DiaBlogue: Reality Check

While commenting On History, Experience and Sundry Modelling Details, Alan took exception to my assertion in “Altimeters for Divinity*” that “Alan appears to evaluate Christianity in historical terms, whereas I judge it on empirical grounds.”

In retrospect, I phrased that poorly, and I regret the misunderstanding. Please accept my apology for any inadvertent mischaracterization. [Read more] as I attempt to clarify my perspective on the real — and imaginary! — issues at stake.

One could argue (and perhaps we will 🙂 that the underlying theme of my DiaBlogue with Alan is which of our belief systems (if either) is best justified by the available evidence. What has confused me is that Alan’s critique of Christianity appears (key word: appears) to be largely orthogonal to my defense of Christianity. That is, it seems almost (key word: almost) as if we could each grant each other’s basic arguments — and facts — yet still not resolve the underlying question.

In particular, Alan’s two favorite arguments against Christianity appear to be:

a. The Bible we use today is an imperfect document created by fallible human beings
b. The Biblical description of Hell is incompatible a rational understanding of Justice

I know there’s more to it than that, but these seem to be the ones that come up the most. Alan, is that a fair summary?

I would actually be willing to concede both those points, for purpose of argument — at least when phrased in this specific way — but don’t see how either of those materially impacts faith in Jesus Christ. I suspect Alan might phrase them differently in order to build his argument, but if so I would very much like to see how he justifies a stronger position (or differently interprets this one).

On my side, my basic claim is that Christianity — as a theory — provides better explanation of observed phenomena (which I trust Alan will allow to include retrodiction as well as prediction) than atheism. However Alan — again, as far as I can tell — appears willing to concede that the “idea of God” may well provide all the salutary effects I claim for it, but still argues that this does not constitute empirical support for Christianity.

Is that a fair summary? Is it even comprehensible? Am I even sure I understand what I just wrote? 🙂

I think the real upshot of all this is that this may well be a good time for Alan and I to spell out our core rationales for why we each prefer our belief system to the other’s. That may take a few iterations, and require us to define a few additional terms (like, “good” :-), but at least that should save us from talking past each other. In other words, rather than trying to critique each other, let us first make sure we understand each other.

However, I can’t resist giving a serious answer to Alan’s quip:

I will refrain from commenting about Ernie’s imaginary beliefs at this time. 😉

As it happens, i actually do have a working definition of “imaginary” and “real” beliefs:

a. Belief A is imaginary if A is true if and only if someone believes A is true
b. Belief B is real if B is true whether or not anyone believes B is true

This may seem a vacuous definition, but I think it will prove useful. Real beliefs are fairly easy to recognize, e.g., “Gravity causes massive objects to attract each other.” However, imaginary beliefs are surprisingly common. Certainly belief in placebos is “imaginary” in these terms, but so is the statement “Money is valuable” — if nobody believed it, it wouldn’t be true. On a more personal level, “Our marriage will work” is arguably only true if both of us believe it. On the other hand, I’m sure we all know couples who fervently believed that statement, but in reality it wasn’t true. These are what (in this context) I would call “complex beliefs” — partly real, and partly imaginary.

Whether something is real, imaginary, or complex may well be a function of context, kinda like “fixed versus variable costs.” In the short run, my personal belief in the value of money has little impact on the reality that I need it to acquire goods. In the long run, our collective belief in money does fluctuate, producing “real” effects like inflation and exchange rates.

So, in these terms, I fully concede that belief in God is partly imaginary.The question is, can Alan offer compelling evidence that it isn’t really complex?