turns on the charm and gets her to smile.]

Detective #2: Take a look at these photos one more time. Please.

Lyla: [sighs, smiling] This guy I’ve never seen before. Yeah, I’m pretty sure she was here that night.

This scene illustrates beautifully what scientists have discovered through tools like the Remote Association Test. A good mood raises intuitive abilities, but lowers logical attentiveness. A bad mood makes us less prone to errors in logic, but it’s like a wet blanket over intuition and creativity. Feeling nervous and criticized by the first detective shut down the intuition of the restaurant owner. But after her mood brightened, she easily recalled the face of the woman in the photo, because this is a function of intuitive System 1.

Implications

So what does this mean for us, as thinkers? Being aware of your mood can help you maximize your cognitive abilities. First, when you’re engaging in a creative or intuitive task, you’ll perform better if you’re in good spirits. If, prior to such a task, you find yourself in a foul mood, it would be wise to either, (a) put off the task (if possible) until your mood lightens, or (b) take some steps to improve your mood. Here’s one of my favorite TED talks on this subject that includes some very practical suggestions at the 10:56 mark.

 

Second, when you’re engaging in a System 2 task—analysis, problem solving, etc.—you’re likely to perform better if you don’t stroll into it casually. If you’re a more happy-go-lucky or optimistic person, it might be wise to stop and shift gears. Try some cognitive warm ups to crank up your System 2 and heighten your concentration. Work two or three simple multiplication problems, count backward from 100, or pick a word and find as many rhyming words as you can. (More “warm ups” here and here.)

Faith and Cognitive Modes

What about religion? Does mood matter when contemplating religious and metaphysical ideas? Yes. It matters because it affects which System is predominant. So which mode— intuitive System 1 or analytical System 2—is most appropriate for religious thinking? I’ve often wrestled with this question myself and I think it depends on your goals and on your context. If you’re already committed to a faith tradition like Christianity, System 2 is helpful when studying theology or when discussing religion with someone outside the faith, to give two examples. But worship, by contrast, requires shifting away from skepticism and toward openness. I find that praying and listening to a sermon are activities best done with a sense of receptivity, seasoned with a pinch of healthy skepticism, putting off the bulk of analysis for later.

skeptic faith thinkingFor those who identify as atheist or agnostic, it may not be as appropriate to suspend your skeptical guard, unless you find yourself desiring to believe. You should always leave open a small window of possibility, regardless, as I have written about elsewhere. But I have met atheists and agnostics who find belief unattainable given their current set of evidence. When I share about my own experience of God, they sometimes express a desire to have such an experience, in the hope that it would finally allow them to believe. For them, I would suggest partially lowering their System 2 defenses and cultivating an intuitive System 1 mind-set. Relationships, even between oneself and God, are best experienced through this mode, rather than by logical analysis.

Faith and Mood

What this implies for mood management is that religious believers will probably experience the full benefits of worship when their mood is good. Grief and lament remain important aspects of a full-orbed Christian faith, and perhaps research may eventually tell us how those moods affect our cognitive mode. But in general, I’m inclined to believe that a positive outlook enhances prayer and openness to hearing from God. On the other hand, if you only ever approach religion with your analytical System 2 on full alert, you may actually be blocking out the evidence needed to support belief. I recognize that there are some conundrums here, but despite this, there can still be good reasons for belief or for deciding on a course of action.

(On October 23, I will conclude the series by giving away a copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow to one lucky subscriber to my blog. So, sign up with your email (on your right at the top of this post) before the 23rd to be eligible.’)

Is Science Better than Faith?

faith trust GodWays of Knowing?

I have an atheist friend, Anthony, who does interviews on college campuses, asking students about their religious beliefs. He skillfully engages in Socratic dialogue, asking them about why they believe what they do and helping them identify flaws in their reasoning. When people mention “faith,” he frequently asks a question like this, “Do you think faith is a reliable way of coming to know things?” Anthony thinks of faith as a “way of knowing” in contrast to other ways, like science. Science uses evidence derived from observation, experimentation, etc. to test new ideas, where as the “faith-way” simply uses feelings, intuitions or positive-thinking; evidence need not apply. Put this way, science and faith are two radically different, and somewhat opposed, approaches to discovering truth.

Defining Faith

Is this really what faith is? Ask ten religious believers what faith is, and you’ll get twelve definitions. Certainly one (or more) of them will sound a lot like what Anthony hears in his interviews. But taking polls isn’t the best way to determine truth. Defining (Christian) faith should start with the Bible and the great minds who have written on this over the centuries. But rather than launch into a survey of these sources, I’ll offer my best take based on my own study of them:

Faith is trusting in what you have good reason to believe is true. [1]

faith falling trustFor example, I’ve done “trust falls” with others on a number of occasions. Usually, they work like this. You are told that persons X and Y will stand behind you and catch you when you fall backward. You know persons X and Y well enough — they are reliable and strong enough to catch you. They’re clearly right behind you. But then you face forward with arms crossed, and you struggle to force yourself to fall freely backward. You can’t see their arms extending to catch you. Your instinct of self-protection shouts, “Don’t fall backward! You’ll hurt yourself!” But you have every reason to rationally believe that you won’t crack your skull on the floor. If someone asked you, “Do you believe they will catch you?” you would most likely answer, “Yes.” But trusting means letting yourself fall. This illustrates faith very well.

Faith On Level Ground

So given this definition, is faith somehow inferior to science? I don’t think so. First off, on this view, faith isn’t a way of knowing, it is a way of living. Trusting is a behavior–a behavior based on what you believe. I don’t come to know things “by faith,” I live “by faith.” Faith without works is dead, as St. James says. This understanding of faith follows the narrative of the New Testament much more closely.

chemistry lab faith trust scienceSecond, faith and science actually share some significant qualities. Scientists base beliefs on good reasons. Moreover, they often place their trust in those beliefs. A chemist in a lab believes that mixing certain chemicals will produce a certain reaction. Furthermore, she trusts that her equipment is safe and reliable–she willingly mixes the chemicals. An astronomer believes the stars and planets are in such-and-such a position because he has seen it through his telescope. And he demonstrates trust in his equipment and findings by publishing them in a journal. Scientists trust the process of scientific inquiry, meaning that they believe, for good reasons, that it is reliable, and they demonstrate this trust by using the process and acting according to their findings. So, scientists employ “faith” in much the same way that Christians do, on my view.

No doubt, some of you will object to my definition of faith and insist that faith must be essentially irrational, which fits more comfortably into your narrative of “faith against science.” Or some may argue that faith is some kind of spiritual phenomenon, divorced from the process of reason, and cannot be compared to scientific knowledge. But I hope most can see the logic and elegance of what I have proposed.

faith trust God

Conclusion

If I’m right, or close to right, about the nature of Christian faith, then there’s no reason to think that science stands in a superior position, epistemically or in any other sense. Belief in God and belief in quantum particles come about in much the same way, even if the kinds of evidence are different. Faith in God, however, may be special in that it is not merely the result of a human decision to trust. Some theologians think that we can’t overcome our reluctance to take that “trust fall” with God without Supernatural assistance. In this sense, it may be superior to the “faith” of science, which is merely the product of fallible human reason and psychology.


[1] Hebrews 11:1 is the classic passage, and I like the Latin translation: “est autem fides sperandorum substantia rerum argumentum non parentum.” The Latin uses the term ‘argumentum’ to suggest that faith is that which persuades us of what we cannot perceive with our senses, or as Thayer’s Greek lexicon puts it, “that by which invisible things are proved.” This is reminiscent of science–it is how human beings discovered things like atoms and otherwise invisible celestial bodies.