Is it More Rational to Believe in God?

The BBC’s The Big Questions continues to captivates, today with the question of whether it is more rational to believe in God. There has been some allusion to what it means to be rational; the philosopher Julian Baggini refers to science and naturalism. But a strong definition is never given. I’d like to do that (and offer the definition I give to be criticised and torn apart) and then I would like to evaluate the question.

To be rational is to use methods of knowledge that have a good record of aiming at and moving towards truth, or being true. That means being rational either includes a type of process that can refine or a method that creates a demonstrable immutable truth first time. Rationality must tick at least one of these two boxes.

I think rationality is broader than this definition. However, for this conversation to go on we need some key performance indicators and to benchmark the word rational. Although my attempt as benchmarking the word has two key deficits–it doesn’t reflect a fully comprehensive definition of “rational” and it doesn’t fully outline the metrics we are using–it is important to note this is a step in the right direction. If no one offers substantive criticism of my definition of “rational”, or if no one offers another benchmark-able definition, then I would go on to borrow David Deutsch’s benchmarks from The Beginning of Inifinity: measuring progress and utility. That is an indicator of how we know something tracks reality/truth (as imperfect as it is).

(I should take a moment to acknowledge another definition of rationality that I am building up on an ad hoc basis based on the sociologist speaker Dr Lois Lee. She alludes to this idea of what is considered irrational in one place is a cultural norm in another. The reason I am dismissing this concept of rationality is because it becomes circular. Religion is a cultural norm, and so to ask if belief in a God is more rational is a moot question.)

I’ll evaluate religion first. If we assume that religion either generates demonstrable immutable truth first time, or has a process of becoming more true, we end up with a queer predicament about truth. If religion is a good tracker of truth, we must concede that truth is different in Asia (where people are predominantly Buddhist) to the Middle East (with a Muslim majority) both of which have a different truth to Europe and the Americas (with a Christian majority). We must also accept that truth is fundamentally different in certain neighbourhoods because that particular neighbourhood has a Jewish or Sikh majority. And then, even on the level of a house, certain houses have a different truth because they have a Jainist majority. Truth, in the religious context, is geography-dependent on both the continental and local scale.

We find this same variation in the truth–meaning the truth is not an immutable quality–over time, not just geography. Religions have evolved from polytheisms of imperfect beings to monotheisms with a perfect creator. And over the last four hundred years, since the Enlightenment, we must be willing to entertain the idea that there has been less truth. As Enlightenment values have convinced even the religious to abandon certain tenets of their religion, we must be willing to consider that, if one thinks religion meets the criteria for rationality, there is simply less truth.

Let us take science as a comparison against religion. Although the question includes the comparative “more rational” is doesn’t actually state what the comparison point should be. But I’m not too shy to suggest science should be the comparison point. Science is a powerhouse of amalgamated epistemologies: empiricism, fallibilism, inductivism, criticism, creativity and reason. Science generates claims that are not time- or geography-dependent (unless you’re a geographer, which I am). Science has been wrong before, so it cannot be said to create immutable claims of truth at the first attempt. However, every time science has been “wrong”, we have only discovered that through further scientific investigation and refinement. Science has its own immune system that does direct it at truth (an immutable quality of reality). Science actually ticks a box of the definition of rational.

During The Big Questions Vince Vitale argued, as many people do, that there are only three ways the universe could be: God, something from nothing or it’s eternal. He then equates all three as equally miraculous. And on that there are three big errors. Firstly, science leaves us with the choice that many of us are uncomfortable with: I don’t know. Bottom of the barrel science asks that we don’t move forward with a claim as if it were true until we are at least 95% sure that it is a good claim. We know that over time that are good odds (1 in 20, in fact) that 5% doubt will expand as new evidence comes in, and then the science needs another thorough review. But until we reach that 95% benchmark (at least, and in physics it’s much higher) we should err on the side of “I don’t know”. So Vince’s trichotomy is mistaken and arrogant. Firstly it assumes his imagination of the only three options represents a real limit to the options, secondly it excludes the “I don’t know” answer that is sometimes the only rational one.

Vince’s second error is to assume that all three options are equally miraculous. They are not. Recent calculations suggest that the universe is eternal. However, this hasn’t had enough time to be fully scrutinised yet. But there are also good reasons to believe that the ‘something from nothing’ option is a good one: when we look in places we expect to find ‘nothing’ we find ‘something’ popping in and out of existence. That simply appears to be what ‘nothing’ does. It might not gel with your definition of ‘nothing’, but it might be a case of tough luck; have the humility to accept your philosophical definition might not be holding up against the evidence. On top of that, there are loop quantum gravity and Horava gravity that exclude the Big Bang singularity, but have the Big Bang phase.

