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On Faith

7 Jun

Faith is not a reason. Uttering “because I have faith” only changes the question from why do you believe to why do you have faith. The only difference is that you removed “evidence” from the list of possible answers. Faith is simply believing that something is true because you want it to be true. That is neither honest nor something to base real world decisions on.

This quote, from the atheist website truth-saves.com, on a friend’s Facebook page criticizes those who rely on faith. But we all rely extensively on faith every day.

I’m going to examine this website a bit and scrutinize their dismissal of faith. It’s an interesting site, though with lots to disagree withI could spend a couple more posts talking about related topics. But on faith:

Ask yourself, why do you believe what you believe? When you claim something from the Bible is true are you doing so because of evidence and honest reasons or simply because you want it to be true? If the evidence your claim is based upon ends up being proven false would you stop making the claim? If your claim is based only on wishful thinking then you are being dishonest with yourself. There is a difference between hoping that something is true and claiming that it is true.

Let’s start with the question of  why do you believe what you believe? I think the underlying question is how do we perceive information and come to conclusions about the information we are presented? I’m admittedly no expert in the field, but I’d presume that people make decisions on beliefs based upon how any particular idea conforms or relates to previous experiences and existing beliefs. By which I mean (much more simply) that we all have prejudices and biases that affect how we take in and process information, formed since childhood. Most people are driven more by intuition and less by rationality.

As humans, we can never be truly objective and rational in assessing all the information we take in.

Faith: When no evidence can be presented many resort to faith. If faith is your reason for saying something is true then ask yourself why? Claiming that something is true because of faith is in fact the same as claiming that something is true because you want it to be true. Faith is not a reason to believe in something, it is the lack of reason to believe in something. Faith is simply an excuse to avoid giving a reason.

Faith is not necessarily a lack of reasoning or evidence. You have faith that whatever evidence (or intuition) you have, and your interpretation of it, is good enough to make further assumptions; that you have adequately considered a sufficient amount of available information to make a decision.  Unless you are omniscient, you may not have enough information to a fully-informed conclusion. Faith comes in where you believe you have at least enough information to form an opinion, if perhaps not all information; you may have available, or be able to process, only a limited amount information, and this decision to have faith filling in the gaps could be supported by previous experiences and resulting biases, which might not be concrete “evidence” per se.

Atheists share in this faith when they conclude that no god exists. And while, strictly following the scientific method, you cannot believe there is a god or any higher power unless there is evidence, that still doesn’t necessarily mean there is none (but c.f. Russel’s teapot). People use both a religious tradition and spiritual experiences to create faith in a religion. Similarly, we don’t know for sure that the big bang theory is what really happened, but many take this on faith based on whatever evidence we have.

(But I’m not here to argue the truth of god or the big bang, simply to argue that we all have faith.)

People also use faith (“trusting faith” — see below) any time they believe anything someone says without being able to first verify every facet of the idea themselves, given the impossibility of verifying every fact ever.

Two Types Of Faith: There are two types of faith, trusting faith and blind faith. Trusting faith is a predicted trust based on evidence. Blind faith is the belief in something despite the evidence. Neither forms of faith are reasons to believe in something. Only the evidence which trust is based on or which blind faith disregards serves as an honest reason to base believe [sic] on.

 In other words (if I’m understanding this right), the site proposes that we can trust only evidence we have about any topic, and based on that evidence can form beliefs (which I would call a trusting faith, which is not to be trusted per se, but only when strictly based on the evidence available). But can you be certain any conclusion even based on evidence is 100% true given the limits of forming objective opinions and making fully-informed decisions as discussed above?

I’d argue that “blind faith” is simply believing something despite (an apparent) lack of (independently verifiable) evidence, not necessarily contrary to evidence.  Atheists obviously don’t take any sort of supposed spiritual evidence of the existence of god as legitimate, and would label that belief based on “blind faith”, while those who believe in a god would argue that they do have some form of legitimate evidence (spiritual experiences, for example, which granted, are not really following the scientific method, but…). What appears to be “blind faith” to some may simply be a disregard for the legitimacy of their evidence. Of course, there are surely people who will believe whatever they want despite all evidence to the contrary, but this isn’t faith, this is stupidity.

