What do I believe?

I’ve been asked what I currently believe, since I’m putting forward arguments against Christianity.  That’s a fair question, so here goes.

Let’s start with foundational presuppositions.  All beliefs should be consistent with observable reality, consistent with deductions that we can logically make from observable reality, and internally consistent.  In other words, all beliefs should be based on evidence and logic.  This is a valid presupposition, because we judge all ordinary, non-religious claims by these criteria.  We should be equally skeptical and rigorous with regard to the most important questions in life.  I also take as a presupposition that our ignorance on certain subjects does not entitle us to fall back on a particular set of unsubstantiated claims about God, the afterlife, or particular historical events.

With regard to morality, humanity is still figuring this out, but it seems to me that the best standard for morality is the collective, long-term well-being of conscious creatures, particularly humans and some animals.  The minimization of harm or suffering is particularly important.  I may have difficulty defending this foundation for morality, but again, our lack of knowledge does not entitle us to fill that gap with unsubstantiated claims about God and his law.

Regarding the origin of the universe, that’s a matter of current speculation among scientists.  That doesn’t entitle us to argue that God, however we define him, must be the first cause, because there’s no reason why the universe itself couldn’t be the first cause.  If God can be eternal, then so can the universe.  Or perhaps there’s a larger cosmos of multiple universes; like I said, this is quite speculative.

Regarding the origin of life on earth, this is also an area of current speculation, but it seems reasonable to suppose that given the mind-boggling number of stars in the universe, at least one star system has at least one planet on which a primitive form of life began by chance, then evolved.

Evolution itself is not merely dependent on chance.  I think we can all accept that natural selection leads to micro-evolution; macro-evolution is just micro-evolution over a long period of time, along with long-term geographic isolation of populations which leads to distinct species.  Lines of evidence for evolution include the fossil record (incomplete as it is), common ancestry (verifiable based on DNA), vestigial organs inherited from ancestors, “bad design”, and the geographic distribution of species.

Regarding the origin of the human mind, all current evidence shows that it, too, came about through evolution.  This suggests that our minds are quite fallible, and I’m sure all of us would agree with that.  The theory of evolution can also help explain our moral intuitions, though it cannot tell us how we ought to behave.

One more thing about evolution:  The fact that our understanding of evolution has gaps does not entitle us to assume that there was an intelligent designer.  And if we do assume there’s an intelligent designer, we cannot jump to the conclusion that this designer is the deity described by any of our religions.

So as things stand right now, it seems that I must reject the idea that the Bible is true, because it doesn’t satisfy the criteria with which I started.  The Bible shows all the signs of being a hodgepodge of documents which are inconsistent with each other, sometimes inconsistent with themselves, and written by people whose understanding of the world and of morality was much less advanced than our own.  Furthermore, one would expect more extrabiblical evidence for the historical claims of the Bible; as it is now, I don’t know if there’s any extrabiblical evidence.  Therefore, it seems to me that it’s absurd to think that this collection of documents is the revelation of an omniscient God.  I’d be happy to be corrected with regard to this view of the Bible, but it seems to me that even a mildly high view of the Bible can only be a response to evidence for its high status, not a presupposition.

Finally, with regard to ultimate meaning and purpose, it seems to me that obsession over these things is a deadly drain on mental resources, and totally unnecessary.  Based on my first presupposition, there is no reason to believe in an afterlife, since there is no evidence for it.  Based on my proposed foundation for morality, it seems that the best possible purpose for life is to increase and prolong the well-being of conscious creatures, including ourselves.  We can come up with a variety of ways to go about this, as long as we don’t go about inflicting harm on others, or ourselves.  Sure, the universe may be destined for oblivion, but we can make our lives worth living in the meantime.

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4 Responses to “What do I believe?”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Matt,

    I’ll begin with your presupposition about beliefs. First of all, is there any way that you can empirically prove that your presupposition is true, or at least the best one to hold? I mean, how do you come to hold this presupposition, especially considering your admission that our brains (responsible for logic and reason) may be open to error because of evolution? And what do you mean by “observable reality?” Do you mean realities like love, justice, compassion, good, evil, etc? How do you empirically prove these realities? Your fundamental presupposition crumbles under its own weight, because you cannot substantiate that claim (belief) with cold, hard evidence. I would actually suggest that a Christian worldview makes better sense of reality than one simply based on scientific evidence, as science isn’t meant to observe everything we know (empirically and by experience) to be true.

