Tuesday, July 1, 2014

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio...

Keanu Reeves as the Prince of Denmark during Winnipeg's MTC production in 1995. Check out that passion.

I recently had a nice discussion with some friends about the challenges of identifying as Catholic given numerous problems that flow from standard Catholic doctrine combined with the hypocrisy and scandal within the organization. Along the way, I received this comment:

You seem to operate out of a rationalist-empiricist framework. And there is of course nothing wrong with that when one is considering matters subject to the analytical benefits of this sort of world-view. But I suggest that there is plenty of human endeavor and human interest in matters not well suited to this sort of analysis. I mean, would you really mock John Keats because figures on an urn are not really “frozen” there? Or would your smirk at Bob Dylan because the times don’t really change? Would one do a cost/benefit analysis of caring for one’s child?

… since God and belief in God are human preoccupations based upon faith, they are not subject to rationalist/empiricist argumentation. You may call it “irrational” but I might propose calling it “hyper-rational.”

The idea here is that there are matters that are not subject to reason and evidence and that the question of God's existence is one of those matters.

If true, then one's belief in God simply cannot be questioned or challenged. This is a big & bold claim that serves to insulate one's belief from criticism.


But imagine the defendant in a murder trial asserting that there are matters not subject to reason and evidence and that the question of his guilt is one of those matters. The incoming tide of further accusations he would face from judge, jury, and the wider court of public opinion would surely include arrogance, stupidity, & foolishness. I mean, it'd be a great move if one could pull it, but can one really ever pull it? What exactly are these matters that are not subject to reason and evidence, and is the question of God's existence really one of them?

Consider a couple of questions. Do reason and evidence explain why we fall in love with whom we do? Can reason and evidence explain why I don't like anchovies? Emotional matters and personal tastes cannot (yet!) be satisfactorily explained by reason and evidence, but it would be absurd to suggest that questions about the existence or nonexistence of certain entities (or the guilt or innocence of those charged) can be answered using emotions and personal preferences, wouldn't it? Would you believe in the existence of Bigfoot on the basis of emotions or personal preferences?

What I think is lurking behind the comments I quoted is that God is supernatural. That's relevant because it is widely believed that the supernatural is a matter that, perhaps forever (but at least for the moment), lies beyond (and is therefore not subject to) reason and evidence. The supernatural is "hyper-rational". Not surprisingly, I have heard similar claims made by people defending alternative medical treatments. Here's what a friend of mine had to say about the paucity of high quality evidence supporting acupuncture and the wealth of evidence indicating that it's nothing more than the power of suggestion :
" in the chaos of nature, there is more that we don't understand than do, and it is arrogant to think that controlled experiments in hermetically sealed labs can in any way replicate the chaos and uncertainty that occurs in nature."
Ahh, yes. I've heard that first part before, somewhere ...
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." - Shakespeare, Hamlet
My advice to you? Beware when you encounter this quote. The person using it is probably feeling that their belief is under some significant pressure and the best way to relieve it is to suggest that it's beyond Earth, Heaven, and even reason itself. You can be sure that if reason and evidence were available to establish their belief, you'd be hearing all about it (this is known as apologetics), but when the belief persists in the face of insufficient reason and evidence (the definition of faith?), then this old canard may make an appearance in the conversation. And notice that it is a conversation stopper:

"I'm talking about something that's beyond you, beyond everything, and neither you nor anybody can touch it."

This attitude - that one is in possession of information that transcends reason and empirical evidence - can be harmless, but it can also lead people to accept ineffective treatments when effective ones exist (see here and here), and it lies behind religiously motivated discrimination and slaughter of infidels and perpetrators of imaginary crimes- the most horrible and tragic aspects of faith-based beliefs.

So this important question still stands: Is the supernatural off-limits for reason and evidence? Chime in and let me know what you think. I'll be responding in a few days.


  1. Why should god be a (measurable) entity?
    Why couldn't you believe in something that does not exist in a measurable form?
    What is wrong with using the term "god" to refer to one's aspirations to "be/do good"? I think the quote you refer to should be interpreted in this way: "a poet/writers words should not be interpreted literally". That does not mean you can not like or criticise the work.
    How do you call the thrive that makes you want to go for more than instant gratification? Or don't you aspire something more?

  2. Thanks for your comments, Rik. Those are good questions. Imagine them posed by those who believe in the healing power of acupuncture. As you know, acupuncture is supposed to be biologically active by manipulating the flow of Chi, purported to be a type of “life energy”.

    “Why should Chi be a measurable entity?”

    “Why can’t you believe in Chi even if it doesn’t exist in a measurable form?”

    “What’s wrong with using the word “Chi” to refer to the drive to live?”