Thirdly, Vince also assumes that positing a God somehow gets rid of the need for an explanation. We still have no method by which God could have created the universe and, given that Vince admits that an eternal universe is as miraculous as a God, in the God option he has doubled his miracles: it’s the God option and an eternal God. But this bias we have where we are comforted by the idea of intent and personal agency runs strongly through his argument.

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38 thoughts on “Is it More Rational to Believe in God?”

  1. Great post! I like this line:

    “Firstly, science leaves us with the choice that many of us are uncomfortable with: I don’t know.” Religion also does this, but most don’t feel comfortable admitting it. How can we humans get past this silly fear of ‘I don’t know’?

    1. I don’t know! Practice, probably. I personally used to meditate, and ‘I don’t know’ became the only meaningful answer in a number of regions.
      I’m not sure religions are as compatible with this level of epistemic humility. Religions claim to know where the universe and life came from (even if the people don’t).

  2. The last paragraph, that’s it. Even if someone wants to be lazy and simply say, capital g, God, then all well and good, but the question has not moved a single millimeter toward an ultimate answer… if one even exists, and there’s no reason why one should exist. God is eternal = Universe is eternal, and if we consider that we know the universe exists then the latter is the most likely explanation.

  3. First, regarding “what is considered irrational in one place is a cultural norm in another” what do cultural norms have to do with rationality? You could ask a Shaker, but wait, oh no! (A cultural norm of no sex for even procreation is questionably rational (very).)

    Also, what is the standard for the tag “miraculous?” Basically we are saying “I don’t understand how this could happen, so it is a miracle/magic!” And what is the mechanism for miracles? It must be magic, no? But do the religious believe in magic? Is this not rather just a statement of ignorance? Have we exhausted investigating all possible ways for such a thing to happen? Have we really even tried to understand?

    A common criticism of science is it has not yet determined how life began on this planet. How long have we actually tried? I would say the Miller-Urey experiment is a good starting point, so a little over 50 years. So, one of the toughest questions ever asked hasn’t been answered by a small number of scientists working for a little over 50 years equates to “science can’t”? WTF?

    Finally, the “answer” to all unanswered questions becomes, by default, “God did it.” But a perfectly equal explanation is “the Fairies did it” and these two explanations cannot be distinguished, so neither is of any use for any reason. (No one can understand the mind of a Fairy. Fairies work in mysterious ways. No one can look upon the face of a Fairy. …)

    1. I don’t doubt for a second that I was right to dismiss that definition of rational. If you watch the YouTube video you’ll see “rational” be defined as ‘comforting’, ‘beauty’, ‘tranquil’, ‘peace’.
      Although I’m glad to have stuff like this on the TV, the structure (where people are pressed to talk in terms of 30 second or less sound bites) makes everyone come across as a little ignorant.
      Like “rational”, “miraculous” was also thrown around clumsily. I think (although I could be wrong) someone makes it synonymous with ‘a bit weird’ at one point, and ‘unbelievable’. It’s a lazy use of language, which is a poor move when you’re trying to build something of real consequence out of it.
      We have come a long way on abiogenesis. This is pretty interesting: http://www.ted.com/talks/martin_hanczyc_the_line_between_life_and_not_life.

  4. Rational is the result of our mind chewing on an unknown and thinking through the solution step by step until the truth obtained.

    With regard to the existence of God, it is rational to understand that the universe was caused.

    It is irrational to believe, as atheists do, that the everything just happened all by itself.

    It’s as simple as that.

    The atheist will obfuscate, deny, change the subject and try to mire down any rational discussion into words games.

    This is because the atheist is not interested in rationality, but sophistry.

      1. Alla,

        Thank you.

        But I must admit that when I comment you are usually hearing from some great Master that I have studied previously.

        In this case, it’s Saint Thomas Aquinas who learned from Aristotle.

        1. That’s cool. Did Aquinas make a more detailed account of what he meant by “rational”? Because for the same of this post i tried to lay the foundations for a benchmarking exercise, but what you’ve shared doesn’t add to that.

        2. Alla,

          For the purposes of this post which asks the question, “Is it More Rational to Believe God Exists?” the bench mark is what has become obvious.

          Aristotle is often called the “philosopher of common sense.”

          We know from naked eye observation and the discoveries of modern science that everything has a cause, even the universe itself.

          Based on that, it is rational to believe that the Creator exists.

          Likewise, it is irrational to believe the opposite, that God does not exist, because that would mean that everything just happened all by itself.

