Religious beliefs can be true and false at the same time

Over at HuffPo, Andrew Pessin takes his place along with Mark Vernon and Karen Armstrong in the pantheon of those who have written the worst nonsense about religion.  In his new piece,  “How to be certain your religion is true and still get along with others”, Pessin says he’s finally solved the problem of how different religions, with their disparate notions of religious truths, can still live in harmony.  How can you be dead certain that the tenets of your faith are right and still tell others that the contradictory tenets of their faiths might also be right?

Pessin’s solution: you just assert it.

What I suggest instead is that we simply acknowledge the paradox: that is, recognize that both contradictory propositions are, in their own right, extremely plausible. In the preface case this actually seems quite easy to do. My ultimate hope, then, is that world peace will break out when enough people simply acknowledge the paradox as well and begin applying it more generally.

Why is that?

Because acknowledging the paradox allows you simultaneously to say two things.

Choose some important, life-governing, very controversial thing you happen to believe in with great fervor: the existence of God (or perhaps atheism), the truth of Christianity (or Islam or Hinduism, etc.), absolute morality (or relativism), etc. Focusing on religion as our example, you can now say, first, that you believe, with certainty, on the basis of reason and evidence and testimony, in the truth of, say, the various individual tenets of your version of Christianity, and thus believe, with equal certainty, in all the things entailed by that belief: that, say, all other competing religions and doctrines are simply false.

But then you can say, second, something else: that you may be wrong.

Got it? You can simultaneously be certain that Christianity is true and everything conflicting with it is false, and yet acknowledge that you may be wrong without taking away your certainty. You can thus keep your certainties without having to claim that you are, in fact, and grossly implausibly, infallible. It’s what everyone (other than bakers) has yearned for since time immemorial: the proverbial cake, both eaten yet had!

I get it!  Jesus was certainly the son of God, but then he wasn’t, too.  Mohamed was surely God’s prophet but then again maybe he wasn’t.  It’s all so easy!

This is the funniest example of religious doublethink I’ve ever seen.  That is, it would be funny if it didn’t show so clearly how faith rots the brain.

Pessin, by the way, is the chair of the philosophy department at Connecticut College.

94 Comments

  1. Tulse
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Pessin is also capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast.

    Are we sure this isn’t meant to be humorous? The piece doesn’t read particularly seriously.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 26, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      I pondered this, but reading his other, related piece on HuffPo, I think this is meant to be serious but somewhat lighthearted. Certainly the commenters took it seriously! But this may instantiate a new law, which I call “Armstrong’s Law”: Any parody of modern theology cannot be distinguished from modern theology itself.

  2. Jonn Mero
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Like being asleep and awake at the same time? But mostly asleep, but nobody notices because they are in the same state. Bit like early in the morning after a good piss-up!

    What I suggest instead is that we simply acknowledge the paradox: that is, recognize that both contradictory propositions are, in their own right, extremely plausible.

    Plausible and religion oxymoron maketh, no?

  3. NewEnglandBob
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    To sum Pessin up:

    Smile as you lie and then claim that you have no thoughts in your brain.

    Then write it up for Huffington Post who will publish every bit of nonsensical drivel.

  4. Uncle Bob
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    I stopped at the title…. “How to be certain your religion is true and still get along with others”. How can anyone read that and not laugh out loud?

    • artikcat
      Posted May 26, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      all the epople that read usa today for starters.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 27, 2010 at 6:17 am | Permalink

        But wouldn’t they be “epeople” only if they read email and emagazines, not dead tree magazines?

  5. Posted May 26, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I say rationalists start a War on Philosophy Professors. Or at least on their general public publishing efforts. For every worthwhile idea they have, there are at least 8 silly ones and 1 that is so ridiculous it’s easy to think it’s an intended joke.

    • Jonn Mero
      Posted May 26, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      Just as a curiosity mate: Do you shoot us (Norwegians) or are you like those Norwegian clowns down in Kiwiland (NZ) who made asses of themselves shooting endangered species and the like?

      • Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        The avatar of the Norwegian biathlete is in jest. I’m Norwegian-American in hyphen terms and the “shooting” involved might be temporarily painful to those in the immediate vicinity, but it is certainly not dangerous.

        Never heard about the Norwegian clowns.

        • Posted May 26, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

          We’re glad to hear you heard all about them in Norway. The whole of New Zealand was thoroughly pissed off with them.