    1. so medicine = religion ?
      here are my answers to your questions:
      1) if you want reimbursement to practice acupuncture you should proof a positive effect on outcome; if you don't want reimbursement you should practice acupuncture in a safe way.
      2) Of course you can believe in Chi, feel free to do so and I hope it helps you with all the problems traditional medicine couldn't solve.
      3) Nothing, I hope your yin/yang are in balance.
      Awaiting answers not more questions...

  3. Why I prefer the holistic approach:

    JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Mar;174(3):357-68. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018.
    Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
    Goyal M1, Singh S1, Sibinga EM2, Gould NF3, Rowland-Seymour A1, Sharma R4, Berger Z1, Sleicher D3, Maron DD4, Shihab HM4, Ranasinghe PD1, Linn S4, Saha S2, Bass EB5, Haythornthwaite JA3.

  4. “So medicine = religion?”

    There are similarities that are perfectly relevant regarding what one ought to believe in.

    You're (1) shows that measuring Chi is irrelevant. What matters are what alleged *effects* of the manipulation of Chi we can measure here in the natural world. Similarly, God need not be measurable, but we must be able to measure or detect his effects in the natural world if he exists. I’ll elaborate in my next blog entry.

    By the way, I wish that we could regulate the providers of acupuncture to only be safe, just as I wish that we could regulate religious beliefs to only be safe, but neither have worked out that well for us. Also, meditation is an entirely different thing from acupuncture. One need not believe anything on insufficient evidence, nor anything supernatural in order to rationally practice and derive the benefits of meditation.

    Your (2) should really have answered whether one *should* believe in Chi. It's a truism that people *can* believe whatever they will believe. The normative question is the relevant one. Here’s my answer: the problem with using "Chi" to refer to the drive to live is that that's NOT how "Chi" is used by the people who coined and endorse the term. Subcutaneous needles expertly placed by a master in the “art” are not said to manipulate the desire or drive to live. They are said to manipulate the flow of a magical type of energy that’s biologically active. There is nothing in the Wikipedia page on “Chi” about the drive or desire to live. The harm that is done by misusing or hijacking words is in the creation of unnecessary confusion.

    So why use the word God to refer to kind or excellent ambitions? Or one’s conscience? Or patience? (The drive to be good, or to delay gratification, as you put it). We already have words or phrases to describe these things, just as we already have meanings for the word “God”. What’s wrong with using the word “God” to refer to the fungus that grows between one’s toes? Do you similarly approve of that?

    No physical harm is done to anybody if someone or some group of people start using a word in a new way, but doing so can definitely create confusion. I suspect that whoever uses the word God the way that you do, Rik, has plenty of explaining to do so that the person they are communicating with really understands what they mean. What you and Johnston seem to mean when you use the word “God” bears almost no resemblance and your use, Rik, is the much less common one. The vast majority of the world’s Catholics do NOT mean what you mean by “God”.

    I often find myself asking why it is that people choose to use a word in a very different way. Deepak Chopra is a master of this. Perhaps you can explain why you want to use the word “God” the way that you do? What good or use comes of it?

    While I don’t understand why you use the word “God”, I don’t think that I take any issue with what you mean by “God”, Rik. It seems to be you, who takes issue with my criticism of what most (other) people mean by God.

  5. Yorgo, don't worry, I am completely past the taking issue-phase after our previous dialogue.
    I am trying to understand where you find your "drive", how you explain to your children that they sometimes "have to be good to others" without any obvious benefit to themselves, ...
    The only thing I that still bothers me still a little bit in your way of thinking is the fact that you expect the whole world to be instantaneous (in a historical perspective) on a level of rationalistic reasoning that is typical and possible in our western world and that you don't seem to accept that the world is not ready for this due to a lack of education and resources etc in some parts of the world. This complex reality makes it difficult for a world-religion.
    Although your claim that the vast majority of the world's catholics do not mean what i mean by "god" is probably correct, I am confident in stating that in Belgium and the Netherlands it will be at least a large minority if not a small majority of (non-practicing) catholics. This is the way that I have been and my children are educated in our catholic schools. God in this sense is not another word for love, excellent ambitions, one's conscience, patience (or the fungus between your toes). Those virtues (probably not the fungus) evolve/point/lead to God. I can only recommend to listen and read to the song "closer to you" by michael franti (probably not even a catholic).

  6. I don't expect the world to reject magical thinking instantaneously, but I do think that many people can improve their critical thinking (myself included). On the question of the existence of God, I actually think that really large numbers of people have the skills necessary to recognize that these beliefs are irrational including people without much education or affluence. Education comes in, I think, in reaching the conclusion that God belief is not just irrational - it's probably false. That's a taller order.

    Nothing about naturalism requires me to not have drive or to not care about the well being of others. As a naturalist, I simply believe that we don't need bad reasons like God to have drive and to be altruistic because I believe that good reasons exist.

    I think that if I said what I had to say without using the words "God", "Christianity", or "Catholicism", and you said what you had to say without using the word "God", we'd have no disagreements, Rik.