The Skeptic’s Faith

Those who think that atheists by definition hold to no propositions in faith don’t understand either atheism or faith. It is simply a matter of where that faith is directed.

That thought was prompted by some statements of faith made by professional skeptic Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of the new book The Believing Brain, in the current issue of Scientific American.

[Side note: I’m not knocking (healthy) skepticism in general here, by the way, just a misunderstanding of its nature. Even when I don’t agree with his every comment, I appreciate Shermer’s work in debunking the worst abuses of Michael Drosnin’s execrable “Bible Code” books (which I debunked, myself, with an Excel spreadsheet and a little Visual Basic).]

Shermer’s article, “The Myth of the Evil Aliens,” was an interesting one, discussing his belief that contact with extraterrestrial intelligence is inevitable and his disagreement with Stephen Hawking’s position that an encounter with such beings would necessarily be bad for us.

Notable in the article are his statements of faith. For instance, the first comment: “With the Alien Telescope Array run by the SETI Institute in northern California, the time is coming when we will encounter an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI).” Such conviction!

Yet, there is no evidence that statement is true or that such contact is truly inevitable, nor is there a chain of logic that takes one inexorably and unavoidably to such a conclusion. Considerations of God aside, there are plenty of carnal, evolutionary, worldly reasons why one would take a different position.

For instance, Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee in their book Rare Earth present numerous reasons to reasonably think that the universe – even given evolutionist assumptions – is rather empty of intelligent life. (Dr. Ward’s work, in particular, on his Medea Hypothesis argues strongly in such a direction, if I understand it correctly, though I haven’t had the chance to read his book, yet.) Their work — as firm believers in evolution, mind you — simply looks at those things needed for the development of intelligent life, modifies and evaluates the Drake Equation appropriately, and provides a rather solid argument that if mankind is not absolutely alone in the universe, it is very likely that he is as alone as one can be without being absolutely so. Their work is of a sort that one would be justified in concluding that mankind is alone in practical fact, if not in actual fact: alone in such a sense that would make any future contact by another intelligent species out there very, very, very unlikely within all the most likely timelines of mankind’s future.

That initial comment by Mr. Shermer is not the only profession of faith present in the Scientific American article (e.g., “In fact, any civilization capable of extensive space travel will have moved far beyond exploitative colonialism and unsustainable energy sources”). And I don’t hold such confident professions of faith against him. I can see someone, under various assumptions, rationally drawing the very same conclusion as to the inevitably alien contact. It’s actually a rather reasonable proposition – again, given certain assumptions (some of which I do not hold). But one cannot declare it as a certainty without adding a measure of faith into the mix.

That’s my point. Faith is not something unique to “religion.” While many atheists and “skeptics” pride themselves on being faith free, they truly aren’t. The battle of worldviews out there is not a fight between those “full of faith” and those “free from faith” – it is a struggle about whose faith is more reasonable.

The most profitable discussions, or at least the most civil, generally involve recognizing that truth, methinks.

24 thoughts on “The Skeptic’s Faith

  1. Michael O'Byrne

    This is an excellent article and I agree wholeheartedly with the last sentence conclusion.

  2. Agreed. Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “Most scientists are poor philosophers.” And poor theologians, I might add. There is no such thing as metaphysical neutrality and skeptics who think there is are surely fooling themselves or else are being very seriously fooled.

    One thing many if not most skeptics (theoretical ones, anyway) seem to have, though, is a relative weakness in the thought process with which faith in anything seems to be attached and, therefore, have difficulty making proper discernments in: the decision-making process associated with personal and universal values. (I’m making my statements qualified because I don’t have the specific statistics to back up my inference, but this conclusion is consistent with the information and observations I have.)

  3. Robert

    I enjoy this blog because you touch on a big point: what is faith, really?

    According to Shermer’s statement of faith, faith is holding a belief WITHOUT supporting evidence. As you note, there is no evidence that such an event (alien encounter) will occur since there is no evidence that it has occurred in the past or evidence suggesting that it will in the future. Even so, Shermer makes it clear that evidence is not required for his faith that aliens will eventually be encountered.

    This is blind faith, and one who holds this type of faith, even whether an atheist, is on equal footing with many who regard themselves as religious. Here, the atheist and the “religious” person are similar in the method they use to form their deepest convictions.

    Actually, the blind faith that is commonly referred to simply as “faith” is not at all what faith originally meant, but only what it has come to mean in recent times. In contrast, God does not condone blind faith at all. It is written “prove all things, hold fast to that which is good.”

    Evidence-faith vs. blind-faith.

  4. Norbert

    From my reading and keeping up with the news, it was Ann Coulter who popularized the idea that high priests exist outside of religion.

    When it comes to such things as the theory of evolution. How much of it is based on the evidence and how much of it is using conjecture about that evidence to convert people and gain disciples?

