The British Humanist Association Part 1 – “How do we know what is true?”

The British Humanist Association this week launched four short videos on the internet to help better explain what Humanism is and what Humanists stand for. Each of them is narrated very professionally by the actor Stephen Fry. Since they touch on discussions common to philosophy, theology and ethics I would like to suggest some responses one could make to them from a theistic perspective.

Take a good look at the final portrait:

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I’m reminded of a scene in the film, Donnie Darko, where Donnie’s teacher insists he pick a view from the two available options. Donnie tries to explain to the teacher that life is not as straightforward as she is suggesting and that he cannot accept the dichotomy she is attempting to force on him. This picture ends up looking something like that. Over on the right we have superstition and religion (bad – “Boooo!”) and on the left we have science and medicine for the win (good – “Horaaah!”).

But, life is just not as easy to place into compartments as the BHA is suggesting. In fact, this little video is a complete and utter mess.

Let’s start with the obvious:

Where do Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Pascal, Mersenne, Gassendi, Beeckman, Faraday, Joule, Maxwell, and Lord Kelvin (not to mention numerous others) go on this chart? Scientists like Galileo held the view that God has revealed himself through ‘two books’; the book of nature and the book of revelation (the Bible). Galileo saw no problem in holding both at the same time (despite pressure from some segments of the church to force him to choose). Galileo thought the book of nature tells us how the heavens work and the book of revelation told us how to get to heaven. This is why you should almost choke on the irony when Fry’s monologue skips from holy books to a drawing of a telescope with the word “others.” Sorry to break it to you Stephen but some of the first people to develop telescopes were the same people reading, and taking very seriously, certain holy books. Faraday-Millikan-Gale-1913

Michael Faraday was a staunch Christian while being one of the most incredible scientists who ever lived. He would be entirely happy with everything on the left but there are three things on the right he also held to (God, the supernatural, and the Bible).

For all of the scientists mentioned above, they viewed their science to be the outworking of their theological views. They did not see the two as separate fields of knowledge which had nothing to do with each other. Take Robert Boyle as another example. The philosopher of science Margaret J. Osler explains:

“Boyle was a deeply religious man and discussed the theological implications of his corpuscularism at great length. He believed that God had created matter and had endowed it with motion. God had created laws of nature but could violate those laws at will; biblical miracles provided evidence for that claim… For Boyle – and many other natural philosophers of his day – the practice of natural philosophy was an act of worship, since it led to greater knowledge of the Creator by directly acquainting the careful observer with God’s wisdom and benevolence in designing the world.”

Margaret J. Osler ‘Mechanical Philosophy’ in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction ed. Gary B. Ferngren p.149

So this modern-day popular notion of science and religion in conflict, which is clearly being suggested in this video, simply does not hold up to rational scrutiny when one considers the history of science seriously.

Another point to make is that a lot of non-religious people who accept science still accept superstitious ideas; they refuse to walk under ladders (not for any rational reason but because it causes ‘bad luck’), they read their horoscopes, they ignore medical advice in favour of ‘alternative medicine’, and they consult mediums. [1] Even though they think religion is irrational they also hold to many things which are generally regarded as superstition.

Another problem with this presentation is that a supernatural realm is described as a reality which lies beyond our senses (and therefore gets placed on the right hand side) as if that makes it unreasonable to believe. But theoretical physicists regularly posit realms of existence which are far beyond our sense experience! Physicists regularly speak of other universes and other dimensions of existence which are well beyond our ability to sense or experience. Somehow they are considered scientific but belief in one other dimension is regarded as ‘superstition’ when it is designated the label ‘heaven’. Okay, but why?

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Then, of course, there’s the question itself: “How do we know what is true?” If you constrict that question to how the world ‘works’ (as the beginning of the video made it sound) then science is obviously the finest way to find answers to such questions but that question should have been ‘How does the world work?’ However the question actually posed here is “How do we know what is true?” and that question is much broader. How does the BHA even know there is such a thing as objective truth? How does the BHA know that human beings are constructed well enough to find such objective truth (even if it really exists)? What theory of knowledge are they proposing? Well it appears to be (yawn) scientism.

