Faith vs. Reason


Faith and Reason?

Philosophy of Science



Editor's Comments

There is nothing so interesting or perilous as a discussion about religious beliefs.   No less contentious is a review of the limits of human thought.  The Saugeen Times has a Religion section.  It also has a Science Section.  This  might well fit in neither of them.  It really would best fit in the Philosophy of Science section, but we have no such category.  We have a contributor that monitors a research group who sometimes delves into interesting areas.  He submitted the dialog and comments.

The arguments set forth are thought provoking.  They lay bare some of the discussions that take place about the limits of reason versus faith.  In the dialog set out in the second column, two good minds are opposed, but polite to each other.


Even in scientific circles there is an ongoing debate about the nature and extent of both Faith and Reason.  It may  surprise non-scientists to hear how the debate unfolds.  This snippet comes from two members of a group of scientists who communicate every day on issues ranging from Quantum Physics to the Big Bang.  Some of the members are famous and most have vast experience.

Over time you we have seen their views on other issues come forth.  Lots of discussions are about the nature of man and the universe even delving into music, politics and lately a great deal about global warming and climate change.  Sometimes good collaborative work takes place too. The lingua franca is equations and not words. Religion has its place and is a source of strong views, all in words.

We will outline two people and their views who are real although we won't use their actual names.  We will show a  dialog that took place between them.  They are Cliff and AJ respectively. Some background will be inserted in their discussions to clarify some of the things they say.

Cliff is a computer scientist of world renown, one of the early Microsoft geeks and before that a pioneer in Internet Communication..  The second is a Cosmologist.  We'll call him AJ.  He deals with the universe in the large and is well known in theoretical physics.

Cliff is a skeptic and a non-believer.  He would accept the label agnostic.  That is, he sees no way to reason to a Supreme Being.  AJ is a strong believer and adheres to what he calls Intelligent Design.    To be concise ... Cliff says there is no way to reason to the infinite and AJ says the world around us screams out that there is a Master Designer behind it.

Framing the argument:

AJ believes there is a Grand Designer and he is a conservative Christian.  He is not satisfied with faith alone and claims that with proper guidance everyone can 'reason' to the Deity.  He rarely mentions the word 'faith'.  It could be that using the word in a dialog with Cliff would get him out of sync with the points he wants to make.  He wants to deal with Cliff's arguments by pure reason, although he points over and over again to the world around us.

He mentions the intricacy of the design of the universe and claims that no amount of natural selection could result in the world as we know it. It's not that he does not believe in evolution, he just sees a master plan in everything, even evolution. When discussing it, he calls the Intelligent Designer the master programmer who set all this that we see in motion.

Cliff says that no amount of pure reason can get to the Deity.  He bases his arguments on the work of Gödel and Turing.  He points out that man is silly to think that they can fathom the infinite.  He goes on to say that beyond the Big Bang is seeing without eyes.

So the arguments rest on the limits of reason and the word faith is hidden in the background.

Historical Background

Although the existence of the Deity has been debated since before man recorded his thoughts, there are some landmark thinkers that bent their minds to the task.

St. Thomas Aquinus was the Roman Catholic Church's answer to the doubt of the reformation and he tried to make solid the tenants of faith starting with the Apostle's Creed  .... "I believe in God the Father, who created Heaven and Earth.... ".  This is the cornerstone of all monotheistic religions.

Aquinus made five arguments for the existence of God.  The most powerful being the 'Uncaused Cause' argument in which he said that every effect has a cause, except one and that one is the Deity.

In most of AJ's arguments you see this uncaused Cause Supreme Being in the background.  He is AJ's Master Programmer.  Since Cliff is a programmer, he knows well the concept of a main program written by a single individual launching wonderful things.

Charles Darwin did not directly challenge Aquinus' uncaused Cause, but did say that the intricacy of the universe can be explained by time and natural selection.  This does not challenge AJs argument about the Master Programmer who set all this in motion.  Cliff uses natural selection in his arguments, however.

The thinkers that most interest Cliff are Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel.  Their work is from the 1920's and 1930's.  The devastating part of their work was that they were able to prove that their are limits to what we call reason.  This had a demoralizing effect on what the drum of progress had taught us.

Briefly, they showed that in any system of reason in which there are are a set of 'givens', there is a limit to what we can prove from those rules. Gödel used arithmetic and Turing artificial intelligence.  They showed that such reasoning systems produce paradoxes and also there are some questions that seem legitimate within them that simply cannot be proven.

Here is the devastating part of their work.  There can be something that is true, but cannot be proven. The confidence that built from Aristotle to Einstein is not perfect. 

