Monday, February 20, 2006

Goodness Me

For those who have been following the comment string on sex it has diverged into talking about good and evil so I'll start another post.

Simon said 'I don't believe that humanity is any more or less evil than the rest of nature (or the world).'

Chris said 'Isn't the world a good place gone wrong?

I do think that humanity is both more and less evil than the rest of nature. I think humanity is the only species able to see the world in terms of good and evil. Jo will probably know differently about some monkeys somewhere but I think I'm by and large right - other species can manage family or group loyalty but otherwise act selfishly.

My observation, day to day, is that there are a lot of people who simply don't notice what's going on around them. They are selfish out of ignorance. I was a passenger in the car of a good friend the other day in a situation where it was obvious that merging in turn was the received wisdom. He just ploughed on. And he is one of the nicest, goodest persons I know. By coincidence Euan Ferguson ranted about this tunnel vision in the Observer Magazine yesterday.

There are many, on the contrary, who make constant judgements about the well-being of others in deciding what to do. Humans as a species are very mixed in their behaviour patterns but many are charitable, hospitable, kind and thoughtful - all activities that, for me, belong on the good end of the spectrum just as much as rudeness, litter and mugging go on the evil end.

When Christians talk about the world as a good place gone bad, or wrong, we are simply making the observation that there are tales in the Bible of 'sin' entering the world as if it came once for all. Whether it is the Genesis story of Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit, or Paul's observation to the Christians in Rome that 'All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God' the authors of the Bible want us to know that we are all on the spectrum of evil somewhere. No-one is completely good. Now we probably didn't need the Bible to tell us that. It's pretty much apparent.

In fact sin probably evolved too. For me it was at the point that we developed the intelligence to know some actions were bad because they were harmful. Harmful to individual members of our own species. Harmful to other species unnecessarily. Harmful to the planet we share.

We did need the Bible to tell us the story of Jesus. Most would agree he was a remarkably good man. The Bible says he was so good he must have been God.

We live in a good world in the sense that it is beautiful and fascinating. We live in a bad world in the sense that it is 'red in tooth and bloody in claw' (was that John Ruskin? I think so).

Not an essay really. More a discussion starter. And I wrote it speedily so I'm not wedded to it as my own opinion yet. Let's see what comments it produces.


Andy said...

I always loved CS Lewis's take on right and wrong from Mere Christianity:

"Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires--one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away.

I like the idea that there is something inside of us all that informs (however quietly) our conscience, and we can either choose to follow or disregard that something. It is certainly how it works for me.

Personally, being something of a post-modern relativist, I find it hard to declare action A as always evil and action B as always good. I believe it is the motive of our hearts that marks an action out as good, or evil.

Jonathan Potts said...

With regards the statement "humanity is the only species able to see the world in terms of good and evil" I think science is on your side here, St. Here are two recent examples from research:

1. corporate morality requires what is known as fourth (or possibly fifth) order intentionality. Animals other than humans exhibit at most second order intentionality. To explain, first order intentionality is self awareness; second-order is awareness of others; third order is awareness of others being aware of you and so on. I won't continue here, but check out

2. Animals, when given the choice either to feed themselves or feed both themselves and another animal of the same species (who has no historical relation to them) tend to be entirely arbitrary in their choice. i.e. the concept of helping another is not present in their mindset. They are neither deliberately selfish nor deliberately altruistic.

Both of these appeared in the last few weeks in New Scientist, if you want some (more) references.

Nonetheless, several animals have sex for more than just procreation - monkeys have been mentioned, but also dolphins and I'm sure there are other examples. I think this is a seperate matter, however.

Simon said...

Steve, sin isn't just someone doing harm, it is "an infraction against religious or moral law" or "any lack of conformity to the will of God", according to Wikipedia.

I don't believe the Universe has any intrinsic good or evil. I even don't believe the Universe has any intrinsic right or wrong.

What I mean by this is, I don't believe it "wrong" to murder or to rape or to steal or anything else.

To some, this would make me an anarchist or an evil-doer.

That's why I need to clarify. I would prefer to live in a society, like most, where it is not acceptable to do those things, rather than one where it is.

This is what I would call civilisation. Civilisation is nothing other than a (hu)man-made solution to anarchy, which stems from our advanced intelligence.

The reason we are so hugely successful as a species is because of our civilisation. The very notions of "murder" and "theft" are inventions which have allowed us to work together to make the world an easier place to survive (and therefore invent) in. Good and evil doesn't even come into it.

My question is, what is the purpose of the idea of "sin" in our modern world?

Mark Gihring, a teacher from Missouri sympathetic to intelligent design, told the BBC: "[Intelligent design] ultimately takes us back to why we're here and the value of life... if an individual doesn't have a reason for being, they might carry themselves in a way that is ultimately destructive for society."

In other words, we cannot be trusted with the truth.

And the truth is: there is no solid evidence for the existence of God or Jesus.

Caroline said...


the trouble with Good and Evil is that we can't work out where the human construction of these two concepts ends and some abosulute qualities of them begin. When we talk of good and evil we are unavoidably talking about what 'we' think they are.

so are we capable of being good and/or evil and the rest of the world not? depends how you define the terms.

So we start looking around for some 'objective', 'eternal' values that can guide us.

