Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Dec/08

30

Hell and the scientific method

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My good friend OpinionJournal.com blogger James Taranto drops his insistence that there is no tension between American tolerance and a belief in eternal damnation for wrong-believers (not without getting in one last crude mischaracterization of my argument, however). 

Now he says that our disagreement boils down to the following statement of mine, from which he deletes the final clause:

[I]t is an empirical matter, presumably verifiable after the Last Judgment, whether unbelievers and the unbaptised are eternally punished, not just a matter of feeling. 

James pretends that I was proposing a scientific test today for what will transpire after death.  In fact, I was just stating the obvious: If hell is real, we will all find out–some of us directly–after the Last Judgment.  By contrast, the statement which James offers as an analogy to the belief in eternal damnation: “She is the most important thing in the world” is a value judgment that cannot be corroborated by actual experience. 

In an effort to be cute, James states that I “must be the only atheist who thinks [that] the Last Judgment is a real event.”   Earlier James accused me of lacking imaginative sympathy with religious belief; now he accuses me of believing religious doctrine.  I wish he’d make up his mind.

28 comments

  • Bill Tingley · December 30, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Ms. MacDonald, you wrote:

    My good friend OpinionJournal.com blogger James Taranto drops his insistence that there is no tension between American tolerance and a belief in eternal damnation for wrong-believers (not without getting in one last crude mischaracterization of my argument, however).

    Tolerance is not interfering with the disagreeable beliefs or acts of others. So if that is what Taranto meant by there is no tension between his tolerance of a Jewish woman and his extremely harsh judgment that she is hellbound, he is right. He is not going to interfere with how she lives her life because he vehemently rejects her religious beliefs. That is precisely the utility of tolerance. Tolerance of what we like or agree with is superfluous.

    However, I must say that Taranto’s religious beliefs are on the fringe. First of all, when Christians profess that without Christ there is no salvation, there are usually not saying one must be a Christian to be saved (assuming they are knowledge of the Christian teaching behind this). Rather they are saying it was Christ’s crucifixion and ressurection that made salvation possible to us all.

    This in turn has led to the doctrine of the “baptism of desire” (most fully developed in the Roman Catholic Church). This teaches that a person ignorant of Christ but would chose to be baptized if he had sufficient knowledge of Him, can be saved because he is then part of the Body of Christ even though he is not a Christian. (One note: This is not a novel doctrine of the Church, but was emphasized at Vatican II because of the uncharitable and false teachings on the subject that had been common.)

    So Taranto’s belief about who is damned and who is saved is not in accord with this doctrine, which is dominant throughout Christianity, if not formulated the same as Catholic doctrine. Indeed, most Christians are taught that knowledge of the damned and saved, while we are in this world, is God’s alone.

    Also Taranto’s escape hatch of “unreason” for belief in scripture or doctrine he cannot explain is mistaken. Faith does not contradict reason, but it does go beyond it. Faith is an act of conviction to expell doubt of the truth of matters beyond the reach of reason. It is not a license to believe as true that which our senses plainly show as false. It is not a license to twist reason in an illogical chain to support a desired conclusion. It is certainly not a license to reject reason altogether and fall into fideism.

    Faith is an acknowledgment that reason alone cannot give us certainty in our beliefs. Indeed, that is why each and every one of us makes a leap of faith to build a sure foundation for our beliefs. Even the materialist does this to make as certain knowledge that the universe is nothing more that matter in motion. Hence, he rejects out-of-hand as false any explanation of the human condition that is predicated upon any entity or process superior to nature. Right or wrong, only that leap of faith gives him certainty about his beliefs, because materialism alone cannot justify his belief in it.

    So, I think Taranto’s statement about the lack tension between tolerance and harsh judgments of others is defensible, but it is in service to a flawed cause.

  • Ivan Karamazov · December 30, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    Bill Tingley :

    Bill Tingley
    Even the materialist does this to make as certain knowledge that the universe is nothing more that matter in motion. Hence, he rejects out-of-hand as false any explanation of the human condition that is predicated upon any entity or process superior to nature. Right or wrong, only that leap of faith gives him certainty about his beliefs, because materialism alone cannot justify his belief in it.

    That’s not quite right. The materialist correctly rejects out-of-hand only any explanation beyond matter in motion ( as you put it ) that has specificity to it. The materialist can say there may indeed be something beyond what our senses can tell us, but to go at all beyond calling whatever-it-may-be anything other than an unknowable “X”, cannot be justified. Thus, all religions can be rejected out-of hand. Claiming certainty based on revelation, just doesn’t cut it.

