Partially Examined Questions


Dear Mark, Seth, and Wes,

Thanks for the shout out on the The Partially Examined Life blog. First of all, I want to apologize for my snarky and apparently misleading comments on your Facebook page; let me know when I’ve expended $10 worth of annoyance and I’ll make another donation. 🙂

Now that I’ve got your attention, though, let me try to articulate my concerns more coherently, to hopefully inspire a more substantive critique.  It is pretty verbose, though, so I’ve posted a reply on my own blog, below.  You can reply either there or on your own post, whichever is more convenient.

To start with, let me clarify a few points:

  • I am not a post-modernist, though I can see how you got that impression.  I am actually a prefuturist, though since I just made that term up it probably doesn’t mean much to you.  🙂
  • I do believe there are a great many things that can be rationally known and proved beyond a reasonable doubt, such as the Holocaust, an age for the earth and the universe in the billions of years, evolutionary descent of species from a common ancestor, and the fact that the earth has been warming due to human activity.
  • By “irrational belief”, I specifically don’t mean “anti-rational”, in the sense of willfully denying obvious facts. I mean something more like “supra-rational” beliefs, things which might possibly be true but we cling to with an intensity not justified by the evidence.
  • I am not interested at this time in trying to “prove” theism (my Diablogue was over five years ago, and I am no more eager than Mark to dive back into that).  Like I said, I think you treated the existing arguments for the existence of God quite fairly, but somehow I feel like both sides of that argument somehow miss the point.  What that “point” is something I’d like to understand and discuss further, but will first require considerable groundwork and learning, at least on my part.

What I do want to discuss is Harris’ assertion (apparently uncontested by you) that science is essentially rational whereas religion is essentially irrational.  To me, that seems a very naive reading of both the history and philosophy of science.  My critique is not a post-modern dismissal of all knowledge.  Rather, it is more similar to Humean skepticism, though less severe even than that.

To be sure, my background is science (like Dylan), not philosophy, but the critique fits what I observed in practice.  In fact, I don’t think my fundamental claim is really all that controversial, which is why I felt it was more a matter of neglect on your part than actual disagreement.

I assume you are all familiar with Kuhn, and plan to cover The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at some point in the future.  Within that framework, I think Harris’ claim applies well to “normal science” — and indeed, I concede that “normal religion” is certainly far less rational and empirical than “normal science.”

However, Harris’ framework seems to completely overlook the role of “supra-rational” beliefs in creating Kuhnian paradigm shift.  By definition, every new paradigm shift is a) not provable within the existing paradigm, and b) not immediately obvious from the existing data.

For a scientist to innovate in that way requires believing that an alternative theory both a) exists, and b) is possible for him or her to prove, before they have conclusively demonstrated that either is the case. In fact, it is both common and historically accurate to refer to such “pre-paradigmatic” beliefs a “religious”, as demonstrated by the cult of Pythagaros, the numerology of Newton, and the deism of Einstein.

You have to be a little irrational to break with the herd.  Indeed, this is why both innovators and crackpots are pariahs, and you don’t know until much later which is which.  If you don’t believe me, try asking a group of random physicists whether string theory is “real” physics.

That doesn’t mean we can believe anything we want. In fact, as I always told my first-year physics students, the issue is not “faith vs. reason”, but “bad faith vs. good faith.”  Good faith means we:

  • State our assumptions explicitly
  • Derive our predictions rigorously
  • Measure the results precisely
  • Adapt our hypotheses scrupulously

In short, good faith actively puts its assumptions to the test.  Like James, I find little value in religious (or scientific) attitudes than neither affect behavior nor measure results.

More specifically, as mentioned in the post I linked, there is an apparently “irrational belief” at the heart of modern physics: that the fundamental forces of the universe must follow elegant mathematical rules.  Why? Ironically, this is an area where the theologians actually have a rational answer: my MIT calculus textbook in 1985 simply stated, “God is a mathematician.”  Conversely, I dare say Hume could make a strong case that believing such a theory must exist is nothing more than a superstition, no?

The other point that science and theology have in common is that once you commit yourself to a given point of view, certain things that seem unreasonable from outside are considered perfectly reasonable (even if unprovable).  I myself am perfectly convinced that the fundamental assumptions of modern physics reflect “reality as it is” to a very large degree.  Thus, I believe that quarks are real, that information cannot travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, and that quantum particles act acausally and can be in two places at the same time.  I can’t prove that those things are true, but they follow from a theory with extremely strong predictive power and theoretical elegance.