(The site lists some fringe  issues like “Murder By Faith Healing”, for example, which I think are not majority beliefs and therefore unfair. Similarly, a number of beliefs being broadly criticized may not be commonly held across all Christians. The site’s generalization of Christian belief could be a whole ‘nother post. )

“Trusting faith”, however, is common and necessary for simply carrying out everyday life and decision-making. We have faith that earning a college degree will be a good investment resulting in a better job. I have faith that I have read enough of this website to make some sort of judgment on faith (though I could certainly stand to read more on the topic, and certainly wouldn’t call my opinions here “truth”). This faith fills in where uncertainty and incomplete knowledge, facilitating a sort of educated guess based on past experiences and existing knowledge, in order to use the resulting information for future decisions.

And what about when you must apply that belief to a something larger, or to a complex system? (later)

Are Science & Faith Compatible??  No, they are two opposite methods of forming answers. Science provides answers based on a critical and honest examination of evidence. Faith provides answers based on personal desires and opinions with a disregard of the evidence. If evidence supports a claim there is no need for faith.

Faith fills in where the available information or ability to understand it is lacking.

I believe (have faith, or intuit?) that, based on my experiences in my region and with Christians, not all that many are so very closed off to science. But I don’t have all the data; perhaps in other regions, or with groups of people far different from those I generally encounter, the case is different, in which case they should face some scrutiny for completely disregarding science. But based on my experiences of people who seek truth and have faith (a spiritual faith), chiefly at Catholic universities, the two needn’t be mutually exclusive, and as I’ve pointed out, I believe faith is necessary for secular and non-spiritual/non-religious life as well. While Catholics have indeed persecuted science at times, at others they’ve helped it along, including (for example) founding hospitals based on natural science.

“Science does not purvey absolute truth, science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature, it’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match.” -Isaac Asimov

Truth is defined as conformity with fact or reality. What is defined as truth is based on the most current available evidence and facts, not personal opinions, traditions or authority. On this site we never claim “absolute truth” and are always having our work checked and rechecked to ensure the most accurate content.

“Truth” ought to be an undeniable, unalterable fact; defining something as “truth” based only on the “most current evidence and facts” means that does not necessarily make it “true”.  For something to be “true”, the facts must be absolute (or at least have a qualifier); if updated evidence and facts can alter a “truth” it was never (and still may not be) “true”, it is simply (presumably) more true (or truthier?)

And when a truth changes, how do we measure the affect this shift has on further ideas and beliefs based on this evolved truth? In complex systems where many facts rely on each other, such a shift could be complicated. (This may be why, for example, the Catholic Church is so adamant at defending certain dogma.)

Additionally, whether “truth” can be known at all is arguable, both due to limits to the capacity of individual understanding, as well as due to bias; as Nietzsche said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

Take global warming as an example. Is global warming “true”? It depends on who you ask. Many (if not most) scientists who study the topic say yes. Many people, likely including a few dissenting scientists, are critical of the idea.

While it might be safe to at least trust the hard data collected on temperature and other factors all over Earth, the exact cause(s) and implications of any recorded changes in these data over time are arguable; the planet has extremely complex systems that might not be able to be completely understood by any one person. When trying to determine what has caused statistically increasing temperatures over a few decades or even centuries, we have only our best guesses, not undeniable proof. Even if increasing temperatures are correlated with an increase in CO2 due to human actions, correlation doesn’t imply causation. When trying to determine the effects of warming  temperatures, we can only give our best estimates. If the weather man can barely predict tomorrow’s weather accurately, why should we believe scientists trying to determine the causes and effects of global warming? [compare my earlier post]

Is supply-side or demand-side economics (more) true? Do the rich create jobs; does their wealth trickle down?

