This blog is primarily about my own thoughts on what it means o be reasonable or rational. In looking at that question it can be asked what is the goal we are rationally pursuing? My goal is to live rightly. Others seem to put their concerns on other things as I discussed here. But for me my goal is to live rightly as best I can. And by live rightly I mean my goal is to live morally as best I can. And yes I mean “real” morality not subjective morality or something we just make up. Do I have other goals? Yes but the goal of living rightly is the most important one that trumps all other concerns.
I would think many people would agree with that goal although not all. But even if you agree, the question is how do we do that? Follow the guidance of Mohamed? of Christ? other religious leaders? of Sam Harris or Peter Singer? I have argued that due to the nature of moral truth it is not something we can learn by science. I think the process is much more of a mixture of instinct, emotion, intuition, and reason/logic. But reason alone can’t get us there – we need starting premises and we need to weigh different values – logic won’t give those starting premises or weights. From my own observations and studies of history as well as other fields I think it is silly to think another natural person will give us guidance unless they are getting it from a supernatural source.
But how sure do we need to be there is an actually way to live? Is there a burden of proof that real morality exists? Should we or even can we believe things if they do not seem “more probable than not”? etc. I have written this analogy that I believe can help people understand my view and understand the importance I place in living rightly.
Imagine you come to realize you are lost in a large desert and you are short on water so your time is limited. You see a woman and she says you need to go this way follow me. Now do you believe her? Maybe you ask “why do you think I should go this way?” And she doesn’t answer. Maybe she looks shifty or is even in a prison uniform so you think maybe she is a criminal. Do you think the direction she is going is “more likely than not” the true way you should go? Does it matter if you believe her in a technical sense of “it is more likely than not true that she is going in the correct direction”? I don’t think it matters. I think the only question is whether it is possible she is better informed than you as to which way to go. Because you know you have no clue, it is certainly possible she is better informed than you are. So if she is possibly better informed it seems rational to follow her.
To the atheists: Maybe you will say I don’t really “believe” her. That is maybe you would say “I don’t think she is more likely than not telling the truth because ‘it is just her say so.’” Or maybe you will say I should “withhold belief.” And here I think we are to some extent questioning what it means to “believe.” But I think you would all agree that you would “take what she said as true” with respect to very important actions in your life. And here one of the most important actions that day will be to walk in a certain direction. So yes I can agree with your view that maybe you don’t “believe” her but I don’t agree that it is rational to walk in a different direction or just sit there waiting for someone else to come before you die of thirst. If you will walk with her until something more certain comes along, I agree. But in the meantime you should follow her.
To Christians: You might say Joe you are not a Christian if you do not believe in God. And by that you may mean I fail to think God’s existence is more likely true than not. I am not always sure what percentage I put on God’s existence. When I tried to calculate it I found it was very hard, and my calculations seemed to vary from day to day for little or no reason. I stopped trying to calculate it a long time ago. Decades ago?
But I will say that if I follow the woman I am having “faith” in her in a very important decision. I think I make very important decisions in my life based on taking Christ as the true guide. Of course, I admit my faith is not perfect, I have not given everything I own to the poor as Christ said one should. And I admit my not being perfect may be due to doubts. But I do pray, I do try to understand and follow scripture I do go to church, I am raising my children in the faith, I try to build love for God and others and I do firmly have faith in Christ more than anything else.
I trust him more than anyone. Do I wish I had more evidence? Yes sometimes I do. If I told you I never wished I had more evidence who do you think I would be fooling? But I also admit I am happy to get the Luke 12:47-48 pass for my behavior due to ignorance. Following Christ is not always easy. I think I am confident enough in Christ, and I don’t necessarily wish to up the ante.
Now I talked about belief and I do agree that when I say I “believe” something it tends to mean that I think it is more likely true than not true. But if we want to understand what Paul or the other scripture writers were getting at when they said “believe” or have “faith” in Jesus I really think they meant something more like what I am doing. That is they want us to walk the walk. Jesus himself often talked how our actions matter. (both our actions in a physical sense but also our actions in forming our conscience.) I have been and still remain firmly in that stage of trying to follow his guidance.
I believe plenty of scripture supports my view. I won’t go into all of it but consider Matthew and the sheep and goats.