  5. @Norbert: While “theory” means different things to different people, it seems, a “good theory” at least can be disproved by a single observation. Evolution by that reckoning isn’t a theory, no more than creation is. Every theory is a systematic explanation of reality, but not every systematic explanation of reality is a theory. Some explanations qualify as whole philosophies or worldviews – things that draw “high priests” of their own.

    The curator of the British Museum, himself an evolutionist, describes evolution as “a metaphysical research programme”. Some have called both it and creation “panchrestons”, “explain-alls” that can adapt to any set of data presented to them. It seems to me that the only way to decide between such things is by Occam’s Razor: which is the simplest and yet most complete explanation of all the facts, and which is constantly having to explain facts away in order to maintain its pre-eminence?

    (Drop in any time, Mr. Smith!) 😀

  6. Steve

    Agree with Robert. The evidence of faith is putting in practice God’s word and laws – actually doing it. Things start to happen in your life which prove that God really does exist. Faith then becomes what it’s suppose mean – trusting God enough to do what He says.

  7. Robert

    Steve, I agree with you also, that the evidence of one’s faith can be seen by the degree to which one practices that faith and the results of that practice. Here, you’ve described the evidence that results from faith. However, I was actually hoping to describe the faith that results from evidence.

    For instance, we all probably have faith that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning. We hold this “faith” because all the evidence shows that the sun has, as far as we know, always risen in the east, every morning. We’ve learned facts such as that the earth revolves around the sun, etc., such that we can, with great confidence, have faith that the sun will rise again in the east tomorrow morning. Likewise, we can have faith that God will do what He has promised because He has ALWAYS done what He has promised, at least that’s what the evidence of history and the writings of biblical prophecy have shown. History points toward a certain faith, and no other writing but biblical prophecy has shown to be accurate, which points toward the same faith.

    This is not blind faith. Frankly, it’s science. The scientific method itself builds faith! The observations of factual data (including history, biblical prophecies, etc.) build a certain faith. The evidence builds a certain faith. The finding of fact builds a certain faith. These all point to one faith, and show that the One we call the God of the Bible does what He says He’ll do, time and time again.

    I suppose that’s the point I’m trying to make, that by following the evidence and the facts, you’ll find a certain faith. Any faith that flys in opposition to the facts and evidence of history is unsupported, it is blind.

    Many tend to think you ought to believe in God because you “just should” and that asking questions is anathema, that asking questions is heresy or a sign of weakness. But we are told to “prove all things,” or “test all things.” We should even “test every spirit, to determine whether it is from God.” Mr. Rakkav (above) points out the test of Occam’s Razor, and I think it supports the point I’m trying to make.

    Another remark on Mr. Smith’s post above, it’s funny and remarkable that an atheists such as Mr. Shermer and Mr. Stephen Hawkings don’t believe in the true God of the Bible, yet believe in aliens. God is an alien! He is not from this earth, He’s extraterrestrial and He is going to make contact with us very soon. So in a way, these gentlemen are so wrong they are actually right! Perhaps, seemingly coming full circle in their “faith,” they will be quick to believe the evidence when it appears like lighting in the sky shining from east to west.

  8. @Steve and Robert: Though Mr. Smith and I have disagreed on the following in the past, I don’t think either of you quite get the point on what faith (biblical or otherwise) is – and thus inadvertently play into the skeptics’ hands.

    First, in logical terms there is no such thing as “faith based on evidence”. There really isn’t! 😀 What you’re talking about is merely a more or less strong inference, and every philosopher and theologian worth his salt knows it. Articles of faith, by definition, are not inferences; they are axioms. They are neither inferred from evidence nor are in need of such inference from evidence. They can, however, be weighed for consistency with the evidence by means of Occam’s Razor. So-called “blind” faith – which many religionists and scientists alike hold to – involves holding such axioms apart from such weighing of the evidence. They are axioms all the same, whether they are weighed against the evidence or not.

    Second, the Bible – particularly in Hebrews 11 – doesn’t talk about “faith based on evidence” either. We need to get away from that kind of exposition of Hebrews 11:1; that’s not the intent of the Greek word involved, even though at least two intents are possible a priori! There, faith IS the “evidence”, and the context proves it. Not one example in Hebrews 11 of the faith of our forefathers is based on any “evidence” save God’s own word. The heroes of faith were such because they came to take God at His word, whether there was any supporting “evidence” at the time or not (and almost always in opposition to what was going on around them at the time).

    Given the way the human mind works (as Gideon’s journey to faith proves), we do have to make strong inferences to reach a place where we can have faith (the Jungians call the thought process Extraverted Intuiting), but we can also say we “just know” something by faith apat from inference (Introverted Intuiting). We can also hold to faith thanks to our personal and universal values (Introverted Feeling), and unless it gets to that part of our minds our faith (whatever it is) won’t stick in practice.