These issues have surely been extensively studied by experts, and yet we cannot come to a unanimous agreement. (Social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt attribute this to humans’ natural intuitiveness, not rationality, and our differing base values based on different worldviews. [see NYT article, book “The Righteous Mind”, which I have admittedly not quite gotten through yet) But we must have faith that a particular set of reasoning is legitimate if we are to act to try to improve a slouching economy. We have faith in certain experts who have studied the topics, and in their theories for how the economy functions. We also have faith that the ones we disagree with have misinterpreted the data, or are perhaps even lying. We cannot examine all the data on everything ourselves from a completely objective point-of-view — we all have inherent biases that color our perception — but we must use beliefs based on the data we have, and our faith that others’ data is also accurate and as unbiased as possible, in order to make further decisions. [See “The Most Important Problem in the World”, which I have also admittedly not quite gotten through yet]

Compare Norman Lear’s musings:

For the record, I am someone who defines myself as a Christian and I also believe in evolution. When non-religious friends ask how someone “like me” could believe in something I can’t prove or see, I pose the same question. “Why do you believe your parents, or spouse, or partner love you? You can’t prove it. Maybe they fed, clothed and supported you simply out of obligation, or to avoid being arrested for child abuse or neglect. Maybe your spouse or partner is only with you for strictly financial reasons or for your insurance. You can’t prove he or she’s not. My point is we all use some form of faith to get through life. I won’t judge where you use yours if you won’t judge where I use mine.

Granted, perhaps faith in a higher power — surely the main issue the website hopes to address — may be seen as a bit different than other sorts of faith, especially when this faith is used to justify other actions – whether it be Jihad or charity. But the same idea still applies: that in order to make decisions on complex issues within a complex system, we must take some of our “evidence” on faith due, to the practical impossibility of independently knowing or verifying every fact.

Long story short, the world is complicated, and sometimes an absolute truth may not be knowable. Life is also not lived completely rationally, but largely through intuition. We must have faith in certain ideas, theories, and presumptions — some of which are not able to be proven, but are based in knowledge and experiences — to be able to function at all.

The Birth Control Battle that Needn’t Be

10 Feb

There’s been a bit of an uproar, most prominently by Catholics, over “a new White House policy compelling Catholic institutions to cover contraception in health insurance plans”:

[The] dispute [was] spurred by a late January announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services that all employers, including Catholic hospitals and schools, will be required to offer free access to FDA-approved contraceptives like the birth control pill and Plan B (the so-called morning-after pill) through health insurance plans…  [CNN]

Many are claiming an intrusion on religious freedom, with Pittsburgh’s Bishop David Zubik dramatically stating:

The Obama administration was essentially saying “to hell with you,” particularly to the Catholic community by dismissing our beliefs, our religious freedom and our freedom of conscience.

 

There is obviously a lot to say from each side about this issue. But it really needn’t be an issue at all.

 

The root of this whole row is the fact that, unlike in other countries, the responsibility of providing health care often falls on one’s employer. And when your employer is the Church, or another body that opposes birth control, we can see the complications that arise when asked (or required) to provide controversial services like birth control.

Ask any group of health policy experts whether they would have put in place our employment-based health insurance system, had they had the luxury of designing our health system from scratch, the resounding answer most likely would be “No.” In fact, no other industrialized country has quite this arrangement. It is uniquely American in origin and in modus operandi.

Our employment-based system was not the product of a carefully designed health policy. It was a byproduct of evading wage controls during World War II. [NY Times]

And this issue isn’t the only one with our current health care system:

Most economists are persuaded by theory and evidence that, over the longer run, the contributions employers make toward the fringe benefits of their employees come out of the employees’ take-home pay. Economists think of employers as pickpockets, so to speak, who take a chunk of the employee’s total compensation and buy with it whatever fringe benefits they “give” their employees. That process blinds employees to the inroads that their health care makes into their families’ livelihood.

A second major shortcoming of employment-based health insurance is that it is only temporary. It is tied to a particular job in a particular company, and it is lost with that job. Nowhere else in the industrialized world does a family, already down on its luck over a job loss, also suffer the loss of its health insurance. It happens only in America, under employment-based insurance.

Finally, the group health-insurance premiums employers pay to private insurers are “experience rated” over that employer’s group of employees. This means that the group premium is based on the claims experience – that is, the health history — of just that small group of employees. [NY Times again]

Our nation is obviously in dire need of health care reform for more reasons than this. Unfortunately efforts so far have underwhelming and/or misguided. Ideally this reform would put  affordable health care within reach of all Americans.