Also consider this passage:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Now it seems pretty clear from “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing…” “belief in Jesus” does requires works. If I were to say “those who believe in Jesus will not do the works he has been doing” it would seem I am pretty clearly contradicting Jesus and teaching the opposite of what he said.
However, to be fair Jesus does not address whether “belief in him” requires other things – at least not here. And some might interpret this passage as suggesting Jesus is saying people will do greater miracles. But I think that is not simply not true to the actual words used.
“Works” is the Greek “erga” which Is translated as works – deeds – actions.
John of course used another word “semeion” sign to refer to miracles of Jesus which translates as signs.
Jesus showed he was from God by both doing good works and performing miracles/signs. If John thought Jesus was referring to his miracles in this passage he would have used the terms that mean miracles. He used different words and it is hard to see why – except for biases – we should say he really meant to use this other word.
Moreover Matthew also makes it clear that Christ is more interested in our doing good and not evil than he is in our performing miracles.
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
The debate could go on. But if at the end of my life God says Joe even though you tried to live and form your conscience as Christ instructed (again I admit I could do better and I am sure that will be obvious to all at judgment day but I also think it will be obvious I *tried* to follow Christ, I tried to love my neighbor, I tried to live as he wanted, “I ran the race” as Paul said) but you know the probability you gave of my existing was too often below 50% based on an evaluation of the evidence (or it was below 50% at the instant of your death) so “adios down you go!” Well then ok. I really find that scenario pretty absurd. I think this view only seems to hold so much sway now because of the Catholic Church’s abuses and the Protestant views of “faith alone” and “belief versus works” over-corrected beyond any common sense understanding of scripture.
Again I don’t say it is impossible that my lack of credence/probability has no effect on my behavior I think it does. But really I don’t think there is much more I can do about where I put the evidence of God’s existence. I trust God is fair (if he is not then again what can any of us do?) and if he is fair he will not blame people for things beyond their control. So some can say I am not a Christian or a Catholic. But I think there are other more important things I need to do, to align my mind and actions with the way Christ wants other than just try to keep going over arguments about the probability of God’s existence.
Moreover, I have long ago hit a sort of equilibrium when it comes to those arguments. Not much has drastically changed in the overall weight of these probabilistic arguments in decades and the slight changes that do happen from reading about them are not always favorable to God’s existence anyway! Even when I read an argument that is supposed to be in favor of the probability of God I may find it weak or flawed and it may if anything slightly decrease the probability I put on God existing. I am not saying it should have that effect, but I think it does. In any case the importance of where we draw the line of probability is grossly overblown. It is much more important to understand the context of our decision whether to follow Christ and this desert analogy is the best way to express my understanding of the context.
It is interesting that Catholicism makes it clear that atheism is not always a mortal sin. And the reason for this is Catholic teaching is that God will treat us fairly and not expect us to do things beyond our ability.
Notice I am not saying it is ok to believe God does not exist. I am not adopting the view that no supernatural things like God are possible so Jesus was just a wise person. I think that would be like following the woman even if you knew she was just as lost as you are. I am saying I am adopting a position that Jesus was divine or at least guided by the divine in a way normal people are not guided. That is really all I am looking for. Did he perform every miracle recorded in scripture? That is not important. The important question is whether he performed *even one* miracle which would show that he has moral knowledge beyond other natural humans.
Our situation of how to live rightly is not properly evaluated by believing things that have over a 50% probability of being true. It is a comparison between options. In this scenario it is best to go with the guidance that has the best chance of being correct even if that chance is below 50%.
What about comparing different religions that have some evidence of being supernaturally inspired? It depends on the action and the judgment of the religion as to that action. But when it is the same moral command by different religions such as giving alms to the poor then the percentages reinforce each other. But when there is a disagreement I think we need to weigh the evidence as to which moral guidance is actually from God. And here I think the most direct way to see if something is from God is to compare the evidence of miracles.
If you are a Christian like me and have some doubts about whether the probability of God existing is over 50% then I would recommend the same thing I do and what I recommend to atheists. Keep following Christ until a more sure moral guide to how you should live shows up. And by that I do mean you should consider the chance that Mohammed or Confucius or Sam Harris, or you yourself know better how you should live than Christ. In making that judgment you should consider how anyone might even be able to reliably understand what we should do in a moral sense and who might possibly be in a better informed position. My evaluation of these factors has lead me to be a Christian.