    The materialist’s “faith” that “X” is unknowable is not at all the same as your “faith” that, say, Christianity is true.

  • Polichinello · December 30, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    My good friend OpinionJournal.com blogger James Taranto drops his insistence that there is no tension between American tolerance and a belief in eternal damnation for wrong-believers…

    Bill Tingley is right. What you’re saying is tautological. Tolerance, by definition, implies tension. To tolerate something means to bear something you don’t generally approve of. As Mr. Garrison wisely put it, “You tolerate crying babies on an airplane.” It can even be applied to something not really good for you; i.e., “I don’t know how he can tolerate that woman’s cooking.”

    I daresay, to claim that belief in Hell is incompatible or at variance with American tolerance is, well, intolerant.

  • Bill Tingley · December 30, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Ivan Karamazov:

    That’s not quite right. The materialist correctly rejects out-of-hand only any explanation beyond matter in motion ( as you put it ) that has specificity to it.

    My reference was to the hard materialist. There are as you point out other positions. Indeed, too many to count as we move across the philosophical spectrum from materialist to idealist on the nature of reality.

    However, the brand of materialist you describe still has to make a leap of faith. He must claim as certain knowledge that the supernatural lacks specificity, which cannot be justified by his materialist beliefs alone.

    As for Christian faith not bearing a resemblance to materialist faith, well, yes and no. In form it does, because none of us can think coherently without some foundational belief that is beyond reason. But in substance it doesn’t, because materialism simply doesn’t have the competency to explain the human condition whereas Christianity does.

  • Bill Tingley · December 30, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    Polichinello:

    Tolerance, by definition, implies tension. To tolerate something means to bear something you don’t generally approve of. As Mr. Garrison wisely put it, “You tolerate crying babies on an airplane.”

    You did a fine job of saying what I did with far fewer words and good punchline.

  • Ivan Karamazov · December 30, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    Bill Tingley :

    Bill Tingley

    But in substance it doesn’t, because materialism simply doesn’t have the competency to explain the human condition whereas Christianity does.

    You must be using the word “explain” in some form that I have never heard of. Christianity “explains” nothing. It’s a story, a speculation, with a fairly cohesive ( though fantastical) narrative, that obviously gives comfort to millions, but only because they simply decide to say “Fine. I’ll believe that then.”.

    Darwinian natural selection explains the human condition just fine. As to why there is anything at all, rather than nothing, – a question truly beyond the capacity of reason – one man’s revelation is a good as another, I suppose.

  • Grant Canyon · December 30, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    “As to why there is anything at all, rather than nothing, – a question truly beyond the capacity of reason – one man’s revelation is a good as another, I suppose.”

    I found Victor Stenger’s discussion of this question to be intriguing, if a bit (or more) beyond my understanding of physics.

  • Daniel Dare · December 30, 2008 at 6:59 pm

    Bill,
    “the universe is nothing more that matter in motion”

    This has a very classical physics feel to me. “The tinkertoy model”.

    Already after Einstein’s GR in 1916, we knew it was matter, energy, space and time in motion. All four components were dynamic and interacting.

    That motion itself was becoming more and more curious. By the 1920s, quantum theory revealed the interactions to be non-deterministic and non-localizable.

    By the mid-20th century, we knew or suspected, “everything” was described by interacting, probablistic, quantum fields. Matter could be blasted out of empty space by focusing energy on it. So matter and energy were interconvertible.

    Remember that spacetime was also dynamic. It curves and ripples. You could build “mass” out of pure, curved spacetime. e.g. Geons or black holes.

    The vacuum itself was now a seething plenum of virtual quanta. Matter and energy, constantly forming and dissolving. The Lamb-Retherford shift and the Casimir effect show these virtual vacuum quanta have consequences that are measurable. Curve spacetime enough, and mass-energy pours out of the event-horizon. Hawking radiation and Unruh radiation show how violent the vacuum can be. Even a sufficiently-concentrated charge-density causes electrons and positrons to materialise out of “empty” space, through vacuum-polarization.

    By the end of the 20th century, quantum theory itself was starting to look more like a theory about abstract information-states, propagating in an infinite-dimensional, branching multiverse. If Everett does not exactly rule, he at least presides.

    I’ll still accept “matter in motion”, for the sake of the historical tradition. But that structure has has become very rich, deep, and strange.

    To me, when I survey the literature, and I am no expert, it looks like the cosmos is a vast, natural, infinite-dimensional, quantum computer. And what our brains interpret as matter/energy/space/time, are really information. All of our physics consists of empirically trying to work out the strange rules that govern the information flows that underlie reality.

