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Because it’s early and I don’t understand the concept of “absolute truth,” I’ll steer clear of it. Let’s see if we can make do without it. It seems to me you made two arguments in your last post, both rooted in pragmatism. First, you contended that “…neither science nor religion can uncover an absolute truth.” Next, you argued for religion’s relative “truth” as a factor of, or flowing from, its use to individuals or society.

First, it may be true that scientific principle x is just a low-uncertainty hypothesis but, given its roots in the scientific method, I’d say its uncertainty value is much, much lower than any theism’s, absent a concerted defense of theism’s “truth.” Even if it’s true that neither science nor religion can uncover absolute truth, that’s certainly not to say that the two disciplines (and again, I hesitate to call religion a “discipline”) are equally suited for the task. I drop a rubber ball in my kitchen 99 times; each time it bounces. Now, my statement that “It will bounce again on the hundredth time” is really just a low-uncertainty hypothesis, but I’m entitled to make it because I’ve just conducted 99 trials. Evidence, gathered by human observation and analysis, chases out uncertainty as light chases out shadow. So where is the evidence for theism? I’m not arguing there is none; I’m just demanding to see it. Theism needs a positive argument!

Second, I have a hard time accepting the notion that a thing’s truth value can be a direct function of its utility. Santa Clause is a beloved cultural icon in this and many Western European countries…but he’s still just a story. I know this is a cartoonish view of pragmatism–the theories of pragmatism rest on more than just assertions that “truth is what works”–but I can’t take this further because I’m lost. What are you arguing, exactly?

Finally, the challenge. The thing for which I’ve been waiting, in this and a number of conversations I’ve had with friends about Dawkins’ book, is a positive argument for theism. Pacal’s Wager, arguments about the ends of epistemology or social utility–these are all merely implicit cases for theism. Can we build anything stronger?

–Morgan Hubbard


Great debate we’ve gotten ourselves into, right? You’ve raised some very good points and gotten me thinking hard about God and belief when I should be thinking about torts and contracts. For that, I salute you!

I’m afraid that your last post brings us to the irretrievably pretentious world of– you guessed it!— epistemology. And from what it sounds like so far, you and I are coming at this discussion from opposite epistemological poles.

You wrote:

Doctrines that teach the “unknowability” of things are de facto impediments to knowledge!

I disagree. I believe that all knowledge— spiritual and material– is limited by at least some level “unknowability.” In any endeavor, it’s not truth, but probability that we’re really looking for.

You’ve praised science for its coherent, systematic, and progressive nature. It’s reason, objectivity, and empiricism that make science “good” and bring us closer to discovering the “truth.” If you hold these values in such high esteem (and you do so with good reason), then you (and Dawkins) are going to be skeptical of other modes of inquiry (here, religion) that do not rely on those values.

Where you and I part ways, I think, is in our view of “truth.” I think your arguments so far have expressed an earnest concern for discovering the truth– pinning it down, examining it, and bettering society as a result. I’d agree with you that the search for truth is an important thing, and we’re all better off when people embark on this journey. I disagree with you, it seems, because I think that “truth,” on its very best day, is “warranted assertability” or “low uncertainty.” (Bounce this notion off a physicist, and see if they agree). In my opinion, neither science nor religion can uncover an absolute truth. Our minds, the world, the universe are all part of one giant grey area. This shouldn’t make us hopeless, however. I actually think it’s empowering– having uncertainty as a backdrop should 1) provide a catalyst for inquiry and action and 2) provide a humbling, philosophical ground for all of our human achievements.

I’m something of a pragmatist, so I’ll use the words of William James to shed some light onto where I’m coming from:

On pragmatic principles we cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it. Universal conceptions, as things to take account of, may be as real for pragmatism as particular sensations are. They have indeed no meaning and no reality if they have no use. But if they have any use they have that amount of meaning. And the meaning will be true if the use squares well with life’s other uses.

James seems to put the spiritual and material on equal footing. And I think he’s absolutely right in doing so. If you aren’t looking for some sort of absolute, objective “truth,” what makes science any more “right” than religion?

In James’ lecture “Pragmatism and Religion” he, an avowed disciple of the scientific method, admits to having his own religious beliefs that lay somewhere “between the two extremes of crude naturalism on the one hand and transcendental absolutism.”

I, too, stand somewhere in this grey area, in between these two extremes. It’s enough to drive both fundamentalists and atheists mad.

