Being pedantic about faith

Is it possible to verify that Christianity is true using philosophy?

Aquinas thought that we could prove using philosophy that God exists, that God has all the “omni” attributes normally associated with Him, that God is the first cause of everything, that God keeps everything in existence from moment to moment, that God is conscious and intelligent and designed the world around us, that the human race exists in order to know God and so on. All that using human reason rather than just faith.

However, Aquinas did not think it possible to prove the Christian faith using philosophy. So Christian teaching about the nature of God, about Jesus and the trinity and so on cannot be verified by philosophy.

Is it possible to verify that Christianity is true using evidence?

If by “evidence” we mean scientific evidence, the answer is clearly no, but there are other kinds of evidence.

Is there any other kind of evidence that could satisfy a sceptic? The question calls to mind tedious online arguments we have all witnessed between Christians and atheists. You felt something? Feelings aren’t evidence. You had a dream? Power of suggestion. You had a vision? A hallucination. Your prayer was answered? A coincidence. You were healed? Placebo effect. Your cancer was healed? Cancer goes into remission by itself all the time. You had shrapnel embedded in your knee and it disappeared for no discernible reason, and you have medical documentation for before and after, and the doctor had no idea how it happened? You’re crazy!

There’s a lot that could be said and it’s not as though the sceptics don’t make some good points. Nevertheless I will ask what I believe to be a more interesting and important question: Can a religious claim be empirically verified in principle?

Consider the following scenario: you have been transported back in time and find yourself standing in Jesus’ tomb. Assume you know 100% that this is really happening and that the dead body in front of you is really Jesus. You check and he is, with 100% certainty, dead. Then to your astonishment, he rises from the dead while you are watching. Do you now know with certainty that Christianity is true?

No, you don’t. Why? Because while you know that Jesus just rose from the dead, you don’t know what to do about that. (The early Christians weren’t sure what to do about it either.)

Therefore empirical verification of any religious claim is not possible. There will always be a leap of faith required.

Where’s the evidence?

Evidence. Evidence. Where is the evidence? Show me the evidence or I won’t believe. Such is a typical response of the modern atheist when asked why they don’t believe in God.

By “evidence” they mean empirical evidence; the kind of evidence used by science. Now, empiricism as a starting point to validate truth claims has a long and distinguished history. So how far can empirical evidence get us? Let’s find out what it can’t get us.

The following is a short, non exhaustive list of stuff almost everyone believes in but for which there is no empirical evidence:

Objective reality. When you sit on a chair, you don’t know empirically that the chair exists; all you know is that your mind is giving you the experience of sitting on a chair. To know that the chair has mind-independent reality, you need to go outside your mind to check. Good luck with that.

Causation. Have you ever seen a cause? No. You see things happen after other things, then your mind infers that causation is there. So causation could be illusory, or you might not understand it. Perhaps no one does.

Other minds. You know that you have an inner consciousness. You don’t know that anyone else does. Have you ever seen anyone else’s consciousness? Is it valid to extrapolate from yourself to everyone else in this way? After all, you are a small sample size.

Morality. To say that anything is right or wrong presupposes that there is an objective standard that whoever you are criticising should adhere to. Where is this standard? Can you prove empirically what standard we should use?

Human logic. If the mind evolved, how do you know that this has progressed long enough to produce anything useful? It might take another million years for all you know. Future humanity might consider our science and mathematics a laughing stock.

Abstractions. Abstractions such as “truth”, “knowledge”, “circle”, “hypothesis” and so on do not exist empirically, so how do you know it makes sense to use them? You don’t.

Mathematics. Prove empirically that 2-5=-3. Should be easy. Start with 2 apples, take away 5, for a total of -3 apples. Now pick up one of your -3 apples and eat it. You have successfully proven mathematics empirically. Congratulations.

The past. Your memory is reliable, or is it? Can you go back to check?

History. Was Julius Caesar assassinated? Can you prove it empirically, rather than from dusty old books?

Love. “I love you!” Really? Show me the evidence.

Any empirical fact you can think of will necessarily be based on assumptions such as the above that can’t themselves be proven empirically. For example, to say “I just saw a cat outside my window” assumes a world outside your mind, that you weren’t hallucinating or dreaming, an ability to recognise cats, an ability to construct sentences correctly, the reliability of your memory etc.

