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Why bother believing?

A reflection written by Fr. Fred Dolan, the vicar of Opus Dei in Canada. Well worth the read.

Why bother believing?


  1. "Belief is accepting a given matter as real and true on the testimony of someone else."

    That's why, Tim.

  2. what strange creatures we humans are...most of us have never seen electricity or give it much thought but we do believe in it when the light goes on.

  3. Mary, anyone who has not seen electricity is blind. Every instance of static is an example of electricity. Every lightning flash is electricity. You can not only see it, you can feel it. Electricity does not require belief -- it can be proved.

  4. MaryG - Have I seen electricity? No, the wavelengths of the electron in motion in the conductive material is to small for optical light. But I've weighed an electron, measured its charge, calculated quantum mechanically its motion around a proton (hydrogen atom) and then compared its calculated enegy levels to observed emmission spectrums. That's science, beliefs based upon evidence.

  5. "Belief is accepting a given matter as real and true on the testimony of someone else."

    Even St. Tomas Aquinas said that the argument from authority is the weakest form of argument ... according to Boethius.

    Science accepts no evidence on the testimony of someone else. Yes, scientists rely on data and measurements made from other scientists but with the knowledge that there are other scientists out there seeking to disprove other scientists. Indeed science gives its top prizes for those who overturn the status quo, the very opposite of religion.

  6. Quted in the article from Pascal "Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed."

    A family member of mine got involved with Amway and for the better part of a year inundated us with tales of riches and success soon to be theirs. It got so we dreaded visiting or having them visit. They were practicing the unofficial Amway creed "Fake it until you make it". Needless to say they never got rich as belief in Amway was flawed. I'd wager that's the same flaw with Pascal's reasoning.

  7. Michael: Theologians and others versed in the knowledge of religious fundamentals can evaluate, test and confront what is taken as orthodoxy. For example, as a parish priest I had to complete 7 years of university, including 4 yrs of graduate studies. Jesuits require a PhD before ordination. We are every bit as capable in our field as are scientists in their theirs.

    As to the argument from authority, the same holds. I am as capable as working through the arguments and evidence to test whether something is worth believing as you are in your field.

    Now, we may legitimately argue about whether or not I hold to certain presumptions as preconditions of study (ie: God exists), but how is that different from the any other social science? Sociologists, psychologists and other academically accepted disciplines are constantly doing the exact same thing. They study and draw conclusions on non-material evidence after collective, organized research. Theologians have been doing the same in our Judeo-Christian tradition for 5000 years!

    As to granting acclaim to those who bring new paradigms into acceptance, the same is true for theologians. We have major prizes for those who do so within their own life time. Most though are recognized after their death. Again, how is that different than those who were able to do the same within the within the fields of physics, medicine or mathematics? Prior to the advent of the 'global village' which has permitted instantaneous dissemination of research, paradigm shifts discovered by men like Galileo or Newton were as slow to take hold as it was for theologians like Thomas Aquinas or Augustine.

    Fr. Tim

  8. Fr. Tim. - It's not about education, it's about methodology. In science no one should ever make a statement like "Belief is accepting a given matter as real and true on the testimony of someone else."

  9. Joke from your previous post. A mother goes to her parish priest and says her son is thinking of becoming a priest and she wants to know how long it will take. He says a diocesan prists will take 7 years, a Franciscan 9 years, a Dominican 11 years and a Jesuit 13 years. She thinks for a moment and says that he should become a Jesuit. The priest, surprised, asks why. She replys "He's rather slow".

  10. Michael. Theology has methodologies as precise and disciplined as any other science. Where do you think the scientific method came from? From the sciences of philosophy and theology. The recording of evidence as the fruit of methodical research and observation is called 'clerical' work because it was the 'metier' of priests.

    Theology exercises the precise application of the same methodology, but upon a non-material field of study.

    And yes, you do make just such a statement about matter every single day. Have YOU done every experiment in your field that reveals every principle you hold to be true? Have you had access to particle colliders to conduct the experiments for yourself? No. You rely upon evidence presented as research by other scientific authorities.

    You hold as a presupposition that only that which you can materially measure is 'real'... a target that get's fuzzier and more expansive as new developments/corrections/advancements are discovered and accepted. Has not a scientist published on a blog that the Higgs-Bottom (sp?) has just been discovered in the past couple of days? Doesn't that necessitate a change in what is considered 'real' within the parameters of physics?

    How has it been discovered (if it has)? By studying the effects of something too small to be measured or quantified in itself. Social sciences and theology study the effects of super-natural (forces/realities that can only be studied through their effects) realities to discern and share what is 'real'.

    Sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists all use similar methodologies to study non-material matters? Are they not scientists? Why are they granted academic standing in universities if what they study is non-material?

    Fr. Tim

  11. P.S. I liked the joke. Poking fun at religious order priests is a favorite pass-time when we parish lads get together. It'll come in handy. Thanks!

  12. In science, I'm a neo-Popperian. Something is only a science if it can be falsified and that falsification is actively pursued. Therefore, astrology is not a science, neither is homeopathy. Does theology meet that criteria? I would argue no if Msgr. Dolan's statement is given any credence.

    With regards to your third paragraph, I addressed that in a previous post as science is working within a field where its practitioners are actively seeking to disprove previously accepted results. If a scientist wants an easy way to get a guaranteed published paper, do an experiment that refutes a previously accepted fact. That's why scientists have high confidence in the works of their colleques.

    "Sociologists, psychologists,[and] anthropologists" actually so study material matters. And what makes something a science is not its subject matter, but it's embrace of the self critical, evidence based scientific method.

    When confronted with a new thery, I always ask myself, "How could it be dispproved?" If I can't think of a way (if only in theory), I dismiss it as non science.

  13. Fr. Moyle. A good one for Francisans is to ask them what type of Franciscan they are and no matter what order of Franciscans they answer, just smile and say "So not a real Franciscan". Later I'll post a joke about the Pope and the Head Rabbi in Jerusalem that I told once to a Monsignor. It worked it's way up the chain until a Cardinal told it to a Toronto Rabbi and the message was sent down the chain that it was a big hit.

  14. There is some evidence that the Higgs-Boson particle was discovered at Fermilab but most of the comments I've read think it's a "Hail Mary pass" by the scientists there to make a major discovery before the lab is shut down in September due to lack of funding. You called it the Higgs-Bottom particle as you may have been think of one of the whimsical Northe American flavors of quarks (up, down, strange, top, bottom, charmed). In Euope they have slightly different names (up, dow,n stange, truth, beauty and charm). I prefer the latter.

  15. Michael: You wrote: "When confronted with a new theory, I always ask myself, "How could it be disproved?" If I can't think of a way (if only in theory), I dismiss it as non science." (I added the missing letters in the original)

    That is EXACTLY the same process that I utilize as a practitioner of theology.

    "See. Judge. Act." That's the religious paradigm. 'See' means study, research, observe, measure, assess. 'Judge' means assess the data and come to a conclusion as to its orthodoxy (same thing as 'truth') 'Act' means to continue forward in research and study in accordance with what has been previously judged to be true.

    There is nothing different in how we come to know what we each do within our own domains. It is only a matter of accepting the relevance of the discipline. Atheists do not accept the teachings of theology because they believe the discipline to be irrelevant - not because we don't practice the same methodology as do the sciences.

    It is insulting to theology to not at least give it the respect of being a disciplined and scientific field of study. If we are building castles out of thin air... well then we are in good company with other academically respected disciplines. Jung, Freud,... among many previously held as correctly explaining the realities of our psychology but whose paradigms are not held as relevant as anything more than pioneers in the field by most psychologists and psychiatrists today.

    This is the point that I am trying to explain.

    Consider please this point from another perspective.

    It's shouldn't come as too hard to accept that there are many 'professions' and 'trades' which have proven their worth by utilizing the scientific method without being labeled 'science'. The recipe I used to prepare the elements needed to bake the bread in my oven right now, was formulated (scientific term) and published (as a recipe) as a result of methodical research. I can experiment with this recipe in search for a new reaction (sometimes with unfortunate results) before getting the formula and engineering of the recipe right. As I become more precise in my materials, measurements and techniques, I can test out the hypothesis of my prediction confidently because I approach the task scientifically. This is also true of the chicken simmering away in my crock-pot. I did not randomly throw together ingredients to make the bread rise and the meat transform into something digestible - results of chemical processes, but explained in non scientific terminology (yeast which makes bread rise and heat and liquid breaks down or changes proteins within the meat and bread to render it digestible) but these facts were held as truth long before they were scientifically expressed.

    BTW, it smells great in here right now! Too bad I'm down wind from you today here at my cottage. I finally lucked out and got a beautiful weather day for a day off with time for some home cooked meals in a well equipped and sunny kitchen. Does this mean that my recipe book is not filled with formulas and techniques like any chemistry text book just because they are called 'ingredients' and 'Cooking instructions'?

    If the chance ever should come that we could get together to share a meal, please let me cook if you doubt the truthfulness of my conviction. I can put together a pretty impressive table. You'd certainly survive the experience even if I can't calculate scientifically how much sodium it will take to react with another element to result in needed proteins, acids and alkaline reactions the desired results!