    I’m particularly intrigued by your admission that your stance surrounding morality is difficult to defend; I would suggest that it’s actually impossible to defend. If the entire universe has really evolved by complete chance, including humanity and other conscious creatures, there is absolutely no reason to be concerned about harm or suffering. It is not reasonable to be concerned with the good of others; your primary concern should be your own good, your own survival. If there is no maker, no designer (which reality points to, by the way – we’ll get to this later), then there is no accountability. If there is no accountability, there is no reason to have any regard for others. We’re all just headed toward oblivion, anyway, right? Who cares how we live? Your understanding of reality completely falls apart at this point, in my opinion.

    With regards to origins of the universe and of humanity, your initial statements are boggling. How can scientists actually conduct any kind of empirical study on origins? All anyone can do is make speculation, which I guess you’ve admitted. This uncertainty does open the door for millions of possible beginnings for our universe, which you’ve also pointed out. But why bank on a theory which takes a huge amount of faith to believe, considering the obvious signs of design in our universe? I like Tim Keller’s quote on this very subject:

    “The philosopher John Leslie poses a similar illustration. He imagines a man who is sentenced to be executed by a firing squad consisting of fifty expert marksmen. They all fire from six feet away and not one bullet hits him. Since it is possible that even expert marksmen could miss from close range it is technically possible that all fifty just happened to miss at the same moment. Though you could not prove they had conspired to miss, it would be unreasonable to draw the conclusion that they hadn’t… Although organic life could have just happened without a Creator, does it make sense to live as if that infinitely remote chance is true?”

    You say that you’re committed to logic and reason – which seems more logical or reasonable to you?

    Your comments about the Bible will have to be a separate post – sometime in the future…

    Your final paragraph just makes me sad, to be quite honest. You cannot convince me for one minute that you really think this viewpoint makes the most sense of reality. Not a chance. Just think about the most current movie you have watched. If the director took this view of reality and incorporated it into his movie, that movie would have the worst ending of all time. Why? Because we ALL know that the story is going somewhere, and that the ending sheds light on the rest of the story; it gives it purpose and meaning. We KNOW what a good ending looks like, and we crave it. We don’t know it by empirical evidence or sound logic, we know it deep inside of us. Death that leads to oblivion was not meant to be our ending, we were designed for something more, something lasting. Life makes no sense if we’re just heading for oblivion, and you know it; it’s obvious in the tone of your final sentence: “Sure, the universe may be destined for oblivion, but we can make our lives worth living in the meantime.” Worth living? Who’s placing this value on your life? Man, if I am just heading for oblivion, you can bet I would eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow I die and it all counts for nothing. NOTHING.

    Would you just consider, Matt, that your presuppositions make very little sense of life the way that we experience it? I mean, it sounds like your presuppositions only lead to a bunch of speculation anyway, so why not consider an alternative presupposition? I would point you to an article by one of my Profs, Dr. Graham Cole, concerning the topic of worldview. It is obviously from a Christian perspective, but I think it raises some important questions to consider. I have provided the URL below:

    http://henrycenter.org/files/cole.pdf

    Please know that I do not claim to have all the answers, and admit that you are far more intellectual than I. 🙂 But I hope we can still have intelligent conversations in the future.

    Andrew

    • Matt Campbell Says:

      Andrew,

      OK, let’s see if I can defend my first presupposition. As I stated, “All beliefs should be consistent with observable reality, consistent with deductions that we can logically make from observable reality, and internally consistent. In other words, all beliefs should be based on evidence and logic.” I’ll state again that these criteria are compatible with the way we judge claims about the physical world. To take an example from Sam Harris’ book The End of Faith, if you were told that a diamond the size of a refrigerator is buried in your back yard, you wouldn’t believe it unless you had some kind of evidence for it, right?

      So it makes sense to me that evidence is just as important for judging claims about the most important questions in life. And I dare say that you would agree with this, if there were more evidence for the truth of Christianity. But because the Christian world view isn’t backed by evidence, you instead say that evidence can only go so far.

      Thus, my first presupposition doesn’t crumble under its own weight, and is the best one I know of, because it’s compatible with the way that rational people judge claims about the physical world. So why not extend these criteria to claims about origins, morality, and the relationship between humanity and a deity? Judging all truth claims based on logic and evidence is most coherent.

      Let’s talk about realities like love, compassion, good, and evil. The theory of evolution, which is backed by a mountain of evidence, can explain the origins of our feelings of love and compassion, as well as the origin of our intuitions about good and evil. Moreover, neuroscience — the study of the brain, based on evidence such as FMRI — can explain our feelings and our beliefs in terms of brain states. True, these scientific explanations on their own only tell us how we are, not how we ought to behave.