As a final point, back to Dawkins’ book, I wonder how much of his project is simply in the interest of giving atheists a sense of belonging. My girlfriend, Erin, raised this point in a discussion we had over Thanksgiving. Atheiests, like Christians, Jews, Muslims, and any other religious sect like to have others with whom they identify. Is Dawkins giving atheists a community, or is he building a dogma?

I guess I’ll have to read the book to see for myself.

Daniel Corbett


I cannot disagree with Steve Pinker’s thoughts on the proper role of faith in academia. As I’ve tried to make clear, science should be a purely secular endeavor. Religion should be studied in religious institutions or as an elective for those who are interested. There is no good reason to give creationist science a “fair hearing” in biology classes. Sure, it’s a theory, but it’s not a particularly viable or robust one. Secular science tells us with relatively low uncertainty how the world around us works. But it cannot tell us why. This is where theism properly comes in– at least as one of many competing theories.

To answer you’re question, I don’t think theism shuts any doors to attaining knowledge. True, belief in God requires a “leap of faith” in the sense that one must accept the existence of something without any material or empirical reason for doing so. When a person takes this leap of faith, it does not mean they are rejecting wholesale the importance of making conclusions based on evidence. Most theists are content to stake their knowledge of the material world on empirical facts. In short, religion and science are not mutually exclusive. There are countless academics and professionals who excel in their fields and who also happen to believe in God. These people excel for the same reasons atheists in their respective fields excel– because they have mastered the information and best practices surrounding the field.

As a final point, I must reiterate that spiritual matters are not the only thing people accept on faith. Morality, too, requires belief in something absent empirical justification. Your comments about “knowing” when something is wrong (e.g. the feeling one gets at the Holocaust Museum) are a bit misleading. I will concede that moral sentiments can be quite strong (as can spiritual beliefs), but this is not proof that these sentiments are somehow natural. Both morality and religion are social phenomena. There is no empirical justification for either, but people over time have chosen to accept certain aspects of each.

Going back to your last question about attaining knowledge as a theist. What, exactly, do you mean? Can you think of an example (other than creationism or some other encroachment of the spiritual into the material) where religion might hinder knowledge?

Daniel Corbett  

…that I have a certified genius for a girlfriend. Congratulations to Ala, who this morning managed to be both beautiful and accepted into medical school at Northwestern!

–Morgan Hubbard 


Steven Pinker, in an address to colleagues on this year’s Curricular Review Committee on General Education at Harvard, raises exactly the concern around which we’ve been dancing. I think his conclusion leaves room for both of us, though our conversation on god’s place is far from settled. In discussing the Harvard curriculum’s “Faith and Reason” requirement, Pinker worries that

“…the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for “Astronomy and Astrology” or “Psychology and Parapsychology.” It may be true that more people are knowledgeable about astrology than about astronomy, and it may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry.”

He’s exactly right. Universities work because the processes on which real, rational knowledge is built are transparent, accessible, repeatable and above all knowable. In matters of faith, where accepting mysteries is a prerequisite to everything, how is knowledge attained? This is as clear as I can make my question. What do you think?

–Morgan Hubbard

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…for aptly saying what ought to be said. His comment is under the “leaps of faith” post, and it’s worth reading. Correct me, Matt, if I frak this up, but I think the gist is that there’s a fundamental difference between the leap of faith required to accept the existence of any sort of non-Einsteinian metaphorical deity and the “leap of faith” required to defeat solipsism and accept the existence of the natural world. Maybe it’s too simplistic, but I don’t think solipsism actually wields much power over us, because our corporeal bodies serve at all times and in all places as direct interfaces with something…we call it a physical world, I guess, for lack of any better explanation. Try accepting solipsism’s premise…now, hold your finger over a candle. Not much consolation, is it? We are constantly confronted with proof of the universe’s existence and adherence to certain rules, and I think Occam’s Razor dictates that we rule out Matrix-y explanations.

But the principle goes even further, to the realm of morality: watching children beat another child, reading about the Khmer Rouge, visiting the Holocaust Museum–these things elicit actual feelings of moral outrage that are close to universal. These feelings are hard to quantify, but only psychopaths lack them. They’re ubiquitous, they’re obvious, and we have words for them. It would take a leap of faith not to accept the existence of the material world, just as it would take a leap of faith to deny that some kind of morality is hardwired into us. It does take a real leap of faith, however, to digest the idea of a deity, much less one who’s as peculiar (and meddlesome!) as Christianity’s.

