17 Jul 2016

Hubris, Doubt, and Faith

Religious 13 Comments

I am pretty sure Richard Feynman once said something like, “In science, we have to have the courage to say, ‘We don’t know,'” and in context he was criticizing the religious mindset. (If someone knows the exact quote, let me know and I’ll update the post.)

Believe me, having gone through an extensive period of “devout atheism” (my term at the time) where I thought Feynman was the coolest guy, I totally understand why he would say that. And I have cringed at some Christians who, say, try to use the Laws of Thermodynamics as a “refutation” of Darwinism when it’s obvious they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

Yet on the other hand, I can also see how the believers in modern scientism (not to be confused with actual science) are similarly overconfident in metaphysical positions, without even realizing just how dubious they are. For example, the people who say they follow only the dictates of logic and reason (not superstitious books) will say that in science we must be empirical; we can’t invoke the hypothesis of a “creator God” because that’s not testable. Yet when you point out that the constants of the physical universe are apparently “fine tuned” to support intelligent life, they explain these observations by theorizing there are an infinite number of possible universes, and so we–as intelligent life forms–shouldn’t be surprised to find that we reside in one of those universes where the charge on an electron is juuuust right. They seem not to realize that hypothesizing the existence of an infinite number of universes that are, by definition (at least in some frameworks), undetectable with our equipment is somewhat awkward in light of their statements about a deity.

Let me come at this another way. Atheists will point to something really awful, like the Holocaust, and demand, “Why would a good God let this happen?” I have learned from personal experience that it is by no means a mark of my humility and moral courage to say, “I don’t know.” Instead, I am mocked for admitting I can’t explain everything within my framework. “Oh ha ha, how convenient, ‘God works in mysterious ways.’ Admit it, there is no explanation.”

So to sum up: When an atheist empiricist says, “I can’t explain everything in my framework; my knowledge is incomplete; at some point I have to say, ‘I don’t know,'” this is the mark of true wisdom. When a Christian says, “I can’t explain everything in my framework; my knowledge is incomplete; at some point I have to say, ‘I don’t know,'” then it is the mark of an intellectual swindle.

Finally: This is what faith actually means. Contrary to confident assertions otherwise, faith does NOT mean, “Turning off your reason” or “Believing the irrational.” No, an example of faith would be, “I personally can’t give you a convincing explanation of why the Holocaust happened. However, the Bible DOES give us specific explanations of why God let other injustices occur, such as Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery and of course the torture and murder of the greatest Man to ever live. Knowing the character of God, I have faith that His plan is good, and that one day it will make sense to me, even though right now I can’t explain much of what He allows.”

If you scoff at this, be careful in how you frame your objection. Make sure you wouldn’t equally knock down someone who says, “I can’t currently reconcile the physical laws of gravity and quantum mechanics, but given my understanding of nature, I believe that there *is* an underlying order to it all, which will be beautiful once people learn more about it.”

13 Responses to “Hubris, Doubt, and Faith”

  1. Zack says:

    Nice post

  2. Khodge says:

    Bob, precisely.

    I, too, read of multiverses and ask why, when empiricists cannot prove, or even adequately explain, other universes, would readily accept universes where there is a god and an entirely different set of rules of physics but cannot except the same possibility in the universe that they do inhabit. Similarly, they are so sure of dimensions beyond four but cannot accept beings that they do not empirically prove existing within those dimensions.

  3. E. Harding says:

    This all sounds fishy.

    A creator god does not add anything to explaining our universe. What’s more likely:

    the universe

    the universe, but with a creator god


    It just makes no sense as to why anyone would want to insert a god there.

    • Khodge says:

      What makes more sense is (b) the universe with a creator God.

      E. Harding: Your question is in the form of a poll, so don’t insult/ bother us by “refuting” the responses.

  4. Harold says:

    The “atheist” says:
    “I don’t know, therefore I will suspend judgement until I have further evidence.”

    The religious believer says:
    “I don’t know, but I will continue to believe anyway in the absence of evidence.”

    To paraphrase your final sentence, the believer says “I believe that there *is* an underlying order to it all, which will be beautiful once people learn more about it and that order is God.

    The scientists says “I believe that there *is* an underlying order to it all, which will be beautiful once people learn more about it, but hey, if it turns out ugly I won’t be that surprised.”

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Harold wrote:

      The scientists says “I believe that there *is* an underlying order to it all, which will be beautiful once people learn more about it, but hey, if it turns out ugly I won’t be that surprised.”

      Can you find me a scientist who has written that in a book for the public?

      • Harold says:

        Prof Richard Muller doubts the necessity of beauty in general:
        “Science in the past has been poorly guided by the sense of mathematical beauty. Physicist Francis Crick looked at the DNA that he had co-discovered, and tried to deduce what the genetic code was. By careful thought, he realized there was an optimum code, one that was “beautiful” and made maximum use of the bits available. For some time, his elegance convinced other scientists that this was the solution. But it turned out to be wrong. Crick’s sense of elegance was not chosen by nature.

        Physicist Steven Weinberg was driven, not by beauty, but by experimental constraints when he devised his unification of the electro-weak force. He thought he had devised an ugly theory but he felt that he had no choice. It turned out to be right. Our sense of beauty is, apparently, not a high priority for nature. Weinberg earned his Nobel Prize for discovering an ugly relationship.”