The video ends with some popular level scientism. In fact, Fry’s last sentence is a pretty good definition of what scientism is:

“When we want to know what’s true and what is false there is no better method.”

[I will refer to this statement as x.]

Now we should notice that ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ are both very strangely absent from the presentation completely. It really does seem that the idea of science here is not some older definition of science which included the ‘soft-sciences’ but ‘hard’, natural, empirical science. But this leaves us with a very obvious and rather annoying question. Is the final statement of the presentation a scientific statement in that narrow sense? I think it’s obviously not. The reason it’s not is because there is no empirical evidence (at least none I’m aware of) to suggest that x is true. Once again, some philosophy is being smuggled in and not being admitted to. The video certainly appears to be suggesting the BHA adhere to some form of scientism.

Statement x is, of course, more to do with the classic questions found more traditionally in philosophy departments in academia rather than in the science departments. What we know, what we can possibly know, and how we come to know it is to be doing epistemology and it is crucial this discipline is not hijacked by those who have already assumed that some extremely crude form of empiricism has won the debate. Of course, to anyone who has read even a college introduction to epistemology, this video completely ignores epistemological discussion as if it does not need mentioning but this is precisely what makes it so horribly naïve.

You can have a lovely video, with a superb actor to read it, but if a video is lacking in substance it’s not worth much.

Here are a couple of better summaries:

PS. Since writing this it appears the author of one of the phrases behind this video comes from Alice Roberts:

BjPxRibCUAECHDc

And Andrew Copson appears to be claiming to be the primary writer of the material.

———————————–

[1] For some evidence of these claims see:

Why horoscopes leave us star struck

Statistical Survey of Americans and Brits

Horoscopes: A sign of the times

More than half of Britons believe in psychic powers (BBC)

23% of Britons have consulted a psychic

Britain’s psychic turn

Belief in psychic ability and the misattribution hypothesis: A qualitative review

Psychic Experiences: Psychic Illusions

Psychic Source Survey Finds Abundance of Men Consulting Psychics 2014

Required reading for Stephen Fry and his fellow Humanists:

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About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
This entry was posted in Atheism, Epistemology, Humanism, Science and Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to The British Humanist Association Part 1 – “How do we know what is true?”

  1. “Where do Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Pascal, Mersenne, Gassendi, Beeckman, Faraday, Joule, Maxwell, and Lord Kelvin (not to mention numerous others) go on this chart?”

    They go in the list of christian scientists who paid especially close attention to the way the world actually worked, and who developed non-supernatural theories to explain it. They formulated more naturalistic ideas *despite* their religious beliefs (they also managed to leave those beliefs at the laboratory door, in many cases).

    That’s where they go. They were early pioneers, exploring the frontiers of knowledge where the maps of their times stopped.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Yes I think the point I’m making, however, is that they saw no conflict between answering how the world works by natural means and yet still seeing a need for a Creator of these natural means and the scientific findings not making God any less necessary for a fuller explanation of life. That is the point and therefore the dichotomy the BHA are offering is a false one.

  2. Steven Carr says:

    I see.

    So if we find a Christian who was a scientist we can show those pesky atheists that science and Christianity are totally compatible.

    And if we can find a Christian who was an adulterer…..

    Science tells us that the Sun will swell into a red giant and kill all life on Earth,

    Yes, Christians shout, our god planned it that way. There is no conflict, The Sun will destroy all life on Earth, just like our religion says.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Hi Steven,

      Well I don’t think it’s that no. The fact is we can find hundreds of scientists who were committed Christians and who saw no such dichotomy between doing science and being theists. I think the obvious point about adultery is that that IS, quite directly, a violation of Christian teaching. Doing science isn’t. So that’s a terrible comparison.

