Thoughts of a geek

20 September 2009

Faith, God and all that jazz

Filed under: Christianity, Me — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — qwandor @ 11:10 pm

I have been meaning to write this post for quite some time now, a couple of months I guess, following a few conversations with a couple of people.

I guess I will start off with where I stand. I consider myself a Christian. Certainly I have all the obvious trappings: I go to church every Sunday, read the bible daily, go to a bible study with people from church most weeks, try to pray. I try to live my life, make decisions, from a Christian worldview. I try to be open to discussing my beliefs, ‘faith’ if you will, with others, as this is interesting, worthwhile and indeed a vital part of a Christian life (I Peter 3:15, Mark 16:15).

However, I do find it difficult to explain, and I think this largely comes down to not having a very clear idea in my own mind. On that note I would like to post a few questions, and list (my interpretations of) some people’s answers to them so far. I also include my own in some cases.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts (different answers to the questions, comments on the existing answers) and discuss further, either here or — better — in person. I have been particularly frustrated over these things over the last two or three months, and have found it difficult to talk to people, so this is an attempt to get some of my thoughts out in the hope of being able discuss them further. This is mainly aimed at Christians, but extends to anyone.

What is faith?

  • Blind belief, in the absence of evidence — obviously, I find this an unsatisfactory definition. There needs to be some way to discriminate between things in which you should have faith and things in which you should not.
  • Belief that something is a certain way, or that something will happen, based on past experience and testimony (direct or indirect) of people whom I trust. ‘Faith’ then is very closely related to ‘trust’, perhaps even the same thing. This is my current working definition, but some people I have talked to find it unsatisfactory. I do not really understand why; apparently it is insufficient in some way?

What is the basis of Christian faith?

  • The Bible — this requires first an argument for the historical accuracy of the bible, and then trust in the people whose witness is recorded in it (for example in the gospels). This is difficult due to the lack of a personal relationship, so it becomes a rather indirect thing.
  • Other people’s testimony — friends, family. Again this comes down to accepting what people say based on personal trust in them, which in turn comes from knowing them, observing their words and actions and judging their trustworthiness from that.
  • Supernatural experience — some sort of experience beyond the usual which provokes or confirms a belief in the God conceived by Christianity and described in the Bible. Some people certainly describe such an experience, to greater or lesser extent, or even it being a regular thing.

How does God talk to you?

  • The written word of the Bible is God talking to you — but, it is hardly personal then.
  • While reading the Bible — how?
  • Through other people — He sends people to say things to you, and so what they say is in a sense God talking to you. But then, how does He tell them what to say?
  • Just talking directly to you — again, how? What does this mean, how is it experienced?

How do you know that God is talking to you, and how do you know what He is saying?

  • You hear distinct words
  • It is more of a general feeling of some sort — but then how do you know that it is from God?
  • A ‘prompting’, you just think of doing something — but we often think of doing things. How is this ‘prompt’ different? ‘Prompting’ is a vague term. Perhaps this is the same as or similar to the previous answer.

What does it mean to ‘believe’?

  • A belief is a theorem (in the sense used in mathematics). That is, a statement is ‘believed’ if it there is a proof for it. I know that Peirce’s law holds in classical logic because I can write a proof using only the axioms of that logic, so I can say “I believe that Peirce’s law holds in classical logic”. Nothing can be believed beyond what can be proven, so belief is limited to the formalisms of mathematics. This does not include any of the sciences, as even physics is just a matter of attempting to find a consistent model which fits observed phenomena; no proof is possible as physical laws are only guesses which happen to match reality in a few observations.
  • A belief is a working assumption. I ‘believe’ that the sun will rise tomorrow insofar as I assume it will based on past experience, and so I base my decisions and plans on that assumption. Beliefs then are not certain, cannot be proven, but are necessary for decision-making and, well, life.

Note that the first and last questions are of definition, so it is more a matter of how you choose to define faith and belief than any intrinsic reality. Consistent and agreed-upon definitions are, however, vital to any meaningful communication.


16 May 2008

Truth, faith, science and religion

I came across an interesting blog article recently, entitled Internet Arguments and the Search For Truth. It discusses the meaning of ‘faith’, and its relation to religion and science. The author has some interesting things to say about ideologues and debate, and I recommend reading it.

Whether science and religion can co-exist seems to be a common topic of disagreement and confusion, especially the divide manufactured between ‘Creationism’ and ‘Evolution’. Certainly it was a common theme to the questions people had to ask last year when the VUW Christian Union ran our Ask God in the Quad event here at Vic, and it has come up again this year.

Unfortunately some Christians have quite strong and loud beliefs along the lines of ‘God created the Earth in 6 (24 hour) days a few thousand years ago, this is the only possible way of interpreting the bible, and Evolution is an evil plot by Science to destroy people’s faith in God’. For their own part, their opponents often have equally fundamentalist views that Evolution conclusively disproves all religion, without even understanding very well what Evolution means.

I see no contradiction between science and Christianity. I am no biologist, and I cannot claim to have a terribly clear knowledge of exactly which of the claims grouped under the popular heading of ‘Evolution’ are generally accepted by the scientific community from what evidence. The closest I have come to studying evolution is the use of evolutionary computation techniques in AI (genetic algorithms, genetic programming, etc.), where they are a useful technique for optimisation and machine learning. My understanding is that there is a clear case from fossil records that there has been change with species throughout history, and a fairly clear case for speciation and common descent (at least to some extent), but there is no scientific consensus on how life came to exist in the first place. There seem to be a range of models for and hypotheses on abiogenesis, but no substantial evidence.

There are in fact quite a range of views within Christianity on the origins of life, based on different interpretations of the creation account given in Genesis. gives one useful comparison of some of the views, from the perspective of a proponent of Old-Earth Creationism. TalkOrigins has a much shorter summary of some interpretations.

Christians have been thinking about these issues for quite a long time: Augustine of Hippo (a Christian theologian and philosopher who lived from 354 AD to 430 AD) had some interesting attitudes towards the interpretation of the Genesis account (as well as open-mindedness in general). He makes the excellent point:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.

Davis A. Young has written a good article about Augustine’s views that I recommend reading, both for non-Christians and Christians.

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