Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Priciple and “true religion”

I was just reading the comments over at Greta Christina’s new piece when I ran across this:

As soon as someone points out an ACTUAL issue with Christian culture, doctrine, or a sacred book, all the “true Christians” somehow scatter and disappear.

Something in my head clicked.

I have written before, at some point, about how people pick and choose their beliefs based on interpretations of their religious tradition.  In many cases, it is due to clear ignorance; they simply don’t know enough about their scripture or the history of their religion to know better, and so their beliefs are not coherent either internally or with the any theological tradition.  In many cases, their selection bias takes over and they only pay attention to what their worldview allows them to, which often is at odds with the orthodoxy of their religious tradition.  I see many Catholics do this, for example, when it comes to pre-marital sex, divorce, and contraceptives.  They will claim that their source is the word of god, that they really do believe in it, but they either don’t know or don’t care what the orthodox position is.  They seem, in other words, to exist in some epistemological limbo where their worldview is a mix of allegiance to tradition as well as rebellion against it.  Their simply is no larger consistency for them, and they don’t seem bothered by this at all. Granted, we all are irrational and inconsistent sometimes, but I think we should at least try or to correct it when it is pointed out.

And, of course, people think they are right.  What I mean by this (because this claim has been the source of some argument between myself and people who called this claim arrogant or wrong-headed) is that people accept that their opinions are ideas which are true.  Not that they don’t, in some cases at least, think they could change their mind, only that they are currently convinced of that which they currently believe.  I don’t know why that point is so controversial, but it is.

And so when you talk to some Christians (for example; this is true for people of all sorts of worldviews) about what it means to be a Christian, they think that either their sect is the true Christianity (or, more generally, the Truth) or they claim that there really is a truth and it is at least related to their opinion.  They may not know all the answers, but the god they believe in surely does. And this, in conjunction with the inconsistencies they have, leads to a situation where they believe both that their ideas are right, and that the religious tradition which they associate is also true even if they don’t adhere to all of its doctrines.  So,when you ask them for the truth, or at least answers to specific questions, the answer you will get depends on factors too complicated to spell out here but which are logically incoherent.

Ask a Catholic of they use condoms.  Ask them what is the right thing to do.  Ask them what the church thinks about this issue.  Ask them, again, if they are really a Catholic.  Chances are, this line of questioning will leave you flabbergasted and possibly cynical.  I’ve become to used to it to be surprised anymore, so I usually just skip over to the cynicism.



In the public discourse about religion, policy, etc there is this problem that is pointed out to those that say, for example, that this is a Christian nation.  The problem is actually quite simple, and goes something like this:

Which Christianity?

And this is certainly a problem for those public representatives who make such claims, but his problem goes deeper.  More essential to this question is the meta-theological question of what interpretation (or set of interpretations) is accurate? Which theological school is right?

Now, from my point of view, this question is meaningless.  It is akin to asking what color underwear Batman wears.  The question has no answer because unless Batman is drawn wearing some particular underwear (and I am not aware that this has been the case in any of his many comics), this question has no answer.  It’s like the classic example whether the King of France is bald?  Unless there is a king of France, this question is meaningless.  Similarly, unless their is a god or some other sort of divine truth, an internally coherent and true theology is meaningless.

But for a believer, this question of meta-theology becomes important, and leads to the many complicated hallways of theological intricacy which I have little interest in.  Because as one studies such things, one begins to realize that the closer you get to answering such questions the more the problem starts to slip away from you.  Now, this is not a problem of internal inconsistency as much (although this is a problem) as it is a problem for consistency with the world in general.  And because the ways in which theological opinions are related to the real world (and sometimes it seems that the former prefers to ignore the latter), theology is in flux, motion, or can be said to have a position and momentum, in some analogous sense.

Theological worldview are, in a very loosely analogous way, not unlike physical particles.  Describing it takes complex descriptions, and in some sense they do not really exist in the way we classically thought of stuff existing; not as solid and unchanging substance, but as concepts involving probabilities in relation to what is around them.  And just like with a particle, a theological position is something that cannot be pinned down with precision;  the more you know about its position, the less you know about its momentum (and vice-versa).  I say this because things such as theological positions are agent-dependent; they exist in the real-time shifting environments of minds, and change in relation to social, cultural, and historical factors.  Theology changes due to its relationships with science, history, and skeptical analysis in general.  It is not solely dependent upon revelation or scripture, it has to contend with reality (even if only minimally).

In short, finding what the true religion is becomes subject to something akin to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  Perhaps we can call it Theisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? Nah, that’s lame.

And within a larger politically charged field, especially in current America where religion is such a large factor, what a true Christian is can never be nailed down. Not only are their too many claims to the title, even when you get one of them, they slip and slide around, refusing to be defined.