Now, I suspect Simon will smell a rat here and say "aha, Caroline, there you are designing a God to suit your own purpose!"

and maybe I am, but that wasn't the way I met God or the way I got to know him, but having started on the journey of knowing him

I've found that I can trust his guidelines as to what is good or evil.

Not, I'm afraid, a very intellectual evaluation. I wouldn't give many marks to a student who wrote like that in an essay! but then, fortunately, I don't have to get a pass mark in this area of my life.

Caroline Too

Martin said...

I do beleive things can be right or wrong, but I think that none of us has a decent judgement of this. Also, even when we do, we still sometimes go against it.

I think that God does have a perfect judgment in this, but that we are not good listeners to this. The small voice speaking to our conscience, that Andy mentions can be God, but I think that we sometimes also make our own slightly larger voices to drown out God's and let us go our own way.

Simon - Just a little on the evidence I see that convinces me God is real (although, I can't provide you absolute proof I'm afraid, if that is what you are looking for). I find it hard to beleive that the universe just appeared as it is for no reason, and so I find it hard not to beleive in God. I am sure that a God who would create a world like ours, with so much good, must be a loving caring God, and I am sure he loves me. When I look at the person of Jesus in the bible, I see those same qualities I know of God, and I see them in such abundance. I cannot explain it any other way then to say he is one and the same. And then there is something that clicks, and just tells me it's true, that I can't really explain.

Simon said...

Martin, I'm afraid your "evidence" does not count in any way as evidence. The absence of something is not evidence for the existence of another thing.

Just because we don't know exactly why or how the Uiniverse appeared, does not lead inevitably to "A God must have created it."

That is PURE speculation. I could dream up all sorts of imaginative reasons for the existence of the Universe. You're just picking one that you want to believe, because you read it in some book and it makes you feel better about the world.

Caroline, you say you've "met" God. Because Christianity has some respectability, we have to take you seriously. But if I told you I met Father Christmas or I talk to fairies at the bottom of my garden, would you take me seriously?

The more you guys talk, the more convinced I am religion is just wishful thinking.

Andy said...


First off, you claim there is no evidence for the existence of God, but I would challenge you to give me concrete evidence of the non-existence of God. Science is not qualified to answer anything outside of it's realm, and for every proposition that you could find to challenge the existence of God, I could one that would challenge the non-existence. We have to lay our chips one way or the other - that's the nature of faith.

Do I think that right or wrong has to be more than a personal inkling, or societal construction? Yup, I think so. How could one challenge great evils such as the holocaust if one did not believe that they were overreaching evils, regardless of perpetrators' subjective feelings on the matter. I can't help thinking that most people live under a form of fairness that is informed by "love your neighbour as yourself". What we would consider evil if done to ourselves or our loved ones, we must consider evil if done by ourselves.

I was attracted to Jesus, because in his teaching I found something that resonated with how I viewed the world. Am I certain God exists? No, not even vaguely. But I do have faith, and we have to place our faith somewhere (whether it is in Christianity, Islam, Atheism or whatever) - so I choose to put my faith in that.

Simon said...

I put my faith in humanity to look after itself, Andy.

God is father figure I think we need to break away from. We should be smart enough to think for ourselves and if you don't believe that you must have a low opinion of the human race.

This is what religious people get wrong, time after time. It is not up to me to prove God DOES NOT exist.

If I was to take seriously every notion which I couldn't prove did not exist, I would have to say Father Christmas or fairies might exist. Or that little green men live at the centre of the Earth.

Andy, if I said there were invisible people who live in my airing-cupboard who tell me they made the Universe, would you take me seriously?

You can't prove me wrong, can you?

The best that any religious person can come up with is "I just believe and that's that."

There's no more evidence for the existence of Jesus, than there is for King Arthur or Robin Hood. As much as we want to believe in them as fact, they are just popular myths.

Modern medicine actually makes people live longer. Physics flies us into space. Chemisty means we don't have to work down the pit for 12 hours a day.

What does religion do? It makes us behave like children, act irrationally, and divides us even though we share a common humanity.

Jonathan Potts said...

I'd like to second Andy's comment. There are many Christian scientists and philosophers and they all seem to concur with something like this point of view.

Rather than expound it myself, I'd rather point to more emminent and eloquent scientists and philosophers who've written about God, faith and scientific evidence. I'd particularly recommend:

(Rev Professor Sir) John Polkinghorne's website ""; Roger Trigg's two books "Rationality and Science" and "Rationality and Religion"; John Polkinghorne's "Science and Christian belief" (not easy reading this one); William James' "The will to believe".

Andy said...


The difference is that I would want to talk to my friend with the little people in the cupboard. I would want to find out about his world, and the magic of it. I would want to find out how it informs his actions and his dreams. I would want to share my faith with him and help him to see the magic in it too. What I wouldn't do is tell him he was wrong to place his faith in what he has chosen to place his faith in. That's not giving him dignity. His faith and mine are only the start of the conversation, not the end of it.

My religion does more for me than make me behave like a child. I study the world/science/faith more now, than I did as someone without faith. My wife's faith is what keeps her going in a secular nursing job that helps science do it's job of healing people. My faith is what makes me pause before tearing someone's deeply held beliefs to shreds because mine feel threatened. It's what makes me forgive someone who has wronged me, because I believe that that forgiveness will help to heal them. It's what makes me do stuff that I don't want to do, to make the world a better place. In all of these things, my faith informs them and makes me into a better person through it. You may find your faith does the same. If so, I'm glad.

