Preface

Hey Geoff,

Well, here we go. Always a bit daunting starting a new project but I’m looking forward to reading this book with you. I read the preface a few days ago and fully intended on reading the first chapter as well before writing anything, but since I made a handful of notes, I figured this might make a nice appetizer discussion for us (and our readers). That said, a lot of my notes were questions (mainly to do with definitions of things) that pretty much got answered as I kept reading, so hopefully, this will be relatively concise.

First off, Keller mentions his ongoing discussion group in his church. I couldn’t agree more with his decision to urge everyone in that group to be “open to critique and willing to admit flaws and problems in their way of looking at things.” As humans, we’re so susceptible to a variety of cognitive biases due to our pattern-seeking brains that, if we’re not aware of the flawed ways in which we often draw our conclusions, we’re at constant risk of constructing a false reality for ourselves. It’s very natural, for instance, to instinctively shut down any argument that contradicts a long-held prior belief and then immediately rationalise why it must be wrong. As such, whenever I hear or read something that induces an emotional “what utter nonsense!” type of response in my brain, I make it a point of always stepping back and taking a moment to remember that those sorts of emotional reactions may be getting in the way of me discovering a new truth. I may not always be successful at that (I’m only human, after all), but I do try my best.

On a related note, Keller writes in a couple of places about what factors he thinks influence our thinking:

“Believers and non-believers in God alike arrive at their positions though a combination of experience, faith, reasoning, and intuition.” (page 2)

“The reality is that every person embraces his or her worldview for a variety of rational, emotional, cultural, and social factors.” (page 4)

I agree with that assessment entirely (and it pretty much jibes with what I mentioned above). People use all sorts of things to form their opinions, no question, and I think a lot of those factors should be kept out of the equation altogether, which is why I found it curious that Keller initially didn’t comment on whether he thought it was a good or a bad thing to base your thinking on each of those things. To me, emotional factors, and intuition in particular, are terrible things to rely on when drawing conclusions. Despite the fact that, culturally, trusting your gut is considered a virtue, everyone’s intuition is different, so I’ve always had a difficult time understanding why people hold it in such high regard and believe it’s a reliable source of information. Unless, of course, you want to argue that only my intuition is right and other people’s intuition is wrong, in which case, why argue that intuition is reliable in the first place. To be sure, it’s not an easy task to combat our natural propensity for embracing emotionally satisfying conclusions, but for the sake of understanding the world as it is, I’m of the opinion that we should at least try.

But then, at the end of page 4, Keller indeed explicitly states that “he will be arguing that Christianity makes the most emotional and cultural sense.” So, it seems likely that this is where the bulk of our discussion is going to lie: whether or not relying on emotional factors (i.e. accepting arguments that satisfy us emotionally) can successfully lead to an accurate view of reality.

On page 5, Keller lists some concepts that he asserts society impresses on us. I’m not sure I agree that society does that (at least, not for all of them), but since these points appear to be the basis for upcoming chapters, I’ll leave any discussion of them until the appropriate chapter.

The final story in the preface is about the old man who admits he never gave much thought to his atheist conclusions. I don’t disagree that there are many atheists like this, that come to their conclusions because emotionally they think religion is stupid or some other vacuous reason. So as I suggested near the beginning, I couldn’t agree more that honestly delving into these topics and challenging your own beliefs is very much a worthy exercise. I’d like to think that I’ve made an effort to do just that over the years. (You and I have been talking about this on and off for two decades already!) So, full disclosure, I’m sceptical that this book will bring up anything I haven’t thought about before, but that said, in the true spirit of open-mindedness (and to live up to what I said above), I’m more than willing to listen and I genuinely hope that I’m surprised.

Well, that wasn’t quite as concise as I thought it was going to be, but hopefully it provides a little something to whet our appetites as we begin this journey.

All the best,

Matt

11 thoughts on “Preface

  1. I agree that intuitions are very unreliable, being both limited and biased; even more so in contexts that we have very little life experience in, or things we’re emotionally attached to without being aware enough of it. But they are also extremely important and shouldn’t be taken lightly, because they offer all the leads that possibly point to a discovery. Often intuitions also process information that we don’t have clear conscious access to. They’re powerful pattern seekers, which is a worthwhile beginning to logic’s final assessment.

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    1. Hi Jason/Annelise. Thanks for being our first commenter!