    Many physicists suspect the whole thing has a very simple microstructure. It could be the probability states of vibrating strings of pure energy – in eleven dimensions? But it could also could be something else.

    I no longer feel I know the limits of “matter in motion”.

    I wouldn’t describe myself as a materialist. I prefer “naturalist” or “rationalist”. It’s not what the cosmos consists of that is the issue; that is an open question.

    It’s more about how you go about finding the truth.
    What method do you use?

  • A-Bax · December 31, 2008 at 7:12 am

    Daniel Dare :

    Daniel Dare

    I wouldn’t describe myself as a materialist. I prefer “naturalist” or “rationalist”. It’s not what the cosmos consists of that is the issue; that is an open question.
    It’s more about how you go about finding the truth.What method do you use?

    Hear hear!! Extremely well said, and I agree 100%. :-)

  • Robert Duquette · December 31, 2008 at 7:31 am

    As for Christian faith not bearing a resemblance to materialist faith, well, yes and no. In form it does, because none of us can think coherently without some foundational belief that is beyond reason. But in substance it doesn’t, because materialism simply doesn’t have the competency to explain the human condition whereas Christianity does.

    I disagree with the last statement completely. I’d say only materialism (empirical science) has the competency to explain the human condition, if by explain you mean give a factual causal account of why humans behave as they do. The Theory of Evolution does such a better job of explaining human behavior than any religious dogma.

    If by explain you mean give an emotionally satisfying rationale for the reason things are the way they are, then that’s a different story.

  • J. · December 31, 2008 at 8:07 am

    Some religious egg-heads will on occasion refer to the weirder aspects of quantum physics as support for theological claims of various sorts (including evidence of the existence of a “soul”). Usually they misread and/or misconstrue quantum indeterminacy and supposed non-locality (still matter of debate) which if anything seem to offer further support for skeptics and non-believer. For that matter, the uncertainty principle itself becomes negligible at atomic levels.

    There’s some writing on this issue online (garden of forking paths I believe), in terms of quantum physics providing (or not providing) evidence for intentionality (“free will” so called). That’s highly unlikely. For one, brains and neural processes are “macro” and biologically dependent and unlikely to exhibit any quantum determinacy (barium or hydrogen atoms of patterns . While some people (even non-believers) may be troubled at denying the possibility of an immaterial and/or immortal soul, that does appear to be most plausible and empirical explanation.

    That said, I believe even skeptics, non-believers and atheists can interpret religious concepts as metaphorical (or perhaps “memetic” in Dawkins-speak). Hell’s sort of a conceptual place where we put supremely sinister people, whether Stalins, Hitlers or biblethumping yokels.

  • J. · December 31, 2008 at 8:08 am

    eh editing a bit skanky. scuzi (or delete)

  • Author comment by Caledonian · December 31, 2008 at 10:22 am

    The word ‘materialism’ is used to refer to several different positions, none of which logically entails the others.

    It’s common for people who are hostile to the scientific sense of materialism to substitute some of the other usages when discussing it, especially those that imply some sort of moral or ethical failure and a willful blindness / willing oversimplification among ‘materialists’.

    I recommend that we not use the term at all.

    As for “free will”, that concept is completely incoherent. If, as quantum mechanics suggests, there are truly non-deterministic events in our universe, then there can be no hypothetical ‘free will’ directing them. There’s nothing directing them – they’re non-deterministic. If they’re not non-deterministic, there might be a ‘will’ involved, but this will is subject to determinism like everything else, and thus is not ‘free’ in the sense that foolish people mean.

  • J. · December 31, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Yes, and no. Human decisions and actions may be caused in some sense, but neurologists and brain scientists can not as of yet specify all the “neural pathways.” While I am reluctant to bless the theology businessmen, they do rightly point out the shortcomings of reductionism: for one, given strict determinism, all our worries about, well, crime and punishment seem rather misplaced. Most humans certainly believe they could have done differently, and they also believe malefactors–say that murderous nutcase, Pardo–could have done differently, and should be held accountable for bad or horribly wrong decisions.

    Therefore, I tend to support some type of compatibilism, which takes into account the unique properties of human cognition (not merely primate-lile stimulus-response), though I will grant at some point (maybe near-future) brain scientists will most likely identify all the neural processes associated with supposedly free actions.

  • Bill Tingley · December 31, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Daniel Dare:

    “Matter in motion” is nothing more than shorthand for the materialist core belief that nothing exists except spacetime and matter-energy. Therefore the explanation for all things is ultimately reducible to physics. So the phrase isn’t tied to classical physics, but to the person who declares that, in the end, physics explains all.

