Is Intuition an Unjustifiable Reason for Faith?

The Thinker

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The writers at LiveScience.com tell us that those who are more intuitive are people who are more likely to have faith in God.

Shenhav and his colleagues investigated that question in a series of studies. In the first, 882 American adults answered online surveys about their belief in God. Next, the participants took a three-question math test with questions such as, “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

The intuitive answer to that question is 10 cents, since most people’s first impulse is to knock $1 off the total. But people who use “reflective” reasoning to question their first impulse are more likely to get the correct answer: 5 cents.

Sure enough, people who went with their intuition on the math test were found to be one-and-a-half times more likely to believe in God than those who got all the answers right. The results held even when taking factors such as education and income into account.

The headline of the article reads that “belief in God boils down to a gut feeling”. I think some may read this article and walk away with the feeling that belief in God is therefore unjustified, or even irrational. To use an example, a football coach may decide to “go for it” on 4th and short based on a hunch and have it end up backfiring and costing his team valuable field position, or possibly even the game. The last thing fans want to hear from the coach is that he went with his gut. Intuition isn’t always the best justification for our beliefs.

But when considering the question of God’s existence, the answer is not like taking a math quiz or gambling field position in a football game. Some truths that are known intuitively are perfectly justified. Intuition could be defined as pure, untaught, inferential knowledge. In other words, some things are self-evident. Take for instance moral facts. Moral facts cannot be proven scientifically. You can describe what happens to a woman psychologically or physiologically when she is being raped by a man, but science cannot tell you why one ought not to rape a woman. That is something we infer based upon on our moral intuitions. We just know that some things are just plain wrong. Thomas Aquinas once wrote  “A truth can come into the mind in two ways, namely as known in itself, and as known through another. What is known in itself is like a principle, and is perceived immediately by the mind….It is a firm and easy quality of mind which sees into principles.”

Moreover, if we continue to ask for justification for everything we can possibly know, we fall into an infinite regress. Greg Koukl states that..

If it’s always necessary to give a justification for everything we know, then knowledge would be impossible, because we could never answer an infinite series of questions. It’s clear, though, that we do know some things without having to go through the regress. Therefore, not every bit of knowledge requires justification based on prior steps of reasoning. Eventually you’re going to be pushed back to something foundational, something you seem to have a direct awareness of and for which you need no further evidence.

Furthermore, if God does exist and he wants to be known and he wants us to act a certain way towards him and our fellow-man, one way he can make himself known is through instilling in intuitions so that we respond in such a way he would like. We can then choose to stifle those intuitions, play dumb and demand an unreasonable amount of evidence – or we can choose to respond.

Finally, I would also say that being a more reflective person does not necessarily mean one will end up being an atheist or an agnostic. Quite the contrary. As Francis Bacon famously quipped. “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

When one seriously reflects on things such as what could be the first cause of the universe, or why the universe displays such exquisite design, or what is the basis for moral facts, or how the Christian faith originated, they will find that faith cannot only be grasped intuitively, but also intellectually.

On Jerry Coyne and godless morality

Jerry Coyne at "Noorfest", Duke Univ...

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Earlier this month,  Jerry Coyne wrote an op-ed piece for the USA Today called “As atheists know, you can be good without God”. Coyne is an outspoken evolutionary scientist and an atheist. Coyne tries to prove that theists do not have the moral high ground, and to that end I agree with him in some sense. Atheists, of course, can be moral too. But I will argue that he has no basis for thinking that this morality is grounded in anything factual given his atheism.

Jerry seems to share in some of the fundamental misunderstandings that many atheists have when it comes to the moral argument for God’s existence. First, he brings out our old friend the Euthyphro Dilemma. I’ve written here recently that the Euthyphro Dilemma is really a false dilemma, but Coyne throws in a new wrinkle when he brings up that God not only can command us to do evil, but that He has! Coyne cites several examples of what modern Westerners would view as the more abhorrent commands of the Old Testament. Genocide! slavery! stoning! Oh, my!

Forgive me for being flippant, because I think these are valid concerns that should be thoughtfully answered.  The “abhorrent commands” objections take me beyond the scope of my point of this post, but I do recommend you to these helpful posts on Old Testament Ethics by Matthew Flannagan:

Mr. Coyne says that morality is not grounded in God but rather based upon evolution and our own reasoning.

So where does morality come from, if not from God? Two places: evolution and secular reasoning. Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we’d expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors.