      Yes, indeed. I certainly wouldn’t argue that intuition is entirely worthless. It definitely has some incredibly important uses. It’s great for making us jump out of the way of speeding cars, for example. But it will also make us jump out of the way of speeding shadows. And that’s my point. Intuition, on its own, can’t determine whether there’s actually a car there or not. We need to use further investigation to be confident of that conclusion. So since other evidence is a necessity anyway (and may very well contradict the intuitive response), then surely it will lead to more rational conclusions if we avoid being influenced by intuition and rely on that other evidence instead? That said, intuition has clearly been honed by evolution to be useful enough to keep us alive. After all, it would be pretty useless if it were always incorrect. As such, I don’t disagree that intuition is sometimes (maybe, even often) correct. I don’t think I would go so far as to say it “offers all the leads” but I suppose I can agree that you could use it as a sort of idea generator, so to speak, in order to investigate a feeling to see where it ends up. But in the end, empirical evidence will always trump a hunch, in my view. I realise that even the phrase “empirical evidence” can sometimes open a can of worms in these types of discussions, but I’m sure we’ll get the chance to discuss that in depth several times over the course of this blog. In any case, it sounds like our viewpoints on this particular topic are not actually that far apart. Intuition is not reliable on its own but shouldn’t be completely ignored. Perhaps it’s just a matter of degree as to how much weight each of us is willing to give it.

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      1. Yes…intuition is an invaluable starting point, and at the same time it shouldn’t be considered faultless. It’s an amorphous, searching, chaotic work in progress, which seeks to end up in as reasonable logic a form as possible.

        The role of this intuition seems more blurry though when logical information is also significantly limited. The very origin of the temporal universe’s intricate elements is one of those questions where both rational information and accumulated life experience are lacking for us. So does that mean we can know nothing about it?

        All we have are some uninformed, contradictory intuitions and nothing to flatly confirm or reject them with. Yet some of these intuitions are so strong. Maybe they can be explained away by evolutionary brain development, but some of that is really speculation too.

        A truly scientific approach is deeply aware that many complex realities haven’t even been touched on yet with theories. So the pursuit of science compels us to follow hunches and expect that some of them will add to or displace current awareness.

        I’ve seen no proof, nor disproof, that immaterial and even relational-spiritual aspects of existence exist. If they do, humans may be able to sense this on some level of our being. And it’s more than just a baseless fantasy. Our theories are all based upon our perceptions. Perception comes first, then analysis. So an extremely strong perception is as good a candidate as any for consideration for inclusion in formation of a theory. If no other evidence at all exists to refute it, then it stands as a fair possibility in our minds.

        Many people do strongly feel that consciousness is more than a complex material process; that love and justice are essentially real and important; that miracle claims can be convincing; and/or that the existence of anything finite at all, let alone the seeming complexity at the beginning of our universe’s history, would come from a choice on the part of the unforced infinite. These extremely strong perceptions may not be anything near concrete evidence, yet the burden of proof for rejecting extremely strong and unrefuted perceptions from being taken seriously at all is upon the materialist.

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      2. There’s not much I can disagree with there. Like I said before, I think our positions on this are not all that far apart. It’s just a matter of degree.

        Like you, I also know of no definitive proof either way that an immaterial and/or spiritual realm exists and I certainly wouldn’t argue that we should reject all intuitions as wrong.

        We seem to both agree that these perceptions, strong or otherwise, can be useful as a starting point but are not faultless. What I conclude from that is, since we know intuitions are not always right, they hold very little predictive power. To return to the example in my previous response, we know our intuition sometimes makes us jump out of the way when there was no need to. We also know that, sometimes, that strong feeling we have that we know who’s ringing the doorbell before we open the door doesn’t always turn out to be right. Granted, these are trivial examples, but the conundrum remains: if we know some strong feelings are wrong, how can we distinguish between the intuitions that are true perceptions of reality and those that are just red herrings? Further investigation is a necessity before drawing any conclusions as to their veracity.

        So while I wouldn’t push a materialist view that says we should ignore all intuitions out of hand, I’m not sure I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt either. That’s perhaps where our opinions diverge by a degree or two. In any case, I would agree with you that intuitions can be considered as candidates for inclusion in a theory. So our differing opinions on the plausibility of those intuitions is perhaps somewhat irrelevant since we both seem to be advocating for further investigation anyway.

        My view is, if there’s corroborating evidence for the truth of a feeling, then yes, maybe we can begin to accept it. If not, though, then it remains inconclusive because, like you said, strong perceptions are far from being concrete evidence. And until there’s enough compelling evidence, I see no reason to accept that specific feeling as an accurate reflection of reality. The safest bet, in my opinion, is to reserve judgement until further evidence comes to light.

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  2. I think you’re right that it comes down to differing degrees of how seriously we take the intuitions I mentioned. Some people have an absolute sureness that God exists as a personal creator and has revealed some things. Some people put that belief in the same category as unicorns or tree spirits. I’m in between, it seems to me an important idea but not one I’m sure about.

    The thing about being in the middle is that I feel a strong humility in front of the possibility of a relationship with my creator. I don’t feel that way towards anything within finite existence. And it’s complicated to feel a sense of yearning and connection towards something that may or may not be real.

