Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Works For Me

I have two Muslim friends that I talk with regularly. We debate politics, religion, and whatever else we can find to debate. They are both smart people that can hold their own in a debate, but when it comes to religion, neither has really thought a lot about how they would justify their own faith. So when I pose challenges to their faith neither of them finds themselves on real solid footing.

They have different reactions to this. One of them seems to chew on the problems more than the other. He goes home and poses questions similar to ones I've asked him to his own friends and family, and this makes them all uncomfortable. He's trying to resolve these things in his own mind.

The other really doesn't care. He says to me "Jon, I can't answer you, and you know what? I don't care. My wife is Muslim. My friends are Muslim. My parents are Muslim. I'm happy being Muslim. Why rock the boat?"

I'm thinking that's not a good attitude. You should go where the evidence leads. That's going to be better for you in the end, right?

Now, what the Christian apologist will say to me is "You say we should only believe what the evidence suggests. Where is your evidence for that belief?"

I think that's a fair point. I don't have evidence for this belief, so I can't prove that everyone should adhere to this belief. But what I can do is I can point out that evidence works pretty well. We've seen the witch doctors, prophets, and faith healers. We've seen that they have a poor track record. We've seen the scientific method. Failures occur in science, but science has a means of correction that dogma doesn't have. I'm sticking with evidence. History shows that it works well.

But then, what is my real criterion here? Is it "Believe the evidence" or "Believe what works"? Greg Krehbiel made an interesting point in this regard. He said that I believe things for which there is no evidence. I believe that I am not a brain in a jar being manipulated in my thoughts by some external source. How would it be possible to prove that false with evidence, since anything I would point to would be part of the program that is manipulating me?

So why do I deny that I'm a brain in a jar when I can't point to any evidence? My answer is that the assumption that I'm not a brain in a jar just works. If I pretend that I'm the only person in the world, and I steal or skip work, or maybe walk out into a busy intersection, things get uncomfortable.

Another thing that made me uncomfortable when I was a Christian was having these Christian beliefs that conflicted with the evidence. I had difficulty sleeping. My mind would race attempting to reconcile these claims and I could not do it successfully, and I had further difficulty putting these thoughts out of my mind. On the flip side of the coin rejecting Christianity was going to create other uncomfortable situations with friends, family, and my efforts to make sense of a world that had always been fully explained within the Christian paradigm.

But having beliefs that conflicted with the evidence just wasn't working for me, so I switched. But is that true for everyone? It doesn't seem to bother my Muslim friend. His beliefs work for him. Who am I to say he should change?


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I had a discussion with a friend of mine, a philospher by training and nature if not by trade. We discussed Kant, in response to a particularly silly post by a fundamentalist on a forum. Kant had ideas along the lines of (excuse my poor explanation, my friends the philosopher, not me) why we belief. Given that we have no evidence that what we see is real, how can we trust it. I like to think of this as the "Matrix" arguement. In the matrix, everything looks, sounds, smells, tastes and feels as real as the real world. So how do you know you aren't in the matrix. further, even if you are freed from the matrix, how do you know this has happened and it isn't just the program making you believe that it has happened.
Ultimately Kants arguements can be dismissed as briefly interesting naval gazing. I cannot know that what i perceive is real, but i still need to pay rent or my landlord will evict me. If you cannot tell the difference between the real world and an illusion in any way, then the illusion should be treated as real.

So to your muslim friend. I've often regard Islam outside of Islamic countries as being more cultural than religious for many muslims. I once dated a Hindu girl for whom this was true. He is happy going through his life not really thinking about the basis of fact in his religion. Fair enough and if he leaves others to their own beliefs then thats fine. But what if he doesn't. What if he doesn't buy ham for his sandwiches. no problem, who cares? What if he prays 5 times a day pointing toi Mecca, hey, its his time, who cares. What if he votes against federal or state funding of stem cell research because it conflicts with his views on the sanctity of life, now there you run into problems. People tend to do things that are directly bad for them and those around them on the basis of religion. Pro-lifers reject life saving medical techniques that could help or even cure thousands of people with horrible conditions. Fundamentalists are supported by more moderate churches in their quest to legitimise creation science and historial flood scenario's. Religious lobbies, funded by cuts from donation plates or otherwise harmless churches push for bad legislation in congress.
These things are all the result of otherwise decent people undertaking relatively innocuous actions soleyl on the basis of their faith. When that faith is misplaced, the decisions can be bad for them, their family and their community.

Also, there are philosophical arguements to be made. Should we not, regardless of the possible harmless of certain believes try and strive for the truth? Shouldn't we examine ALL our beliefs everynow and then and ask, "Is this right?". Shouldn't we ensure that we don't teach our children superstitution when we could be teaching them critical thinking?

Jon said...

Well, you're right that in holding to these myths my friend may make some decisions that affect me. That's a problem. But what can you do? I can't expect him to think in that way. He's going to think first and foremost about what is in his own best interest, and perhaps belief in Islam is in his best interest right now? What else can he do? I would like to see him change I guess, for reasons you suggest, but I suppose my point is simply that if he doesn't I understand why and that knowledge does provide me some contentedness.

Though if you've seen what I've written elsewhere about abortion you might know that I oppose it. And by the way, in the U.S. stem cell research is perfectly legal. It's just not publicly funded. So if it is extremely promising I expect private companies will explore it with their own money. That's the way I'd rather see it done regardless of the moral questions involved with abortion.

But why should we strive for truth? For me I think it boils down to the fact that truth seems to work better for me. It seems safer. It seems to result in more happiness. But what if that's not true for you. What if falsity worked better? It's hard for me to relate to that since it's not the way my mind works, but for someone else who tells me it does work for them, I don't know what to say to that.

Crowhill said...

My approach is more like this -- I don't know if there's a "reason" for rejecting that you're a brain in a jar. You just reject it.

Does there have to be a "reason"? How can you answer that in a meaningful way?

I like the anonymous poster's comment that if you can't tell the difference between "real" and "illusion," you might as well believe it's real.