    BUT – and here’s the thing I submit we need to understand to the depth of our being – faith with or without God is not involved with any of the eight traditional Jungian thought processes, but with what Howard Gardner calls the Ninth Intelligence: the existential one, the one that enables us to ask the really big questions of life. We can invent our own faith, we can receive it from some lying spirit, or we can receive it as the gift of God. While the first set of verses is perfectly true with regard to coming to such faith with the aid of strong inference (based on all the evidence there is, literally), the other verses are true too.

    (Rom 1:18 RSV) For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
    (Rom 1:19 RSV) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
    (Rom 1:20 RSV) Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse;
    (Rom 1:21 RSV) for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.
    (Rom 1:22 RSV) Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
    (Rom 1:23 RSV) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.

    (2Co 5:6 RSV) So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,
    (2Co 5:7 RSV) for we walk by faith, not by sight.

    (Eph 2:8 RSV) For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God–
    (Eph 2:9 RSV) not because of works, lest any man should boast.

    (Heb 11:1 RSV) Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
    (Heb 11:2 RSV) For by it the men of old received divine approval.

    (Mr. Smith, if you have a more compelling logic and have the time to present it, feel free to wade in!) 😀

  9. One reason I speak of faith as being an axiom and not merely a strong inference is that I have read of atheists who would believe that a miracle-worker (like Jesus Christ) standing right before them is either “faking it” or, barring evidence of this, that they have gone mad and cannot rely on their own minds and thought processes anymore.

    “There are none so blind as those who will not see,” but blind or seeing, the acceptance of one or more axioms is involved whenever a worldview is accepted or rejected. Whether the acceptance of such axioms is sound or not is another question; every non-biblical worldview man has is self-refuting, one way or another. And that’s the beauty of it. 😀

  10. I beg your indulgence one more time, Mr. Smith, for I believe that Albert Barnes fills in the gaps of my own exposition and corrects some of it:

    The evidence of things not seen – Of the existence of God; of heaven; of angels; of the glories of the world suited for the redeemed. The word rendered “evidence” – ἔλεγχος elengchos – occurs in the New Testament only in this place and in 2Ti_3:16, where it is rendered “reproof.” It means properly proof, or means of proving, to wit, evidence; then proof which convinces another of error or guilt; then vindication, or defense; then summary or contents; see “Passow.” The idea of “evidence” which goes to demonstrate the thing under consideration, or which is adapted to produce “conviction” in the mind, seems to be the elementary idea in the word. So when a proposition is demonstrated; when a man is arraigned and evidence is furnished of his guilt, or when he establishes his innocence; or when one by argument refutes his adversaries, the idea of “convincing argument” enters into the use of the word in each case.
    This, I think, is clearly the meaning of the word here. “Faith in the divine declarations [N.B.: not in external, physical evidence! – Johanan Rakkav] answers all the purposes of a convincing argument, or is itself a convincing argument to the mind, of the real existence of those things which are not seen.” But is it a good argument? Is it rational to rely on such a means of being convinced? Is mere “faith” a consideration which should ever convince a rational mind? The infidel says “no”; and we know there may be a faith which is no argument of the truth of what is believed. But when a man who has never seen it believes that there is such a place as London, his belief in the numerous testimonies respecting it which he has heard and read is to his mind a good and rational proof of its existence, and he would act on that belief without hesitation. When a son credits the declaration or the promise of a father who has never deceived him, and acts as though that declaration and promise were true, his faith is to him a ground of conviction and of action, and he will act as if these things were so.

    In like manner the Christian believes what God says. He has never seen heaven; he has never seen an angel; he has never seen the Redeemer; he has never seen a body raised from the grave. “But he has evidence which is satisfactory to his mind that God has spoken on these subjects,” and his very nature prompts him to confide in the declarations of his Creator. Those declarations are to his mind more convincing proof than anything else would be. They are more conclusive evidence than would be the deductions of his own reason; far better and more rational than all the reasonings and declarations of the infidel to the contrary. He feels and acts, therefore, as if these things were so – for his faith in the declarations of God has convinced him that they are so – The object of the apostle, in this chapter, is not to illustrate the nature of what is called “saving faith,” [there we may agree to disagree with Barnes! – JR] but to show the power of “unwavering confidence in God” in sustaining the soul, especially in times of trial; and particularly in leading us to act in view of promises and of things not seen as if they were so. “Saving faith” is the same kind of confidence directed to the Messiah – the Lord Jesus – as the Saviour of the soul.

  11. Steve

    Well, Rakkav made some interesting comments. I would say that we partly agree, partly disagree, have a different perspective, and perhaps talk along parallel lines. Given Rakkav’s lengthy comments, I’m not sure where to begin. I will try to hit a couple of highlights and keep my comment relatively short. (Yeah, right).