      I’m sorry to tell you that the conflict thesis is dying in academia. The only people who tend to hold to it these days are popularist atheist apologists. I would strongly recommend reading the book I cited ‘Science and Religion’ for a good, scholarly overview.

      Many thanks anyway,

      • Steven Carr says:

        So your only point is that as Christians believe there is no conflict between science and religion, so there is really no conflict between science and religion, because Christians believe there is no conflict between science and religion,

        Not very convincing…..

        In the real world, scientists abandon their religion as soon as they enter a lab, as they would never dream of claiming that anything supernatural ever happens in their fields of expertise.

        • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

          No that’s not my point. My point is that the historical situation is far more complex and nuanced than a word like ‘conflict’ would suggest. Clearly there have been moments of conflict and there are certain Christian groups today who teach fundamentalist teachings which do conflict with science. But the point is whether Christian theism is, on the whole, in conflict with either the principles of science or the findings of science or not.

          It matters not one jot if you find this convincing or not. All that matters is what the consensus of professional historians of science and philosophers of science have to say.

          Of course a religious scientist is not going to make claims to the miraculous within their field because science does not deal with the study of non-natural events. In the same way a Christian philosopher is unlikely to use his/her own personal religious experience as an argument for the existence of God. No offense but you appear to have some rather odd ideas about what theists ought to believe.

          Thanks anyway.

          • Steven Carr says:

            ‘Of course a religious scientist is not going to make claims to the miraculous within their field because science does not deal with the study of non-natural events’

            Correct.

            They abandon their religious view as soon as they deal with the real world, rather than the world of their religion,

          • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

            No they don’t. That’s a ridiculous misuse of the word ‘abandon’. For example, when I teach I put my personal beliefs to one side in order to teach my subject in a professional way. When I do this it would not be true to say I’m “abandoning” my religious beliefs in order to do my job. In fact, I believe I’m actually being more faithful to my beliefs to leave them outside of my profession in order to do my job professionally.

            By the way, the story is told of the Nobel Prize winning physicist J.J. Thomson that he used to sing hymns while doing his experiments in his lab. He, like the other scientists listed above, thought he was glorifying God by investigating the rationality of the world God created. They did not view it as something separate to their faith but rather as an logical extension of it.

            I would strongly advise reading about Thomson or people like Faraday and Galileo. They saw doing natural science as an act of worship and not as two things which conflict.

      • Glenn says:

        “I’m sorry to tell you that the conflict thesis is dying in academia.”

        I’m generally delighted to tell people this.

        • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

          Thanks for stopping by Glenn – I’m honoured! Love your blog by the way. (Just so you know, we British love to apologise when we’re being sarcastic. It doesn’t translate well I know!)

  3. Steven Carr says:

    There is also the Christian way of finding out what is true.

    According to the New Testament, this involves visions and dreams.

    If a man from Macedonia appears to you in vision, you are not seeing things. There really is a real person there, teleporting to you from Greece. Honest.

    • Glenn says:

      “There is also the Christian way of finding out what is true.

      According to the New Testament, this involves visions and dreams.”

      At best, this is a bit clumsy. At worst… it’s something else. Unfortunately I suspect the latter.

      I wanted to know if we had any eggs. So I checked in the fridge. Therefore, “The Glenn peoples way of finding out what is true” is to look in the fridge. Right?

      It’s a bit silly actually. The New Testament is packed full of people finding out what is true. They used their yes, they asked questions, they listened, etc. All very normal stuff. That God on occasion intervened uncommon ways is hardly a threat to any of that.

    • labreuer says:

      Have you ever come across the following?

      He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (Mt 13:24-30)

      Do you understand what this means, re: your “visions and dreams”?