          (Not only did they shoot a whole lot of protected species, they then posted video of themselves doing it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCzsvak0PIc)

    • Posted May 26, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      No no no – this drivel doesn’t represent philosophy professors. That wild (and false) generalization is just anti-intellectual.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted May 27, 2010 at 1:51 am | Permalink

        That is a logical fallacy delivered via fiat.
        What evidence do you have that this is unrepresentative of the curious notions of professors of philosophy?
        Just because you assert that it is so, does not make it so.

        • Posted May 27, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

          No kidding – but neither is Norwegian Shooter’s assertion true just because NS says it.

  6. Posted May 26, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    So, being certain for all intents and purposes about a thing, but still admitting that you could be wrong, is kindof one of the core principles of reason, but it doesn’t really work with faith, now does it?

    The problem with this approach is that, with faith, there are no criteria which would cause a logical change in the belief — therefore, the “I might be wrong” claim is disingenuous. If one is going to take the “I might be wrong” position, one must have at least a vague sketch of what sorts of criteria would have to be satisfied in order to show that the person was wrong. In the case of faith, this is an impossibility.

    So the professor is quite right, but only if he is advocating the abandonment of faith-based positions. Hello, atheism!

    • Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      I’d say “I act as if it’s true, but I don’t know that it’s true”, which is pretty much the epistemic definition of a belief.

      As for having a vague idea of how it could be falsified … I don’t think I agree with that. You might not know exactly or even vaguely what event you’d think would make you abandon the belief, but if you’re genuine about thinking that you could be wrong you’ll know when you see the proof that it’s wrong.

      This is especially true since in some cases you cannot really conceive of how the belief could be wrong and so won’t be able to formulate any real concept of what test could falsify it.

      For myself and God, I’m agnostic — think that I can’t know whether God exists or doesn’t exist — and theistic (believe in God). As such, I have no idea what could or will make me abandon the belief, since the only way I’d be required to abandon it would be if I knew it false. That being said, I may abandon it at some point before that total knowledge … but obviously I couldn’t say where that line is until I hit it, if I ever do.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted May 26, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        This comment is a parody, isn’t it? I read this just like Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First?

      • Posted May 26, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        The problem with verbosestoic’s approach is that it potentially leads to completely unconstrained belief, with a fluidity that even goes beyond faith. You might be wrong about proposition X, but there are no particular reasons you believe proposition X? Um?

        I suppose that’s fine for personal preferences, like whether you prefer broccoli or potatoes, but for objective questions, that seems like a null epistemology. You don’t believe based on faith, and you don’t believed based on fact… whim then I guess?

        Russell’s Teapot, my man, Russell’s Teapot.

        • Posted May 26, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

          I haven’t told you my epistemology yet, so it’s a little presumptuous to be judging it [grin].

          Ultimately, I consider all beliefs to have the same basic mechanism. I follow a Web of Belief model — from Quine — that says that we all have beliefs that are linked together in interesting ways. Anything I know must be believed, and takes precedence. Therefore, facts — since I presume I know them — trump all. In the absence of knowledge, mere beliefs are formed, and can be formed with various mechanisms. I don’t agree with the skeptical position of never adding a belief until it has been sufficiently proven, but do insist that the Web be consistent, so that you don’t hold two contradictory beliefs (whether that’s directly or by implication).

          In adding a belief, you use the existing Web and all facts and information available to make your decision. Sometimes that might be or seem like whim, but for me since that’s just a mere belief it doesn’t matter; it’s more like adopting a hypothesis to see if it works out. I claim this because to me it seems that the best way to test propositions in our every day lives is to act as if the proposition is true or false and see if reality contradicts you. If it does, adjust and move on. If it doesn’t, it at least doesn’t harm you to keep it, so you can keep it until you get more facts or a contradiction.

          So, it’s not all that fluid and not all that unconstrained. I find the approach advocated by some people of “believe the most likely” to be far more fluid since if you don’t know what’s true probabilities can fluctuate a lot, whereas you won’t flip an existing belief that’s consistent as often.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted May 27, 2010 at 6:44 am | Permalink

            I’ll just repeat what I said in another comment here. Pessin tests a simple prediction of observing properties of axiomatic or algorithmic systems such as philosophies: there is no single philosophic, theological, or religious “truth”. You can be contingently consistent but never fully so without access to empirical methods that can decide reality.

