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User:Awc/Where I Stand

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This is an essay by Awc.
Please comment only on the talk page.

Rather than only picking apart other people's arguments, I thought I should also say where I stand.



Basic beliefs

At a very basic level, one that I cannot justify with logic or science, I believe in truth and goodness.

  • I believe that there is a world outside myself, where certain things are true, regardless of what I think about them. I believe that it is possible to discover some of these things to some extent, using observation and logic, i.e. science. I believe that I can communicate with other people about my discoveries and theirs, and that most people, most of the time, will be more or less honest about what they have observed and believe. I might be able to notice if these beliefs were wrong in certain ways, but there are also ways my belief could be false that I couldn't tell it. If that is so, there's nothing I can do about it so I might as well continue on the premise of objective truth. As a matter of fact, I can't think why it would make a difference if I were right or wrong about the objectivity and discoverability of truth. I'd do the same things either way. The important point may not be the question of epistemology, but of motivation: I believe that it is "better" to discover and believe what's true than to believe what's false. Beyond that, I don't make many assumptions about how the world must be. I have some working hypotheses, but if they don't square with observation, I'm willing to give them up. The theory of relativity already requires that to some extent, and quantum mechanics much more so. I'm not sure what it means to be a materialist or not, but if there were solid evidence, I would believe in miracles, disembodied spirits, fairies, or homeopathy.
  • I believe that some things are worth doing simply because they are right or good. I don't know whether the goodness of these things is in any way objective. I'm not even sure what it would mean to say that morality is objective. I consider it very possible that my attribution of moral value to certain acts is partly a result of the way my brain is wired, and partly a result of the way I have been socialized. No matter. I stand by it.

I appreciate beauty, and it is interesting that many people have a similar aesthetic judgement, but I don't believe that beauty exists objectively, and it doesn't play much of a role in my belief system. I often feel awe when contemplating the universe. I consider this to be a very basic human emotion that sometimes is expressed as religious reverence, but also can exist independent of any religious beliefs. Whether there is a meaning or purpose to life is an open question. The assumption that there is is not one of my core beliefs.

In the rest of this essay I will apply my basic belief in observation and logic to various questions relevant to this site. The questions tend to have a hierarchy of evidence. For example, the evidence for deep time is rock solid, while the evidence for common descent, while very good, is weaker, and the evidence for Darwinian evolution as the mechanism resulting in common descent is weaker still. The various conclusions support each other to some extent, but most of them can be arrived at independently of each other. For example, the ordering of the fossil record speaks strongly for common descent, even if it has to be squeezed into a few thousand years, but given the conclusion that the Earth is billions of years old, common descent is easier to imagine. When I came to this site, I expected to weigh evidence and arguments against each other, even if the balance might be very lop-sided. In case after case I found I could not do that because the creationist side just didn't make any sense at all.

To just take the conclusion which is best supported, namely that the Earth is much, much older than 6,000 years, the evidence for this, which is fairly presented in various articles on this site, is so overwhelming, that I can't help thinking that anyone familiar with it who still claims that it points to a young Earth, is being intellectually dishonest. If someone wants to believe something else in spite of the evidence, I can accept that. But please don't deny that the evidence is what it is.

The geologic history of the Earth

If observation and reasoning are applied to the question of the geologic history of the Earth, and the related question of the history of the universe, without any presuppositions as to the time scale involved or the occurrence of unusual events (such as a global flood), and without appeal to other potential sources of knowledge (such as the Bible), what conclusions can one draw?

The origin of species

  • Fossil remains of plants and animals show consistent changes as a function of how deeply they are buried in the geologic column. What ever else you may believe about geology, you have to accept the general principle that sediments are laid down on rocks or other sediments that are older than they are, and that organisms whose remains are buried in sediments died about the same time that the sediments where laid down. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that life forms have "evolved" during the course of geologic history, by one mechanism or another. This conclusion would remain true even if you had good reason to believe that all geologic history was packed into a mere thousands of years, and even if you had good reason to believe that Darwinian evolution does not work.
  • Although there is much we do not understand about genetics and natural selection, that little that we do understand fits in well with the theory of evolution.