First let me say that I do think atheists, theists, pantheists and pastafarians alike can recognize moral facts. Human beings recognize that being kind is morally right, and that burning down orphanages for fun is morally wrong. But are these moral facts simply natural facts? If moral facts are simply natural facts, I would argue that they simply descriptive but not prescriptive. Altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing and the notion of fairness is how the world happens to be, but if the atheist is correct and we’re all here by a massive string of cosmic flukes and not for a real purpose, then there is no way things are supposed to be.  The difficulty for Mr. Coyne and atheists like him is saying this is how it ought to be.

When a male duck forcibly mates with a female duck, that is the way nature is, but we don’t say that the duck is doing something it is morally wrong. When we see hyenas eating a young gazelle alive chunk-by-chunk (forgive me if you’re eating while reading this), that is the way nature is, but we don’t see it as morally wrong, it’s just nature functioning as nature does. Unless an atheist is committed to some sort of moral platonism, then for them natural facts are the only kind of facts. They apply to the duck, the hyena and the human being. When humans are nice or when humans are not so nice (think child abusers, rapists, terrorists, serial killers and the lot) we’re just merely describing what is, but it says nothing about what ought to be. Was it necessary that human beings evolved with this sense of morality?  Charles Darwin didn’t seem to think so. In his book, The Descent of Man, he says:

…[if] men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

Michael Ruse, an atheistic philosopher at Florida State says:

The position of the modern evolutionist . . . is that humans have an awareness of morality . . . because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth . . . . Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love they neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves . . . . Nevertheless, . . . such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory . . . .

So there is nothing objective about morality on the evolutionary account, they’re just illusions “fobbed on us by our genes”.  But if God exists, then he provides the necessary foundation for moral duty. And if God designed us with a certain end in mind, he can make human beings in His image with the ability to recognize and discover what is right and wrong.

While Jerry is right that all of us can recognize the difference between right and wrong, naturalism provides no foundation for moral duty; rather it’s just telling us how it is. Telling us how it ought to be is rather meaningless on naturalism because there is no telos to the universe on their view. They can continue to do right because that’s what they prefer, but it’s hard to see how morality would be objective on atheism. I think it makes sense to say that if moral facts exist, then atheism is very unlikely to be true, to put it modestly. I don’t think Coyne wants to say moral facts do not exist, but atheist philosophers like Michael Ruse (as well as J.L. Mackie, Nietzsche and others) are at least consistent in denying that moral facts exist in a godless world. Coyne tries to stick the theist in a dilemma, but I think at the end of the day he’s the one finding himself in a pickle when it comes to plausibly explaining  moral facts in purely naturalistic terms.

Science Sez So: Man Made God

This week the L.A. Times ran an op-ed piece written by two atheists who use neuroscience to show us that God is a human invention. Cutting edge stuff, I know.

In recent years scientists specializing in the mind have begun to unravel religion’s “DNA.” They have produced robust theories, backed by empirical evidence (including “imaging” studies of the brain at work), that support the conclusion that it was humans who created God, not the other way around. And the better we understand the science, the closer we can come to “no heaven … no hell … and no religion too.”

Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection. They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past.

Game over, right?  As I gather it, their argument runs something like this:

  1. Psychological mechanisms are the byproduct of natural processes, viz. natural selection.
  2. Faith in God, religious experience, etc. is the result of these natural, psychological processes.
  3. Therefore, religious belief is invalid.

This all seems so groovy and scientific, but at bottom it is a bunch of fallacious hooey. (Hooey, I say! Fighting words!)

1. The argument commits the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is based solely on something or someone’s origin and not its current meaning or context. The truth of a belief is independent of how we came to know it. I could believe that Des Moines is the capitol of Iowa from reading tea leaves. It doesn’t mean that Des Moines isn’t the capitol of Iowa; it just means I have some lousy justification for thinking that such is the case. Even if we grant that human beings have some fallible and possibly sketchy reasons for believing God might exist, it doesn’t follow that God doesn’t exist.

2. The argument is bulverism. Bulverism is when the argument is assumed to be wrong and then we’re told why the person believes the argument instead of being told why it is really wrong.The writers say that the religious believe for their need of attachment and protection. They go on to write that  “among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce “out-group” hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies.”  What’s being said goes something like this:

  1. You say God exists.
  2. Because of your psychological need for attachment, protection, to explain the unexplained, etc, you personally want there to be a God.
  3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

That doesn’t follow at all. It would be an equally fallacious assertion for the Christian to say to the atheist “you say God doesn’t exist only because of your psychological wish to make your own rules and have no higher accountability for your life”. That’s just attacking the person, not the arguments. I will say that I do find it ironic that the writers of this piece act like they’re being objective and are themselves free from psychological factors. Along these lines, I find this truthful admission from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel to be refreshing. Nagel says

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and naturally hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Again, this doesn’t prove atheism to be true or false. The point is that no one is completely free from psychological factors in their beliefs.