            What can be confusing to some is that one can equivocate between religion, which is falsifiable, and theology which can be based on such a contingent (axiomatic or algorithmic) system, and thus be consistent. But consistency isn’t falsifiability.

            I’m agnostic

            This is a prime example of a theology which is based on such a contingent system, and which openly confuses consistency with falsifiability.

      • Janet Holmes
        Posted May 26, 2010 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

        Do you really act as if it were true? If a christian have you given all your belongings to the poor to await the coming of christ? Or if a muslim are you preparing to martyr yourself for allah? Or if a hindu, have abandoned all worldly goods and are you spending your time in contemplation?

        No I didn’t thinks so.

        • Tacroy
          Posted May 27, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

          It’s true – if you assume that people act on their beliefs, almost everyone is an atheist.

          You almost never see people who claim to believe in God actually acting on that belief, because that would be literally crazy; for instance, if the Pope actually believed in God, his Pope-mobile wouldn’t be surrounded by bullet-proof glass.

  7. Rebecca Harbison
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Man, it is too early in the morning for this. (Granted, it’s nearly lunchtime, but 11PM at night would be too early in the morning for this…)

    If you are completely certain in something, then saying ‘I may be wrong’ strikes me as empty words. You honestly don’t think you could be wrong, or you wouldn’t be completely certain. If you aren’t sure, than build uncertainty into your statement itself.

    And it seems like the equivalent of the passive-aggressive smiley face. ‘I believe in Jesus Christ as our One True Savior, and all you atheists are going to Hell… but I may be wrong ;-P’ No, seriously, if I were to say ‘A supreme creator-deity shows no signs of actually existing, outside of Bronze Age mythology and human ability to see patterns in *everything*… but I may be wrong.’, most people would still take offense, whether or not I tack on the caveat. It’s like ‘I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic, but…’ or ‘with all due respect’.

    But I may be wrong. </sarcasm>

  8. Posted May 26, 2010 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    i.n.s.a.n.i.t.y.

  9. Chuck
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    The author doesn’t seem to understand that there is already a philosophical argument known as “Friendly Atheism” which allows for the same considerations without the inculcated schizophrenia.

  10. Andrew
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Holy shit!

    This reads just like one of those Onion article.

    Poe Law at work again…

  11. Posted May 26, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Mr. Pessin evidently doesn’t understand the definition of “certain” in this context. If I may adapt Pessin to _The_Princess_Bride:

    Pessin: As I told you, my faith is absolutely, totally, and in all other ways certain.
    Pessin: you might take the certainty in your fallibility to undermine the certainty in any or all of your particular individual beliefs

    Me: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    This is a false paradox. If you are certain that you left your car keys on the table, but you are also aware that you might not remember correctly where you left them, THEN YOU ARE NO LONGER CERTAIN, by definition.

    • Janet Holmes
      Posted May 26, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, you just hoping your keys are on the table.

  12. PhilosophyProf
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Please, please don’t judge all professional philosophers by Pessin’s columns! (Or we’ll start judging biologists according to what Behe says.) The Paradox of the Preface has been well-known to logicians and epistemologists for decades. Pessin’s hamfisted misuse of the paradox suggests that either he just misunderstands it or else he’s making a clumsy and easily misread attempt at humor. The paradox definitely doesn’t leave us rational room to be absolutely certain of the truth of a proposition (e.g., the Resurrection) while at the same time admitting we may be wrong about that very proposition! Nothing of the sort. The preface isn’t even couched in terms of absolute *certainty*, only in terms of *belief*, something not requiring absolute certainty.

    • Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      I won’t judge all of them, but am I justified in judging most of the them? And in the case of biologists, there are 1,000 for every crank like Behe.

      • Posted May 26, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        No; most of them are not like Pessin.

        • Michael Kingsford Gray
          Posted May 27, 2010 at 1:53 am | Permalink

          Cite?

          • Posted May 27, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

            Oh for fuck’s sake. Thomas Nagel, Bernard Williams, Martha Nussbaum, Derek Parfit, Colin McGinn, Timothy Williamson, Peter Strawson, W V O Quine, Susan Haack, Peter Singer. To name just a few.

    • Posted May 26, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      Oh I just said that above; I could have saved my breath.

  13. Posted May 26, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I’m surprised that he didn’t find a way to hammer the word “quantum” into his article.

  14. Pdiff
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Wow! That is easy!

    Either all religions are wrong

    or

    All religions are not right!