      So we come to the subject of morality. Maybe I gave up a little too easily on this last time. If we accept my first presupposition about the primacy of logic and evidence, then I do think I can defend my position on morality. First, human happiness and human suffering are just as real whether or not we believe in a deity or an afterlife. I know that certain actions performed by other people will make me suffer, and certain other actions will improve my well-being. All available evidence indicates that such feelings really come down to states in the brain, and that other humans have brains that are essentially like mine. Therefore, I can reasonably conclude that if I do certain things, then other people will suffer, and if I do certain other things, they will contribute to the well-being of others. Furthermore, because I am only one among billions of humans, there is no reason to value my well-being at the expense of the well-being of others. Thus, there is no reason to conclude that in the absence of a lawgiving deity or an afterlife, the most reasonable course of action is to live selfishly. It is also very reasonable to conclude that the best standard for morality is the collective, long-term well-being of conscious creatures, particularly humans and some animals.

      On the subject of origins, maybe I put too much emphasis on the current speculation among scientists about the origin of the universe and the origin of the first primitive life form on earth. But actually, scientists can do much more than speculate. True, we can’t observe what actually happened, but we can make claims about what the world should be like if a given theory of origins is true, then test these claims against reality. For example, the big bang theory is confirmed by the evidence of uniform background radiation. Scientists also have ways of deducing the age of stars based on evidence, though I don’t know much about how this works. On the theory of evolution, I mentioned several lines of evidence in my original post, and no one has responded to these. To take just one example, the biologist J. B. S. Haldane was once asked what would disprove the theory of evolution, and he famously responded, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.” Such an anachronism in the fossil record has never legitimately been found.

      There may be some clues that there is a creator, but we cannot jump from these clues to a belief in Christianity, or even a belief in a personal god or an afterlife. So if there is evidence for a creator, this only justifies deism, not Christianity.

      About purpose and the end of the universe, your analogy about the endings of movies backfires. For example, consider Mrs. Doubtfire. I once read on Wikipedia that the studio wanted a happier ending, where Daniel and Miranda come back together. But Robin Williams insisted against this, because it would give false hope. So, in fact, the ending of the movie isn’t as happy an ending as we might want. Likewise, our hopes for a happy ending for humanity have no bearing on what we should expect to happen. Therefore, because we have no evidence for life after death, it is wishful thinking to believe in it.

      So while it’s extremely likely that the universe will someday come to nothing, and that each of us will die, I can’t think of any reason why this should necessarily lead to despair or selfishness. As I said before, a lack of belief in a deity or an afterlife doesn’t lessen the reality of human suffering and human happiness. So it is not a contradiction to live a moral, fulfilled life while believing that there is no deity or afterlife.

      I should mention that while our deaths and the end of the universe are quite likely, they are not certain. In our current age of science and technology, we can conceive of possible ways to avoid these things, though we can’t yet implement them. So there’s a glimmer of hope that immortality might be possible, though I’m not going to organize my life around such a hope.

      I did read Prof. Cole’s article, but as far as I can tell, he’s only saying that the Christian world view resonates with some people because it provides a master narrative for understanding human origins and human fallibility, and offers hope for a great future. But remember that no matter how much we may want a movie to have a happy ending, that doesn’t make the ending realistic. Likewise, no matter how much the Christian world view may appeal to us, that doesn’t make it more likely to be true. We must rely on evidence.

      Maybe we can discuss these things some more, Andrew, but I suspect that we have nothing more to discuss on these questions, since you seem to take it as a presupposition that the Bible is inspired and inerrant, while I do not.

      TO end on a more positive note, I’d like to quote one of my favorite sayings. One of my current favorite things to listen to online is a music/variety show called the Mosen Explosion, hosted by Jonathan Mosen. I don’t know if this saying is original to him, but he says this at the end of every show: “Remember that the past is unalterable, the future is unknowable, so embrace the glorious present, and live.”