  4. labreuer says:

    Go back to your is–ought gap:

    1. Science tells us what is.
    2. Science does not tell us what ought to be.

    The narrator of this video assumes #2 doesn’t exist for the sake of truth, which seems to turn him into a kind of moral non-cognitivist. He reminds me of all those scientists around 1900, who gloried in how science would make us such fantastic people. Then WWI hit. Then WWII hit. Then we had the USSR, and Mao, and Pol Pot. Maybe science isn’t our salvation? Maybe it’s wonderful, but not everything? The narrator ignores these possibilities and focuses on #1.

    The narrator assumes that the primary purpose of religion is #1. Apparently and ironically, he has not examined the evidence. Keith Ward has, in his >The Case for Religion:

    One immediate result of such an inquiry [figuring out how modern religious adherents would describe ‘religion’] would surely be to suggest that people are not primarily interested in trying to explain why events happen, and their practice is not primarily intended to make things happen as they wish. The contemporary Christian does not go to church to find out how televisions or transistors work, or to make sure that she gets a good job. Appeal to God is so far from explaining anything that it is more often a puzzle than a clarification. The query, ‘Why does God allow suffering?’ never explains it; it intensifies the problem. So it seems very odd to suggest that the motivation for belief in God is a desire for explanation. Similarly, Christians are usually castigated by preachers for trying to use religion as a means to worldly success. (46)

    In other words, life is not solely about #1. For many, life is mostly about #2! Here, science fails. Indeed, here many humans fail; see the Milgram experiment, Stanford prison experiment, and The Third Wave. The results of these experiments shocked many. They oughtn’t to have shocked Christians who know their Bibles and believe them to intricately connect to reality, including in senses compatible with Peter Enns’ Inerrancy: I think someone forgot to tell the Bible.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Having seen the morality video in this series I think you’re overestimating the ability of the writer. I doubt they know the first thing about moral non-cognitivism. 😉

      Good point about life being about more than what science tells us and thanks for the links.

    • Steven Carr says:

      ‘2. Science does not tell us what ought to be.

      Really?

      So if somebody’s car stops, you would never dream that a scientist would tell the car-owner that they ought to put petrol in it?

      And if a plane suddenly goes into a nose-dive, only a believer in a god can tell the pilot he ought to bring the nose up? A mere aviation expert would tell the pilot he had no idea what he ought to do now?

      Really?

      And if you go to the doctor, you would never think of asking him what you ought to do now that you have been diagnosed with a certain illness? After all, he is just a doctor, not a priest. He doesn’t know what you ought to do.

  5. labreuer says:

    So this modern-day popular notion of science and religion in conflict, which is clearly being suggested in this video, simply does not hold up to rational scrutiny when one considers the history of science seriously.

    This can be indicated briefly by pointing people to Wikipedia’s conflict thesis, which claims, “the original form of the thesis is no longer widely supported among historians.”

    Another point to make is that a lot of non-religious people who accept science still accept superstitious ideas; they refuse to walk under ladders, they read their horoscopes, they ignore medical advice in favour of ‘alternative medicine’, and they consult mediums. Even though they think religion is irrational they also hold to many things which are generally regarded as superstition.

    You might like The Complicated Connection Between Religion and the Paranormal.

  6. timzebo says:

    So many red herrings, so little time. Epi said, “Physicists regularly speak of other universes and other dimensions of existence which are well beyond our ability to sense or experience. Somehow they are considered scientific but belief in one other dimension is regarded as ‘superstition’. Okay, but why?”

    Because physicists DON’T STOP THERE. They are constantly thinking, “How can we disprove this idea?” They spend enormous amounts of time and money to build machines (e.g., particle accelerators) in an attempt to invalidate the ideas that are wrong. Saying that “belief” in one domain is “considered scientific” is somehow analogous to saying “belief” in a second domain is “regarded as superstition” is mixing two completely different definitions of “belief” in the same sentence.

    Show us the experiments that Christian theists are doing to disprove their ideas about their God’s powers or His virgin birth or His moral justification for scapegoating or , and let’s talk again.