My faith isn't totally based on airy-fairy dreams though. I believe there is a great deal of historical evidence for the person of Jesus (more, literary evidence than, say, Julius Ceasar). There is evidence from non-Christian historians who were hostile to Christians (Tacitus, Josephus, The Talmud) all who support the notion that a historical figure existed. Whether you believe stuff about him is another matter altogether, but one should ask how a grass-roots movement could thrive in a culture of persecution in a such a short space of time that many 'witnesses' were still alive to confirm or deny the message that was being spread. To my knowledge there is no such refutation of early Christianity from any such sources.

Like it or not, we cannot have a world without religion. Communism tried that, and the result was not peace and freedom, but torture and tyranny. We must make sure nothing like that happens again.

Jonathan Potts said...

Simon said "What does religion do? It makes us behave like children, act irrationally, and divides us even though we share a common humanity."

Unfortunately, this is often true. But I'd like to add that religion does not make me (or many others) behave like children, act irrationally or help divide me from other groups. For me, my faith is rational (and as a PhD mathematician I know a thing or two about rationality), helps me behave far better than I would otherwise (science doesn't help us do this and never will) and causes me to strive towards unity with other human beings. Many others are similar to me. They unfortunately don't get so much media attention as the irrational brutes from various ideological backgrounds (religious and, may I add, atheistic ideologies like Stalinism and Maoism).

So who in the public eye would view their faith like I do? Well, I've mentioned John Polkinghorne. Also Anglican Archbishops Rowan Williams and John Sentamu are exemplars of how I think faith should be thought about and practice and are the two top bods in the Anglican Church. (see

It is fundamentalism, not faith, that makes us act like irrational brutes.

Jonathan Potts said...

btw, there seems to be some cross-commenting - before I finish one response, someone else has posted another - which accounts for the rather unsequential nature of the last few comments!

Simon said...

Jonathan, by needing the guidance of a father figure (God), which you have just expressed, logic suggests you are acting in a childlike way. So I think your logic contradicts itself.

In my opinion, religious people need religion because without it the Uiniverse seems a cold and heartless place. Another contradiction, I'm afraid.

Some religious leaders openly declare, "without religion people would harm society", reveal real motive behind it - crowd control.

Irrationality is "used to describe emotion-driven thinking ". Andy's last comment is a 100% emotional response to the world. In fact, religion is a 100% emotional response to the world. Logic would suggest it is therefore 100% irrational.

See, I think the Universe is an incredible place. It astounds me. It puzzles me. It intrigues me. And I look forward to discovering new things about it. The things we continue to discover about it are far more interesting than anything the Bible has to offer.

Communism "failed" ultimately (it is debateable whether it failed conclusively) for economic reasons, not theological ones. I'm sure a state can't stop people believing in their faith, even if it can repress the practice of it.

Besides, Communism, with its ideas of sharing the wealth, has its roots in Christianity, doesn't it?

Jonathan, why can't you "behave better" without Christianity? To make that statement, you must have a value system outside of God, to be able to measure your actions with and without God.

If you just need someone to remind you to be more loving, I'll do it if you want. Does it make any difference if I say it or if Jesus says it?

The Old Testement was supposed to be fixed, until Jesus came along. So dramatic change and dranatic new ideas are fundemental to Christianity. How do you know I'm not the next prophet, son of God or whatever, with the new version of "how we should behave"?

If I say Jesus has spoken to me and told me it is time to move on; time to forget the old ways; time to love each other without God's help (as a child must learn to ride his bike without stabilisers); would you believe me?

Simon said...

Jonathan, thanks for pointing me towards John Polkinghorne's website.

I find his ideas somewhat less than impressive.

He says "Atheism turns people into animals...".

I've written a post critising some of his ideas on my blog.

Jonathan Potts said...

Simon, thanks for you comments, some replies:

1. Childlikeness: Yes, Christainity is inherently childlike (nb not childish) in its appeal to a father figure. But I do object to your original phrase "act like children" which, I think, has deliberately derogatory connotations and means more than "being childlike", which has no derogatory connotations - in my mind at least. This really highlights the point that before we apply logic, we need to be clear about our definitions of the words we're applying the logic to, but that's another matter...

2. I don't think everyone's faith is a 100% emotional response to the world without any rationality in it. John Polkinghorne would be a prime example. Before you can make this claim, you need to object carefully to the various things which people claim are the rational basis for faith and show that they are all, in fact, emotional. I challenge you to do this with John Polkinghorne for starters.

3. The universe is an incredible place, I agree. I love finding out all the things science shows us about it - in fact, adding to this knowledge is part of my job. But I also love reading about the life and teachings of Christ - it inspires, intrigues and motivates me. We obviously differ on opinion on this, which is fine.

4. I agree with your points on Communism. Marx's dictum "from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs" is a paraphrase of Acts 4:34-35 which I think is what your refering to. But I do object morally to Marxism and Maoism (don't most people?), which were fundamentalist extremes of Communism, pushing forward (in an often brutal way) an ideology regardless of human rights/freedom/other opinions. And I object morally to the Spanish Inquisition, which brutally pushed forward a (pseudo-)Christian ideology without regard to human freedom and rights. I will state again: it is fundamentalism that makes people act like irrational brutes, not belief (either religious, atheistic or political).