        Whilst I think there is a general acceptance that if there is such a thing as a TOE it will be beautiful, there are many that doubt there will ever be a TOE, so they doubt an underlying beauty.

  5. Chris says:


    Here’s my problem (which I guess is similar to Harold’s point). If I start from a completely agnostic point of view (“I don’t know” about anything), what reason is there for me to ever adopt the Christian faith? I read your post a long time ago on why you became a believer and it’s great that there are specific things you can point to that changed your mind. But nothing like that has ever happened to me. I like to think my mind is open to religion and I would love to believe that there is a God that cares about me or that there is something more after death. But I don’t, and I have not yet seen any evidence that convinces me that I should. If I started from believing, then it’s easy to say I have faith that God’s plan is the right one even if I don’t have a good explanation for why it’s the right one. But if I start from a completely unbiased position, why should I have faith in something that has never given me a reason to believe?

    And why can’t you believe in an underlying order without specifying anything about what that order is? I think it’s probably true that there is some explanation for why we are here, for why the features of our universe are perfect for supporting life. It could be God, it could be multiple universes, or it could be some other reason nobody has thought of. At the moment, I am perfectly comfortable saying I have no idea what the true explanation is. There are uncountably many beautiful explanations for the existence of the universe. Why should I pick God?

  6. Tel says:

    We don’t really know how much you could tweak the charge of an electron and what effect this would have on the universe. There’s no known way to test it, our fundamental theory is somewhat sketchy at that level, and even if you could run an experiment it might still take hundreds of millions of years for life to emerge from that.

    One thing we do know for sure, is that if some parallel universe somehow exists that is NOT suitable to support any intelligent life, then it will be impossible for any material creature to observe this universe (that’s just a logical tautology). Thus, the reverse must also hold (equally a tautology) if we consider ourselves to be intelligent observers and we are observing a universe from within, then necessarily this MUST be a universe that has suitable parameters to support intelligent life.

    In other words, the observer is always in a privileged position, and never dropped in at random. Because of the tautological nature of this, we should not be surprised to see this in action, any more than a carpenter would be surprised that a 3 / 4 / 5 triangle has a right-angle in one corner.

    Now, as for a God who exists outside the universe and who designed one particular universe (or possibly several universes) specifically for the purpose of supporting intelligent life, such a God would be non-interventionist, and also un-testable from an empirical point of view. Thus, there is no need for a non-interventionist God to explain mass murder (of which there have been many in history)… life is what it is, the universe supports life, so after that have fun on your own guys.

    Empiricism automatically ends at the edges of the testable universe, this is a known and deliberate limitation. Thus, the right answer for an empiricist is just to say we cannot make statements about any number of Gods living outside the universe and looking in… there maybe zero, one, two, or any other number of such beings.

    I should point out that an interventionist God who directly manipulates day to day affairs and intervenes on behalf of the faithful should in principle be testable (although possibly very difficult to do this, when the God is simultaneously interfering with your ability to make such tests). It’s an interesting philosophical question as to whether an entity living inside a universe could so perfectly cover its own tracks as to effectively have removed itself from the empirical world (if you believe in thermodynamics, then the answer is no it cannot happen). However, I personally think there’s more pressing and immediate work to get on with.

  7. Ben Eng says:

    One might even claim that science relies necessarily on faith, because of the huge bodies of knowledge built up through the centuries by a great many scholars, no scientist is capable of reproducing, observing, and confirming all discoveries and theories for themselves. Therefore, citing and building upon the work of others is, in effect, an act of argument from authority, while placing faith in people and their methods to be self-correcting.

    • Harold says:

      Science depends absolutely on belief that inductive reasoning has some validity.

  8. Harold says:

    Not sure if this is the one, but Feynman said:
    “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain … In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”

  9. Steve Maughan says:

    FWIW here’s my take on Faith and Reason.

    What someone believes to be true has two separate components – reason and faith, which when combined gives you “belief”, which enables “action”. As an example, suppose I’m about to sit on a chair. I might look at the chair and it seems sturdy. It has four solid legs which I can inspect. This is all evidence it will support my weight and I have sat on other similar chairs in the past. Using reason I can say I’m 98% sure the chair will hold my weight. I’m not 100% sure. Faith makes up the difference between the 98% based on reason and the 100% required for action. All beliefs have these two components of faith and reason. “Blind faith” has little reason.

    This way of thinking highlights that many who profess to have an purely “scientific approaches” rely on faith more than they acknowledge. For example suppose someone believes the hysteria surrounding Climate Change. It’s highly likely they haven’t themselves measured the global temperature over time. They probably haven’t even measured the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. They will argue that since so many scientists believe in Climate Change it’s a “reasonable” belief. However, they must also have “faith” in the scientists that they are not biased. They must have “faith” that there isn’t another simple explanation for any increase in measured temperature (e.g urban warming).

    I’d also emphasis that belief enables *action*. So we are not saved by works (Eph 2:8-9), but works are a sign of true belief (James 2:14-26). Note also the reason / faith framework is in line with Hebrews 11.

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