    • labreuer says:

      timzebo: Every time an atheist/skeptic blames most of the world’s problems on Christianity or religion in general, they are scapegoating. They are making these claims without evidence. Christians hold that damage done by sin doesn’t get magically erased; somebody has to pay the cost. Consider the Native Americans in the United States who are still getting screwed from our stealing of their land and giving them crappy land in response. Some of the reservations are in terrible shape. We benefited greatly: paying back Revolutionary War soldiers with land is largely what made this nation a democracy, for voting required land and this caused the number of land-owners to balloon. Soon the land ownership requirement for voting was removed because so many people owned land. And yet what of our debt to the Native Americans for so generously giving up their land and their blood?

      Jesus volunteered to fix the stuff we screwed up, and Christians are called to follow in his footstep. Christians are called to actively take it upon themselves to sacrifice for the good of others, as the first step: this is an act of undeserved grace, in the pattern of our Lord and Savior, who took the first step for us. To think that wrongness in the world does not accrue is to be in denial of reality. If you want to understand why the world is so screwed up, try looking at it in terms of who has incurred debts of sin against whom, over how many generations, with most of the perpetrators dead, but with the damage very real and continuing. Jesus showed the only way out of this that isn’t exterminating one of the sides. And oh by the way, the 20th century was an experiment with exterminating those who disagree with you and threaten you. The Christian is called to follow a radically different path.

      Your post makes a caricature of the above. This is terrible, for it removes the one way to deal with the problems of the world without bloodshed, except the bloodshed of Christians who choose to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to bring shalom to the world. This is a very testable operation, by the way.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Hi Tim,

      Nice to hear from you. Sorry for the delay in replying.

      Obviously I don’t agree that there are any red-herrings. I actually think your reply to my point about what physicists propose actually missed my point. Remember, the criticism I was making was that the video suggested ‘superstition’ proposes things beyond our senses and experience. My point is that the senses and experience is not a necessary requisite even in the physical sciences! The point is that it’s not invalid to propose the existence of something beyond our senses and experience and that to do so does not making such a thing ‘superstition’ per se. Anyone who thinks that is committed to fighting against modern science. So the clear point is that it is not obviously illogical to hold to the view that there is another dimension of existence. That is what the Christian religion has always predicted and modern physics is sympathetic to that view.

      When you talk about “experiments” to “disprove” Christian ideas be careful not to commit a category error. There are some claims the Christian religion makes which overlap with science but Christianity is not a scientific hypothesis and to see it as such would be to completely misunderstand it. That would be like suggesting a secular ideology (like Humanism) needs all of its teachings to be subject to scientific experiments but that’s clearly not possible. There are ethical and metaphysical commitments the BHA make which cannot be subject to scientific experiments. But this does not mean Christianity cannot be rationally scrutinized and criticized. Indeed, if that were not the case then you would not have begun a long series of questions about Christian doctrine like you did in our earlier discussion.

      All the best,

  7. timzebo says:

    Ooops, after the “or”, I’d added (without the quotes) “”, but apparently the reply editor treats those as commands to delete what’s between the “” (?)

  8. timzebo says:

    Interesting….even with quotes around the “less-than” and “more-than” symbols, the text got deleted.
    I’ll revert to simple ” ” here……….
    Ooops, after the “or”, I’d added, “insert other unfalsifiable beliefs here”

  9. timzebo says:

    I’ll try that again just to be clear (sorry for the extra posts). The last paragraph should say:
    Show us the experiments that Christian theists are doing to disprove their ideas about their God’s powers or His virgin birth or His moral justification for scapegoating or (insert other unfalsifiable beliefs here), and let’s talk again.