    But it doesn’t, which is why quantum physics is split into three camps: the Copenhagen Interpretation, Bohmian mechanics, and the Many-Worlds theory. They all produce the same results and further experimentation is becoming extremely difficult to declare which camp is right. (Many CERN’s new collider will change this.) In other words, it looks like physics cannot explain itself and choosing a camp arises from a person’s philosophy rather than scientific knowledge. And nothing is wrong with that, but it does require what the materialist has declared to be metaphysically impossible: Looking beyond science for objective knowledge of the foundation of quantum mechanics.

    You ask what method I use to find the truth. I am a hylomorphist in the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Therefore I believe there are two interconnected planes of existence, matter and form. Form imposes order upon matter, which probably occurs (to my mind) at the quantum level when matter in the indeterminate state resolves into a particle. Form also explains how immaterial entities that we know to exist, like volition and consciousness, are real when in union with matter (our bodies).

    Another way of putting it is that matter is the principle of extension and form is the principle of order. All things require both extension and order to exist within spacetime. The materialist takes order (form) as a given to declare that extension (matter) is all that we need to understand. It rather like pointing to a pile of building materials while ignoring the need for a blueprint to explain how a house comes into being.

    To wrap up, I will note that the hylomorphist is not necessarily a theist. However, hylomorphism, by allowing for form, does subscribe to the idea that entities and processes superior to nature do exist.

  • Robert Duquette · December 31, 2008 at 11:55 am

    The theory of free will is clouded by the notion of dualism. Free actions are not undetermined actions, but are self-determined actions. The confusion comes in when one disassociates the body from the self. If one’s atoms are determining one’s actions, it does not follow that one is not in control of those actions. One’s body is oneself. The atoms are the self, and so one’s actions are always self-determined.

    Dualism divorces the self from the body, and assumes that this disembodied spirit must control the body as a driver controls a car. But it still begs an explanation of what is then determining the spirit.

  • Kevembuangga · December 31, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Form also explains how immaterial entities that we know to exist, like volition and consciousness, are real when in union with matter (our bodies).

    I think this is the crux of the “matter”, trying to bring your “two planes of existence” into interconnection, that is, drawn into a single realm, contrary to Aristotelian/Platonic views an idea, feeling or concept is not a “thing”, it is not amenable to the same kind of “existence” as a substance.
    I will try to elucidate this by a metaphor.
    What is a poem?
    It’s not “in” the paper it’s written on.
    It’s not in the ink.
    It’s not even in the words used.
    It’s not “in the brain” of the reader either.
    However, were it not for the paper, the ink, the words and the brain of the reader there will be no poem.
    So where IS the poem?
    In spite of this I guess no one has difficulty recognizing and appreciating a poem without stumbling onto metaphysical conundrums.

    Then, WHY do you feel puzzled by volition and consciousness and feel the need for clumsy “Cartesian” explanations?

  • J. · December 31, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    The theory of free will is clouded by the notion of dualism. Free actions are not undetermined actions, but are self-determined actions. The confusion comes in when one disassociates the body from the self.

    Yes, but dualism means different things to different people: saying that human thinking is unique, or that volition and liberty exist does not mean one is committed to belief in a soul, or platonic realm or whatever. I agree skeptics and non-believers should be wary of Cartesian explanations of mind or freedom. At the same time we should be wary of behaviorist and/or -reductionist explanations. What we take to be “liberty” may be ultimately determined by bio-genetic or neurological processes, yet it’s still rather important to most.

    Quantum physics is not neurology, of course. The Copenhagen interpretation itself suggests indeterminacy holds with a very few minute atomic events: it’s not proof of some mystic immaterialism (as many of the 70s new-ager sorts mistakenly thought), and newtonian physics and mechanics still governs like, nearly everything. The physics boys are still hashing out the locality issue as well.

  • Bill Tingley · December 31, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Robert Duquette:

    Dualism divorces the self from the body, and assumes that this disembodied spirit must control the body as a driver controls a car.

    Hylomorphism states just the opposite of what your are claiming about the “self” or “spirit”.

    Kev:

    Just how much of a dissertation on hylomorphism did you expect in a combox? I was providing Daniel with a nutshell description of the philosophy which is there two aspects of existence, matter and form. The former is physical and the latter isn’t. That was sufficient for my purposes. To get into how the mental existents of a human being, like knowledge, feelings, and poems, are form and not matter would have been getting into the weeds.

    Then, WHY do you feel puzzled by volition and consciousness and feel the need for clumsy “Cartesian” explanations?