  2. Bern Says:

    Hi Matt….here are just a few thoughts to share. The first thing to understand is that the Christian faith is not a religion, it is a revelation. That revelation is on a person and His Name is Jesus who is called the Christ, meaning the Anointed One of God. You and I have worked together over several years, although not face to face, so I probably know you sufficiently to feel comfortable disagreeing with you and I will share why. Let me qualify my remarks by first calling to your attention that, by training, I am first and foremost a scientist who has has had over 33 years of experience in the practice of medicine and surgery of the brain, as well as many years as a psychiatrist. I know the human mind well, and its ability to deceive…even oneself. By training, I was taught to believe only what I can objectively quantify, since science deals with objective reality. Some 27 years ago, one of my sons was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 11. He was hospitalized, and while in the hospital, my wife and her friends were talking in the lobby and two women overheard her talking about my son’s problem. They approached my wife and said “We are Christians and believe in healing by the laying on of hands. Can we go to your boy’s room and pray for him?” They did. Two days later my son was taken to surgery with scans and x-rays hanging on the Operating Room view-box. He was opened and a large mass biopsied. Twenty minutes later, the pathologist radioed into the Operating Room to ask the surgeon “Why are you removing this organ?” The surgeon responded, “Because there is a tumor here and all of us here in the Operating Room are looking at it.” The pathologist replied ” This boy’s Dad is a VIP on the hospital staff and we wanted to be sure that we are not missing anything. I have 4 other pathologists here with me and we have all looked at this tissue and it is entirely normal. I suggest you close.” I suggest that you close. The surgeon said, “I can’t. There is an obvious tumor here.” The pathologist replied “I cannot help you. I suggest you close.” The surgeon did, and the mass came down in size over 3 weeks. My son never had surgical removal, chemotherapy, or radiation, and a large mass disappeared from his body within two days of his diagnosis. Today, he is 38 years old, healthy, practicing law, and both a husband and father. I saw the power of God’s Spirit with my own eyes. In all of my years of surgery, I had never seen a tumor disappear over night. I had heard about “spontaneous healing” from New Age folks. I spent 18 years in the New Age before becoming a Christian. How common is such a thing? So uncommon that I, for one, had never seen a single case. I have walked the Christian faith walk now for 27 years. How many healings have I seen by the laying-on-of-hands in the Name of Christ Jesus? Many…including several brain tumors, several breast cancers, an ovarian cancer, a spinal cord paralysis, and many more. Being a scientist, I would not be wasting my time with the Christian faith if I had not seen it work in people’s lives over and over. Why waste time with something that does not work. BUT…it does work if you know HOW to tap in. The reason you are struggling is because you are trying to understand God and faith through your intellect which is your soul. Jesus said “The things of The Spirit are SPIRIT.” That means they are not intellectually rationalized but perceived in the heart (spirit). You see, Matt, you categorically reject the Bible. But the Bible is a self-proving Divine Revelation when acted upon in faith, and the real evidence that Jesus Christ is real is the evidence of changed lives by the millions,, worldwide, in those who have received Him into their hearts by faith which is trust, on Him alone. It is self-proving. The Bible is not a natural book. It is a supernatural book. Why? Because, in the Book of Job it stated that the world was round, long before Copernicus and Gallileo. In the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 53, written 850 years before the birth of Christ, there is a complete description of Christ, His crucifixion and ministry long before He was ever born; also, the Bible contains over 180 prophecies that were historically fulfilled by Christ alone. In the Book of Daniel, God refers to Cyrus, King of Persia, by name, although Cyrus would not yet be born for another 250 years. Consider the fact that it is historically and archeologically proven that 2/3 of all Bible prophecies have come true with 100% accuracy. There is no book in existence that can claim that. So you see, Matt,whether you believe it or not, the Bible is not a natural book but a self-proving supernatural book with a track record to prove it. The problem is not God or the Bible. Your problem is your lack of understanding. You will never get an experience of the Living God or His Christ until you humble yourself and reach out to Him first, repenting of sin. Scripture says “Unless you are born-again of The Spirit, you cannot see (understand) the Kingdom of God. “Kingdom” here means “dimension”. It isn’t open to you by God’s Spirit. The things of the Kingdom are for the people of the Kingdom. You must be born once into physical existence,then a second time into spiritual existence which brings revelation when you reach out to Him first. It is self-proving. No explanations or intellectualizations needed. It is not an intellectual pursuit from the head, but a pursuit in the heart. It is based upon the realization that man does not need enlightenment, as you promote, but salvation from sin as well as self. Eastern religions have preached enlightenment for over 5000 years and the world today is the same one big slaughter-house as it was 5000 years ago. So much for enlightenment. Enlightenment has a track record of not working. It doesn’t work. Why? Because man has a fallen nature and tendency to sin.That is why man needs a Savior. Every “sinner” needs a Savior. Any salvation that would come from you or me would be imperfect. So Scripture warns “Work out your own salvation (any that would come from you) with fear and trembling. ” What you are promoting with your enlightenment message is nothing more than secular humanism, the supremacy of humans to conquer their own problems. The problem is that they have had over 5000 years to conquer their own problems, and the world remains one big mess. Man cannot even run a government or economy, and you believe that man and his attitude is the solution to all the worlds problems? Then why are most of the world’s nations bankrupt, including the USA? There is something fuzzy about your thinking. On the other hand, the Bible says “There is nothing new under the sun.” By the way, the Bible never speaks of free will. Scripture says “All things follow the counsel of His Will.” And in Isaiah, God says that He writes history. That is the sovereignty of God.
    He says in Jeremiah 1:12,to the Prophet Jeremiah, “You have done well, Jeremiah, for I am watching over My Word to perform it.” You know something, Matt? That is literally true. I have seen God perform His Word just as it is written, over and over now for over 27 years. Another evidence that the Bible is true. Here’s the point: The Christian faith is not a religion, it is a revelation, a revelation of a Spirit-person and His Name is Jesus who is called the Christ. The Bible is not an ordinary book, it is a revelation from God which is self-proving when someone becomes born-again of God’s Spirit and receives and acts on The Word. That is why Jesus said “Unless you become as a child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God. ” Children just take their Mom’s and Dad’s at their word. God asks us to do the same. My suggestion to you? Get saved by reaching out to Christ so that the things of the Kingdom will become open to you. That’s what I did. And I never turned back. If this stuff were not real, with my background and training, I would not be wasting my time with it. But I have learned to walk and talk with Christ, and He has repeatedly revealed Himself to me over and over again. Scripture says that He is not a respecter of persons. He has no favorites. Reach out to Him from the heart in all seriousness in wanting to know Him,and He will reveal Himself to you and all of the intellectual nonsense will fall to the wayside. Again, it is self-proving.You do not have to accept anything that I say. That is your privilege. But if you reach out, you will find it self-proving. It isn’t about religion. It’s about relationship or covenant. Thanks for letting me share.
    Regards,
    Bern