Take, for example, what the anonymous emailer said to Greta Christina from her post today:

The problem is that you’re not talking about any actual progressive religious types I’ve ever encountered. You’re talking about a straw man, a portrait of the religious progressive that certainly doesn’t represent all of them, and which may not even exist.

Now, Greta and the many commenters on her blog have made many excellent comments in response to this already, so I will try not to be too repetitive.  This person has made a claim that Greta (and by extension me, since I have made similar points) is doing something uncouth by trying to criticize people who seem to pick and choose their beliefs from a larger set of possible beliefs drawn from the tradition they associate with.  Why is it uncouth? Because, you see, they apparently they don’t do so.

Even as a commenter points out (in defense of the emailer)

When you see somebody apparently cherry picking, you can only conclude that they have a highly nuanced way of reading their scripture. And if they agree that they are cherry picking, that might only because their nuanced view is too complex to easily explain, so it is easier to go along with the crude “cherry picking” description.

It’s not that they are choosing what to believe, it is that their epistemological criteria is complicated.  It’s not that people are ignorant of their religious tradition and so they simply grab onto what they do hear mixed with their own humanistic intuitions, it is that they are super ninjas of theology (despite the fact that religious people are much less informed of their own religion) and so they are coming up with uber ways to believe in way that look to us to be theological noise.  My skepticism does not allow me to accept this claim of nuance.  It is, in fact, reminiscent of the term “sophisticated theology,” which is also annoying.

The fact that people do “cherry-pick” their beliefs from a larger theological set is pretty incontrovertible, it seems.  A fully consistent and non-picked worldview from a varied tradition such as Christianity, but certainly any major religion would just as easily serve as an example, is seemingly impossible.  The traditions change too frequently, beliefs are not checked against the whole of tradition and its sources, and so therefore what it means to be a true [insert religion here] is frankly impossible.  Once you have most religious apologists pegged on a view, they are moving in a different direction due to some moral or philosophical conflict we point out, and then they are somewhere else.  Our observing their theological point of view changes their theological point of view, again much like a particle.  And then once you have them admit that they are moving (questioning, or whatever), you have no idea where they are or will end up.  Inevitably, they will often return to their original position, and you don’t know how they got there again.

I’ve seen this behavior for years, both in my personal correspondences, on shows such as the Atheist Experience, etc.  Trying to figure out what a religious person believes in the light of an observing non-believer is a task to marvel at, and one worthy of a person who likes paradoxical-seeming circumstances.  Sounds like a job for a quantum physicist.  No, wait.  It sound like a job for a psychiatrist.

Skepticism versus the intelligent design of irrefutible complexity

Thesis: Theological apologetics becomes more complicated in the presence of skepticism.  In other words, arguments which theists make in defending their religious beliefs become more and more convoluted sophisticated (and again) the better our questions about those beliefs get.  But, of course, I have written about this topic before.  Nonetheless, I have a few more things to say.

Thousands of years ago, some metaphysical ‘genius’ could proclaim that the universe was all fire, water, or made of god stuff and we, a very young intellectual species, would not have had the tools or understanding to question such claims without it turning into a ‘he said, she said‘ affair (assuming a ‘she’ would have been permitted to say anything).  That is, there was once a time when truly there was no significant epistemic distinction between religious and skeptical claims.

Because there was no established skepticism.


But with many of the ancient urban societies where philosophical ideas were born–China, India, Greece, etc–came questions of how we know things.  Eventually, intellectuals would begin to question the bases of religious thought, and would become subsequently revered and sometimes chastised by contemporary religious and governmental institutions.  Here in the West, Socrates is the most well-known example of this.  With this infancy of philosophy, but more specifically epistemology or the study of knowledge and how we know things, traditional knowledge became subject to suspicion.  For an example, here is Socrates (well, Plato at least) when asked by Phaedrus if he believes in the myth of Boreas seizing Orithyia from the river bank upon which the members of the dialogue sit.  Socrates replies:

I can’t as yet ‘know myself’ as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters.

This early form of questioning would lead to more direct skepticism, of course.  And with it, theistic philosophers would be forced to do more than merely assert their positions.  (Well, ideally it would lead to this, but the fact is that much of apologetics, even from the revered William Lane Craig, is full of bald assertions).  And as history marched along, theology became a serious philosophical topic.  What’s the phrase? That philosophy is the handmaiden of theology.   Well, for centuries that was true, as to be a philosopher in Europe was to be a member of the church.  No other intellectual institution was very influential for many centuries; no competition was allowed to survive, where the church had the power to stop them.  Consider the Cathars, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo Galilei for starters.  The Inquisition was not a period of increased curiosity, after all.

