Thursday, May 31, 2007

On Belief

[Note: keep reading, this post doesn't go where you think it does.]

Sam Brownback has
an editorial in the Times today wherein he attempts to back off his position on evolution. In the first GOP debate, you may recall, candidates were asked to raise their hand if they didn't believe in evolution--he was one of three who did. It today's column, he rather remarkably asks that we regard the question as a nuanced and irreduceable one that requires a complex response. This is a courtesy Christian fundamentalist pols have spent a generation trying to stifle, and I'm afraid he just broke my hypocrisy meter. But never mind, it is worth parsing. Here's how Brownback does it:
The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.
He thereafter beats a hasty retreat from science and returns to language he understands better--"meaning." As in, "It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science." And finally he undoes the argument completely, admitting that the whole discussion is rigged in any case.
While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order.
This is a return to the original logic of a priori knowledge--that we know of God because His absence makes the universe impossible. Some things are too grand to be conceived, and these things must be God.

It is the moment at which Christians, by necessity, jump into the deep waters of belief. Since the enlightenment, the concept of belief has taken a beating. Beliefs are things we don't know, while facts are things we do know. Belief has become an antonym for knowledge. Beliefs are at best rudimentary lower rungs on the ladder to truth, at worst, they lead us away from truth and into the darkness of confusion.

But here's an important point: the vast majority of our operating assumptions are beliefs. We just don't see them that way. We live in a world of technology and medical science, to take two examples, that very few of us understand. We know that smoking causes cancer, for example. But for the vast majority of us, this is clearly nothing more than a belief. We haven't the dimmest comprehension of how one relates to the other, save that we have confidence in the countless studies that say there is a relationship.

The definition of belief is "a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing." We do this all the time; our minds are like a team of bookies calculating odds about various things based on our levels of confidence. The bookies have told us that our information on cavities is sound, so we brush our teeth in the morning. We take a mornng vitamin because they say it will make us healthy. When make our toast, we're pretty sure electricity will somehow power the toaster.

This is not to say we shouldn't challenge our assumptions or engage in rational thought. Debating the nature and existence of God is a worthwhile exercise, and we'll ultimately make calls individually when our mind-bookies do the math. There's a current raft of athiest literature coming out, and it's very good for the country to consider where God fits in to our society and government.

But it's worth noting that no one is exempt from the exact same habits of mind that led Brownback to raise his hand in the GOP debate. We need to be reflective about all our beliefs.


Chuck Butcher said...

Actually, smoking was about the worst example you could pick, it is not a simple cause and effect, Newtonian each action has an equal and opposite reaction would've fit better.

Here's the difficulty with smoking, you state cause - smoking = effect - cancer, this is actually not demonstrated - period.
There appears to be a relationship, but the mechanism is unclear, it looks as though smoking is a trigger for genetic defects already existing in some. Note - some - it is important. In a cause/effect relationship one always means the other, smoking is demonstrably not such. Risks increase dramatically, but that is not cause/effect.

Exposure to a high level of benzene will cause cancer, no maybes, will in all cases, in some, lower levels will cause it, but at a certain level it is inevitible.

Never muck up a perfectly good argument with something you thought rather than something you know.

Jeff Alworth said...

Never muck up a perfectly good argument with something you thought rather than something you know.

Actually, Chuck, I think you've confused something you think you know with what I wrote. Your argument underlines mine exactly. My argument is that our "knowledge" of the relationship between smoking and cancer is no more actual knowledge than the Christian knowledge of God. But we invest more credence into what is clearly a belief by virtue of our confidence in medical science.

I'd also point out that, ontologically, your orientation to the relationship betweeen smoking and cancer is identical; you've just drawn a different conclusion. You know no more than the rest of us.

The post is about the nature of belief.

Chuck Butcher said...

Ok, I need to pay closer attention.

Anonymous said...

it's all belief in some fashion, but i'd much rather this country be run by scientists than by fundamentalists.