    Faith is not merely a matter “inferred” conclusions. When Moses saw God at mount Sinai, he did not “infer” that God existed. He knew that God existed. When God parted the Red Sea, spoke the ten commandments at Sinai, or the disciples saw Jesus and His work, they did not “infer” that God existed. They knew! And that imparted a faith which trusts on His word.

    The faith of Christ was certainly not based on some vague “belief” that God (the Father) might somehow possibly exist. He knew!

    Many years ago, I was accosted by some born-again Protestants. They asked me how I defined faith. I replied, “doing what God says.” They did not like the sound of this, and accused me of salvation by works. I said, not at all. I try to obey God’s word because I believe in His way of life and what He’s doing. Then we got into a rub about the definition of the word, “belief.” For them, it meant accepting the idea that God exists and that Jesus died for our sins. I said, no kidding. Walking around in circles was useless.

    I’m aware of Hebrews 11:1 and the use of the word enlegnchos. I have textbooks on koine Greek, and I know how to parse out the meanings of various NT scriptures, too. That ability help me refute the teachings of traditional Christianity and pointed me toward the COG. Suffice it to say, Rakkav and I might have different takes on the meaning of this particular scripture. I will only say that – in my view – Paul is not talking a blind faith, such as Robert described.

    Finally, I can only speak for myself. I didn’t join the church based on physical or empirical evidence of God’s existence. A buff on anthropology and archaeology, I grew increasing suspect of evolution, because there were too many inconsistencies and inherent contradictions. That led me to the church. The minister eventually called me over the phone, and told me that I was going to be baptized. Consequently, one could claim that I did, indeed, operate on “blind faith.”

    The thing is, I have experienced too much since baptism to question God’s existence. Everything from the improvements in my life to the constant stream of little miracles along the way. For example, I was cutting down a 20 ft tree with a chain saw, and it fell the wrong direction. I thought that I was dead, but a sudden wind blew the tree aside. And this happened on a calm, clear day. (I’m not making this up). Now, when you get incident after incident like this, what is your conclusion? (My conclusion was, ‘why are You being nice to me?’)

    God exists. He is real. It’s not a blind belief. I try to do God’s word, because I believe in His way of life, and I trust Him. Frankly, I would be surprised if He did grant me eternal life. I’m a sinner. But that’s not going to stop me. Like the line from Shakespeare, “once more into the breach

  12. obeirne

    Steve, I must say I am in agreement with your comments and I too have experienced God’s intervention to protect life and limb in a car accident in which myself and a brother of mine were involved. I know God was, is and always will be – I know He made all that is out of nothing and that is the only thing that makes sense to me. But it is God who opened up my mind to understand and believe and those whose minds He has not yet opened will be able to understand until He does open their minds.

  13. Steve

    Sorry Mr Smith, but I’m going to give this subject one last try, then I quit. Words too few sometimes doesn’t always express the original intent. Words too many sometimes cloud the point being made.

    If one says that he doubts the existence of God, but he puts into practice God’s word anyway, then I would ask why. I don’t think too many atheists make of habit of obeying God’s word. Consequently, obedience to God does indeed give evidence of one’s faith in God. That was the first point of my original comment.

    Suppose somebody said, “I’ve been in the church for twenty years, and I’m still not sure that God exists,” Or he says “I don’t have any more faith in God than the day I started.” My question would be, how is that remotely possible?” God asks us to prove Him, and He does not fail in His promises. That was the second point in my first comment.

    Again, my apologies.

  14. Joe

    “That’s my point. Faith is not something unique to “religion.” While many atheists and “skeptics” pride themselves on being faith free, they truly aren’t. ”

    I consider myself a member of the skeptical movement. Not having “faith” in something does not automatically make one proud btw.

    What exactly is it skeptics/atheists have faith in? Could you please provide an example?

  15. Greetings, Joe, and thanks for writing.

    I would agree. I wouldn’t say that believing one is faith free “automatically” makes one proud. That’s why I said “many pride themselves” instead of “all” (which would surely be untrue) or “most” (since I have no basis for determining that).

    As for an example of a statement of faith made by a “skeptic,” this blog post does exactly that (concerning Mr. Shermer) — and uncritically, I might say — so I would refer you to what I’ve written above and to the very enjoyable original Scientific American article.

    Thanks, again, for writing.

  16. JOE

    Well as for the post being uncritical, that is entirely subjective. However, I’m sure most skeptics would welcome criticism, especially that which strengthens their position.

    The example you provided applies to one skeptic. As there is an entire modern-day movement in this area of philosophy I am not really satisfied with your answer.

    So let me provide you with an example. I accept the Theory of Evolution, do you feel that it requires me to be faithful in order to wholly accept this concept as an explanation for natural phenomena?

    You seem very certain of your beliefs so I ask this from a standpoint of curioisty.

    Thank you for responding.

  17. Thanks for writing again, Joe. And you’re right in that I suppose “uncritical” could be subjective. In the context of the post, however, I meant that I was uncritical of his making statements of faith. Though they are not positions I agree with, I was not criticizing the fact that he holds to them and, briefly reviewing the post again, I see no criticisms.