3. The argument is question-begging. What the writers are saying is “we know religious beliefs aren’t true because there is no God, so religious beliefs have to be explained by purely natural means”.  If there is no God, then our religious beliefs are selected by evolution strictly for survival value, not for truth. But if God exists, wouldn’t it be rational to think He would want us to know that He does, in fact, exist? So God could either guide the process of evolution in such a way that human beings will develop basic cognizance that He is real, or He could simply just instill a belief in us that He does exist and that he wants a relationship with us. We then could choose to suppress that knowledge or not. That seems to be the point of what Paul was saying in Romans 1:

…The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…

4. The argument is self-defeating. If naturalism is true, then all of our beliefs; not just religious ones, are the byproduct of blind, unguided material forces. If our cognitive faculties cannot be trusted to have true spiritual beliefs, what makes us think we can we trust them to produce true beliefs about anything related to the real world? Purely naturalistic evolution is not concerned with learning truth, but survival:  feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing.  Charles Darwin himself admitted:

With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

J.B.S. Haldane, the famous biologist said something similar:

“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of [physical materials] in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of [physical materials].”

In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis also addresses this in the chapter aptly titled “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism”

“If all that exists is Nature, the great mindless interlocking event, if our own deepest convictions are merely the by-products of an irrational process, then clearly there is not the slightest ground for supposing that our sense of fitness and our consequent faith in uniformity tell us anything about a reality external to ourselves. Our convictions are simply a fact about us-like the colour of our hair. If Naturalism is true we have no reason to trust our conviction that Nature is uniform.”

Any theory that leads us to such radical skepticism about our beliefs – not just our religious beliefs, but all of our beliefs, including our scientific beliefs – is self-defeating. On the contrary, the theist has no reason to doubt her cognitive faculties if they are given to them by God; who would want her to have true beliefs. The theist is actually justified in believing that they actually can take advantage of “our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason”.

Imagine that.

Finally, I have to say something about this -

 It is conceivable that St. Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus was, in reality, a seizure caused by temporal lobe epilepsy.

So Paul may have had a seizure that caused him to have a religious experience and go from persecuting the church to being its greatest advocate? Did the women at the tomb have an epileptic seizure that caused them to see an empty tomb and an angel? Did the disciples who said they saw Christ after his crucifixion and burial, did they also experience some sort of seizure that caused them to believe they saw the risen Jesus? The disciples claimed they saw the risen Jesus individually and in groups; were they experiencing some sort of seizure that caused them all to hallucinate the same thing?  Does that even remotely explain the historical facts? But I guess I’m just leaning on some psychological crutch and not using my ability to reason. Right?

Leaping to the upper story

Cog in the Machine

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I’m a bit of a podcast junkie and Philosophy Bites is one of my faves. The British accents and philosopher-speak really appeals to my pseudo-intellectual snobbery and my overall nerdiness. One of the more recent episodes about personality disorder and determinism I found interesting. Click here for the episode:

Philosopher Jonathan Glover on Personality Disorder

In summary, Glover found that sociopathic people generally do have some sort of conscience, but not like the rest of us. It’s more of an authoritarian-based conscience. For example, these are people who would likely think someone who runs a red light should get the electric chair. They have respect for authority, but on a superficial level. Unsurprisingly, most of these people had deeply troubled childhoods.

But what I really found fascinating was the last few questions how this applies to determinism. Roughly defined, determinism is the belief that every prior action affects human actions and choices. This means that human behavior is ultimately controlled by genes that control personality, by brain neurochemistry, and interactions with the environment. In its strongest form, determinism completely denies free will. This is a view that’s held by many atheists, for obvious reasons. Matter is all there is, your mind is your brain, we are purely physical things; as opposed to mind-body dualism or a belief in a spirit, and/or a soul.

The host of the show asked Glover if determinism really holds, why we should go on reacting emotionally to moral failures. Glover gave an example of a woman whose husband commits adultery and how it would be insane it would be if she said because she’s been reading her science and philosophy that instead of getting angry, she just shrugs it off to her husband merely “dancing to his DNA”; that is doing what was fixed by physical law for him to do.  Such a world would be crazy. Therefore, while we should lock away sociopaths for the sake of the rest of us, we shouldn’t have retributive punishment. However, we should continue – for at least the most part – to continue handle things the way we have because living out the view that we really have no free will would make life unlivable.

As the host of the podcast brought up, that’s having your cake and eating it.  This is a textbook example of what Francis Schaeffer called an “upper story leap”. What the naturalist does is deduce what he can from history and science – all that we can quantify – and concludes that life is utterly meaningless. We’re stuck in a cause and effect, naturalistic system. We are cogs in a machine created by the “blind watchmaker”.