4. I didn't say I can't behave better without Christianity, I just said Christianity helps me behave better. I don't think the two things are quite the same. Your point about values outside God is subtle and pertinant - how can we say "God is good" and it not be a meaningless tautology unless we have a standard of goodness outside the concept of God? The point is that when we say "good" we appeal to a general "common-sense" understanding of goodness and when we say "God is good" we say that God by nature adheres to something like that concept of goodness. So yes, I have a common-sense value system outside God. And I believe in Christianity because Christ's teachings resonate with my common-sense view. But I also believe that God is much more intelligent, wise and knowledgeable than humans so it makes sense to look to his advice in moral matters. I'm kind of skirting over a big philosophical issue here, but I hope this makes some sort of sense.

5. With regards to who advises me to "be more loving", I don't really care: Jesus, you or any hippy could inform me that. The point is: what does it mean and how do I do it? For this, with respect :), I would look to Jesus rather than you because when I read about his life and teachings, it resonates with me in a way that no other ethical teachings do. It's the same reason why you might, from time to time, ask the advice of an older person who you respect.

6. You say "the Old Testament was meant to be fixed". It wasn't. It was a temporary covenant with the Jewish people until the Messiah came (or will come, depending on whether you're Christian or Jewish). Jews today believe that when the Messiah comes the covenant will be fulfilled, which may mean a re-jigging of the laws.

7. If you say Jesus had spoken to you with the above advice (last paragraph), I would say: is it consistant with his teachings so far? The answer would be "no" so I wouldn't believe you. Likewise if you or anyone else claim they are the Messiah: what do you have to back this claim up? Jesus had healings, incredibly insightful teachings, an impeccable character and raising himself from the dead. Not to mention fulfilling several Old-Testament prophecies. Do you or anyone else have evidence like that?

St said...

Fascinating. I went off for a cup of tea for a day or two (OK I cleared out the cellar and in the processs broke my dentures - don't ask - which is why the lisp, sorry) and when I came back there were several discussions going on at once.

I think there is a semantic question here. Simon seems to want a tight Christian definition of sin. Fair enough. But we can have that and still believe that good and evil are on a spectrum - you might call it the civilised / uncivilised spectrum where you are though. By the way Wikipedia isn't that reliable a source.

I keep seeing this comment that Jesus doesn't exist. Be good if that could be clarified. Are you saying Jesus existed but is dead or Jesus never existed?

Simon said...

I'm saying there is not that much evidence that he existed at all. Perhaps a little more than King Arthur and Robin Hood.

I'll be back to answer Jonathan's challenge. First the VAT must be done (virtual proof there is no god).

Jake said...

Interesting discussion. It is generally agreed by many many people, historians, scientists, Christians, Jews, Muslims and others that there was a man around at the time Christians say he was around, performing miracles, teaching people, being crucified, having people claim he was the Messiah etc. In fact I think there were many people who did such stuff, but there was only one bunch of people who claimed that their Messiah then rose from the dead, so they told everyone about it (the normal form of communication in those times) and then wrote about it (when they realised he may not return, as he promised, in their lifetimes).

Keep up the discussion I may pop past again!

Simon said...

In answer to Jonathan...

1) It wasn't meant in a derogatory sense. But... I do see it as a weakness to follow a god. I think it removes some responsiblity within yourself. Every child who adheres to his parents' beliefs cannot comprehend what it would be like to make his own decisions and, perhaps, fears it. I know followers think it's actually more responsible to follow a god and his rules.

I know what you're afraid of - to lose your father's instruction is like leaving home and entering the big, wide, scary world of infinite choices. The idea of making your own sense of the randomness of the Universe is a terrifying one. You need a haven and so you seek the security blanket of faith.

Because here is a target for you to shoot at. It's an arbitrary one, but it still gives you somewhere to head to.

If God did not exist, would you be lost? Yes. And that is why people created religion - to give people a sense of direction.

But you don't have to be lost without a god. Just start with "I think, therefore I am" and move forward.

Does it matter where? Not really. Only to you. Why is that a problem?

Are you afraid without instruction you will kill or steal? Why? You don't need to do those things, do you?

Are you afraid that life will end in nothing? I'm a little bit afraid of that, I suppose. But then, life started with nothing. I'm getting better at dealing with it.

Mark Thomas said on Radio 4 last night "The problem with being an atheist is you don't get to say 'I told you so'"

Anyway, there are amazing mysteries to be solved in the Universe (and elsewhere?). Because, yes, it does seem odd that we're (so far) alone in this place. But things always seem odd to us when we don't know the answer.

Simon said...

2) John Polkinghorne

I've read his lecture from 1990 "God's Action In The World". I must say, although it is made to appear scientific, underneath the camouflage, it's just the same old "I believe and thats that".

The lecture contains contradictions, imagined ideas, inventions, pure speculation and uses the old trick of giving us limited choices to make us think we have to pick God or nothing.


“We are not talking about a God of the gaps, an agent acting among other agents in the process of the world, and just invoked to explain the currently scientifically inexplicable. Such a God is truly dead, and no one should lament his passing.”