    As for giving you an example that would apply to all “skeptics,” that would be as impossible as giving you a position of faith accepted by all “non-skeptics.” When you asked for “an example” I thought that was what you meant, though I see now how I misread it. My apologies. The claim that atheists take some positions on faith just as do those who are not atheists is the point I was making; I made no claim that there is a single common point of faith for all atheists, though it might be fun to postulate some possibilities.

    As for the Theory of Evolution, that can be a bit of a fuzzy term (some include Origin of Life theories in there, others narrow it to simple natural selection acting on the genome, etc.). But taken broadly, sure, there are articles of faith involved — the details of those depend greatly on what one means by “natural phenomena.”

    Looking up “faith” at and noting the first three definitions that come up, most all who “wholly accept” a major scientific “super theory” like Evolution will certainly fit the first two of those three definitions, easily. In fact, definitions 4, 6, and even 7 could be argued as applicable, as well, without too much controversy. (Actually, some would argue that definitions 3 and 5 apply, as well, but I’m aiming for the low hanging fruit that can be eaten on common ground here. 🙂 )

    I think you could do a much better job than I could of identifying your own statements of faith — especially if you really do “wholly accept” the theory rather than simply think of it as the best theory among those currently offered (a position that would require less faith than “wholly accepting” the theory).

    There are natural phenomena which Evolution has yet to be able to completely explain and which many bright, young grad students are working on (e.g., mechanisms of instinct inheritance, for instance). This isn’t, necessarily, a fault of the theory — just a fact of life when living with incomplete knowledge. But the step it takes to conclude “Evolution will eventually be able to provide an explanation for this natural phenomenon” — that clearly fits definitions 1 and 2 of “faith,” if not other definitions, as well, which may depend on the intent of the person making such a declaration. If by “Theory of Evolution” we include Origin of Life issues, as well, then the word “faith” becomes even more obviously applicable if one “wholly accepts” the Theory.

    I hope this helps to clarify. Thanks!

  18. Joe

    Once again thank you for your quick response.

    “I think you could do a much better job than I could of identifying your own statements of faith — especially if you really do “wholly accept” the theory rather than simply think of it as the best theory among those currently offered (a position that would require less faith than “wholly accepting” the theory).”

    In my opinion, wholly accepting something does not necessarily imply faith. A theory is either an accurate model of the way the Universe behaves, or it is not. We judge accuracy by determining the evidence. If there is not evidence to support an idea’s validity, then it loses its credibility, thus it loses acceptance. Evolutionary Theory (Natural Selection, Origin of Species) meets the scientific standards necessary to be called a Theory therefore I accept it as factual and an accurate model to explain not only the origination of organisms in their current forms but also the Origins of Life in general.

    If you could point out an element of the above statement which might require something that could be labelled “faith” I would be more than happy to address it.

    Also, if there is an underlying scientific principle which is related to the above, that you feel requires faith to be “wholly accepted” please feel free to let me know and I will do my best to steer you in the right direction. Key word here is “if”, as I am not totally familiar with your personal opinions of Evolutionary Theory I am just letting you know that I may be helpful in that regard.

    Cheers 🙂

  19. Thanks, again, Joe. I think we’ll have to disagree on a number of things. For instance, it may be true that “a theory is either an accurate model of the way the Universe behaves, or it is not,” but often the verdict may be out on a number of its elements such that there is no way yet to judge, even by the evidence, whether it is, indeed, accurate. (This is not controversial, of course, and the examples of this in science are many, String Theory being merely one of the latest examples.)

    Mr. Shermer gives us a good example, himself, in his article. There is a model about how advanced civilizations work which suggests, as he does, that “[i]n fact, any civilization capable of extensive space travel will have moved far beyond exploitative colonialism and unsustainable energy sources.” There is simply not enough evidence–even in our own history as a species, let alone the universe of conceivable societal structures possible in a cosmos supposedly filled with life–to justify such a sweeping conclusion. That’s not to say that Mr. Shermer’s model of how the Universe works is necessarily inaccurate, but the statement (especially that crucial “In fact” that starts it off) does indicate that he is putting a great deal of faith in the model.