In the same way, as a Christian and a theist I choose to believe that the Bible reflects a faithful account of God’s working in history. I am not an inerrantist; I am more than willing to accept transcription and translation errors, as well as even imperfect human memory on the part of the writers. But I believe that Christ rose from the dead as recorded in the Scriptures, because I find that worldviews which acknowledge that fact that greater predictive power and theoretical elegance than those which deny it.

And having bought into that paradigm, I don’t see anything terribly irrational *in principle* about believing in a virgin birth, answered prayer, or supernatural miracles; at the same time, I maintain a healthy skepticism *in practice* about specific claims — just as believing “in science” doesn’t obligate me to uncritically accept every result reported by scientists.

In short, my understanding of “healthy science” and “healthy religion” is based on essentially the same epistemology.  Both require me to accept as either true or possible a great many things that those outside those communities consider ridiculous or unprovable, but that’s hardly surprising given that they  have different paradigms.  Sure, it is easy to find lots of examples of naive credulity and unhealthy deference to authority in religion, but the same holds truer in science that we’d like to admit.

And if I may be so bold, doesn’t the same hold true of philosophy?  Isn’t your belief in the value of studying philosophy in some sense a “religious” one — motivated by a subjective experience of personal value, not a rigorous a priori justification? Does it not lead you to believe certain things are true or possible that seem ludicrous and unprovable to most people outside your community?

If so, then is it too much to ask for a little more humility and self-awareness in your critique of belief systems you personally find irrational?  In particular, is it unreasonable for me to ask you to be more open (and open to critique) regarding your own epistemology, biases, and assumptions — including the assumption of the rationality of your own core beliefs?

Yours truly,

Ernest N. Prabhakar

Ph.D. ’95 Caltech, Experimental Particle Physics

S.B. ’88 MIT, Physics

Radical Centrist

Transformational Christian

8 thoughts on “Partially Examined Questions

  1. I don’t think that people accept the value studying of philosophy as anything in particular. I’m not sure that the study of philosophy leads one to believe certain things, though it may. But most philosophic discussion are based on experiences, thoughts, and ideas that most share – the experience of a moral dilemma, the wonder about the value of life, the reason for consciousness. That’s much different that the discussion of the virgin birth. People who haven’t read the Bible don’t typically have thoughts about Mary and the birth of Jesus. It isn’t a shared idea unless you study Christianity (or some similar religion).

    Your point on science, while valid, goes too far, I think. For scientists, a belief in quarks and in the limit of the speed of light comes from deductive thinking, observation and acceptance of mathematics. There are very few scientists who believe otherwise. But if these beliefs are proven false some day, it will be because we have a better explanation the phenomena of the world.

    Religious belief, on the other hand, is based on… Deductive reasoning? No. Observation? No. Mathematics? No. It’s based on a willingness to accept the word of others. One can doubt the truth in reason, math and observation, but those tools provide a common grounding for all, that they can accept with little persuasion. These tools could be faulty but they have proven over and over to be complementary, even when used independently, in helping us to understand the world.

  2. HI Andrew,
    Thanks for the thoughtful reply! A few comments:

    a) I agree most people don’t accept the value of studying philosophy; I was speaking specifically of the three hosts of the “Partially Examined Life” podcast, primarily Mark.

    b) As I tried to explain, I agree that the deductions of “normal science” are very well established. I was specifically referring to “revolutionary science” (in the Kuhn-ian sense), where a scientist is trying to overturn the existing paradigm, where they must by necessity act “by faith” before establishing a new paradigm.

    c) Have you personally measured the speed of light and the existence of quarks, or do you believe it based on “a willingness to accept the word of others”? Of course most belief in anything is initially based on secondhand information, by necessity. The question is i) whether those who *created* those beliefs in the first place inferred it from direct observation, and ii) whether practitioners of those beliefs continue to test them against experiment/experience.

    I agree that most religious belief is very shallow and uncritical, but then again so are most criticisms of religious belief. The religious tradition I belong to tries very hard to i) assess the historical validity of the factual claims made by our religion, and ii) infer the logical conclusions of our belief, apply them, and observe the results. Are you as empirically scientific about your own belief structure?