  10. timzebo says:

    Epi,
    Thanks. In a religious context, when you say, “it’s not invalid to propose the existence of something beyond our senses”, I think you propose a bridge too far. Of course, like Russell, I can propose a teapot orbiting Mars, but on what grounds? Our language has two words, “science”, and “superstition” for a reason. After years of “doing science”, and needing to decide how we will allocate always too-scarce resources, we learned it was crucial to distinguish between TWO DIFFERENT SETS of “things beyond our senses”:
    Set A: those “things” we have good reasons for thinking they MAY exist, and
    Set B: those “things” we have good reasons for thinking they likely do NOT exist.
    No doubt we’d agree Russell’s teapot is in Set B, right?
    I can find no “good reasons” for thinking that a particular virgin Homo sapiens was both impregnated by a God, and that she subsequently gave birth to a God, so for me that part of Christian Theism is also a member of “Set B.” But maybe you have some “good reasons” I haven’t heard yet? If you’d like to share them, I’m ready to listen.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Tim,

      I’m not sure I can explain it any differently than I did last time. The point is that if science itself can posit the real existence of things beyond our senses and experiences then it would be unscientific to suggest that whatever exists must exist within the realm of our senses and our experiences. Christianity suggests there is at least one other dimension of existence and the current count among physicists is, I am told, thirteen. Now if such alternative dimensions are taken seriously by physicists it would appear one is without much grounding in supposing Christianity must be wrong or illogical to believe what it does. In addition to this the video was just plain wrong in suggesting that science works only on the senses and experience. It not only stereotyped religion but also science.

      Of course the word ‘science’ and ‘superstition’ exist but what classifies as being under those words is more contentious. Philosophers of science have disagreed and still disagree on the scope and limits of science and many people do not agree that everything religion teaches is superstition. Classifying is not enough. Arguments must be given for doing so.

      Of course Russell’s teapot would classify under B but I simply do not agree that God is one of the things in set B. In fact, I would say God belongs in set A. I think there are numerous good reasons for thinking God does exist and some very coherent, cumulative cases have been made for God which I find very convincing. See my list of lectures in my post ‘Evidence for Christianity’ for many examples of such evidence.

      One can always take certain aspects of a person’s overall worldview and wonder what evidence there is for that one thing (like the incarnation). Certainly there is no direct evidence for that one event but that event is part of a larger story and if there is good evidence for the overall story then I think there is indirect evidence for the incarnation. So I think the teachings of Jesus, the reliability of the NT records, and the evidence for his resurrection are indirect evidences that an incarnation did actually take place.

      Thanks.

  11. timzebo says:

    Dear labreuer, thanks for your comments. First as a child, and now as an adult, I’ve always been puzzled about WHY Jesus had to be tortured and killed. When I first learned that Jesus’ torture and death was part of Father God’s plan to forgive us humans, I literally went into a state of shock and puzzlement. Not just from seeing Jesus’ bloody body on the cross, and realizing the immense agony He must have suffered, but also I was totally confused about why Father God, who was said to be all-loving, would not simply forgive all humans without first having His anger appeased by this horrible blood sacrifice of His Son!!! What kind of a Father was this???? If Father God was so loving, why couldn’t He just forgive everyone without first insisting on the brutal torture and suffering of His child??? And WHY would such a murder appease Him, a God who could do all things??? Was Father God so sadistic that He demanded the bloodshed, pain and death of an INNOCENT PERSON as retribution for CREATURES HE CREATED WITH FLAWS that led them to disobey Him??? I wondered how anyone could read the Bible and not realize that its God was a monster!!! You say, “this is a very testable operation.” Sorry, I have no idea what you mean by that. How do you reconcile what Father God required Jesus to suffer with ordinary human empathy? How can you live with that injustice done to an innocent person, and still admire Father God?

    • labreuer says:

      timzebo, I hear you. The innocent suffering and dying for the guilty is a painful thought; God creating beings which can go wrong is an enigma. This being said, I’ve found no satisfying solutions to these problems other than Christianity. The next best alternative is to deny the reality of these problems. The innocent still suffer and die to pad the bank accounts and pride of the guilty. And humans definitely operate terribly wrongly at times. These are facts. What will we do with them?