        3. The closest thing I can find to the reference of Aristotle as a “common sense” philosopher is Aristotelian common sense. This includes Aristotelian physics (his common sense description of movement), and it’s wrong.
          I say that not to denounce Aristotle, but to reiterate a point I have made before: common sense, ‘obviousness’ and other pre-theoretic ideas and intuitions do not have a good track record for being right. Rationality is not about what is most obvious. Other ‘common sense’ mistakes that come just from Aristotle include: the impossibility of a vacuum; men are the sole providers of what makes a baby (and women are just incubators); it made sense to him that all babies tried to become man, and the women are just the ones who failed in their efforts (not just wrong, but kind of dangerous, no?). We could go on to illustrate the failures of pre-theoretic methods, but I think labouring the point may be of little value.

          When you say we know all things have a cause, we need to be more precise. All things in the universe have an ‘ex materia’ cause. The universe itself is supposed to have an ‘ex nihilo’ cause (which is what you allude to with your slogan “everything just happened by itself”). But we cannot reliably extrapolate from ex materia to ex nihilo creation.
          But assume we could trust that the universe has a cause. (It’s a long shot because causation is a temporal phenomena as far as we know, and we’re talking about the start of time itself.) That doesn’t give us a “Creator”. A capital C Creator is begging the question. It still doesn’t get us any further than a lower case c “cause”. (As I said, this is a philosophically cumbersome idea because we have to alter our definition of causation for this event to be less dependent on time.)
          Now, we have loop quantum gravity and Horava gravity models that get us past the problem of the Big Bang singularity (but leave us with the Big Bang phase). We also have Krauss’ more evidential definition of nothing. We have multi-verse models with non-linear concepts of time, which would allow a muliverse to be eternal (because time does not flow from one entity to another). So, you’re forcing a misrepresentation of a false dichotomy when you say “Creator” or “happened all by itself”.
          Now, if you define “rational” as “obvious”, then nontheistic origins of the universe aren’t “rational”. But by that definition, Newtonian mechanics, relativity, heliocentricism, non-Euclidean geometry, and basically all of quantum mechanics would be irrational. This definition of rationality has very little to do with ascertaining truth.

        4. Alla,

          By common sense it is meant that which you have to turn over in your own mind in order to understand.

          Of course, this “turning over in the mind,” is consistent with human nature, which includes the ability to reason our what is good or evil, true or false.

          No amount of convincing, reason, or evidence will ever be enough for people who don’t use their basic faculty of reasoning.

          And you are correct, Newtonian mechanics, relativity, heliocentricism, non-Euclidean geometry, and basically all of quantum mechanics are not knowable through common sense, but neither is language or French cooking.

          But that’s okay, because understanding that God exists is simple and therefore discernible through common sense.

        5. Alla,

          Well having studied Newtonian physics (where our professor proved that the majority is always wrong), quantum physics, geometry, etc., I can tell you from first hand experience that common sense doesn’t work.

          Therefore it is no surprise that Aristotle, the philosopher of common sense, got almost everything wrong when it came to the more advanced areas of science.

          However, Aristotle’s ethics, politics, systematic thinking and model of classification of things according to kind and relationship are still fundamental to Western thought.

        6. Okay, let’s assume that such a distinction does exist: that one body of knowledge is available to us through common sense and another body of knowledge is available to us through other means (and perhaps there is an unknowable body of claims as well).
          On that assumption, how do you know knowledge of God belongs to the common sense body of knowledge?
          And, how do you explain the largely prescribed to and vastly different conceptions of God through time and globally as well as the lack of belief?

        7. Alla,

          Modern science has proven the existence of God.

          But since these discoveries are rather recent, most people use the tried and true mental faculty called common sense.

        8. Alla,

          Molecular biology continues to amass a huge body of knowledge on a family of organic molecules called proteins.

          Proteins are software specified, precision manufactured, precision tools.

          From anthropology and archeology we know that tool-making is the hallmark signature of intelligence.

        9. As someone who has taught A-level biology i can tell you that calling proteins “tools” is a naive understanding of the biochemistry that underpins their behaviour.

        10. Alla,

          Sorry, but as an engineer and a long time math teacher, I don’t need you to tell me what a tool isn’t.

          Evidently you need to update your understanding of molecular biology.

        11. Okay, so you have a good understanding of tools. I’m saying you have a trite understanding of the function of proteins which has lead you to group then as tools.

        12. Alla,

          Just study proteins and see for yourself.

          There are videos on YouTube that show proteins at work in all sorts of sophisticated and specialized ways.

          Each type of protein has a specific function.