“…there are aspects of the laws of physics which raise questions beyond physics' competence to answer, issues that almost inevitably raise in the mind the feeling that there is more going on here that has met the purely scientific eye.”

So he sets out to say this is not just filling in the gaps of our knowledge and then bases his ideas on the fact that we have gaps in our knowledge.


“the reason within and the reason without”

“I believe there is such a rationality, namely the reason of the Creator who is the ground of both our mental life and our physical life.”

He invents this idea that our mind is not physical and suggests that the connection between the two is evidence for a Mind at work.

Well, I'm afraid the human mins IS physical. Our thoughts, miraculous though they may seems, have been shown by science to be created by physical activity in the brain. We may not know everything about the brain, but there is certainly no evidence that thought is anything other than a chemical and physical process.

Imagination/pure specualtion

“what I'm saying is that the physical world seems shot through with signs of mind and to me”

“It is a world in which we can act, and if we can act, I don't see why God can't act in it as well, within the hiddenness of flexible process.”

“We live in a world whose openness and hidden flexibility mean that it is a world in which God can be at work.”

“If it is true (and I believe it is true) that God was present in Christ in a way that he has not been present in any other person, then Jesus represented the presence of a new regime in the world.”

All this is PURE speculation, wrapped up in his interpretation of the things he sees in science.

Well, as I have said before, we can all interpret the world any way we want. I'm sure I could come up with ten different ideas which would explain the Universe in a week, let alone the years he's had to think about it.

Limits our choices

“You can either say, "Well, that's just the way it is; we're here because we're here."


“I would say that for me the most satisfying insight is that the world is ... a creation whose given law and circumstance has been willed by its creator to be capable of fruitful process.”

Erm, sorry mate, but there a whole load of other choices you forgot to mention. Why must I decide between his idea or nothing at all?

Its the oldest (con) trick in the book.

Simon said...

3) Fine.

Simon said...

4) "So yes, I have a common-sense value system outside God."

Why do you need God then? Isn't your common-sense enough? is it just to confirm what you already knew? Or is it to inspire you to think about such things?

I don't have a problem with Christianity as a philosophy, at all. It's the fact people believe it to be literally true (that God created the Universe etc) and feel they must be in some way subservient to it, which I think is weak-minded.

Simon said...

5) But you know so very little about my life and my teachings so how can you make that judgement? Perhaps I'm better than Jesus...

My point is, it seems you've closed your mind to the possibility of something better coming along.

Simon said...

6) What I mean was, they didn't say "Here's the 10 commandments to keep you going until Jesus gets here, then he's going to change everything." They didn't say "Eye for an eye... until God can think of something better."

Did God change his mind about that? Doesn't God do some pretty nasty things in the Old Tesament?

Chris said...

Re: 6) Nasty things in the Bible... check out Judges:

Simon said...

7) "Jesus had healings, incredibly insightful teachings, an impeccable character and raising himself from the dead."

Only according to those who wrote about him decades after he died.

I don't think his teachings were all that insightful. Newton and Einstein's insights are far more astounding.

OK, I confess, I'm not the Son of God. Not your god, anyway. But I might be the son of the real God, the god who has been hiding while we got all these other gods out of system - Zues, Athena, Thor, Allah, etc.

Polkinghorne only argues for a possible creator - which could be anything. He could even be my dad.

Simon said...

Genius, Chris... lol!

Jonathan Potts said...

Simon, I think we've reached something of a stalemate: you understand what I think, I understand what you think but we still fundamentally disagree. I think this stems from the fact that I find Jesus Christ's life and teachings to resonate with me in a particular, unique way, which you don't and I like the idea of following the advice of a good, wise father figure if I can find one, whereas you would rather go it alone. And I don't think further to-ing and fro-ing of ideas is going to aid our understanding or change our viewpoint.

Having said that, it's been very interesting and illuminating reading about your thoughts and ideas so thank you for taking the time to share them.

One final thing: As for nasty things in the Old Testament, I personally believe that many places where people wrote "God did this or that" in the OT were mistaken metanarrative inferences - I would rather take my view about God from looking at Jesus' life. This, of course, goes against the oft-held doctrine that the Bible is (a priori) infallible. But, to be honest, I think that's a rather silly doctrine. Many Christians would disagree with me and call me a liberal heretic - well, yes, fine, I probably am. But I see no reason why faith in Christ implies a priori faith in every single book of the Bible.

Simon said...

OK, Jonathan. Personally, I don't believe we have reached a stalemate. I'm dissapointed that you set me a challenge, which I accepted, but which you now don't wish to "counter-challenge". Either my arguments were too good, or they were too poor, to warrant answering, I guess.

I ask questions because I genuinely want to understand how a believer rationalises his belief. The answer seems to be (so far), he doesn't. He can't.

Unless you can provide a counter-argument, I must assume belief is therefore irrational.

Andy said...

Or, Simon, there is a third option between "either my arguments were too good, or they were too poor, to warrant answering, I guess" - namely that there is no point in trying to have a conversation exploring 'truth' with someone closed to their interpretation of 'truth'. You'll have much more luck convincing people that you are genuinely searching for truth is you consider them fellow journeymen, rather than 'the opposition'.

Fundamentalism (Christian as much as Atheist) removes dignity from people, and you don't need to believe in God to believe that.

