Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bill Maher Moment

I have yet to see the movie, Religulous, but I have a pretty good idea what it is bound to be like. I do enjoy Bill Maher's show even if I don't exactly agree with all of his views. It is my opinion that if your personal beliefs will not stand-up to discussion, they can't be that closely held. Not that I agree with ridiculing people for their beliefs…

It's just that I personally believe it more likely that the "ultimate truth" of the universe will be discovered via the scientific method than via mystic guesswork, but then it is possible that one of the world's religions may have already discovered this ultimate truth. In the words of Douglas Adams (from The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy) "In an infinite universe, anything is possible, even The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy."

I think of this because of my time watching jury selection the other day while serving jury duty. There was an interesting exchange between the defense attorney and a couple of the prospective jurors. The two in question had characterized themselves as persons of faith. The counsel for the defense asked if they could define what they meant by this. The first of the two didn't understand her question.

"Can you differentiate between your faith and the law?" She asked. What she was trying to get to was whether the man understood the different between forming an opinion on the facts of the case and what his personal religious convictions may be. Basically, could he distinguish between belief and faith? When he could not answer this question, she asked him if he was in an airplane did he "believe" or "have faith" that it would land him safely.

"I have faith that I will land safely," He responded. "because the hundreds of times that I have flown I have always landed safely." Which struck me as odd because this is neither faith nor belief… it is statistical probability.

The other man in the room who had defined himself as a man of faith was asked a slightly different line of questioning. He was asked if he could put his personal beliefs aside when judging the facts of the case if he should discover that the person he was hearing testimony about didn't share his beliefs. "I have no problem with anyone's beliefs," he replied "unless they believe something totally crazy."

Which is what made me think of Bill Maher… When he tries to make his point that The Bible cannot be taken literally (though he would put it a bit more emphatically than I do) he basically makes the sarcastic comment about "…belief in the talking snake…"; an obvious (if somewhat snide) reference to the book of Genesis.

But he raises an interesting point to consider: Who gets to say what is 'totally crazy?' I would assume that to Mr. Maher and many of my friends back in London, any religious beliefs not backed by empirical evidence are crazy. My personal belief is that that idea is just as unjustified as the "talking snake" belief. While I cannot point to any empirical evidence of the presence of a supreme being, there is no proof one does not exist either. I prefer the William Cowper viewpoint: "Absence of proof is not proof of absence."

The only thing I can say for the atheist crowd is that they are more sure of their beliefs than I am. I find it unlikely that there is a supernatural entity who has powers of omniscience and omnipresence as it seems unlikely. I have no proof that one does not exist, but the evidence presented for its presence is usually sloppy and based on a belief structure rather than on empirical evidence. Much of it is contradictory, spurious, apocryphal, or based on faulty logic. So, unless there is a reason to need a supernatural force or empirical evidence for one, there is no need to consider it. Ockham's Razor justifies agnosticism!
"It just goes to show you, there's nothing an agnostic can't do if he really can't make up his mind whether he believes in anything or not!" (Monty Python)
Wherever you are, I hope that whatever you believe in, you at least can discuss it!

Don Bergquist - September 24, 2009 - Lakewood, Colorado, USA

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Haven't you ever had something happen that you couldn't explain logically that would indicate that some sort of spiritual force that you don't understand logically might exist?

An example might be sensing that someone you knew had died before you were told about it or maybe a woman you were dating somehow sensing that you had cheated on her even though she did not have any logical evidence?

Anonymous Reader

Don Bergquist said...

Dear Anonymous Reader:

Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. You ask some good and thought-provoking questions that require personally revealing answers. I do not remind replying but please do not take the number of times the personal pronoun appears in this response as being anything other than an indication that I am speaking only of my personal belief.

I will admit to things happening that I cannot explain but that is not something that I feel compelled to ascribe to supernatural sources. Equally, I am not denying those supernatural powers exist. It is an act of hubris to claim to know what you can fundamentally not know.

I do not deny the existence of a higher power in fact or in possibility. Were I to do so, I would be an atheist. That is not what I am saying. I have friends who simply deny the existence of a higher power, supreme entity, God. Call it what you will. I simply state that I do not know.

On to your samples: I have no idea what a “spiritual force” would be so I do not really know how to answer your question. That being said, I would have no idea how to ascribe a situation like the ones you ask about to one.

I can, however ascribe these situations to coincidence. Sure, it is odd when you think of someone and they die… but how many times have you had a bad premonition only to discover that there is nothing to it? Unless the number of times that the feelings were right fall well-outside the norms of statistical probability, there is no need for any supernatural agent.

As far as my girlfriend thinking I am cheating… let’s assume for the moment that I am cheating on my significant other. To get to your situation, let’s assume that she has no direct proof that I have been unfaithful. There are plenty of explainable ways to account for her insight without dependence on divine or supernatural sources for the knowledge.

Body language is a powerful way of conveying information without even knowing about it. Then there is change of habit or ritual. I could suddenly be spending more time “at the office” or not making her breakfast as often as I used to. My point is that without divine revelation, there are lots of ways that she could know.

But again, this is not to say that there is no supernatural source that she could be drawing on. For all I know she could be the world’s greatest psychic! Or she could have some other supernatural way of knowing. As I said in my original post, the absence of proof is not the proof of absence. I have no way of knowing either way.

All I will say is that I prefer to put faith in things that I see as having some basis in fact. If there is no way of knowing and the evidence is suspect, I prefer to think that the thing in question is unlikely. (Which is not to say nonexistent.)

Again, thank you for reading and commenting on my blog.

Have a great day!

djb

Anonymous said...

It is my impression that when you cheat on a lover, they can tell because they sense that you are not sending them as much love as you were sending them before (some of the love that you had been sending to them is now going to the person you are seeing on the side - the one who you are cheating with).

Do you not agree with this idea?

Anonymous Reader

Don Bergquist said...

Dear Anonymous Reader:

Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog.

Saying first that this is an academic discussion on my part as I have never cheated on nor been cheated on by a significant other (that I knew about), I would have to agree with you. That is one of the ways that you could know without having to rely on some divine information.

Again, thank you for reading and commenting on my blog.

Have a great day!

djb