The Bible

The nature of the Bible can be investigated with observations and logic just like everything else in the world.

  • What we know about natural history—the age of the Earth, the absence of a global flood, the evolution of species—cannot be reconciled with a literal reading of the Old Testament.
  • There are no detailed prophecies in the Bible that were unambiguously made before the event prophesied and subsequently fulfilled.
  • There are many passages that are difficult to understand except as mistakes, inaccuracies, or contradictions.

Therefore the Bible, while it may contain spiritual truths, does not show signs of a supernatural origin.


The last time I read the Bible from cover to cover, I slugged through the Old Testament. David was a highlight, but most of it didn't speak to me at all and was, as literature, flat. Then the New Testament hit me like a sledge hammer between the eyes. The character of Jesus is so deep, as uncompromising in his ethics as he is generous in his personal interactions. I could see how people would love him, follow him, and die for him. So what should I do with the Gospel? I must say, I have had a conversion experience and believed and lived as a Christian for many years. Eventually I had to be honest with myself and admit that my experience was not living up to my beliefs, so I pruned my beliefs. During that period I also read The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer. I read this again recently. Like the Bible, I got much, much more out of it reading it at 50 than at 20. Schweitzer hardly questions the essential historicity of Jesus and the Gospels, but he approaches the New Testament as a historical document that only reveals its secrets with careful and critical study. In particular, he discounts all the supernatural and faces up to the fact that things did not go the way Jesus expected them to. What remains is his uncompromising commitment to God and his warmth and generosity to his fellow man, including his willingness to sacrifice himself. I am convinced that Schweitzer got it very close to right, including the fact that we can't translate Jesus to the 21st century. No matter how inspiring he is, we have to solve the moral dilemmas of our world ourselves.

Other big questions

For the most part, the really big questions in life are not amenable to scientific investigation. Although I'm sure many people think they are the only important questions, I find I can live quite well leaving them open.

Perhaps the most intractable philosophical problem, if you ask me, is "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Whenever I think I have the world sorted out, I come back to this question and have to accept gaping loose ends. It might be that God made the universe, but that only shoves the question back to "Why is there a God instead of nothing?" If the answer is supposed to be that it is the very nature of God that he has to exist, then I don't know why it can't be the very nature of the Universe that it has to exist. At any rate, if there is a God he obviously plays his cards close to his chest. Either he chooses to hold himself out of the fray for the most part, or he only reveals himself to a select few. I can only do the best I can with what I've got. If there is a Final Judgement, and God is just, then he can't blame me for not doing better on the sketchy information he gave me. If He is unjust, then there's nothing I can do about it anyway.

For that matter. I see no reason to believe in life after death. It is hard to imagine ceasing to exist, but I have even more trouble imagining living forever. I can't imagine ceasing to be aware either, but I do it every night, anyway.

Even more intriguing is the question of free will, but I have trouble understanding what this question even means. This is put to a point by the question, What observation or experiment could be made to determine if free will exists or not? I can't think of any. Like everyone else, I have a very strong impression that I am acting as a free agent, but intellectually, I think it is rather likely that all my actions are deterministic. It doesn't really matter. What would I do differently, depending on whether or not I believe in free will?

How does it feel to think this way?

This is where I would like to offer a purpose in life to people who may, as a result of accepting the force of my evidence and arguments, are considering giving up their current orientation. Unfortunately, I can't do that. The nature of the game seems to be that everyone has to struggle with his own understanding of the world and his role in it. There is a lot of room to follow and revere Jesus, even if you understand the Bible to be a document written by people struggling with the same questions we struggle with. There is also plenty of room for ethical atheism. In some ways, I found it very inspiring and comforting to be a Christian. At other times I felt a lack of intellectual freedom and honesty. I think all I want to say is that there is life on the other side. Giving up cherished beliefs is unsettling and frightening, but you don't go into free fall forever. Sooner or later you find a new modus vivendi, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get moving again.

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