Jonathan Potts said...

I think rationalising belief is a tricky thing and I couldn't give a simple answer in the space of a blog posting (or the time which I have spare toi spend writing on a blog), which is why I referred you to several books, including some by John Polkinghorne. Roger Trigg's books are good, too. If you're not convinced by these people then I doubt I could convince you. That's why I don't feel that it's profitable carrying on a discussion for much longer.

As for the challenge to look at John Polkinghorne's stuff - the best person to submit a counter-challenge to is John Polkinghorne himself. I believe the website I mentioned allows you to do this.

For my part, your counter-challenges of "invention", "oldest con-trick in the book" and "pure speculation" amount, in my mind, to you simply saying "I disagree". I can't counter-counter-challenge "I disagree" except by saying "well, I disagree with you too". Which is why I think we've reached a stalemate.

For example: you counter by saying "the mind IS physical". (Well, Polkinghorne never explicitly says that it isn't, but anyway...) Your assertion assumes physicalism. You haven't said WHY you think the mind is physical. Many scientists and philosophers of mind would be inclined to disagree - or at least put a question-mark here. Why couldn't I just say that your assertion is "pure speculation?". So I interpret your arument as simply saying "I disagree". I can apply the same principle to your other counter-challenges.

Simon said...

I dont see believers as the opposition. Belief, to my thinking, is part of humanity, part of nature, part of evolution, part of the Universe. There's no battle. The debate is whether it's rational or not. I'm just putting forward some ideas, which I certainly don't consider the be-all and end-all.

Jonathan, I have said why I think the mind is physical - scientific analysis shows physical activity in the brain relates to certain actions or feelings. In other words physical evidence. I'm not saying the mind is 100% physical, I'm saying there is no evidence to suggest a "spiritual" part. You might want to add "yet".

That's why my assertion isn't pure speculation.

Polkinghorne's idea that the mind is separate from the physical world has no basis in science, as far as I'm aware.

How can you say my argument amounts to me saying "I disagree"? Are you saying that Polkinghorne's idea that he sees a Mind at work in the patterns of the Universe ISN'T speculation? That he has some real evidence?

Jonathan Potts said...

As you say, we do not know if the mind is 100% physical (yet) or not. Which is why either saying it is 100% physical or saying there is a spiritual element are both equally speculative. All I am trying to say is that one point of view is no more rational than the other.

In general, I am not arguing (though Polkinghorne may be) that Christianity is more rational than atheism - merely that both are equally rational (or equally irrational, if you like, or equally speculative) interpretations of the world - and I have given some indications as to why my preference is for Christianity.

To be honest, I think I've said all I can usefully say on the matter so this will be my last comment. I am sorry if my comments have been less satisfactory than you might have hoped for. I hope some of the books I have recommended may be more helpful/interesting.

Simon said...

Can you please just stretch to one more comment, Jonathan.

As you say, you are no stranger to thinking logically. That is why I find it hard to understand your thinking. Please can you help me? I am genuinely interested.

I didn't say I had evidence the mind was 100% physical.

I think we can agree, there is scientific evidence that SOME (ie: greater than 0) brain activity is physical. On the other hand, there is NO (zero) evidence any brain activity is spiritual.

Therefore, the evidence that the brain is physical is greater than the evidence that the brain is spiritual.

Do you agree?

By the way, I do not say that atheism is more rational. Atheism is just a lack of something. Atheists can believe in all sorts of other stuff for which there is no real evidence, such as aliens visiting us in spaceships.

Jonathan Potts said...

Ok - one more comment... :)

Firstly, let's make a clear distinction between the words "mind" and "brain". By "brain", I mean the actual matter itself. By "mind", I mean the totality of mental processes - the processes of thought that arise from the operation of the brain or anything else (if there is anything else) that may act to give concious experience.

So the brain is physical, by definition. We also know that the processes of the mind are often explainable (at least in part) by physical processes so the mind is - at least in part - a product of physical processes. I don't think anyone would say that the mind is not at all informed by the physical. Or, if you like, the mind is not at all physical. So yes, there is more evidence to show physicality of the mind than spirituality: I agree.

But the mind may not be entirely physical. It seems to be a "leap of faith" (if you'll pardon my deliberately provocative expression) to move from "the mind is at least in part physical" to "the mind is entirely physical".

As for evidence of spirituality: agreed, there is no "hard" evidence for spirituality. It is difficult to point to hard evidence for something that is, by nature, beyond the realm of scientific testing. But there are some wierd things about the mind/brain relationship. It doesn't seem to work as nicely as when scientists look at, say, the lungs or the liver, which are explained (relatively) easily. If you have a look at some books on neurology you'll see this. Something different seems to be going on, which could be that the brain is way too complicated for modern science, but we'll get there eventually; but it could be that there is a spiritual element.

To be honest with you, I am undecided about whether the mind is purely physical or not - the latter seems to be the traditional "(Christian) faith view" but it could be that there is something in purely physical processes that allows for free-will and the action of God without reference to a non-physical mind. As chaos theory and quantum physics have shown, the physical world is wierder and less deterministic than it might at first seem, so this is plausible. I honestly don't have a strong opinion on what I think the answer is.

If you are not of faith (in God), of course, it makes far more sense to believe the mind is purely physical. But that's assuming you're not of faith. If you are, I think the mind/body issue is more subtle and difficult, but not intractible.

