Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Faith, Philosophy, and Quantum Physics

David Albert, a Columbia University philosophy professor, wrote a devastating review of the cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss' new book "A Universe From Nothing - Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing" in the latest issue of the NYT Book Review. I have heard Krauss speaking at Princeton University and sympathize with his science politics and atheism, but Albert's critique is hard to ignore.

I googled David Albert and found a very good interview with him, where he lays out the philosophical issues around quantum physics in a wide-ranging and beautiful way. You find it at Columbia's fabulous blog "big think blog".
It just happens that Stanley Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, wrote a blog for the New York Times on the web on Monday, where he adresses similar philisophical questions. The blog post is called Citing Chapter and Verse: Which Scripture Is the Right One? and is a sharp and in my mind basically fair critique of statements that Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker did on Chris Hayes new MSNBC show “Up w/ Chris Hayes”  on Sunday.
People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point.

Vary the assumptions (and it is impossible to not have any), begin by assuming a creating and sustaining God, and the force of quite other reasons will seem obvious and inescapable. As John Locke said in his Letter on Toleration, “Every church is orthodox to itself,” and every orthodoxy brings with it reasons, honored authorities, sacred texts and unassailable methods of verification.

It is at bottom a question of original authority: with what conviction — basic orthodoxy — about where truth and illumination are to be found do you begin? Once that question is answered satisfactorily for you (by revelation, education or conversion), you cannot test the answer by bringing it before the bar of some independent arbiter, for your answer now is the arbiter (and measure) of everything that comes before you. Your answer delivers the world to you and delivers with it mechanisms for distinguishing good evidence from bad or beside-the-point evidence and good reasons from reasons that just don’t cut it. 
I don't believe in God. I stopped believing when I was eight years old and began reading about astronomy. I can't see any reason to believe in supernatural phenomena, but I do accept and respect that other people find reasons to believe. There is nothing evil in believing, or not believing. There are good Atheists, Baptists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Mormons and Wiccas. We may all disagree, and we may fight and challenge each other. There are areas where we have to compromise even our strongest believes if we are to live together. This is hard and this is something that nobody likes to do. If you believe that you are 100 percent right and the other guy is 100 percent wrong, then you might as well ignore him or her. It takes a certain degree of humility to accept your fellow man and woman as they are.  

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