Any scientific idea will add on more assumptions, as it must assume that the world is comprehensible both in itself and to us, that scientific concepts such as “hypothesis” and “falsification” make sense, that causation is real and so on. The deeper the level of abstraction, the more ideas must be assumed.

Let’s look at causation for a moment. Science assumes that causation is real but doesn’t tell us how. If for example matter is made of ideas in the mind of God (I am not making this up), then what we think of as physical causation is actually connections between ideas in God’s mind, and all science is theology – and the evidence can’t tell us otherwise. Another example: what if our minds told us that causation works backwards? If they did, no doubt our science would include not evolution, but devolution; not natural selection, but natural unselection – and again, the evidence wouldn’t tell us otherwise.

It follows that there is no such thing as a purely empirical fact. To put it another way, any empirical fact is a non-empirical sundae with an empirical cherry on top. If the non-empirical sundae is wrong, the empirical cherry won’t make it right. Likewise, if the non-empirical sundae is correct, it will still be correct without the empirical cherry.

Looking at examples of empirical evidence only reinforces this point. When I think of empirical evidence, I think of (say) finding fossils in the ground. But it gets a lot more esoteric than that. Consider the following from this paper about the Higgs boson:

Correspondingly, the signal strength relative to the expectation for the standard model Higgs boson is found to be 0.78 ± 0.27 at the Higgs boson mass of 125 GeV. Earlier, the CDF and D0 experiments at the Tevatron reported, for mH = 125 GeV, an observed (expected) 95% CL upper limit of 7.0 (5.7) times the standard model expectation.

Such statistical methods stretch the definition of “empirical” to breaking point.

This means there can be no hard boundary between science and other types of knowledge. Therefore if the success of science gives you confidence in science (and why not), it should also give you confidence in the non-empirical aspects of human thought.

Fine. Now what?

Where to proceed from here?

No one is an acausationist who won’t believe in causation until someone shows them evidence for it, nor does anyone argue for it; it’s just assumed. If the human instincts that evolution has given us about causation, time and space, other minds, objective reality, abstract thought etc should be accepted without argument or evidence, and evolution has given us an instinct to believe in God, you are also fully justified in believing in God without argument or evidence.

What you cannot do is reject anything solely because you believe it has no empirical evidence. If you do, you must also reject the entire above list – objective reality, causation, other minds, the validity of human logic, morality, abstract thought, history, mathematics. 

Clearly that cannot be done. A consistent empiricism is therefore a complete non-starter. The challenge, then, is to find a more balanced approach that takes into account human instinct and logic rather than just empirical evidence.

Introducing Approximatism

I don’t have all the answers, but my own take is this: all the basic human instincts about reality are approximately true. Why all?

Since all human knowledge is ultimately based on unprovable instincts, it makes no sense to use half those instincts to attack the other half as unprovable. Secondly, whatever instincts we have ultimately came from the same source, so there is no basis for privileging one over another. There are only two consistent positions available to us: we assume they are all true and proceed on that basis, or they are all false and all human knowledge is fiction.

So if we are to avoid a scepticism of everything, the role of logic and evidence is to show us exactly how our instincts are true rather than trying to overturn them.

The problem of suffering and evil

It is commonly argued that there cannot be an all-knowing, all-powerful, good God because there is so much evil and suffering in the world. Is this true? If God exists, how are we to understand suffering and evil?

I’ve always held that problem of evil is not something you can consider while deciding if God exists. A good God could have any number of reasons for allowing evil, depending on what He is like. Therefore there is no contradiction in a benevolent God allowing evil, but you can’t address the question if you don’t even know if He exists or not.

So for this post, I will assume that Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence are true and take it from there. (Read more about those at Aquinas Explainer: The First Way and The Fifth Way.) This means that God is a conscious, immaterial mind that holds everything in existence and enables everything that happens from moment to moment as a First Cause.

Aquinas holds that evil is a privation – it does not exist on its own, but is parasitic on the good and acts by attacking or distorting the good. Since God was before everything else, He must have been originally good and the only way He could be evil is by attacking or distorting Himself, which is impossible. Therefore God cannot be evil.