Duns Scotus

So, with the basic epistemic questions posed, the tools of logic and inquiry developed.  The tools of skepticism were sharpened both by the luminaries of orthodoxy who defended the faith of their particular institution as well as those who quietly (or not so quietly) harnessed doubts.  There is no doubt that Thomas Aquinas, an orthodox philosopher if ever there was one, was a genius.  But let’s not forget such thinkers as Peter Abelard, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus who, who were not in any meaning of the word ‘atheists’ but were openly skeptical of many orthodox theological ideas.

With the advent of the empirical methods which would lead to what we know today as the scientific method, the world of theological apologetics would receive a vital blow, even if it would not be felt by most people even now.  The fact is that many people do not understand the implications of this methodology on theology, which is the basis for this argument between accommodationists and people such as Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and of course humble ol’ me, is a testament to how little most people think about complicated matters such as philosophy.  But it has always been that way, I suppose.  But for those of us who consider such matters, the opposition to theology and theism in general is not mere distaste (although it is that too), but one of realized philosophical implication.  Theological apologetics simply does not have the rational justification to stand up to the power of the scientific method.

This is not a debate over mere conclusions, but one about methodology and therefore justification.  One method is simply superior to the other.  When religion is subjected to empirical testing, almost none of is survives.  Not even the happy and progressive liberal theology survives, even if it tends to be more accepting and friendly.  it’s sort of how you prefer people who are nicer, even if they have radically different lifestyles or beliefs than you.

Recently, one of the buzz terms in the blogosphere in which I swim is “sophisticated theology.”  The basic idea is that we atheists and skeptics are not sufficiently educated in the complexity, subtlety, or profundity of modern theological thought.  Of course, every time we run into some deep thoughts a la theologian, all we get is either postmodern word salad or bold assertions without philosophical or empirical justifications.  Here is an example of the sort of thing I am talking about which I discovered a few weeks back via WEIT (also via the link above)

The bottom line here is that skepticism has put theology up against the metaphorical wall, and theology is flailing around in an attempt to save itself.  Now, the metaphor is not really apt, because skeptics are not figuratively (or literally) threatening theologians or apologists with harm, but we are merely tapping them on the shoulder and asking hard questions.  Sometime, when they agree to sit down with us and debate or discuss the issue, we ask those hard questions in bold ways.  And, of course, when we skeptics talk to each other those hard questions often are paired with humor, frustration, and flabbergastion (that isn’t a word, is it? meh…).   And this, to them, looks aggressive.  And in many cases it is aggressive, because we are frankly fed up with pseudo-intellectual crap and the fact that they have so many credulous people to believe them.  It does not bode well for humanity.

Like  someone who will say anything to not be harmed when they feel threatened, assertions will lash out like fists and feet, adrenaline takes over, and survival supersedes truth.  It just may take centuries for the disease’s symptoms to be noticeable to everyone, but they are already felt by many.  We skeptics, like doctors of the body of humankind, can already see the theological cancer spreading over the body of humanity and have made our diagnosis; it is malignant.  If we as a culture and a species are to become healthy this cancer needs to be treated, and possibly removed.  If it isn’t, we may survive, but we will continue to be  infirm and weak.

But in the mean time, the arguments of assertive theologians will continue to maintain influence on millions of people.  Their claims will continue to be complicated, intelligent, and profound-sounding.  This, of course, will not lend their ideas actual justification, but that will not matter because it will still compel many.  And the more complicated, in-depth, and meticulous these rationalizations are, the harder skeptics have to exercise their sharpened tools to demonstrate the lack of reasonable foundation of such beliefs.  It is a game where those who care about influence over truth have the advantage over those that genuinely care about what is demonstrable.

And then the sharper skeptics make their criticisms, the deeper theologians dig themselves into the rabbit-hole of complex and erudite obfuscation.

Thus the viscous cycle, the intellectual ‘arms race’ (Richard Dawkins would be proud, perhaps), continues.

But the complexity and obfuscation don’t make theological arguments better, they only make them harder to follow.  It allows them to live in their worlds where they pat each other on the back for being clever, but never actually demonstrate anything.  They just become more convoluted, intricate, and find themselves tied in knots that nobody else wants to try and untie because it is a waste of time and we can see that.  Then they can make the easy rhetorical point that we don’t understand sophisticated theology.

It’s all just silly, like games children play where they make up the rules along the way and then declare victory.

Intelligence is needed to compose such sophisticated theology, but it is intelligence applied to rationalizing a conclusion and not in utilizing or improving the best methodology we have at our disposal.  For theologians to do that would be suicidal, and they must know that to some degree.

When pressed against the wall, survival supersedes truth.