Father Robert Barron: "Why do we believe in God?"

I hopped on to Youtube this afternoon, and this video popped up in my recommendations. It's a few years old, but I think it's worth addressing. In the vid, Father Robert Barron attempts to answer the question, why do we believe in God? I suppose why should we believe in God? would be a little better suited to us skeptic types, but he gives it his best shot:



1) The argument from desire

He describes his first argument as an "argument from desire"; that we seek things like truth, justice, and meaning, and we can't seem to find them here in the material world. Because we desire them, they must exist ("you can't desire what you don't know") – but beyond the material world.

Like wow. That's a doozy. At first glance, it's circular – how can we seek truth if we already know it? But I think he's wrong. We don't seek "truth", at least not in the nebulous way he seems to be defining it. Rather, we seek congruence between our experiences and our beliefs. I've kept in touch, via Facebook, with a number of friends from my church days. I've also become acquainted with a number of fellow apostates through the almighty interwebs. I've received a surprising number of candid letters from my old church friends, who are still practicing Christians, and found they share something with my fellow apostates: doubt. It's not just a skeptical kind of doubt, but a sense that what they've been taught to believe is incongruent with the reality they experience. Biases form when, instead of basing our beliefs on reality, we make assumptions about reality to fabricate that congruence. For example:

a) I prayed to God that my friend would be healed of cancer
b) My friend died of cancer

Whenever a prayer is perceived as not being answered, the believer fabricates a rationalization to preserve congruity between reality and belief. In this case, something like:

c) It must just have been God's will not to heal my friend

This of course begs the question that George Carlin so famously lampooned: if God is perfect, and he has a perfect divine plan, what the hell is the point in praying? God's just going to do his will anyway. But believers seldom entertain these kinds of questions; it's must easier to simply fabricate more rationalizations and/or ignore the cognitive dissonance such incongruity creates. In the case of every apostate I've encountered, they simply got fed up with the incongruity and decided that maybe the problem was how they tried to understand reality.

The point to all this being that yes, humans do in a sense seek "truth", but we often do it in irrational and unreliable ways. In science, we recognize that people are biased; thus, instead of attempting to remove bias from individuals, science prepares and accounts for bias with double-blind experimentation, peer review, and replication of observation. Theology, unfortunately, has no such means by which to weed out bias; thus instead of being derived from evidence, theology is asserted by authority.

But of course, it's just patently ridiculous to assert that because we desire something to be true that it therefor must be true. Of course we can desire things we don't "know" – we can desire a great many things to be true without knowing whether they actually are.


2) Religion and science compliment each other

For the second argument, Barron claims that scientists assume the universe is "intelligible" – that "it can be known". But the intelligibility of the universe is not an assumption – it's an observation. We observe that no matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter where we look, the laws of physics always operate the same way. In fact, we understand this from the time we're infants – something cognitive psychologists call "intuitive physics". That is, we don't have to test every solid-looking object to make sure we won't pass through it; we don't drop everything we pick up just to make sure gravity works on all objects we enounter. We observe the laws of physics with such consistency that we simply assume they work all the time. And, while intuition and assumption aren't tools of science, science has done a remarkable job of demonstrating that things like chemistry and physics do obey certain laws with unwavering reliability such that in this case, and on the scales which we observe physics in our daily lives, our intuition is correct. (I mention scales of perception to distinguish our experiences from the often counter-intuitive physics on the cosmic scales of general relativity, or the subatomic scales of quantum mechanics.)

But this is also one of those ridiculous arguments in which a God of some sort is posited, and somehow we're supposed to get from that to Jesus. Even if God does exist, it could be a pantheistic consciousness or an indifferent deistic creator. "God" could be some superintelligent species of alien from a parallel universe or a block of ethereal Swiss cheese. A theologian still has all their work ahead of them to get from some nebulous concept of a creative intelligence to a god who loves you, forgives your sins, answers your prayers and intervenes in the natural world.


3) Argument from contingency

And there he went and busted out the old ontological argument. Ugh. Whenever you hear the words "necessary" and "contingent", you know you're hearing ontological bullshit. Since I've discussed the argument in detail previously in the link above, I'll just stick to what Father Barron is asserting.

He says we don't exist "necessarily". We don't have to be here, but we are. But, from a standpoint of probability, how can it be said that we don't exist necessarily? In quantum mechanics, the universe does not have a single past or future, but all possible pasts and futures (yes... I'm still reading Hawking's The Grand Design). So it seems to me somewhat logical to suggest that indeed we do exist necessarily. Right now, our probability of being here is 100%. But wait. Maybe he means that the universe doesn't need us. Which it doesn't. Yes, all the hundreds of billions of galaxies are not here just for you. Get over it. Or maybe he means the universe doesn't have to exist, and yet it does. But that's just it – it does. It's a little silly to query whether it has to.

Perhaps a more appropriate question is whether the universe requires some kind of external condition to come into existence. Well, if you've been keeping up with science, the answer is no – it doesn't. The laws of quantum mechanics allow the universe to be completely self-contained. Much like theologians claim in regard to God, the universe itself can simply BE. It's funny how for all the talk about religion and science being perfectly harmonious, those kinds of scientific concepts seem to make believers a little uncomfortable. And why shouldn't they be? Every argument Barron puts forth is simply an appeal to mystery. Desire is so mysterious. Existence is so mysterious. Therefor, God.

I'm not buying it.

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