DiaBlogue: Wanna Bet?

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Dear Alan,
In your NTOBM:
Still Kicking
, you raise a number of questions about my interpretation of Sam Harris as Deist, which I might summarize as:
a. How can an “unjustified religious belief” be as “well-justified” as belief in a mathematical universe?
b. What does it mean to believe in a “transcendent” mathematical nature of the universe?
c. “What psychophysical laws can you elaborate that have the predictive power (accuracy and precision) of the laws of physics and other sciences that have been discovered in the past four hundred years?”
d. Can (or should) moral claims be extended to the universe, not just human beings?
e. Is it possible to posit moral pathways based on evolution without deistic assumptions?
f. How can you explain suffering within a benevolently deistic world (“deodicy”)?
g. What are the “complex welter of unjustified beliefs” I consider an unattractive alternative to deism?

These are all valid and important questions, and I fully agree that I need to answer them before I can claim to “adequately support [my] first goalpost statement” (and no, I’m not giving up :-).

However, despite all that, I think they fundamentally miss the point I was trying to make. [Read more] as I give it another shot…

I have this theory that each married couple really only has one argument, it just gets reiterated in different contexts over the years. While perhaps not literally true, I think it does reflect the literal fact that difficult-to-resolve disagreements tend to cluster around resonant “hot buttons” — fundamental aspects of our personality that don’t interact well with analogous area in the other persons.
Given that our DiaBlogue has gone on longer than any of Britney Spears‘ marriages (I think; I try not to keep track :-), it is perhaps unsurprising that we have similar long-lived themes, e.g.:
* Alan is “always” asking me to better justify my assertions
* I am “always” asking Alan to commit to a solid, bullet-pointed position

and of course, neither of us ever get what we want. :0) Would you agree?

I think that part of the problem is that you (perhaps wisely) are reluctant to say that you are “certain” something is “true.” However, that isn’t actually what I’m looking for. What I am perennially asking for is, “What do you trust in enough that you’re willing to bet on it?” — with the corollary of “How much?”
That is why I so appreciated Ebon Muse — he clearly knew what he believed was right and true, and (as far as I can tell) seemed sincerely committed to obeying his Universal Utilitarianism to the best of his ability — even at the cost of his personal happiness. Similarly, Sam Harris appears convinced of both the necessity and viability of his “research project” based on reason; he may not be “sure” it will succeed, but he is hopeful enough to be angry that “the respect we accord religious faith” stands in the way of it.
Since you seem to admire and respect the opinion of these two, I think it is only fair for me to ask: to what are you committed? In what do you hope?
The reason this is relevant goes back to your question about “the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe.” By “transcendent”, I simply mean “beyond anything we have seen before.” Let me see if I can explain that more concretely.
Physics, as I hope you’ll agree, is all about trying to reduce natural phenomena to mathematical equations. In some cases this is merely a “derivative” exercise — we already know the full-blown equations governing the system, we just suppress a few variables here and there to derive a simpler solution. However — in the more interesting cases — we have no such guarantee. We are making a “leap of faith” that *this* aspect of the natural world is *also* susceptible to mathematical reduction.
Now, is that leap of faith “justified” or “unjustified” — It depends on what you mean. Clearly, it is not justified in the same way that the derivative case is; in fact, it is precisely this kind of research that is both controversial and heroic, because nobody knows in advance whether it will succeed. However, it is justified — at least in the mind of the researcher — because he or she “feels” that this problem “ought” to be solvable, since it is “similar” in some way to a previously solved problem; even if they can’t formally justify it according to the rules of the current paradigm.
To me, that is what I find so fascinating about the 400-year history of physics: how Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and countless others had the audacity to believe that their human minds could grasp the essential truths of the physical universe. They bet their lives on the pursuit of that truth, and the wealth of innovation that flowed out of their discovery is proof that they won their bet. Postmodernists and deconstructionists can whine all they want about groupthink and social convention, but the “brute fact” is that modern technology, based on a foundation of mathematical physics, fundamentally works.
It is also what I find compelling about the two-thousand year history of Christian civilization: how Aquinas, Augistine, Charlemagne and countless others had the audacity to believe that — with God’s help — they could create a City of God that would surpass the faded glory of Rome. They bet their lives — and their world — in pursuit of that vision, and the wealth of human happiness that flowed out of their creations is proof that they won their bet. Atheists and secularists can whine all they want about superstition and luck, but the “brute fact” is that Western civilization — including the very prosperity and security that enables the survival of freethinking skeptics — was built on a foundation of Christian theism.
Sure, “Love thy neighbor” and “forgive your enemies” may not have the “accuracy and precision” of E = mc2, but whoever said that was the ultimate test of truth? The ultimate test — at least for me — is whether something works. It may not work perfectly (does anything?), but at least it works better than whatever has come before. And anyone who wants to improve upon it (and believe me, I do!) needs to understand both why it worked and why it failed if they hope to do better. And be willing to bet their life on finding a better way.
This post is already way too long, so I won’t even try to answer your other questions. However, I hope that this gives you enough to not merely critique my position, but to try and understand my beliefs. And if you disagree — as I’m sure you will — I hope that you will put that same effort into articulating your own convictions, those things you believe in strongly enough that you’d be willing to bet all of Western civilization on. Including your family.
As for me, I’m betting on Love. And one of these days I’ll even explain what I mean by that. 🙂
Love,
Ernie
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