    As you demonstrate that you do in Evolution. In particular, you define the Theory of Evolution concisely in your parentheses with “Natural Selection, Origin of Species.” However, neither of these ideas speak to Origin of Life issues. To “wholly accept” Evolution as a theory explaining the origin of life is an act of faith. True all the more since there is no consensus in the scientific community about the origin of life; many, many competing theories, to be sure, but not a consensus. To say “I accept [Evolutionary Theory] as factual and an accurate model to explain… the Origins of Life in general,” you must mean one of the following:

    • You believe in one of the competing theories (e.g., “RNA World” or “Lipid World” or the “Clay Template” theory, etc., etc.). Given that there is not enough evidence to support one of these theories as “the” theory (hence the research in so many different directions) and proclaim it as “the” accurate descriptor of the Universe, this would be an act of faith on your part.
    • Or, you believe that one of the theories is correct, but you don’t know which one. Again, this would be an act of faith, as there is no evidence saying that one of the current theories has to be correct, and there are scientists even now pursuing new Origin of Life theories.
    • Or, perhaps when you say that Evolution can explain the “Origins of Life in general” you mean that, whether it is one of the many current theories or whether it is a theory not yet formulated, there must be a materialistic explanation for those Origins (which would mean assigning the name “Evolution” to whatever materialistic explanation is eventually discovered). To express such a belief in a materialistic explanation that does not yet even exist would certainly fall well within the boundaries of what most reasonable people would call faith.

    Perhaps there is another possibility that I did not list above, but given that Evolution does not yet have a model–tested and proven by the evidence–that explains “the Origins of Life in general” (a fact recognizable to even the most casual observer, including scientists working in the field), how can you say that it is anything but at least the tiniest bit of faith to state “I accept it as factual and an accurate model to explain… the Origins of Life in general”? To “wholly accept” a model for the Origins of Life before that model has yet been developed and tested is even more “faith like” than I was aiming at in my post.

    (BTW: I appreciate your offer of help to steer me in a helpful direction. I am rather well-versed in the subject, though, and think I can get along alright. 🙂 )

    And I should say that I believe there may be other elements of faith in the acceptance “whole cloth” of Evolutionary Theory, but (1) in this case Origin of Life truly is an easily demonstrated example, and (2) I really didn’t plan this blog post to be a discussion of evolution — rather, it’s meant to be simply a demonstration that even a “skeptic’s skeptic” such as Mr. Shermer can hold to statements of faith, and that there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Still, I’m happy to help answer your question, and thanks again for writing.

  20. Perhaps this is me just word-parsing, but going back to the definition of faith, I think the very word is dismissed by most people, not to mention even some religious believers as’s #2 entry: “belief that is not based on proof” as though the belief completely lacked any evidence, too. The #1 definition, “confidence or trust in a person or thing” seems to relate the faith meant by the Biblical text with the added implication of a willingness to act or change behavior based on that confidence.

    In other words, I may be told that a mystical place called Paris exists in the land of France, but only when combined with the trustworthiness of the source and the evidence presented–pictures, descriptions, almanac info, etc.–can I really make a determination that such a place might truly exist and operate my life with such a confidence or trust in that information. Until I visit Paris, I’m holding onto this concept of “faith” that it is there. Faith is a placeholder in the mind that allows us to understand and work with the world around us, not just a belief in magic and fantasy. Turn my example above into the island of Atlantis and you can see what I’m saying from another angle.

    Evolution is something many have spent a great deal of time and energy studying using the scientific method and the personal time and energy expended in doing do along with the evidence we collect along the way builds up confidence in these assumptions. If you replace hypothesis with assumption and experimentation with collecting evidence, science can be seen as kind of trust-building exercise. We only call things “Laws” in science after being repeatably evidenced over long periods of time. (I realize that “theory” also has a stronger connotation in scientific labeling than the concept of a reasonable guess with a modicum of proof.) But we save the greatest amount of trust for things labeled laws. In some cases, these “laws” they are disproved as completely factual, such as Newton’s Laws of Motion and Kinematics being disproved by Einstein, even though they are still considered useful and helpful–trustworthy–for objects in the non-quantum space or approaching the speed of light. In other words, we still trust them for most things and know where lines of demarcation for exceptions lay.

    That said, when we talk about faith, I don’t know that we’re making the statement that people just accept things without any evidence that might point in a similar direction, but that there is, psychologically-speaking, a measure of confidence without proof, yet with evidence we deem credible, that allows us to accept certain things as true, and thus helpful. That said, I think it’s also helpful to note the times we make a mental stretch from the sturdier branches of the laws of science to the far more unstable twigs of the theories mentioned in the article posted by Mr. Smith. While those mental stretches may one day allow us to discover new and exciting areas of knowledge once evidence mounts and proof is shown, many of those stretches have reached dead ends regardless of the belief, writings and experimentation done on them.

    I can remember watching scientists who hold on to contrary hypotheses to a more accepted model discuss, debate and even argue the merits of their alternate theory. While noble and even helpful in bringing to light aspects not thought of before for the currently-held theories and laws, they still demonstrate the kind of faith under discussion. It’s the same kind of zeal that an entrepreneur shows when convinced of a new business idea, convincing not only their family, but investors, new customers and so on. Yet the “proof” is whether or not the new venture stays in business for the long haul. For entrepreneurs, less than 10% of all new business are still in business after several years and I wonder if a similar percentage could be said for scientific theories.

  21. Joe

    There are several points you made that I would like to address.