Finally, I’m confused about your statement that “Science has gotten better, in large part, because morality and religion have started to keep their distance. Why should it be any different with religion?” What in the world would it mean for religion to “get better?” Science has a rigid and transparent system to keep it in line and keep it productive. Theology has…what? Church hierarchies? Prayer groups? A long lineage? Taking Christianity as an example, it’s easy to see that accepting the faith’s central tenet of man’s fallibility and inability to truly know God seems to doom it to stagnation. If the best, most progressive, most up-to-date advice Christianity can give me is “accept the mystery,” well, I’m not satisfied.

Dan, after your response, I’d like to take this in another direction. Our species’ history is, if nothing else, the history of hubris. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the realm of religion, where all sorts of natural features are portrayed as somehow bound to the destiny of Man (Christianity goes so far as to say that the entire frakking world was created just for us). But the more we learn about the physical universe, the more we see the opposite is true. Natural disasters are one good example. Earthquakes aren’t retribution from God or the gods for some slight, they’re just tectonic shifts. So what is it that makes us think we’re special enough to have been put here by a being who cares about us? Doesn’t that seem a little outlandish?

(And without stacking the deck, I’ll wager now that it is precisely our hubris that convinces us we’re more than we really are, and that makes religion plausible to so many people…)

Thanks, Matt, for contributing. Matt’s blog is

–Morgan Hubbard 

I’m going to try to address your thoughts, Morgan, along with the comment Chris posted to my earlier entry.

Morgan, your point (“Theology ought to be put through the same kind of rigorous wringer as empirical science“) is a strong one. I, too, am a firm believer in reason, empiricism, and cold, hard facts. And I think we generally make things better by expanding the use of these methods. The technology that makes our lives better each day is one of the benefits of living in a secularizing, modernizing world.

But I don’t think the spiritual realm can be properly touched by science. Sure, scientists will try to infer from “gaps” the existence of God, but I think what I said in my first post establishes where I stand on this matter. While well-intentioned, these scientists may actually be doing a disservice to religion by trying to make the spiritual conform to the material.

In short, I can’t offer any material “evidence” for the existence of God. I know it’s been attempted, but I don’t find these attempts particularly appealing or useful.

Which brings us to you, Chris. You argued that “to believe in something without evidence is faith” and that Dawkins is criticizing this. You’re right in the sense that Dawkins, like many scientists, thinks it foolish to believe in something without evidence.

This argument is flawed because the acceptance of any realm requires a “leap of faith,” to use John Hick‘s term. To accept the existence of the material world and defeat solipsism (the belief that “it’s all in your mind”), one must take a leap. To accept in the existence of some sort of moral framework, a further leap is needed. And, finally, to establish the existence of a spiritual realm, we need yet another leap of faith.

Dawkins has spent his career studying the material world, but to get there he had to take a leap of faith. He had to take another leap in order to be able to deploy such pithy normative arguments as “Atheists should ‘come out of the closet’.” Taking the leap to the spiritual level may be less accepted and may lead to more disparate conclusions across cultures, but there is nothing irrational in itself about choosing to believe in something outside this world. And, for reasons I’ve given earlier, once people make this choice, they’ve waived off any serious critiques from other paradigms. Each realm has its resident expert: the scientist, the moral philosopher, and the theologian. True there’s some overlap, but at the end of the day, they must all confine their arguments to their camp. Science has gotten better, in large part, because morality and religion have started to keep their distance. Why should it be any different with religion?

Finally, Morgan, to come back to the general question your last post begs– “Why should a thinking person believe in God?”– my best, and perhaps only serious response is to point you back to Pascal’s Wager, and simply say, “Why not?” As Pascal told us, we’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain when we choose to believe in God.

Daniel Corbett 


It speaks well of your intellectual fortitude that you, without yet reading the book, seem to have struck on its major fault. On the face of things, it seems like the philosophical confluence of natural science and supernatural religion is, well, nonexistent. The two paradigms are parallel; they govern the same universe but never actually intersect. This is the gist of most conversations I’ve had on the topic of Dawkins’ book, and it seems to be a pretty common sentiment.

So let’s accept that the two paradigms are really mutually exclusive in terms of their ability to explain what we see and hear and feel. Dawkins’ book is still a valuable contribution to public knowledge in the way it targets aspest of human society where meddlesome religions have muddied the distinctions between the two. There are all sorts of questions that have rational, empirical and beautifully simple answers, but which have been co-opted by religions. Darwinian evolution is only the most visible example. Looking through Dawkins’ hyperskeptical lens, it’s hard not to see creation myths as power-grabs, and it’s hard not to laud Dawkins’ efforts to put the gods where they belong.