The objective of current health reform efforts should not be to abolish the employment-based system to which so many Americans feel attached, brittle and expensive as that system may be. Instead, the aim should be to develop a robust, parallel system of fully portable insurance that individuals or families can purchase on their own, in a properly regulated and organized market, with public subsidies where deemed necessary. As my earlier posts to this blog sought to explain, this can be done in a variety of ways. [NY Times again]

And reform could well be a boon for economic/entrepreneurial growth:

The high costs of health care are:

Hurting U.S. competitiveness. Employers pay more than 50% of the costs of health care, hurting their competitive positions versus competitors from other countries. For example, General Motors’ costs are $1,000 more per car just due to the costs of health insurance.

Hurting job growth. Small companies are the engine for job growth, but because many small employers do not provide health insurance for their employees, employees are often reluctant to leave large firms and the benefits these firms provide. This could be remedied if tax laws were changed to treat employer-purchased health insurance (which today is a non-taxable company expense) the same as giving employees money to purchase their own insurance (which is treated as taxable income for the employee). [snippet from Harvard Business School]

In more detail:

Clearly, health care costs have reached levels that are adversely impacting entrepreneurial activity. One result of the spiraling expenses is the inability of new companies to offer health insurance to their employees. …

A second effect has been to lead many older small firms to reduce health care coverage. … Self-employed people are much less likely than other people to have health insurance. … Small businesses also pay more for health insurance than large companies. …

A third effect of the tremendous rise in health insurance costs over the last decade has been to impose a huge financial burden on new companies. …

Finally, because leaving a job to start a business causes one to give up employer health insurance, the employer-based health insurance system in this country is keeping some people from becoming entrepreneurs. [NY Times, different article]

 

Should health care in the US be properly reformed, this controversy would not be. Employees would be able to get health care some other way. Companies keep money for their business, no longer required to provide services they really shouldn’t have to in the first place (ditto for pensions, I suppose). And thus, the Catholic Church, as an employer, wouldn’t have to worry about indirectly supporting services they oppose, but which many see as essential.

 

More:

Kauffman-RAND Institute for Entrepreneurship Public Policy: Is Employer-Based Health Insurance A Barrier To Entrepreneurship?

American Journal of Public Health: Insights From Health Care in Germany; NPR: Most Patients Happy With German Health Care

Capitalism vs. the Climate, God vs. Progressivism

8 Feb

One of the most interesting articles I’ve read recently,  “Capitalism vs. the Climate” not only points out some of the potential changes we’d have to make to avert and/or adapt to climate change, but also explains the reason that this “inconvenient truth” is being fought so adamantly by many conservatives, especially of late.

It boils down to this: perhaps climate change theory itself is not necessarily false, but acknowledging its existence would consequently recognize the steps we would have to take and changes we’d have to make to combat it — and most of these steps are anathema to conservatives, contradicting strongly held underlying beliefs and totally upending the status quo:

The [climate change] deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their “free market” belief system. As British blogger and Heartland regular James Delingpole has pointed out, “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, regulation.” Heartland’s Bast puts it even more bluntly: For the left, “Climate change is the perfect thing…. It’s the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.”

Here’s my inconvenient truth: they aren’t wrong. Before I go any further, let me be absolutely clear: as 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists attest, the Heartlanders are completely wrong about the science. The heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels are already causing temperatures to increase. If we are not on a radically different energy path by the end of this decade, we are in for a world of pain.

But when it comes to the real-world consequences of those scientific findings, specifically the kind of deep changes required not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system, the crowd gathered at the Marriott Hotel may be in considerably less denial than a lot of professional environmentalists, the ones who paint a picture of global warming Armageddon, then assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying “green” products and creating clever markets in pollution.

So in a way, Chris Horner was right when he told his fellow Heartlanders that climate change isn’t “the issue.” In fact, it isn’t an issue at all. Climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable. These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress, unaccustomed to having our ambitions confined by natural boundaries. And this is true for the statist left as well as the neoliberal right.