    Fr. Tim

  16. Larry Green25 April, 2011

    "When confronted with a new theory, I always ask myself, "How could it be disproved?" If I can't think of a way (if only in theory), I dismiss it as non science."
    This is much the same as one of Plato’s lessons to Aristotle. I 'believe'it was linked to Plato's agreement with the assertion that the argument from authority is weak and should be avoided. I’m not sure if Aristotle did agree with him but in a sense if he ‘did not ‘ really he did in practice.
    Is it possible to form a deductive argument based solely on an individual observation?

    Perhaps the evaluation of arguments on either side of which appear to be an epistemological question could begin from a different point if the implicit claim in the question “ Why bother believing” is evaluated first. It presupposes the claim that believing is bothersome. Isn’t it true that we humans have a very fundamental need for certitude? We are very discontent when we are in ‘ limbo’ with regard to where we are in reality. This is evidenced by our natural desire and no doubt often with great success to reach higher and further into the universe in order to satisfy our wonder, to strive for technological advancement with an unquenchable thirst for “better” and to deepen our understanding of the world within and without. It is also evidenced by the fact that some people and even perhaps all of us sometimes are willing to assent to belief on very little or no basis. It seems to me that we are inclined and prefer believing what is false over feeling ‘uncertain’, depending of course on the deep rooted ramifications even if at an unconscious level.

  17. Day has gotten busy. Let me post again this evening. Thanks for the discussion.

  18. "Theology has methodologies as precise and disciplined as any other science."

    But theology is not a hard science. Neither is philosophy. Or mythology. Or sociology. They are all "soft" "sciences." Hard sciences will produce the same answers -- which can be tested -- over and over again, no matter the culture in which they are tested. "Soft" "sciences" will not. I think the only reason they are called "sciences" at all is because they were catalogued and categorized internally, according to some schedule drawn up by someone with an all-ducks-in-a-row case of OCD. Science does that, ergo, everything that contains lists and categories must be a science. Bad, misleading, and lazy thinking.

    " Atheists do not accept the teachings of theology because they believe the discipline to be irrelevant..."

    No, that's not why they don't accept the teachings of theology, Tim. They don't accept theology because they don't believe the basic premise from which all theology stems -- that dieties exist. When the diety -- and therefore the basic premise -- does not exist, nothing else is relevant.

    "It is insulting to theology to not at least give it the respect of being a disciplined and scientific field of study."

    Theology is/can be disciplined, and it is/can be a field of study, but it is not a science. Using a scientific method for study does not make the subject of study a science in itself. There are those who would say to call theology (along with all the other soft fields) a science is to insult all the true sciences.

    By th' way, if ever I'm in your neck of the woods, I'm gonna invite myself for supper. I can almost smell that chicken from here. I usually oven-roast mine surrounded by carrots and potatoes, stuffed with a head of peeled garlic cloves, and sprinkled generously with blended Italian herbs. We could have a cook-off... ;D

  19. i have read all the comments so far and, on a scientific level, i am not in the same league as all of you and as Lady Janus pointed out i was wrong about electricity.
    At the end of it all i, by the grace of God, am able to say with conviction "Lord i believe ...Help thou my unbelief" and i think that is what He asks of each of us.

  20. "At the end of it all i, by the grace of God, am able to say with conviction "Lord i believe ...Help thou my unbelief" and i think that is what He asks of each of us."

    BRAVA, Mary! At the end of it all, as you say, that is all one needs -- one's own convictions. Not someone else's. Stick with that, and you'll be fine.

  21. Lady Janus: We have had semantic differences before, but I don't think that I've made the same mistake again. If something is 'not' relevant... then it is defacto 'irrelevant'. So we in fact agree on this point.

    I take your point about social sciences and humanities. They are qualitatively different than the 'hard' sciences. I do assert though that we share a common opinion in the truth that forces exist and are active that are beyond our capacity to measure or quantify. Is that not in fact a core conviction of yours as well? Are your beliefs not either supported by knowledge attained by others, or through your own personal experiences. Knowledge that was discovered, transmitted and disseminated systematically is identical in intent and effect as the more recent discoveries of 'why' things happen the way that they do.

    I am not claiming here the 'God of the gaps' argument either. It's my contention that folks like Michael who define 'science' by the application of the 'scientific method'(admittedly an operational definition). By his definition, skills, trades and generational knowledge such as culinary information can be similarly defined as a science.

    The last point I raise is how is it that we know anything to be true if such a truth is non-corporeal? Is truth little more than the consensus opinion (or common sense) at any given time? If that were true, would it not result in an anarchical or flimsy basis upon which to discern what the truth of things is?