      Much of the OT can be seen as the guilty suffering for the guilty. It is brutal. Under this paradigm, the Amalekites deserved to be slaughtered by the Israelites (see The Amalekite genocide). And yet aren’t we repulsed by such a paradigm? Yes, because Jesus came and inserted a version of ‘charity’ to Aristotle’s virtues; the following is from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

      There is no word in the Greek of Aristotle’s age correctly translated ‘sin’, ‘repentance’ or ‘charity’.
      […]
      Charity is not, of course, from the biblical point of view, just one more virtue to be added to the list. Its inclusion alters the conception of the good for man in a radical way; for the community in which the good is achieved has to be one of reconciliation. (174)

      For details on how Jesus was an offense to (a) the Jews; (b) the Greeks and Romans; (c) his own disciples, see the first three chapters of Otto Borchert’s 1924 (1933 English translation) The Original Jesus. It was Jesus who introduced the idea that maybe we don’t have to force people to expiate all of their sins. And let’s be very clear: sins have consequences; someone pays them: who?

      The Christian answer is that the ‘more-innocent’ voluntarily suffers for the ‘more-guilty’, as an act of grace. See passages like Mt 16:24, Rom 8:16-17, and Col 1:24. While Jesus did something special we could not do in suffering for us, there is a kind of suffering we can voluntarily take on, in order to extend grace to others and not require them to pay for the consequences of people’s sins. When this doesn’t happen, you have things like debtors’ prisons and other nastiness. Life without forgiveness is terrible. But forgiveness costs: it requires a sacrifice from someone who is ‘innocent’.

      The alternative to Jesus’ sacrifice is either justice without mercy—very scary stuff—or a denial of any eternal order to the universe, with randomness through natural selection being the only game in town. Is there a third, convincing option? If no, then maybe you find Jesus (or Yahweh) repulsive, but the truth sometimes is repulsive. Sometimes we have pretty little imaginations in our heads which simply do not match reality. Perhaps it is because we want to deny our own sinfulness, perhaps it is because we’ve been taught that the terrible ways we’ve been treated are ok, and perhaps something else. I’ve had these pretty little imaginations. I’ve done my best to remove them. Reality is more glorious and more scary than one’s imagination.

  12. I’m not sure why mathematics always gets left out of these “What’s the best way of knowing things?” arguments. After all, the conclusions of mathematics are necessarily true and can be known to be true with certainty, unlike the conclusions of science, which are always provisional to a greater or lesser degree. So if it’s knowledge you’re after, maths seems like a much surer bet than any science.

    • labreuer says:

      Max, which math perfectly applies to our world? F = ma certainly doesn’t. GR certainly doesn’t. You may find my answer to the Phil.SE question What is the difference between Fact and Truth? useful.

      • Assuming that “our world” you mean “the physical world”, then something like “2 + 2 = 4” would count. Although I’m not sure why something has to “perfectly apply to our world” before we can say it is true; after all, plenty of scientific theorems deal with things or situations that never actually occur (e.g., that an object at rest with no outside forces interfering with it will stay at rest — but of course, no actual physical object is ever totally free from interference by outside forces), but few people seem to have much difficulty in saying that these theorems are true.

        • labreuer says:

          If math doesn’t apply sufficiently well to our world, it might be true, but it may also be useless. Surely you’ve encountered people who try and make some random sentence “come true” with a thousand “what if’s”? You might be able to turn any sentence into a mathematical construct with the requisite axioms. But the thing we generally care about is whether the construct matches reality. We don’t need perfect matching; we need “good enough for the present purposes in the present conditions”.

          • It might be useless, but then again the BHA video asked “How do we know what is true?”, not “How do we find out useful facts which we can use?” Although given the use mathematics has found in fields such as architecture and ballistics, I think it’s fair to say that at least some mathematical theorems are quite useful.

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