    I feel much better now! 🙂

  15. Kirth Gersen
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Jack Vance coined a word for this — hyperdidacticism — which he defined as “the use of abstractions six stages removed from reality in order to justify some pseudo-profound point.”

  16. Posted May 26, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    He didn’t say one can believe that certainly Jesus was the son of God, but he wasn’t too. He said one can believe that certainly Jesus was the son of God, but also believe one could be wrong.

    This is a state of mind that’s very common, if you’re in the philosophy business. You accumulate lots of arguments for P, come to believe P with a high degree of certainty, but also recognize that other philosophers just as smart and well-informed as you believe not-P. So you are certain but also humble.

    Whether or not that stance makes sense is open to debate, but I don’t think it’s laughable to defend it.

    • Posted May 26, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      It depends whether you think “certain” is an absolute like “perfect” or “unique”. (Things can be almost perfect or unique, but they can not be rather or very perfect or unique, though that accuracy is being eroded.)

      I suspect believers use “certain” as an absolute when they’re talking about their faith, and won’t have a bar of “…but I could be wrong.”

      It seems to me that Pessin’s compromise entails using a meaning of “certain” that few believers could accept (the “left my keys on the table” meaning). In fact the very nature of “faith” is that it brooks no such compromise. It reminds me (and probably them) of crossing your fingers as you sign the recantation of heresy to escape the flames.

  17. daveau
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    “But I may be wrong” in this context seems pretty disingenuous and patronizing to me. It’s too bad, really, ’cause if they meant it seriously, they could be starting down a path to rationality.

  18. PhilosophyProf
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    “This is a state of mind that’s very common, if you’re in the philosophy business. You accumulate lots of arguments for P, come to believe P with a high degree of certainty, but also recognize that other philosophers just as smart and well-informed as you believe not-P.”

    @ Jean: I’m in the biz, but “believing with a high degree of certainty” doesn’t describe my attitude toward any philosophical proposition denied by my epistemic peers, even those propositions I find myself believing. Does it really describe yours? I’m not sure what you mean by “a high degree of certainty” (it sounds like a probability assignment near 1), and your proposal may make sense. But Pessin uses only “certainty,” without any qualifier. That’s what makes his proposal incoherent, as well as a misrepresentation of the original paradox.

    • Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      There’s some combination of certainty (not quite 100%) and humility that makes sense (it seems–this is open to debate), and that I often feel. That’s what Pessin should be defending, not outright contradicting oneself (“I’m certain but I could be wrong”). So he’s at least close to being reasonable, and not saying something unfathomably silly.

      • Posted May 26, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        But he did say what he did say, which as you say, is “outright contradicting oneself,” so how is he close to being reasonable just because you can offer something he could have said that would be more reasonable? Why is it wrong to say that what he did say is silly rather than what he could have said would be less silly? He did say what he did say.

        • Grendels Dad
          Posted May 26, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          Exactly. I give commenters to these sorts of pieces the kind of leeway Jean wants because the comments are made quickly, off the cuff. But presumably the original piece was composed at a more deliberate pace.

        • Posted May 26, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

          Right, he did say what he did say, but he didn’t say what Jerry said he said. He didn’t say you can believe Jesus is the son of God and isn’t the son of God. It’s uncharitable to read him as saying that.

          What Pessin is getting at (if you read him charitably, and why not?) is that a high degree of certainty can coexist with the realization that smart people believe differently, so you could be wrong. I think he’s chosen a deliberately provocative way of making the point–coming very close to asserting a contradiction. But reading him charitably, there’s a non-ridiculous point in there.

          • NewEnglandBob
            Posted May 26, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            But reading him charitably, there’s a non-ridiculous point in there.

            So let us know when it matures into an adulthood of rational thought.

          • Posted May 26, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

            But if he meant “a high degree of certainty can coexist with the realization that smart people believe differently, so you could be wrong” he could and should have said that, instead of what he did say, which lacks that qualification, and is too strong. You may be right that he’s getting at what you say he’s getting at, but he’s a philosopher; shouldn’t he know how to say what he means instead of something stronger which sounds absurd?

            • Posted May 26, 2010 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

              Actually, I kind of like the way he makes his point. He starts with the paradox of the preface, and that means he starts with an apparent contradiction. That’s the nature of paradox. Before each and every sentence in your own book you feel certain, yet you know there must be errors, since you know you are fallible. So you are certain but not certain…oddly enough.