If God as First Cause is enabling all our choices, what does that mean? Since God is keeping everything in existence and being the First Cause of everything from moment to moment, He is in some sense enabling every good thing that ever happens – every opening flower, every baby being born, every sublime piece of music or art, you name it. But in the same way, He is in some sense enabling every evil thing that ever happens – every murder, every rape, every genocide.

That’s disturbing, but if God cannot possibly be evil he presumably doesn’t like evil. So why is he constantly enabling every evil thing that ever happens? That’s the big question here.

Evil and choice

Whatever else you might say about it, evil is a byproduct of choice. Choice is the world’s most multifaceted tool. You can choose to cook lasagne, study mathematics, start a hairdressing apprenticeship, buy and sell, go to work, plan finances, take the day off work, learn painting, read a book, attend a Mozart concert, give blood, play cricket, get married, have children, invent, build, rest and so on. We choose all these things because they seem good to us – we need them or they bring joy to our lives.

So if you choose to torture someone, and liaise with other torturers to refine your torture techniques and make them more agonising, thus increasing your pleasure from hearing your victim’s screams, is that not an example of human creativity and ingenuity, just like other choices? Also, isn’t the underlying motive the same as other choices – in this case, to gain pleasure?

If evil is not a thing in itself but a distortion of the good, and is a byproduct of the human capacity to make choices, how is God to get rid of it?

A knife can stab or it can chop carrots. If you made knives safe, they would no longer be knives.

The easiest way for God to annihilate evil would be to annihilate the human race.

Suffering

Cancer. Rocks falling on people’s heads. Drowning in a tsunami. The list of sufferings is endless.

Some group suffering together with the problem of evil, but this doesn’t make sense to me. A tsunami, a rockfall or cancer, bad as they can be, have no agency. They are bad for us but how can something with no will of its own be evil?

Should He exist, can we critique God based on suffering? To answer this question, we must ask another – what are we expecting God to do? What should He have done otherwise?

To my mind, it is hard even to imagine a material world without suffering. For example: a rock falling on someone’s head, killing them. Why do such things happen? It is because matter has weight and mass, and this because of gravity. Objects falling on smaller, less dense objects damage them for this reason.

So to ask that such sufferings not happen, what we are really asking is that gravity be switched off. Or that gravity exist but not when we are around. Or for gravity to exist but not when I say otherwise, thank you very much. (Are we entitled to this? Why?)

The same thing applies to other sources of suffering. To have a physical body is to be vulnerable to damage by other physical things, so that a material world without suffering is inconceivable. So ultimately the question becomes: should God have created the material world in the first place? Is it worth it?

If God exists, it seems He decided it was worth it.

Is there an ultimate meaning to suffering and evil?

I assumed at the start of this post that God is as described by Aquinas, the First Cause of everything that happens, who keeps everything in existence from moment to moment; who designed the natural world and is responsible for the order we see in it; who is good; who is in everything that takes place; who is constantly making decisions about what to let happen and what to deny; who is rational and does this according to His own plan; who created the human race to know Him.

If this is correct, it follows that all aspects of the world we see around us have meaning; that all aspects of human existence are meaningful. Even the most horrific sufferings that we experience because of evil and the predations of nature ultimately have a reason. So cancer and earthquakes, terror famines and the Holocaust all have meaning – even when this is incomprehensible to us.

This is a difficult thing to accept; no doubt many atheists would see this as demonstrating the absurdity of theism. Some sufferings kill or drive insane their victims. It just seems over the top. What value could there be in such things?

I read an extraordinary book recently: “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor and a psychiatrist, who observed what he saw in Hitler’s camps and applied it to the human experience more generally. He invented “logotherapy”, or meaning-based therapy. I hope to write a post on it, but meanwhile here are a couple of choice quotes from his book:

We who lived, in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. […] It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

More:

We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. […]

Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs.

Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had similar insights.

Our culture treats pain and suffering as a dead loss, with no meaning in it. Why is this? To my mind, it is because we see no meaning in life generally. It makes no sense to say that life has meaning, but only when it is pleasant.

If belief in God gives us confidence that life has meaning in itself, it should also give us confidence that all aspects of life have meaning – including suffering and death.

Further reading

Man’s Search For Meaning – Full text available at archive.org.

The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoevsky provided one of the most evocative portrayals of the problem of evil ever set to print.

Unbroken and the problem of evil – A discussion of the problem of evil from a Christian perspective, by philosopher Edward Feser.