    I have to say that in less important matters, there are times when I do just trust my instincts. If I’m trying to decide whether or not something is worth buying, what path to take next in life, or something like that and I’ve thought about the pros and cons but I’m not sure how they balance, then I’ve usually felt content with the decisions I’ve made based on what feels right. Those are questions of what will make me comfortable or happy, not questions of philosophy or physics. Yet the origin of our personal being feels like a personal, relational question too, one that really may have a direct connection to our emotions just like a human relationship does. For some people, that perception feels as strong as their perception of the material world, and they might say that our vision of it has been clouded by distractions. It’s hard to find common ground between the foundations of the two ways of seeing things.

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    1. To be clear, when I talked about our differing degrees of opinion, I was referring to the degree in which we hold any given intuition as likely to be true before we’ve investigated it. I wasn’t referring to the strength of the feelings themselves. I have strong feelings about certain things, but I treat those exactly the same as I do the weak feelings, which is to say, I don’t accept them as true until/unless they’ve been independently verified. As far as I’m aware, there’s no correlation whatsoever between the strength of a feeling and its veracity. So it shouldn’t matter how strong a feeling is. It needs to be backed up with evidence before it can be considered an accurate representation of reality.

      I also don’t think it’s necessary to distinguish between perceptions of the supernatural world and perceptions of the natural world. All perceptions need to be independently verified, no matter what their content is. The method of perception is mostly irrelevant in this context. Be it intuition or the physiological senses, we need to verify the information outside of our own perception before it’s reasonable to accept it as true, even if it’s something related to the material world. For instance, many people claim they’ve seen the Loch Ness Monster. That’s a material claim they’ve perceived through one of the five traditional senses, but without other evidence that verifies that perception, it’s not reasonable to accept that it’s accurate. Likewise, many people claim to have felt ghosts in their presence. That’s a supernatural perception, but again, if there is no corroborating evidence to back up that feeling, it’s unreasonable to base any argument on that feeling. So I would disagree that there’s no common ground between those two ways of seeing things because the rules we should be applying to them are the same. All claims from personal experience require outside evidence to back them up. I think this also applies to anything that “feels like a personal, relational question” or that “may have a direct connection to our emotions”. Those, too, are merely perceptions so those, too, require outside evidence before I can consider them accurate. If that evidence doesn’t exist (and perhaps this is where our views diverge a bit further), then I find it unreasonable to live my life as if the feeling represents reality. It can remain a possibility, but that’s where it’ll stay without supporting evidence.

      The most important point here is that our perceptions are flawed. We need something else to be able to corroborate the information we receive from those perceptions. So I go back to the question I posed in my last comment: since we know that some of our perceptions can be incorrect, how can we distinguish between the ones that are true reflections of reality and those that are not? I answered that before by suggesting that further investigation is key and I believe there are indeed methods of investigation that offer the precise tools we need to gather evidence that isn’t tainted by our own flawed perceptions.

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      1. I think that all our knowledge comes from perceptions, and there is no independent source verification that I know of. But were you suggesting that until a very large collection of perceptions point in one direction, we shouldn’t trust it very much?

        Absolute certainty can’t really be our aim, because nothing is guaranteed. The ground we walk on everyday has been solid under our feet for so many steps before now, so you and I both feel extremely confident that in similar future circumstances, we can walk with expectation of solid ground. The are very many common occurences and existences that we can believe in almost totally. But there is no absolute promise of that pattern repeating in the future, no omniscient guarantee that we’ve pieced the evidence together in a way that allows us such confidence. Just many, many correlating perceptions, which we count as good enough.

        Perhaps it depends on how important the claim is. When you’re going to undertake major surgery, you suddenly want a higher level of certainty in the prodedure and practitioners than you cared to know about before.

        So if you were saying that the more different senses, repetitions, or other forms of connected perceptions we have to give credence to any perception, the more certain we can be, on a spectrum from perceptions we ignore to perceptions we trust almost-completely for the decision at hand, then I agree. And when the evidence is conflicted, we want an even higher level of proof (many perceptions connected in a pattern that is unlikely to be random) to show that a theory is better than an opposing theory. But I think all ideas and theories, even the high value we place on strategies of logical analysis, come from a swt of perceptions that has served us well till now…not from an absolute verification.

        The difficult thing about some religions is that they seem to demand total and unwavering faith similar to our belief in the most well-attested things in our lives, and a surrender or our own decision making on some important topics, but then they don’t give the level of evidence that is needed for things as big as those.

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  3. PS sorry about all the typos, I hope you can read through them. I’ve been writing on my phone in limited snatched moments of time.