Here is where the Heartlanders have good reason to be afraid: arriving at these new systems is going to require shredding the free-market ideology that has dominated the global economy for more than three decades … For hard-right ideologues like those gathered at the Heartland conference, the results are nothing short of intellectually cataclysmic.

Or a bit more simply (in this case in particular regarding the absence of any climate change talk in the 2012 presidential campaigns):

Republican candidates are distancing themselves from the issue for ideological reasons. “They believe that addressing climate change will require government action, or even worse, intergovernmental action.” [The World]

This fear has become seemingly extreme; many fear that making even the least offensive change in one’s lifestyle to cope with global warming — or especially being “forced” to make such a change, as in the plan to phase-out incandescent light bulbs in favor of objectively more efficient alternatives — is a drastic over-reach of government control, and that being “denied their right to put any lightbulb in any socket in America is just too much control, a loss of freedom.” Another group of activists has recently begun wailing about a 20-year old, non-binding UN resolution called Agenda 21, which promotes sustainable development, by “…[branding] government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.”

I think this parallels perfectly with many liberals’ fear of the social changes espoused by Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman. In their case, the issue is not nature’s threat to us, but God’s.  We’ve screwed up our social structure and are living in ways that “pollute” Christian values in a supposedly “Christian nation”. And instead of rising ocean levels, we may have an angry God to deal with. So they must fight against those pollutants: gays, abortion, sex, whatever. But liberals view this as an equally threatening drastic over-reach of religious intrusion… “just too much control, a loss of freedom.” Implementing all the ideals that people like Rick Santorum and the Catholic Church preach hold dear would require severe and drastic societal changes. (Well, I suppose I meant people like Santorum and institutions like the Church. Unless the Church is technically a corporation, since they’re people anyway)

I think the greatest difference between the practical implications of both sides has to do with this duality:  climate change would presumably affect us all. We wouldn’t have the option to escape its impacts, and they may well be devastating. While religious and social principles surely have a great impact on wider society, people have much greater choice about being following their own personal beliefs. You have the choice to live as piously as you may be inclined, regardless of what others do. Though it may be the most extreme example, the Amish have managed to exemplify this. You have the responsibility to be “in the world but not of the world”, for which you are accountable only to yourself and to God.

Additionally, while there are hundreds of religions espousing diverging theologies, there is far less diversity in interpreting data related to climate change; either humans have a hand in global warming or we don’t, though to what degree could be arguable. There are, of course, numerous ideas about what exactly we would have to do to deal with climate change or a sinful nation; deciding exactly what measures to take to address the issues we face is always a divisive issue.

And this is not to even mention the idea of separation of church and state. Of course, the exact meaning and implications of that idea could be argued. And conversely, there is the more abstract idea of absolute freedom in matters such as consumer choice that could be argued in the case of restrictive environmental regulations.

Urbanist I am, I of course would support the implementation the “climate agenda” that Klein spells out: Reviving and Reinventing the Public Sphere, Remembering How to Plan, Reining in Corporations, Relocalizing Production, Ending the Cult of Shopping, and Taxing the Rich and Filthy. As Joseph Bast said, combating climate change really is kind of the “perfect thing, the reason why we should do everything [I] wanted to do anyway”, namely revitalizing our towns, cities, and greater public realm in general, and working towards greater social equity. And I would venture to say that many of the goals of such action may well be right in line with religious ideals as well.

And even if you’re not totally convinced about anthropogenic climate change, better safe than sorry, right? Better to force yourself to adapt in advance than to have to deal with the surprise of whatever disaster might occur. I would argue that any short-term impacts to growth and the economy would, in the long-term, be worth it (and perhaps an ever-growing consumer economy, or the jeopardization of our long-term environmental health for short-term profit,  isn’t all that great anyway, topics I may cover at a later date).

Unfortunately, people fear change, and unless our pocketbooks really start getting squeezed — or, in this case, our coastal cities are sunk below rising sea waters, or we witness the Lord’s glorious return from heaven on a chariot of fire — I fear what will happen if the changes needed to combat issues perceived by either side come too late.