              He then tells us a similar state of mind makes sense where religious conviction is concerned. Maybe the paradox of the preface can be resolved and the state of mind can be described without the air of contradiction, but how? He provokes us by not resolving the problem, and just leaving things “absurd.”

              I say: not bad. (And also: how can I get a HuffPo blog? And you too.)

            • Posted May 26, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

              Katha Pollitt says that anybody can get a HuffPo blog, and that anything that’s not on the front page might as well be printed out and taped to one’s fridge – that nobody reads it.

              But back to the paradox. Certainty is just the wrong word, isn’t it? I would never say I was certain that any sentence I wrote was right – I would say something short of that. I avoid that word, because it’s too much. That’s why the article doesn’t work. If he’d said convinced, or sure, or almost certain, it would, but certain is absolute, which is exactly why it’s best to avoid it.

            • Grendels Dad
              Posted May 26, 2010 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

              Jean, you said: “Before each and every sentence in your own book you feel certain, yet you know there must be errors, since you know you are fallible. So you are certain but not certain…”

              I would change the second sentence to more closely mirror the first and say: So you *feel* certain but are not certain…

              In your first use of certain you apparently mean a very high probability, based on evidence. The second time ‘certain’ appears it means something more like ‘I accept the possibility in principle.’ Am I missing something deeper than an equivocation of the two?

            • Posted May 27, 2010 at 6:24 am | Permalink

              Being less certain is just one option–and Pessin does discuss it in his editorial. In fact, he more or less approves of that approach. But he also talks about people who are entirely certain. Should they dismiss people who disagree as cretins? He’s offering an alternative–don’t dismiss. Adopt the stance authors have toward the sentences in their books (I believe ’em all, I could be wrong). There might be better things to say here, but what he says isn’t drivel.

            • Posted May 27, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink

              “Adopt the stance authors have toward the sentences in their books (I believe ‘em all, I could be wrong).”

              Quite so: believe. But belief is different from being certain. You
              ve moved the goal posts. “Certain” is the very word in dispute, so if you change it, you’re agreeing with the disputers, yet you seem to be claiming you’re still saying what you’ve been saying all along.

            • Posted May 27, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

              Actually, I am only shifting around because half way through discussing the editorial I reread it and also read some stuff about the paradox of the preface. No strategic moving of goalposts is going on.

              My main point is simply that the guy’s no cretin. He’s exploring a difficult and interesting issue–how to adjust your own epistemic attitudes (of various sorts) in the face of disagreement. There is nothing he obviously should have said, instead of what he did say, as these are complex and subtle issues.

            • Posted May 27, 2010 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

              Well I didn’t mean you’d moved the goal posts strategically, just that you had moved them. It could have been by accident.

              But I disagree that it’s not obvious that “certain” was the wrong word. If he hadn’t used that word, what would anyone be disputing? He wouldn’t have said anything that even looked like a contradiction.

  19. Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    The Dalai Lama has a similar, although slightly better, essay in the NYT. But of course, he pokes “radical atheists” in the eye for fun. He mentions many religious faiths’ quality of compassion, but omits even those on the fringes of religious belief, like Albert Schweitzer.

  20. Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    The simplest way to deal with this? Take the stance that I take: I believe, but I don’t know. Thus, I act on my belief, but recognize that, yes, I could be wrong. Because if I couldn’t be wrong, I’d know. And if I knew, then I’d know that they were all wrong and could, presumably, prove that (since I would know and need justification for knowing). Since I can’t … I just believe.

    This even allows room for atheists. Atheists may well be right to lack belief, or even to believe in lack. I don’t believe they are, but I don’t know. But I don’t think they know, either.

    Thus, just plain, ordinary belief. And there’s nothing wrong with just plain, ordinary belief.

    Of course, if I ever act as if I really do know, then I’ve overstepped my justification. So this would include forcing anyone to accept my belief.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted May 26, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      In simpler terms, give up all “faith” once and for all.
      Except that it is not the “easiest” solution; as far as I can tell it is next to impossible.
      (I am among the lucky few).

      • Posted May 26, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        At some point I have to write down my definition of faith — or at least the one I’m working on — but it’s quite likely that I don’t actually have faith, in that I treat my religious beliefs like any other belief and hold then to what I think is the precise level of confidence that they should have.

        Which means that basically I attend services occasionally and write about it on blogs and newsgroups. For everything else, I need more than my religious beliefs to do something.