If you would rather believe in nothing until you have hard evidence for it, then you will usually, I think, end up as an atheist physicalist. The question is whether you wish to try postulating the possibility of things that there is little hard evidence for - but might shed light on some other unexplained matters - and ask whether believing in them leads to helpful and consistant thinking. If it doesn't, then you reject the postulate. If it does, then maybe the postulate is reasonable (even true) despite the lack of "hard" evidence for it.

By the way, this theorising without hard evidence does happen in serious science - modern "string theory" is an example (many prominent physicists and mathematicians study this). It postulates the existence of strings with absolutely no "hard" evidence - and the reason is because strings fit into a helpful, consistant theory that explains certain facts about nature (well, the theory's not quite fully developed yet, but that is the end goal).

Another example is the fact that many times physicists have postulated the existence of a particle they have never observed based on the fact that the existence of the particle fits in with some "nice-looking" theory. Then years later, the particle gets observed. It does in fact exist. (An example is the tau nutrino).

Simon said...

It seems our opinions are actually pretty close, then.

I don't consider a theory unless I'm given a good reason to consider it. The problem is, the gaps in our knowledge are too often exploited by people to sell their beliefs.

I know things like string theory are very "out there". I certainly don't go around trying to convince people it's the complete truth which can't be denied (unlike religous preachers).

That's the difference - scientists come up with theories, and are (on the whole) honest enough to say "it only a theory".

The reason I would tend to be more open to string theories and the like is that they have been arrived at by a logical process. The theory is based in other scientific knowledge.

It seems clear to me, Christianity isn't based in scientific knowledge. It comes from a primitive society. What's happening is people, it seems, are determined to hang on to it.

So rather than arriving at God as a conclusion of a long investigation. Instead, God came first and now we have to try to fit him into our ever increasing understanding of the Universe, like the piece of an old jigsaw that doesn't quite fit into the new puzzle. So we see people trying to force it in, smudging round the edges (like Polkinghorne).

It feels very like those who were determined to retain the possibility the Earth was flat, despite the weight of evidence. Saying "Well, we might just be going round in two dimensional circles".

That's the way religion is presented now. "Well, we don't know everything about the mind, so it could be part-spiritual"

I say, "We don't know everything about the mind, so lets find out."

When the existence of elements were predicted by the periodic table, that came out of a process of rigorous scientific investigation.

Ideas of spirituality are wild speculation. As you say, they have to be.

In which case, what is the rigorous process by which we are to investigate them, to prevent them from being irrational?

Mike said...


Hello. I'm a chemist turned priest, so I found your last bit interesting (sorry guys I can't face reading all 36 comments)

What makes you think that science is rational? What I mean by that is that we assume science 'works' without investigating that assumption.

W could equally ask why should the universe tell the truth about itself to us. Or, put another way, why are we able to make sense of the world around us. If we are random self-contained intelligent beings with no intelligent source (let's avoid the word God for now) then what do we have in common with other objects and beings around us that enables us to make sense of them?

The rationality of Christian belief stems from the assumption that a common origin in the Divine means we share something of God's rationality (small scale and flawed) wich enables us to make some sense of other products of his (her if you prefer) rationality - i.e. scientific investigation of the universe.

In other words, I believe science needs a theistic world-view to be a fully rational project.

I am sure you won't agree, but I felt it was worth putting the case.

Happy Lent everyone

Simon said...

Hi Mike,

Listen, I'm a creative person. I'm not a scientist. Perhaps because I've been writing stories all my life (pretty good ones too) I can spot one a mile away.

Christianity is made up. It's a lovely story. A very powerful myth. If you want to take it as literal, fine.

Its very easy to make people believe things. Have you watched any of Derren Brown's shows?

What makes me think science is rational?

Mike, are you going to collapse the whole of modern science just because you can't have it your own way?

You see, I was brought up to believe science was bad. It was this modern evil that was destroying the "natural" way of things. Unfortunately, I was a chronic asthmatic with a father who was opposed to drugs. He wanted me to get better "naturally". Because of that, I suffered for years. Weeks off school, lying in bed. My muscles didn't develop properly. I was weak and consequently bullied until I left school. I became shy and socially afraid.

When I was 9, I went to live with my mother. She said take the drugs. I took them. It was a magic day. A day of liberation from the superstitious bullshit I had been peddled.

So how do I know science is rational? Because it works. Without it, I would probably be lying in bed now. If I was still alive.

Because of rational thinking, we can fly to the moon. We can cure disease. We can live comfortable lives. We don't starve to death if the crops fail.

In contrast, what has religion ever done?

Rational-minded people invented a drug so I can breathe. They didn't achieve this by reading the Bible.

What you're saying is, God made us rational-minded so we can invent drugs that enable me to breathe.

I say, what is your evidence?

(just to shorten this a bit - the way this argument goes is: you refer me to various "rational" theories for some kind of Creator. I say the theories are feeble and give a list of real evidence to back up my argument. You say my evidence is no less speculative than yours and declare the argument a "stalemate" - even though I seem to have you in check-mate.)

I can't prove God does not exist. But by that reasoning, you can't prove I am not the Creator, himself. Or my cat, for that matter.