But Dawkins does take things a step further, positing a few tendentious pseudo-evolutionary theories to explain why religion seems, in many ways, to be hardwired into the human psyche. Much of this is conjecture, and he acknowledges it as such. But in the course of the book he does hit on what I think is a critical node for this discussion. I side with Dawkins on this, and so I’ll pose the problem to you:

Dawkins thinks (and I think) that it is not enough to declare by fiat that there are other “modes of knowing” that exist outside rationality. It is not enough to pronounce that science cannot explain everything in human experience. And it is intellectually dishonest to portray holes in empirical science as automatic evidence of the supernatural. A real-world example: gaps in the fossil record absolutely do not serve as evidence of divine creation; they serve as evidence that there are gaps in the fossil record. That’s all. God cannot fill science’s holes just because. To let God do so is to give him a pass.

We trust knowledge gained by science because the process by which it’s obtained is demonstrable, transparent and simple…even the most complex physical or chemical laws are really just compilations of smaller and smaller laws, all of which are testable. Theology ought to be put through the same kind of rigorous wringer as empirical science. Here’s where my nonexistent theological training hinders me: perhaps there is such a wringer, and I don’t know what to call it. But I will not accept a religion’s history or geneology as evidence of its “correctness.” Nor will I accept simple declarations of belief as prima facie evidence of the supernatural. I submit this as the understatement of the millenium: people have been wrong before. There must be something else.

So what do you think? Without straying too far into the labyrinthine world of metaphysics, what evidence can we marshal that there really exists some plane of inquiry beyond the rational?

–Morgan Hubbard 

To quickly add another plank to the argument I’m mounting against Richard Dawkins, my friend and classmate, Tim DeHaut (, has agreed to let me post an excerpt from a philosophy of science paper he wrote:

“Specifically for our purposes, science will never solve the metaphysical problem of God. It cannot. The application of a materialistic sphere can never explain the sphere of God because it starts with different assumptions. The application of the sphere of science makes no sense to the application of metaphysical entities such as God because the paradigm, or sphere, of science does not account for such notions.”

In his paper, Tim borrows from the work of Thomas Kuhn, one of the world’s better-known philosophers of science. The argument basically comes down to this: on a point like the existence of God or the reasonableness of religous faith, science and religion will always be stuck talking past each other.

Why then can science “beat” religion when it comes to the debate between creationism and evolution? The answer, I think, is that when we’re talking about how the world got to be the way it is, we’re asking materialistic question. But when we’re talking about why the world exists, or what the purpose of life is, we’re asking spiritual questions. The former lead to fairly robust conclusions, while the latter are “settled” only to the extent we subjectively believe them to be.

Daniel Corbett



It’s been far too long since the last post. And when I saw that Time Magazine (its cover reads: “God vs. Science”) was weighing in in the debate that was sparked, primarily, by Richard Dawkins’ newest book The God Delusion, I knew it was well past time for us to join in the discussion. Morgan, I know you are currently making your way through the book, and I will have to rely on your knowledge here, as law school has left me with little time for leisure reading. My understanding of Dawkins’ book comes entirely from reviews and commentary, so I leave it to those of you who have read or are reading the book to correct my errors.

Wired’s cover story (“The New Atheism”) is a nice starting point for anyone interested in the debate.

First, let me make clear the fact that I do not defend creationist science, or for that matter, any other religious doctrine that comes under the aegis of “science.” I think Dawkins, Gould, Darwin, and others have rightly corrected (many people’s) erroneous beliefs about the natural world. Religion should not encroach upon science’s dominion.

But Dawkin’s book, from what I gather, is not about the natural world. It is, rather, a treatise against religion. In my opinion, just as religion should leave science alone, science or “reason” should leave religion alone.

Sure, there’s a fascinating and undoubtedly massive literature on the psychology of religious belief. And I don’t think it’s inappropriate to study religion from a scientific perspective. But, as I understand, this is not what Mr. Dawkins is doing. He is critiquing religious belief wholesale, and not merely studying it as a curious scientist.

Dawkins’ work may or may not spend time studying the psychology of belief. To the extent he does this, he is acting appropriately in his role as a scientist. But to the extent his work comes to normative conclusions (one of his gems: drawing an analogy to the gay rights movement, that more atheists should “come out” and, oddly, drawing an analogy to the evangelical movement, “spread” their cause), it is bad science, and as such a blemish on an otherwise stellar career.

Those are my initial thoughts. I will, of course, read the book when I have the time. For now, I’d like to get some feedback: am I way off-base? Is Dawkins onto something here?

Daniel Corbett

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