To quote the famed existentialist atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance”. In an atheistic universe, life is rather absurd, or as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes put it “All is vanity!”.

Because that’s a tough pill to swallow, the atheist makes what Søren Kierkegaard calls “a leap of faith” into the upper story for things like meaning, significance and morality. In a way, the atheist becomes a social christian. Getting back to Glover, it seems he’s saying that we should pretend like we really do have free will. We should continue to praise those who share our moral tastes and be outraged at those who don’t act the way we think they should, albeit perhaps not with retributive punishment.  So while in an atheistic universe this doesn’t seem to comport with reality, we go on affirm these values and virtues anyway as if they have real significance.

But if God exists, and he has stepped into history and given man meaning and significance, then we no longer have to play this irrational, schizophrenic game of dress-up to escape reality. Christianity affirms that free will is not a mere illusion, but rather part the image of God in all of us. Our sense of objective moral values and duties are rooted in God. No leap required; we can continue to hold people responsible for their actions and mean it, and not just chalk it up to causally determined conditions.

How I became a Christian – Part 2

Hell on Earth (album)

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I spoke of my “Fall” in the convenience store. Now we’ll look at the ramifications. As a kid, I never questioned the existence of God, even though it wasn’t something that was necessarily preached to me. I would not have classified myself as a “born-again” person as a child in any sense of the term.  As I grew, I became less apt to follow my conscience and more inclined to do whatever I felt like doing, just so long that I could get away with it.

My parents unfortunately became addicted to alcohol as I got older.  I took the streets with my friends, playing wiffle-ball, basketball and doing goofy stuff that kids do, mostly to keep away from my house as much as possible.

We moved to another neighborhood around the time I turned 13, and that was about the time I became an atheist. I began to ask questions about life’s meaning. In my observation, life seemed so utterly meaningless. Because my family situation was becoming increasingly chaotic with all the drinking, and because of what I learned in school about Darwinian evolution (primordial-soup-to-people through an unguided process of chance and necessity with no end in view) and psychology (God is just wish-fulfillment) I came around to the sentiment that there was no sense in having faith. No one really provided me with any alternatives at the time.

My trouble with God as that my life seemed so unfair, but I oddly enough I never questioned of where this sense of justice within me arose. Not only was my life an injustice, but others’ lives also seemed so unfair, the world that God was supposedly sovereignty controlling was a mess, and I had been given what I believed were scientific and rational reasons to reject God.

The funny thing about it was that I presupposing infinite knowledge was possible by claiming there is no god. Despite my claims, I couldn’t prove that there was no god, as if I had comprehensive knowledge of the entire universe.  So in one sense I was positing omniscience while denying the Omniscient one at the same time.

I feel as though I was a very consistent atheist, as far as that is actually possible. I say that because I was very nihilistic.  Nothing was particularly right or wrong, because morality had no real basis. There was no point in being moral for the sake of convention, I would act in whatever way served my best interests at the moment. It didn’t help that I was re-enforcing my nihilistic views with gangster rap, either. This led to a very grim outlook on life, and because of that I self-medicated myself with drugs, particularly with weed.

My friends were all into the gangster culture, which is sort of funny because we were mostly white kids living in the suburbs. There was a low-income housing project in the county I lived in, and some of the inner-city gangs flocked to the area to sell drugs, and they started making an impression on some of the youngsters in the neighborhood. I befriended these people through an association from high school. While violence between other social groups occasionally broke out, we were hardly gang-bangers. We were really a pack of hooligans looking to get high and have fun.  (Can I use the word hooligan?)

I was very hostile to anyone who tried to preach the gospel to me. I had several people try and talk to me, ironically some of which were among the people I partied with. Because their lifestyle was inconsistent with their message, I told them where they could stick their gospel. To me, it was all an illusion for the weak; fairy tales and myths.

After about two years of this, and seeing my friends lives getting more out of control, I began to re-consider my worldview. There had to be more to life than just satisfying my pride and mental and physical cravings. And it couldn’t be through just finding meaning in work and family, either, as demonstrated by the brokenness that I saw in the lives of the parents of my friends, and in my family.  The knowledge of God was something I was suppressing. I didn’t want to accept that there was a God because I really didn’t want to be accountable for my behavior. But if we were not here by accident, how then should I live and why?

No matter how much I tried to deny morality, I couldn’t make it really compatible with naturalism, (although I know plenty of people try to find a way to squeeze it in).  And were all these people who claimed to find meaning in God really just deluding themselves, or was there something more to it?

to be continued