        • Insightful Ape
          Posted May 26, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          I see. So there is an eternal soul, but maybe not really. There is a guy who is reading and recording my thoughts 24/7, but who knows. And I am going to spend a whole eternity in a lake of fire for not believing the above. Or not. It’s not the kind of thing anyone would care to be sure anyway.
          But there is one thing I do know: fundamentalists are often more consistent in their claims than moderates.

          • Posted May 26, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

            Um, I care, but I don’t think that I CAN know. So I’m just going to go along the best I can. How is that inconsistent?

            Again, I believe. I don’t know.

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted May 26, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

              So does “believe” mean “guess” or “suspect”?
              That is the exact opposite of “faith”. Which is precisely why “moderation” in religion just doesn’t make sense: it is like being “slightly pregnant”. You either have faith or not. No faith, no religion.
              Incidentally for at least some of those claim it is possible to know for sure. (For example a soul almost certainly doesn’t exist. Neuroscience disproves body-mind dualism). But that is a different matter.

            • Posted May 26, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

              Replying to my own comment again …

              Believe means, epistemically, “To hold as true”, since you have to actually believe to know something. But mere believing without knowing is more: “To hold as true without having sufficient justification to know as true”.

              So, since I do have belief, and since theism is “believes in one or more gods”, I’m a theist. Am I religious? I don’t really consider faith the key component there, but there may be an argument for that. I do think that I might not have faith, but that depends on what faith is. I define faith as “have a higher confidence in the belief than is justified by the evidence.” But this isn’t always bad; this definition also applies to having faith IN someone.

              I hold mine to what I think is — at least for me — the precise confidence warranted. Which isn’t all that high. So I might not have faith. That might be a problem. But it would still leave me a theist, which I think is more than sufficient for this purpose.

              As for knowing with certainty, let me just say that in my educated but controversial opinion that I’m not as impressed by the neuroscience as you are [grin].

          • Posted May 26, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

            But why do you believe? You still haven’t answered that question.

            • Posted May 26, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

              I don’t answer that question in discussions of epistemology because I know where it goes [grin].

              But suffice it to say that it’s for similar reasons to why I believe Socrates existed and believe that he held certain views, except that I’m much more confident in — and might even claim that I KNOW — those things than I am for God.

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted May 26, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

              Which is precisely where the inconsistency is, V. In both Christianity and Islam you are condned to hell just like me, for not having faith. How you can live with that possiblity is beyond me.
              As an aside, you may not be impressed by neuroscience but I am always expressed with people not having done a single experiment rejecting decades-old, peer-reviewed science. I hope you will never suffer a stroke or seizure, you may have to change your view of neuroscience.

            • Posted May 26, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

              Insightful Ape,

              I’m not sure I accept that, but if that’s what happens, that’s what happens. That’s how I live with it.

              As for neuroscience … you know, my comment was related specifically to what neuroscience was supposedly proving about mind/body dualism. So, no rejection of it overall or of its methods, and no claims about it being useless and so no comments about how it applies to strokes or seizures. Merely skepticism about a conclusion that you claimed it made that’s really more of a philosophical issue. So, chill, huh?

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted May 26, 2010 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

              I see…so if it just “happens” that you will burn in hell eternally, it happens. Good to know you are taking that in stride.
              As for dualism…it really isn’t a purely philosophical claim. It is (wrong) scientific idea that makes actual predictions about how the mind works, and it has been falsified.
              But your suggestion that you accept “part of” findings a field in science and not others, while the techniques and theories are exactly the same, smacks of… you tell me what.
              It is like the creationists who have no probelm exploiting the work of geologists as far as use of oil and gas is concerned, and yet insist the world is 6000 years old.
              It is called hypocrisy.

            • Posted May 27, 2010 at 5:46 am | Permalink

              Insightful Ape,

              Dualism has not been falsified by neuroscience because the experiments they’re run are compatible with some versions of dualism, particularly interactionist dualism. You are overstepping the data and I am simply — quite rationally — pointing out that that’s what you’re doing. No hypocrisy on my part.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted May 27, 2010 at 7:01 am | Permalink

              Dualism has not been falsified by neuroscience because the experiments they’re run are compatible with some versions of dualism, particularly interactionist dualism.