          Francis Crick, molecular biologist and discoverer of the shape of DNA (another molecule that proves the existence of God but for a different reason) even coined the “central dogma of molecular biology:”

          DNA -> RNA -> Proteins http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/12/the_central_dog054581.html

          Here is a short video whose narrator uses words like “machine,” “ratchet,” and “computer tape.”

        13. Not quite. You’re making desperately massive leaps from a quirk of language (describing proteins as tools) to theological claims (tool means creator means God). Now, I’ve already studied this to since level, and it’s been all biochemistry (amino and carboxyl groups having hydrogen bonds and similar. I have seen fragments of research at higher levels and the ‘precision’ we ascribe to proteins simply isn’t present.
          If you make the step because of your subjective awe at the complexity of cell machinery, then so be it. But if this is an objective claim, i want to see peer review literature or a balanced documentary. That is so i can distinguish between an objective claims and subjective awe.

        14. Alla,

          I cite Francis Crick and then show you a video whose content is taught in every university freshman biology class in the world.

          Yes, you are desperate to deny the evidence of science that proves that atheism is a highly distilled superstition.

        15. Such a shame, SoM. Our conversation was going so well. I’m disappointed by how your tone has changed when you’re asked to bring peer reviewed literature forward.

        16. Alla,

          My tone did not change and even if it did, you bleating about tone is not a rational argument.

          For you to cite yourself as the authority for your own argument by claiming you were once a biology teacher and then complain when I cite Francis Crick and the fundamentals of molecular biology taught in every university clearly explains the difference between one atheist’s hallucinations and vast culture and body of knowledge and wisdom.

          Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I gave you everything you asked for, and in the end, when the curtain gets drawn there’s just a loud, smooth talking phony standing behind the microphone, or in your case, sitting at the keyboard.

        17. I’ve got nothing to cite. I’m saying I’ve never come across peer reviewed literature that claims proteins are a tool in the intelligently-created fashion. I also have an understanding (limited though it is) of the chemistry behind protein folding and how folding relates to function. If you require, i can find you peer reviewed literature about this. But the only point pertinent to our conversation would be the absence of them mentioning God.
          (I mentioned your tone because, as you may have noticed from our conversions before, there becomes a point where we make no progress. It’s normally around the time insults replace points.)

  5. Lol, the “BBC.” Can you imagine the discussion that went into this one?

    Program Director 1: It’s going to be a tough quarter. But we have to make sure we do our duty and keep our nation’s citizens informed.

    Program Director 2: You’re damned right. We have a responsibility to our fellow human beings to investigate the issues that really matter.

    Program Director 1: Exactly. Here’s what I’m thinking: we could produce a detailed expose of how Tony Blair savaged our nation, and many others, by carrying water for the American President. We could look at his £5M contract with Carlyle Group, an obvious and ongoing public bribe, and how that’s developed in the dozen years since he helped spearhead another invasion of the middle east…and how he’s managed to slip into relative obscurity since then.

    Program Director 2: Wow! Yeah. We’ve briefly touched upon the bribe earlier, but we didn’t press it. We could use this opportunity to look back on the whole affair, and to remind citizens that those kinds of consequences don’t go away if they’re ignored. Tony Blair is still out there. He’s enjoying a luxurious lifestyle despite how many people he killed. Not only worthless ear-ock-ees, but some of our people, too!

    Program Director 1: And worse yet, the people who ran the long con with Blair still hold power in the government. The Queen hasn’t denounced him, even symbolically, and the hundreds of people who worked with him to administer lies are still exerting considerable power over our country.

    Program Director 2: I suppose we could do an expose on all of them–on how they were connected to Blair, and how they bolstered his lies.

    Program Director 1: I suppose we could…

    Program Director 2: Wait…are you thinking what I’m thinking?

    Program Director 1: A puff piece on whether or not there’s a wise old man living in the clouds?

    Program Director 2: By god, you’re brilliant!

    Program Director 1: Get the sound crew ready! We’ve got ourselves a segment to produce!

  6. Factual correction of statement “in Asia (where people are predominantly Buddhist)”

    Asia predominant in religion as per below:

    Largest – Islam
    2nd Largest – Hinduism
    3rd Largest – Buddhism

    Sigh….

    1. You’re forgetting that, to the British, “Asia” really means, “Places where I can order either sushi or sweet and sour pork.” It’s not a continent, to them; rather, it’s a state of mind based on assumed racial and ethnic labels.

      (The western obsession with labeling misses a lot of other nuances in there also, such as that many people who fill out surveys as “Buddhist” don’t really believe anything religious about it, and for whom “Buddhism” really is just a social ritual, rather than an actual belief system. Buddhism also overlaps with a lot of different other religions, e.g., Shinto, and it’s difficult for many westerners to process that overlap.)

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