And if that is the basis of the Universe, we may as well all sign ourselves into the nut house.

Andy said...

Woah there skippy - what has religion done for you?

Well, how about founding modern medicine? It was the desire to 'heal' people that led many of the 'irrational' groundbreakers to dedicate their lives to making people better. Islamic and Christian physicians historically led the world in healing the sick because they were compelled by their faith.

And how about compelling people throughout the ages to create beautiful works of art, all inspired by the love of their creator?

How about inspiring scientists throughout the ages to put a rational mind made in the image of God to the study of the world and how it works. The world owes its onwards progress to persons of faith that you are seemingly prepared to disregard at a whim.

Also, while we are at it, how about the hoards of theists who regularly give chunks of their incomes away to help the needy (more so, than their secular counterparts) -- and I mean help, not proselytise, BTW. And the many who volunteer (more so, than their secular counterparts) to work with the most disadvantaged because their faith inspires them to.

I have given you a rational reason for my faith: The person of Jesus (for whom there is substantial extra-biblical historical evidence, as I pointed out above), his teaching which resonates strongly with the human character you need only observe around you, and the fact that I see people everywhere having their lives transformed by an encounter with him. Marriages rebuilt, identities restored, abuses healed. Why don't you ask them what religion has done for them?

I am sorry that people of faith have let you down in the past. I'm sorry that you have to put up with wacko religious types spouting hatred and judgement. We have to put up with them too.

But we are honest people, many of us have dedicated our lives to our faiths, which a great deal of informed rationalising has gone into. We try and heal the wrongs done in the name of our beliefs, and get on with making the world a better place. We don't deserve the irrational hatred you obviously possess towards us.

I'm a better person with faith than I was without it. That's a good thing, isn't it?

Michael Jackson said...

Heal the world
Make it a better place
For you and for me
And the entire human race
There are people dying
If you care enough
For the living
Make a better place
For you and for me

Simon said...

Wikipedia may not be guaranteed 100% accurate, but I think it beats Michael Jackson as a source of learning..

"Of the non-Christian commentators, very few are known to have written anything at all about Jesus or Christianity. No archival or archaeological evidence referring to him exists from the period when he is said to have lived..."

Which puts him pretty much in the realm of popular myths such as King Arthur and Robin Hood. I'm sorry if this isn't what you want to believe, but its the historical facts as we know them so far. If evidence turns up, documenting the life of Jesus from a neutral point of view, you can start talking about him as a real person. Until then, we have no solid evidence he existed.

I don't hate religions, by the way. But I don't see why I shouldn't argue against the irrational beliefs they put forward.

As I said to Jonathan, if you think following Jesus makes you a better person, you must have a value system outside the Bible to judge that. In which case, why don't you just follow that, without God?

That's what I do. I don't think I'm a worse person than you. If I can do it, why can't you? You may say you chose not to, but that's not a rational argument.

I'm well aware religion has probably had some beneficial effect on civilisation and, therefore, science. And Pagan belief probably had a benefit to pre-Christian societies. Yet, Christians actively and effectively wiped out Pagan practice.

Christians "encouraged" society to move on from primitive worship(often with the use of violence) and people followed. I say lets move on from Christian worship (which is primitive to me). But I won't be burning you at the stake if you refuse... :)

Andy said...


There is evidence from non-Christian historians who were hostile to Christians (Tacitus, Josephus, The Talmud) all who support the notion that a historical figure existed.

I think I mentioned these figures about 35 comments ago, but rather than rationally ponder on them, you decided to rather irrationally disregard them.

If you'd prefer the wikipedia to serious discussion on the matter though, then there is really no point in continuing this little tete-a-tete.

Simon said...

Andy, I didn't disregard them. I said "There's no more evidence for the existence of Jesus, than there is for King Arthur or Robin Hood. As much as we want to believe in them as fact, they are just popular myths."

I think Josephus is the only non-Christian who's mention of Jesus is taken seriously by historians (but not all). Even this, though, is not totally solid.

Just like with King Arthur and Robin Hood, there is some very weak evidence that they may have existed. But most historians agree they are popular myths, possibly based on actual people, possibly not.

The problem is, like with Christianity, the myth becomes more powerful than the reality.

Andy said...

Actually, Josphesus is the most contentious. Tacitus and the Talmud don't have many serious challenges from credible historians, but anyway.

Also, surely the biggest pointer for Jesus is that Christianity exists at all - I mean Christians exist, and they existed (coincidentally) from about the point that Jesus was (allegedly) crucified. They existed enough for Tacitus to know about them, and that they were an annoyance to the Romans (at about 116AD).

May I ask what credible source would be able to convince you that he existed? I would like to challenge that none would, actually. I believe your mind is made up about this one, and no evidence in the world could convince you.

And if that is the case, may I ask whether that is a rational approach?

Your argument seems to boil down to: There is a chance that this could be made up -> therefore it is all made up. It's exactly like saying we can explain all of this without God, therefore there is no God. It just doesn't follow. You pronounce certainity that God does not exist, yet refuse to acknowledge that your standpoint has no evidence to back up the certainity. It may suggest your hypothesis but it in no way proves it.

So, either you must accept that your worldview is a faith, just like ours (which means you lose the right to tell us that we are incorrect in our faith) or you must provide evidence to back up your claim.

The choice is yours.