    I feel that you are more or less venturing into areas of scientific philosophy. If you decide to go that route, I could just as easily speculate that to judge the truth of anything is not currently possible as our conciseness and perception of reality is an extreme limiting factor (which would require acceptance of ANY concept to be based on faith).

    Its also important to keep in mind that we are discussing Natural History. So many of the techniques used to build theories that “tell a story” so to speak, are not the same that a experimental physicist might use to test Newton’s laws.

    Thus, our approach and mindset should be very different. I’m not sure what your academic opinion of Wikipedia is but I would like to quote a statement made on the page: Scientific theory

    “Theories do not have to be perfectly accurate to be scientifically useful.”

    It then goes on to list such theories. The most important part of this statement is in the second half, “scientifically useful”.

    This may be any theory of concept which is useful at explaining a natural phenomena, whether historical or present.

    I will have to disagree with your statement:

    “To “wholly accept” Evolution as a theory explaining the origin of life is an act of faith. True all the more since there is no consensus in the scientific community about the origin of life; many, many competing theories, to be sure, but not a consensus.”

    To accept the Theory of Evolution as useful for explaining the origin of life is not an act of faith if the scientific process has been properly carried out (many times) and there is converging evidence among many fields. To say that it is an act of faith is not made “true all the more” if scientists lack consensus on that exact mechanism of formation of the first single-celled organisms.

    I will provide you with an example. There is another debate among evolutionary biologists regarding the time-frames involved in the cumulative changes that have occurred in organisms over time. Gradualism and Punctuated Equilibrium are topics open to debate. However, the disagreement is not over whether evolution has happened at all (there is overwhelming evidence to support it) but rather it is over a single mechanism in a well-founded set of ideas.

    I will provide you with a statement from the website:

    “Claim CA612:
    Because evolution has never been observed, the theory of evolution requires as much faith as creationism does.

    The theory of evolution is based on evidence that has been observed. There is a great amount of this evidence. When evidence is found to contradict previous conclusions, those conclusions are abandoned, and new beliefs based on the new evidence take their place. This “seeing is believing” basis for the theory is exactly the opposite of the sort of faith implied by the claim.”

    Another on Abiogenesis:

    “Claim CB050:
    Abiogenesis is speculative without evidence. Since it has not been observed in the laboratory, it is not science.

    1. There is a great deal about abiogenesis that is unknown, but investigating the unknown is what science is for. Speculation is part of the process. As long as the speculations can be tested, they are scientific. Much scientific work has been done in testing different hypotheses relating to abiogenesis, including the following:

    * research into the formation of long proteins (Ferris et al. 1996; Orgel 1998; Rode et al. 1999);
    * synthesis of complex molecules in space (Kuzicheva and Gontareva 1999; Schueller 1998; see also: “UV would have destroyed early molecules”.);
    * research into molecule formation in different atmospheres; and
    * synthesis of constituents in the iron-sulfur world around hydrothermal vents (Cody et al. 2000; Russell and Hall 1997).”

    One more:

    “Claim CB090:
    Evolution is baseless without a good theory of abiogenesis, which it does not have.

    Abiogenesis is a fact. Regardless of how you imagine it happened (note that creation is a theory of abiogenesis), it is a fact that there once was no life on earth and that now there is. Thus, even if evolution needs abiogenesis, it has it. ”

    Do you feel that it is a statement made in faith that life suddenly existed in the Universe at one point in time? If so, you are regressing back to something more fundamental which deals more in the area of philosophy than science, thereby moving the goal posts.

    I hope I haven’t left anything out. I appreciate you taking the time to discuss this topic openly.


  22. Mike: Thanks, Mike, and I think you make excellent (& relevant) points. A lot of this ties in to what I’ve frequently called on this blog the “tyranny of assumptions,” though it is a bit more than that. I think your comments go further and make a good point.

    Joe: Thanks, too, Joe, because you give evidence for my point. I, too, am familiar with the resource you quote and actually have had the whole book in my library for years (The Counter-Creationism Handbook by Mark Isaak; these points are on pages 39, 50, and 51 of my paperback version). It is an excellent book, and while I do not subscribe to all the beliefs that tend to be lumped under the umbrella of “Evolution” (perhaps even few of them), I recommend it as excellent reading for Creationists of all stripes. I have found it very helpful, as you might if you read it more closely next time. Allow me to illustrate:

    For instance, while reading your reference of CB040 I thought to quote CB090 before I kept reading your comment and noticed that you referenced part of it, yourself. However, you skipped a paragraph in CB090 that contains a key statement directly relevant to our discussion, as it is the same thing I tried to point out to you in my previous comment. Here is that paragraph (emphasis mine):

    “The theory of evolution applies as long as life exists. How that life came to exist is not relevant to evolution. Claiming that evolution does not apply without a theory of abiogenesis makes as much sense as saying that umbrellas do not work without a theory of meteorology.”