    • Matt Campbell Says:

      Bern,

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I don’t know you well (though I’ve helped you with computer-related things off and on), so I realize that some of what I say may be offensive. But my purpose is not to offend; I’m simply trying to find the truth.

      It seems to me that you were too easily convinced that the praying for your son caused his tumor to disappear. Here are a few relevant questions: What kind of cancer did your son have? How far had it spread? Is there any documentation in the relevant medical journals of this sort of cancer disappearing on its own? Such a thing may be extremely rare, but has it been known to happen? It seems to me that what you’ve described is a case of confirmation bias.

      You say the Bible is a self-proving divine revelation, but this would imply that it is internally consistent. But if this is so, then why have Christian apologists spent pages and pages excusing or explaning away various discrepancies? Or why is it that people down through the centuries have cherry-picked the Bible for support of various divergent doctrines? For example, mainstream evangelicals believe in eternal damnation, while you believe that hell is not eternal but merely lasts for a long time. There are certainly scriptures that support your view, but defenders of the doctrine of eternal damnation point out that the New Testament uses the same language for both eternal damnation and eternal life. Wouldn’t a divine revelation be crystal clear on this point? Indeed, we can reasonably expect such a divine revelation to continually leave us in awe of its coherence, clarity, and brilliance, but that’s not at all what one finds in the Bible, unless confirmation bias is at work.

      Secular humanism is indeed what I currently believe. But I don’t think we can reasonably blame secular humanism for the world’s problems. Sweeping generalizations are dangerous, but I think many of the world’s problems can be attributed to tribalism and dogma. The most prominent kind of dogma is religion, but it’s not the only kind; other examples include pure capitalism and pure communism. And though atheism or secular humanism is often blamed for the evils of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and so forth, these men were not especially rational; on the contrary, they tended to be the centers of personality cults. Secular humanism, at least as seen in Western societies, is relatively new — only hundreds of years old — so I think the verdict isn’t in yet.

      It seems to me that the requirement for childlike faith is a position of weakness. If there were actually evidence to believe Christianity, then why would childlike faith still be required? Maybe childlike faith is just a euphemism for gullibility. And gullible people get duped by all sorts of deceivers, such as fraudulent “faith healers”. There must be some criteria for judging what to believe, especially in the case of so many competing exclusive truth claims, and I can think of no better criteria than logic and evidence.

      If I understand correctly, you’re saying that the only way to know God is through spiritual experience. But people all over the world have had experiences which they interpret as spiritual, and which have led them to believe all sorts of different and incompatible things. So how can we possibly judge claims about spiritual things except with the mind, based on logic and evidence?

      Sincerely,
      Matt

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