Jul 30 2008

The next great awakening, part 2: the limitations of evidence in creating or challenging faith

Category: Intelligent Design,science,theologyharmonicminer @ 9:28 am

The first post in this series is here.

Thought experiment: imagine that over the next five years, paleontologists find dozens of new intermediate life forms between fish and amphibians. Also, they discover several intermediates between homo sapiens sapiens’ current presumed immediate ancestor (you pick it; the scientists don’t really agree on this) and us.

Would committed young Earth creationists, for whom the universe is no more than 6000-7000 years old, be persuaded that the case of evolution was proved?

On the other hand, what if SETI succeeds, and we get transmissions from other star systems, and it develops that they look like us and think like us? What if they report events in their history that parallel the kinds of things we see in the Judeo-Christian scriptures? What if their very DNA is similar, or identical, to ours?

Would committed materialist scientists be convinced, and start attending the local Baptist church? I think you know the answer.

What if we determine that there isn’t another technological civilization anywhere in the galaxy, and can not find a single planet with suitable conditions for even primitive life? Will that move anyone? Will this ultimate demonstration of the anthropic principle lead committed atheists to consider the possibility of a Creator?

What if we found an eye witness document written by a Roman scribe with no religious leanings except Emperor worship, attesting to seeing the Crucifixion and then seeing Jesus later, healing people and performing other miracles, and puzzling over the amazing things he’d seen. Imagine that this document was historically vetted to be genuinely from its apparent time, and to have come to us from some unimpeachable source unrelated to anyone of the Christian faith, perhaps in the form of a secret letter to a friend that was assumed to be private correspondence. Would anyone expect a herd of atheists to stampede for the nearest confessional?

What if scientists DO finally manage to create macro-evolution in the lab, maybe turning fruit flies into some indescribable other thing that breeds true, has notably different DNA, is not merely another kind of fruit fly, and whose mutations are clearly in response to environmental pressures put on the drosophila in the lab, without special forms of interference in the process by scientists (i.e., not direct DNA manipulation, no artificial culling or selection of conditions impossible in nature, etc.), so that we have unambiguous natural selection operating on random mutation? I can hear the young Earth creationists now, claiming that because it happened in the artificial lab environment it didn’t prove anything.

The point of all this is that everyone has faith, in something. And for most of us, regardless of our protestations of objectivity, evidence is only part of what we consider in choosing the direction of our faith. Part of it is simply what we prefer, for whatever reasons that move us.

None of us knows in fullness the information we really need to make truly informed decisions about anything important. We all live lives of faith, every one of us. Sometimes our faith allows us to claim something for our own that we want. Sometimes our faith lets us think we can get away with something we couldn’t do if our faith were other. Our faith can be something that simply comforts us, or something that challenges us, or both, or neither. But we all have it, and not a single person on the planet can claim any privileged place as “one who lives more by evidence than by faith” over any other person. There is simply no Olympian place to stand to make such a claim.

So, the entire question becomes one of “faith in what, or who”?  Since we all have faith, how do we choose it (if we do), what do we allow in to the process to modify it, etc.? This is where evidence can enter the picture, if we’re willing to let it.

Herewith, some suggestions about faith and evidence:

1) It takes courage to allow evidence to modify your faith.
2) If you are unbothered by evidence that seems discrepant in the light of your faith, you might want to look at that.
3) If you let every new piece of seemingly discrepant evidence shake your faith, you might want to look at that.
4) Don’t expect to be able to put together all pieces of evidence into a coherent picture. There will always be outliers, things that don’t quite add up. We have finite minds, but reality is close enough to infinite as not to matter.
5) It is especially difficult to put together pieces of evidence, or indeed entire systems of evidence, that come from different worlds and different points of view (different magisteria, in Stephen Jay Gould’s parlance). But it isn’t impossible, and since all truth is God’s truth, this is the most interesting kind of “evidence reconciliation” that you can attempt. And: it’s the most necessary thing to do, because your very life and existence involves dealing with “different magisteria” and trying to put them together into something you can work with and live with.
6) It is very difficult to uncover the non-evidence based reasons you have for faith in this or that. And the less flattering they are to you as a person, the harder those reasons are to uncover. To be blunt, if you want to sleep with the regiment, abort the resulting infants, and rob convenience stores when the mood strikes, you will find it difficult to have faith in Judeo-Christian teaching, though you may cast your reluctance as “intellectual problems”.

I have known plenty of people who weren’t big sinners, but just wanted to keep the door open, just in case they decided to commit some doozies, who found that they had mysterious major intellectual problems with theism. When they confronted the underlying desires and acknowledged them, they found that considerable resistance against theism had also melted away. Of course, this kind of talk makes atheists really angry. That anger may be a measure of just how true it is.

OK, that’s probably enough glittering generality for now. Specifics to follow in other posts, about some particular bits of evidence from “different magisteria” that I find extremely interesting to attempt to integrate.

The next post in this series is here.

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2 Responses to “The next great awakening, part 2: the limitations of evidence in creating or challenging faith”

  1. harmonicminer » The next great awakening? Part 1 says:

    […] Update:  The next post in this series is here. […]

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