    I am not puzzled by volition and consciousness. Also, hylomorphism is not Cartesianism. They are quite different. It’s like saying a whale and a guppy are the same because they both swim in the water.

  • J. · December 31, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Also, hylomorphism is not Cartesianism.

    C’est vraiment: even Descartes gave up on Aristotelian paganism, on purpose in nature, or a “final cause.”

  • Daniel Dare · December 31, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    OK Bill, but I have chosen the empirical path. Like Columbus I will believe in the edge of the world when we crash into it. As long as there are experiments to perform, I think we will continue to grow in our understanding.

    I don’t believe we can figure out the deeper truths sitting on our fat asses and speculating. That only reveals what evolution and culture has placed inside our skulls. I will always turn to wider nature itself to guide us forward to the deeper truths.

    As for physics or quantum physics not being able to explain itself. That was true for 20th century physics. But physics is a moving target. The history of 21st Century physics is still being written. Specifically for MWI you may find this recent paper interesting. It’s not the only test that has been proposed. I am not endorsing this approach. It is beyond my skillset to judge it. But it shows that people are thinking about these problems and I do expect nature will give us clues sooner or later. Probably where we least expect them.

  • Daniel Dare · December 31, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    And I’m not denying by the way, that studying the human brain, including its self-representations, is an interesting problem scientifically.

    But it is only a tiny part of the wider problem.

  • Daniel Dare · December 31, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    Sorry to post serially, but different point occur to me. As for matter and form. None of that stuff has ever made any sense to me. To me matter is atoms and form is the way they are arranged. Form is information -software. Atoms are hardware.

    And what you, or Thomas Aquinas, or Jesus Christ “believe” is of no importance to me whatsoever.

    Since I don’t “believe” in any of you.

  • Kevembuangga · January 1, 2009 at 5:17 am

    Bill Tingley I was providing Daniel with a nutshell description of the philosophy which is there two aspects of existence, matter and form. The former is physical and the latter isn’t.

    We may seem to agree somehow on this distinction, except, paradoxically, it is you who are putting to much “belief” in the physical.
    The “physical” is just another form to which we ascribe a location outside our body/mind.
    We can see an apple “in front of us” but the taste of the apple is nowhere outside us, however the concept of the physical apple is no different in nature than the concept of the apple taste, it’s all in our mind.
    There I am not endorsing the Buddhists/New Agers crazy stance that “all is spirit”, rather, I say that mind/spirit is our only conduit toward perception of reality.

  • Author comment by Caledonian · January 2, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    for one, given strict determinism, all our worries about, well, crime and punishment seem rather misplaced. Most humans certainly believe they could have done differently, and they also believe malefactors–say that murderous nutcase, Pardo–could have done differently, and should be held accountable for bad or horribly wrong decisions.

    What an utterly ridiculous position. The utility of punishment has nothing to do with pseudophilosophical blatherings regarding determinism vs. non-determinism.

    There have been soldiers who have become convinced that their deaths are predestined and dispense with the bother of wearing helmets – after all, if they’re going to be shot in the head at a pre-appointed time, they don’t need the helmet for protection, because the fatal shot cannot be avoided and any other shots don’t need to be avoided. Those people were and are fundamentally confused – they’re mixing superstitious understandings of destiny with an incoherent concept of causality.

    We will not manage to make serious philosophical progress until more people learn to distinguish nonsense from philosophy.

  • Daniel Dare · January 3, 2009 at 2:13 am

    It’s terribly important to understand the limits of logical deduction.

    Physics has immense respect for mathematics. It is the most mathematical of the sciences. For instance, General Relativity is widely considered one of the most beautiful and elegant mathematical theories ever created.

    And yet…as an empirical descipline… physics can never trust GR even one iota further than it has actually been validated by experiment and observation. If a parameter has been tested to 5 decimal places then you cannot take for granted that it is true to 6 decimal places. If it has been tested at half the speed of light then you cannot be sure it is still true at three quarters of the speed of light.

    No matter how beautiful and logical the theory is as an elegant mathematical structure, we are never justified in taking for granted that nature conforms to our deductions, unless we have actually validated by experiment or observation that it really does.

    The limits of knowledge are never the limits of deduction.
    To empiricism, they are always the limits of experimental validation.

    Formal deductions are never more than interesting inferences.
    In the end they are only as good as your next experiment.
    Man can never know anything further than he can validate.

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  • nazgulnarsil · January 17, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    it seems like a belief in eternal damnation should make people more tolerant, not less. “Ah well, it doesn’t matter what the homosexuals do, they’ll burn forever anyway”.

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