    This is what makes your statement an instance of faith (perhaps faith as Mike described above, and certainly as fits several of the dictionary definitions). Notice, I tried to make the same point to you that Mark Isaak makes in his quote. He said, “The theory of evolution applies as long as life exists.” I told you in my previous comment that Natural Selection does not speak to Origin of Life issues. (There is a theory or two which hopes to be able to apply a more basic form of natural selection to pre-biotic “evolution,” but they are not yet accepted.) As Mr. Isaak says, himself, evolution (in your words, Natural Selection and Origin of Species) applies once life has gotten going, and “how that life came to exist is not relevant to evolution.” While I am certain Mr. Isaak and I disagree on many, many things, we do both agree that Evolution does not address Origin of Life: simply what happens after life has begun.

    Again, to make sure I’m clear: I never claimed in this discussion that the lack of a theory of abiogenesis disproves Evolution. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Isaak that (1) there was a time when there was no life on earth (as he says, “creation is a theory of abiogenesis”), and that (2) Evoution has nothing to do with abiogenesis theories — it generally stands or falls apart from theories of abiogenesis.

    It is those who disagree with Mr. Isaak (and point CB090) by claiming concerning their belief in Evolution that “I accept it as factual and an accurate model to explain… the Origins of Life in general” who are acting in faith, extending the confidence they have in the Theory of Evolution to include a realm the Theory does not address in any way at all.

    In fact, in his book Mark Isaak seems to be very careful to ensure he speaks of Evolution and abiogenesis very distinctly, even when the matter at hand concerns them both, so as to prevent the same sort of challenges you have created. CF002.1 (both suboints together) and CF003 point 3 are good examples of his care in this. And in CA610 (point #1, bullet #1) he actually says directly, “Religions explain ultimate reality. Evolution stops with the development of life (it does not even include the origins of life).”

    Actually, before I close let me also thank you for the Wikipedia quote, for it helps to illustrate my point about what you’ve said. I’ve not questioned in my comments the “scientific usefulness” of Evolution or of your belief in it. To repeat your Wikipedia quote: “Theories do not have to be perfectly accurate to be scientifically useful.” This speaks directly to your position, for you said that you “accept it as factual and an accurate model to explain not only the origination of organisms in their current forms but also the Origins of Life in general” (emphasis mine). The element of faith in the latter part, we just discussed. But your quote highlights another, since you said that you do not merely believe it is useful, as in this past comment, but that it is “accurate.”

    As an example, the religion of a tribal people on a small island may accept in faith that they should run to the high hills everytime there is an earthquake because it is a sign that the sea gods are thinking about attacking their villages with a tidal wave. Useful (even life saving, as we’ve seen in the past decade), but not accurate, and their faith–however useful–is mistaken. I know that you may not be using the word “accurate” in the first instance in the same way it is used in your quote, and I don’t want to equivocate if this is the case; but if you are using them in the same sense then I thought the fact that the quote you gave deemphasizes the concept of accuracy in a Theory and the fact that your affirmation emphasizes it to be a worthwhile observation.

    I appreciate your comments and thank you for making them with such civility. At the same time, I don’t have the time to continue this thread of discussion, especially seeing as how you and I are both treading ground thoroughly trampled elsewhere. (And as you can tell from my comments, I’m not the most efficient writer!) While I hope that my comments above have been helpful, I also recognize that I may not have convinced you of anything. If you would like the opportunity of having the last word on this, please feel free. So that we can find some sort of end without coming to match popular caricatures (best xkcd ever?), however much I may disagree with anything you might say I’ll strive to be content with merely saying so and not add rebuttal. I normally enjoy the last word here on my blog (per my comment policy), but I do try to be gracious on occasion! 🙂

    Again, thanks for the pleasant tone you’ve taken, Joe, and I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

  23. Joe

    I don’t actually own that particular book. The resource I was using is an index of creationists claims:

    I think it is highly unlikely that we would be able to change the position of the other by a consistent debate. I would however recommend that you visit a science forums or religious forums where you can ask questions that you may be afraid to ask openly. You may feel that your beliefs are solid but until you “run the gauntlet” so to speak, you will never really know.

    Thanks for taking the time to talk about these things.


  24. Thanks, again, Joe, and I think I miscommunicated. The book I own is a print publication of the very same online talkorigins index you are using. If you look at the top of the webpage you link to  you will see it is edited by Mark Isaak  — the same man I referred to in my comment, who compiled the entire list and published as a book.  Sorry if I was confusing!  Again, I was using the very same list you were, only printed, bound and available at a bookstore near you! 🙂  Hopefully this will clarify any confusion if you reread the comment.

    And worry not: I certainly do not fear asking questions and have run my share of gauntlets — otherwise, I would not stand where I do today. Thanks, again, for stopping by. I’ve enjoyed it.

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