  3. b) I’m not sure that science ever occurs simply “by faith”, and if it does, their conclusions are not necessarily accepted without criticism. Take Stuart Kauffman, who believes in the self-organization of complex systems. He has a theory that is not universally accepted, but people will apply tests and explore as they try to determine the validity of his ideas. Copernicus was certainly criticized, but he didn’t just guess – he did have a reason for his assertion – observations were better explained by his model that the Ptolemaic.

    c) I haven’t measured the speed of light. But I know that people that I TRUST have done so and could do it again tomorrow. I also know just enough physics to understand why light is special and it’s speed is a limiting factor given the current understanding WHICH IS ALWAYS SUBJECT TO REVISION. This is different than religion (I’m not picking on Christianity here). What is the basis of trust in anyone for their notion of, say, heaven and hell?

    I know that many scholars of Christianity attempt to validate the events of the Bible, but they can’t. There is no way. I’ll add that I’m equally suspicious of claims by scientists who suppose to know why certain animals evolved in a certain way, or even why the dinosaurs died. They can’t know. They can never know. If the only “proof” one has of anything is a story, with a little evidence, perhaps, one can’t know.

    When you ask about my own belief structure, I’m not sure what you are asking. I’m not sure that I have a belief structure – that sounds weird, but I think it’s mostly true.


  4. Science, like religion, is based on the *interplay* of faith, reason, and experiment. Scientific innovation usually *starts* with faith but ends with evidence — and in the historical sciences, that evidence doesn’t include reproducible experiments. If your point is that religion is no more scientific than paleontology or astronomy, I’m not going to disagree.

    Christianity has a belief about heaven based on what we consider firsthand reports from someone who has been there, much like early Europeans believed in China (or not) based on what Macro Polo said. History isn’t science, but the belief structure and evidentiary rules of history are very similar to that of historical religions, and similarly open to critique and revision.

    If you actually studied church history, you’d find that religious opinions do evolve dramatically over time, based on new information, interpretation, and empirical results. But somehow I get the impression that you have a “religious” belief about the nature of religion, and aren’t really interested in any evidence to the contrary…

    • Hmm. Didn’t know you could come back from heaven. But this isn’t the same as Marco Polo. With Marco Polo, evidence didn’t become scant for forgotten, it strengthened. This is the nature of science, I think.

      I know nothing about church history, but I’m not sure what you mean when you say that religious opinions evolve over time. Do you have an example?

      I think you sell me short about the nature of religion. But that’s not really where this started. I think that your basic claim was that a notion of rationality supports both religion and science. I think the statement in my first note is pretty clear on why I think they differ. If one wants to use the word “rational” as a basis for your belief in the stories of the Bible, then one has to make a careful redefinition.

      You say that your religion is compelling because you believe “worldviews which acknowledge that [sic] fact [that Christ rose from the dead] that greater predictive power and theoretical elegance than those which deny it.” Theoretical elegance I can buy – beauty is in the eye of the beholder and who am I to disagree. Predicitive powers, not so much. Perhaps I’m not aware of the real outcomes of Biblical prophecy, but what I do know doesn’t support this view.

  5. Clearly, not every assertion of religion is amenable to direct testing, any more than every assertion of a scientific theory is. But you seem to think none of them are.

    For example, I can predict that if a wino off the street entrusts his life to Jesus, he has a very high chance of getting his life back together.

    Back in the 1970s, Peter Wagner predicted that churches which embraced “charismatic” practices would experience greater growth; and in a matter of decades, despite enormous entrenched opposition, global Christianity shifted both its belief and its practices almost 180 degrees.

    Isaac Newton predicted that the human mind is capable of perceiving rational order in the Universe because we are made in the image of God.

    I predict that if I spend more time in reading the Bible and praying, I will become a better husband and father. Fifteen years ago I did not have that belief, but the evidence since has convinced me.

    As with science, it is the validation of those things we can see proved true in our experience that gives us confidence in the things we cannot see.

    I won’t get into prophecy, but a whole lot of people consider the birth of a Jewish state 1900 years after it was destroyed an awfully improbably coincidence…

    • These kind of predictions aren’t testable in a scientific sense – they aren’t repeatable experiments, and they can’t be well-controlled. Certainly some people’s lives are improved by their faith. It is clear that this has been the case for you, as you are “radically happy”!

  6. I think you have the wrong paradigm for “science” — not every experiment is repeatable. Like I said, if your claim is that “religion” is no more scientific than paleontology and astronomy — never mind sociology or anthropology — then I’ll agree with you. But I think you’d really tick off some astronomers…

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