              Here you go again, confusing falsifiability with consistency again. Both neuroscience and evolution has soundly rejected “soul” dualism by having simpler (and monistic) theories that survives the very falsification tests you ask for. This is how falsification methodology works out between theories which arrives at the same prediction.

              So yes, dualism has been rejected by falsification tests.

              Now if we have the same predictivity with a simpler theory, the rejected one would have to come up with more predictions or a falsifiable test of the very mechanism that differs. “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.”

              But soul duality is set up as deism duality in that it is unfalsifiable on the very mechanism that needs to be tested by construction, it is unobservable. That is its weakness and fall as it meets the empirical methods it doesn’t really understand how to come to grips with.

              Between the two sciences I would say that evolution rejects “soul” on a more fundamental level, since the idea of soul argues that a new functionality replaces the old without having any evolutionary ancestry. That such a complex mechanism is created out of nowhere is exactly the Hoyle junkyard fallacy all other again.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted May 27, 2010 at 7:43 am | Permalink

              Since I have a similar discussion going on on another thread (but my curiosity makes me prioritize new posts 😦 ), and I suspect that this conflation between falsification methods and consistency comes up there too, I’ll meanwhile note here that this is the deeper reason why religion is incompatible with science.

              We can falsification test materialism (and in fact I have done such a test). So out go the alternatives, in the same way that standard GR is without torsion and standard cosmology without non-standard GR.

              Religion is based on belief before faith and supernatural mechanisms before natural. (To be consistent I should say “supermaterial before material”, but what the hey…)

              In as much as theology then predict that supernatural and natural mechanisms are compatible they fail the test against religion, they don’t represent it faithfully [sic!]. This is the problem raised in the earlier thread.

              But here we also see that theology ideas must be rejected together with religion in any case, because they try to inject supernaturalism in a natural world.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted May 27, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink

              D’oh! “belief before faith” – belief before fact.

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted May 27, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

              Our friend V looks quite confused about the meanings of words.
              “Dualism” claims that mind has some sort of existence that is separate from the brain, though it interacts with it. That is basically what “interactionist” means.
              And that is precisely what is contradicted by the data. If mind or soul or whatever you call it is “immaterial” then it should not by bound by material coonections, like the neurons are.
              But that is precisely what happens. Experiments on individuals with damage to the corpus callosum shows that some part of the brain has access to information that another part doesn’t.(Go look up “Alexia without agraphia” and “color anomia”). So has is this consistent with dualism, does your soul split in two when you have a stroke?
              Again, this is just like the young earth creationists claiming the data do not prove consistently that the earth is more than 6000 years old. But they’ll use the oil, gas, and coal discovered by geologists, no problem there.

  21. Kevin
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Of course, this is why philosophy as a discipline is worthless.

    One can argue with vociferous clarity in defense of a position and be countered with equal measures of logic and straight-ahead thinking arguing the exactly opposite conclusion.

    It’s the EVIDENCE that counts. Honestly, we’ve known this for 500 years or so.

    EVIDENCE!!!!!!

    As in: Show me the EVIDENCE that your conception of a deity exists, and is the obligate creator of the universe and/or life on this planet, and demands worship in your particular manner of doing so, and that the consequences of not worship will be exactly as you claim it to be…THEN we can start talking.

    Until you start with the EVIDENCE, STFU. Because we’ve heard ALL, and I do mean ALL, of the arguments.

    BTW: There is no, as in zero, evidence contained in any Bronze or Iron Age holy book, nor any of the more-modern successors, pretenders, and wanna-be’s.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted May 27, 2010 at 2:02 am | Permalink

      Of course, this is why philosophy as a discipline is worthless.

      Just try to get someone who makes their living from professional philosophy, or has become entangled into supporting PPs, to admit such.
      It is like pulling teeth.
      Philosophy replaced Religion, true enough. But we retained theology as a University discipline.
      And it was a major step toward the maturation of humanity.
      Science has replaced Philosophy.
      But we retain Philosophy as an academic discipline, as an historical hangover similar to theology.
      The parallels are both profound, and instructive.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 27, 2010 at 6:34 am | Permalink

        Hear, hear!, re Kevin, and hear, hear!, re MKG.

        I would also add to the possibility of non-consistency, that there is a problem of consistency.

        Pessin tests a simple prediction of observing properties of axiomatic or algorithmic systems such as philosophies: there is no single philosophic, theological, or religious “truth”. You can be contingently consistent but never fully so without access to empirical methods that can decide reality.