    The only metaphor that I can think that would counter this position is to conceiving as 'truth' as being a large floating raft that gets its strength and stability from its width of popular consensus. Evidence from our recent history and present (Nazi Germany, South Africa, Rwanda, Congo, Bosnia, Mexico, Peru, Columbia,...) amply demonstrates that truth based on public consensus is an unsafe foundation upon which to build a just society.

    It also leads to questioning the wisdom of structures upon which the raft is built lest it break apart or become unnavigable in rough waters. At the very least, it's not often wise to make holes in a raft lest people fall through and drown.

    Just saying... the metaphor seems apt from my experience.

    Fr. Tim

  22. As a former practitioner of a "pure" science (physics) I have no difficulty extending the term science to a variety of human disciplines. That there can be more variability in the outcome of "experiments" is due to the nature of the subject of inquiry. That said a field can be scientific if it remains open to critical self examination, conducts experiments to attempt to dispprove itself and when evidence accumulates to alter a prevailing theory, it changes.

    When a truth is "non-corporeal" do you mean like pure math is non-corporeal (in the realm of ideas)or like the supernatural is non-corporal (not subject to interacting with the universe we inhabit)?

  23. Mr. Green - Your question of “ Why bother believing” I would re-frame into how do we determine what to believe, your ontological formulation is very apt. We want to know because it's our nature, we're explorers, we have minds that for the first time in evolution on this planet has allowed up to become aware of the universe we have been born into.

    Richard Feynman in his book the Pleasure of Finding things out says it best for me.

    "I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and then many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask, “Why we are here?” and what that question might mean. I might think about it a bit and then if I can’t figure it out then I go on to something else.

    But I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t have to…i don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose which is the way it really is as far as I can tell possibly. It doesn't frighten me.”

  24. Michael: Here is the address to a story (albeit from Fox News) about someone claiming to have just discovered the Higgs Boson particle at the Hadron Collider. It was posted only an hour ago.

    Fr. Tim


  26. Larry Green25 April, 2011

    Fr. Tim we are never in possession of the truth. The best we can do is to interpret things as they represent the truth but are not themselves the truth. You can scientifically test out your hypothesis but no matter how many times your predictions are correct, you will never ‘prove’ a thing scientifically.
    As to whether or not anything is regarded as a science depends totally on it’s perceived relevance to achieve a better understanding of the nature of things. I don’t see how exclusion or inclusion either way should be insulting but whether it is insulting or not it bears no relevance or support for either argument.

  27. Larry Green25 April, 2011

    The question is “ why bother believing ?” I am not suggesting that we have to know everything because we are frightened by not knowing. What I am arguing is that we do have to believe certain things in order to support fundamental principles ( formed well below our awareness) that hold our present understanding of the world , including ourselves. There is no disputing that it is better not to know than to believe something that is not true but there is no denying that we witness all the time people who readily believe in a falsity because the truth simply does not fit or is to disturbing. Like you, I don’t see that in myself but neither does anyone else. We have the capacity to see reality where it doesn’t exist.

  28. Mr. Green - Science can never prove something true (only math can) but sciences greatest strength is that it can prove things wrong and it actively tries to.

  29. Larry Green25 April, 2011

    I'm not so sure that I would agree that science can 'prove' things wrong either. Science can empirically provide instances to show a particular theory is flawed but isn’t that a very flimsy standard to constitute proof? It appears to be proof of nothing.

  30. Mr. Green - Science can show, for instance, that objects don't fall in a gravitational field at a rate that is ptoportional to their weight. It's not a proof, like in math, that for instance shows that the square root of 2 is irrational.

  31. " We have had semantic differences before, but I don't think that I've made the same mistake again. If something is 'not' relevant... then it is defacto 'irrelevant'. So we in fact agree on this point."

    Not quite, Tim. We are actually talking about two different things, now. You said that atheists don't believe the discipline is relevant. However, I said that for them, it's not the discipline, but the premise that's not relevant. They never get as far as the discipline of it.

    "I do assert though that we share a common opinion in the truth that forces exist and are active that are beyond our capacity to measure or quantify. Is that not in fact a core conviction of yours as well?"

    Well, I don't know if I'd call it a conviction, core or otherwise, but yes, I do know that when I speak, sound travels to the ears of others. But I don't have a driving need to know how, or to be able to explain it to others. It is enough for me to know that the same actions under the same circumstances produce the same results every time. It's very convenient, that knowledge. But it's not a matter of faith or belief.

    Or am I misunderstanding you in some way?


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