(next column)

01/03/2009 09:09 PM

The Debate

Cliff is in black and AJ is in green and our clarifications are in red.  Hyperlinks are in blue

AJ Thanks for forwarding me the link to Tipler's article.  We've had several stimulating and unresolved discussions about detestability of scientific evidence of design in the universe.  It is obvious to me that Tipler has a valid argument. It is unfathomable to me, how anyone who has seriously studied physics and cosmology can think otherwise.  Physicists, such as Steve Weinberg (physics Nobel Prize winner) are a big mystery to me. 

 Cliff Does an African termite mound have a Designer, AJ?

AJ Yes, the designer is a well organized social group of small brained conformists.  

Cliff I assert that this warps the meaning of the word "design" --- and that this semantic leap too far is the central flaw in the ID argument. 

AJ Given its efficient air conditioning system, is the design any less intelligent than any other bureaucratically or socially designed enterprise? (The termite builds tall mounds that reduce heat in the hot climates where they live)

Cliff A perfect example of why the ID community has gotten away with the warping.  The words "design" and "designer" are not as close in meaning as the ID'ers suppose. The termites' air conditioning system is a surprise and a delight to behold for many reasons:  

  • we don't expect tall structures from small burrowing creatures
  • we don't often think about the heat generated by the colony's huge biomass 
  • we see a surprising and elegant solution to the heat dissipation problem which is within termite's labor and materials budget
  • And in our delight we are disposed to grant the termites designer status --- as though some ancient community of brilliant termite architects worked out the design concept on a zillion tiny blackboards.  But nothing in the above list makes it difficult to believe that tall termite mounds arose through natural selection --- and that is surely a more ontologically (study of being and existence) conservative position. The last part of your question attempts to beguile us further, from a misuse of "design" to a misuse of "intelligent".   

    AJ What would you consider to be evidence of the existence of intelligence, purpose and design in the material universe?

    Cliff Again, here are three words whose meaning must be carefully kept straight.  We discern a purpose to the height of the mound --- by which we mean that it has an explanation.  Surely nobody imagines that the termites, collectively or individually, know why they are building a tall structure, or that they have any alternatives from which to choose.   To answer your question:  I would accept evidence for an Intelligent Designer if He/She/It made Himself/Herself/Itself manifest in some unmistakable, unambiguous way.  I would then abandon my scientific and mathematical pursuits, and concentrate my studies on this revealed Designer --- whose whims and motives would become the only thing worth studying.  I would become a priest.

    Do you believe that any such evidence exists?  
    No. In fact, I believe there is more evidence that such an entity does not exist.  The suffering of children, for example.     

    AJ Can there exist material events within the material universe that are uncaused by material events within the material universe? (Here is St. Thomas Aquinus' argument laid out for Cliff to see)

    Cliff I don't know. I assert that no other human knows.(Cliff brings out the objections to this argument from logical standpoints... that is, the traversal of an infinite sequence of cause and effects.  He dismisses it out of hand based upon man's puny brain, which cannot traverse that infinite path) All we know is bounded by human experience. (finite)  The unimaginable forces, distances, times, and the nature of causality at quantum cosmologic scales is so far beyond human experience (and comprehension) that the only thing we can be sure of is that we don't know.  In fact, even at human scales, there is evidence of unknowability that should convince us of that.  The connection and interpretation, many worlds, multiverses, etc grew out of the human-scale two slit experiment that revealed a duality (of light) that remains beyond human comprehension. (Quantum Mechanics -- see Heisenberg and Bohr)        

    AJ Can there exist true statements within a mathematical universe that cannot be derived from true statements within the mathematical universe? (This is strange, because AJ is walking into the Godel-Turing argument which AJ knows well.  Why he uses it, is not known.  He knows Cliff will counter.)

    Cliff Gödel and Turing taught us that the answer is yes, if you're using "mathematical universe" in the appropriate sense.  Distressing news, but so what?
    Shalom ... Cliff

    Notice that AJ never mentions the word Faith to Cliff.  AJ has a lot of faith, though  The closest he gets to it is when he talks about the grand and beautiful universe around us.  Faith is a good word in all religions.   It is the bridge between puny man and the unknown.  Cliff never asks AJ about his faith either.  This is because it would stop the argument dead in the water and maybe that would not be what he wants.  They both avoid it.

    Interestingly there is no discussion about teaching Intelligent Design in the school systems.  Both know that there is little time for that, when the basics are so needed for our students.  What is  more interesting is that even people with soaring intellects cannot convince each other on certain subjects, but they can be civil.

    Where does the discussion end?  It just rests, it does not end.

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