        • Chuck O'Connor
          Posted May 27, 2010 at 6:59 am | Permalink

          No single theological truth? How naive. Tell that to the Calvinist resting on Biblical inerrancy or the Muslim giving reverence to his Q’ran. The naivete of this mental masturbation invalidates its usefulness. An argument only has force if it reflects the real world. This one doesn’t. And agnosticism is not a theology. It is an answer to a positive truth claim.

      • Posted May 27, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        Science hasn’t replaced philosophy, because they do different things. Science uses philosophy, and philosophy uses science; they need each other.

  22. justsearching
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    “[You can] acknowledge that you may be wrong without taking away your certainty.” There has to be at least one word in that sentence that Pessin and I have radically different definitions for.

    • Kevin
      Posted May 26, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      @22 Comment of the week.

      Let’s all hold hands and sing kumbaya, because we’re ALL right!!!

      Isn’t it WONDERFUL????!!!

      Relativistic assholes.

    • Posted May 26, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      I think Pessin is just using “certainty” as if it meant near-certainty – which is cheating, frankly. If he doesn’t really mean certainty, he should use a different word.

  23. NoAstronomer
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    When I was a physics undergrad we used to bait the philosophy students (their building was connected to ours). Articles like this show why – it’s just too much fun.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted May 27, 2010 at 2:09 am | Permalink

      That is akin to killing flies with 1.2 GW dye lasers!
      No contest.
      (But still macabrely enjoyable)

  24. MadScientist
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I like Lewis Carroll’s version – it’s so much better:

    “Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,
    As he landed his crew with care;
    Supporting each man on the top of the tide
    By a finger entwined in his hair.

    “Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
    That alone should encourage the crew.
    Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
    What I tell you three times is true.”

    • Posted May 26, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      Ah – you’ve been revisiting Martin Gardner, haven’t you. So have I.

      • MadScientist
        Posted May 28, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

        Martin Gardner? How does he fit into this?

  25. Wowbagger
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Sure, in front of atheists or members of other faiths they’ll be ‘of, course we could be wrong but let’s all love each other anyway!’; however, get them back to their own church, home or parents’ association meeting where teaching creationism in their kid’s school is up for debate and any pretense of uncertainty will go right out the window.

    It’s just so blatantly two-faced and disingenuous – and laughably transparent.

  26. Posted May 26, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad you mentioned doublethink in that – Orwell would shake his head. Although I’ve got your blog on my reader and read them all, I avoid commenting on religious matters, but I couldn’t help it on this occasion. Does Pessin actually think he’s onto something radical and never before thought of? Almost any state where religious tolerance was approved by the ruling body tried this in one form of other and various “enlightened” thinking went as far. It’s like saying that the left and right wing can run a country hand-in-hand. Fractures and overlaps in opposing ideologies always leads to stress. I mean, if supporters of different soccer teams are willing to kill each other, how on Earth could anyone expect people that devote half of their lives to ideological practices to accept that they might be wrong while that other guy that goes to the other building down the road could be right? It’s insanity based on as much observable truth as the dogmatic truths of the believers.
    Hitchens made a good point in “God is not great” that while an ideology is young and egotistical they are intolerant – it’s once their views have been knocked about a bit that they start to mellow up a bit.. certainly not enough in my view.
    It’s just impractical…

  27. puzzledponderer
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    This is the most idiotic crap ever written. It reads like a parody.

  28. Michael Kingsford Gray
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    That is, it would be funny if it didn’t show so clearly how faith rots the brain.
    Pessin, by the way, is the chair of the philosophy department at Connecticut College.

    It might, alternatively, be another example amongst the plethora to show so clearly how professional philosophy rots the brain.

  29. jose
    Posted May 27, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    “You can simultaneously be certain that Christianity is true and everything conflicting with it is false, and yet acknowledge that you may be wrong”

    I’m sure someone in the comments above has pointed this out because this is so visibly ridiculous, but anyway: no, you can’t. If you think that maybe you’re wrong, then you’re not certain at all.

    If you’re certain you’re right and at the same time you say “I may be wrong”, then you’re lying. You don’t really think you may be wrong ¡precisely because you’re certain you’re right! This is so obvious.

  30. Tualha
    Posted May 28, 2010 at 4:02 am | Permalink

    Reminds me of the Electric Monk.

  31. Delirious
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Meh. It makes sense.
    Might as well keep an open mind about this stuff.


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