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  4. This may just be semantics, but I think there are definitely sources of verification that are more independent than our own personal experiences. I suppose, though, in a technical sense, even the most rigorous scientific experiments still rely on human senses to report the results, so I’ll concede that my use of “outside of our perceptions” is perhaps not the best way of framing it. Nonetheless, there are clearly methods of investigation that rely only minimally on our individual perceptions, decreasing the risk of bias. Consider the following hypothetical experiment:

    If I told a hundred random people who had never met me that I was exactly 175cm tall and asked them each to use their intuition to confirm whether or not that’s true, maybe half of them would get it right. If I allowed them to meet me in person so that they could use their eyes to guess my height, we might see a greater success rate. But then, what if I gave each of them access to a tape measure?

    Those are three differing degrees of personal perception. The first is a total stab in the dark. The second is an educated guess. And the last barely relies on personal perception at all, only enough to read the tape measure correctly. It would be unreasonable to suggest that all three of those methods have the same chance at being correct. And while I haven’t actually performed that experiment, it seems fairly obvious how it would play out. Using a tape measure is clearly more rigorous precisely because it relies on the smallest amount of personal perception.

    Randomized, controlled, double-blinded experiments are the gold standard for scientific studies for the same reason. They reduce our biases in collecting data and evidence. And the more positive rigorous studies there are that point to the same conclusion, the greater the confidence we can have in it. I think these sorts of verification procedures can be included in what you called “other forms of connected perceptions” in order to strengthen our confidence in a particular claim. I’d go one step further, though, and suggest that these types of verification procedures should be given greater weight than personal perceptions.

    I agree, though, that we’re not aiming for certainty. That’s probably impossible. But the more confirming studies that get done, the closer to certainty we get, to the point that sometimes, it’s immensely unlikely a theory will get replaced. Even so, scientific conclusions remain conditional. If new evidence comes to light that contradicts a previously established theory, then the theory needs to be adjusted or abandoned. In that sense, science is also self-correcting, another reason I hold it in higher regard than other methods of seeking knowledge.

    Furthermore, I think the scientific method is the only thing so far that has a decent success rate in terms of its explanatory and predictive power. Consider how accurately we were able to predict the recent solar eclipse here in the United States. Down to the second. That wouldn’t even be remotely possible if the scientific method didn’t work. Every theory predicts certain outcomes. That is, if theory A is correct, then we will necessarily see outcome B. So we go out and test for outcome B using those methods of investigation that rely the least on personal perceptions. If we can’t find outcome B, the theory fails. If we can, the theory is one step closer to certainty. By proceeding that way for every claim we come across, we have a greater chance of increasing our knowledge about the world in the most accurate way possible. No other method of investigation even comes close to the success of the scientific method. We continue to use it because it demonstrably works. Without it, we wouldn’t have planes, toasters or symphony orchestras. We wouldn’t have eradicated small pox or sent a man to the moon. And you and I wouldn’t be able to converse like we are from opposite sides of the planet.

    But yes, as you say, this is just one method that has “served us well till now” and there’s no absolute guarantee it will continue that way. But it’s self-correcting and it’s incredibly useful in the most practical ways conceivable so I don’t think it matters that it’s not absolute.

    Anyway, as I said at the beginning of this long-winded diatribe, we may just be arguing semantics here because I couldn’t agree more with your final paragraph. Maybe we took slightly separate paths, but we seem to have arrived at the same conclusion: some religious claims are not backed up with sufficient evidence to accept them. The next question, then, might be how do we respond to that lack of evidence? To avoid the risk of writing another ten paragraphs, it might be best if I don’t offer my answer to that right now. 😉

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  5. You’re right that we basically agree on these points. I also see immense strength in the perceptions gained from rigorous scientific method and logic, and I don’t see personal intuition as a source of certainty. I still feel an awareness that a) many things exist that the human race as a whole doesn’t understand, and b) many future discoveries are going to start with intuition, in other words there are some realities that we feel but aren’t sure about logically. You would agree with that too.

    Anyway, what do you make of our perception that temporal realities depend on cause and effect? The scientific method relies on this being the case at least on many levels. If it is always true, then we have to say that the universe is complex in its very beginning, because complexity can’t emerge from simplicity (except in an environment of complexity, so what I mean is that it can’t logically emerge from total simplicity). If it’s a rather reasonable logical possibility that the universe was complex from before the first instance of cause and effect, then intuition says unified complexity like that in a finite thing (including the dimensions themselves) is designed rather than self-existent. Obviously this isn’t a proof because it is just an impression based on what we can perceive here and now, but a lot of it is based on observations that are fairly constant and on which science itself depends. It’s more than just a personal impression.

    Likewise, the complex experience of conscious perception that we have relies on there being at some point a most simple form of consciousness, and that I think is more than just the sum of unperceptive material parts. I can’t prove that but it comes from a basic perception that appears to be shared by so many.

    The problem of suffering is a strong argument against all this, but based on the strength of the possibility of a creator in my mind, I do recall the fact that mystery can be at play either in suffering, existence, or both…so it might need to be considered separately.

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