Apr 4, 2008

Prerequisite for the Experiment of Belief: Desire

If belief is the only tool, what of those who feel they can’t believe? There are many who may read this blog and say, “That’s nice that belief is the only tool that you can use to know God, but I just can’t believe at all. I feel I’d be giving in to superstition” or “I just can’t believe in something that I can’t see and for which I find no empirical evidence.” I can empathize with this statement. I personally hope and search for empirical things and am skeptical of some claims from believers.

Something has brought you this far. Whether to get an answer for yourself about these questions, or to try to refute my words; out of curiosity, or out of trying to objectively understand a believer’s point of view, or, perhaps, because you may already agree with me, you have come and you’re willing to read. And hopefully, you’re willing to try the only tool we have for knowing: to believe.

There are many who say they would be willing to believe if there was some great and irrefutable manifestation of God’s existence, such as the earth beginning to orbit the sun in the opposite direction and us not feeling the reversal or flying off the planet—then, they say, they would believe. And that desire to have such a manifestation is understandable; nothing speaks to our intellects like direct, objective accounts, preferably measured by third-party scientists (if such neutrality existed regarding belief in God).

But the problem is that such a grandiose manifestation doesn’t create belief. If it came from God, it would produce knowledge: He could make it very obvious. However, as we’ve already discussed, there seems to be some redeeming quality about belief that God wants us to cultivate. As far as I know, all those people who have come to an undeniable knowledge of God have not done so solely, even primarily, through empirical evidences; they have done so through the tool of belief.

(I can imagine many thinkers willing to attempt to prove that turning the globe backwards couldn’t possibly be miraculous or divine, or that nothing, for that matter, could have divine origins, no matter how creative the physical manifestation is. As I said before, there are many who just don’t want to believe, and as such, there will be relatively nothing, except an actual beholding of God after death, that will seem convincing. They may say, “Well, if divine events or miracles were possible, I would not deny them, but since I know that they are not possible, there must be another explanation.” There are many who share this circular reasoning: “I don’t believe that miracles, however defined, are real, therefore your belief they are real is unfounded.” To those, I share my thoughts, and encourage them to at least be open-minded to those who feel differently.)

Even with undeniable knowledge of God, if some supernatural bizarreness were to happen, there would be plenty of scholars willing to attempt to show why it was a natural occurrence. People always seem to be able to convince themselves to believe or disbelieve evidences, depending what they want to believe—I have to recognize this statement from my standpoint as a believer. (This point in greater detail: forthcoming.) Belief on the part of scientists is akin to the belief that we are talking about: they, in order to perform an experiment, have to have some idea of what they think is going to happen. They have a belief in an idea, which they test. We also must have belief in an idea which we test, but the test we perform cannot be done with laboratory study.

This is where the necessity for the desire to believe is apparent. Without a desire to believe, we definitely won’t go on believing. This point resembles in some ways my previous point about “don’t want to believe” and “can’t believe”.

For some, asking the questions “Is God there? Does He care? What is His role in my life?” can be liberating. It can provide meaning to life and answers to deep questions of identity. It can provide peace. In a previous entry I mentioned a modified version of Pascal’s wager. Now, I understand that there are arguments all around the wager itself; we won’t justify Pascal’s logic. But the wager does illustrate a point: If God exists and can provide a happiness and joy greater than anything that we can find in this life, wouldn’t it be worth any price in this life to find out if that is true?

Though this is not the case with all who don’t believe, I have noticed that there are many who don’t believe because of what that would entail. If there is a God, the ones who know of Him historically speaking, in their various ways, say He expects righteousness, however defined. I will site a story from a Judeo-Christian text that gives an example of people who have no desire to believe because of what it entails. I recognize that there are those who disregard sacred writ, so for those people, I offer it as an illustration of the principle.

Ahaz was a king in the time of the Judeo-Christian prophet Isaiah. He didn’t really want anything to do with God and didn’t really live in the way God would expect him to, even though his kingdom was about to be attacked, and he would need all the deus ex machina he could muster. Isaiah, who is the mouthpiece for God in this record, offered Ahaz a remarkable proposition that many of us wish that we could have offered us. Isaiah said, “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God.” Basically, ask for anything as proof that He exists, and you can know that God exists and is available to help you. God is actually concerned. I think many of us would say, “Yeah! Have God do such-and-such! Then I’d believe!”

There would be many who would take that offer, but if God is interested in cultivating belief, there must be something else. In response to this question, Ahaz said, “No. I will not ask, and I will not test the Lord.” Why? Why on earth would someone turn down the opportunity like this? He had everything to gain from the experience, didn’t he? Everything except one thing: if Ahaz knew or even believed that God existed, he would have to change his behavior to the way Isaiah told him God expected him to act. This story is illustrative of people whom I have met. Sometimes we are too concerned about protecting our small piece of intellectual turf or our demands for hedonic rights or our fear of losing something that is popular, convenient, individualistic, or prestigious. Being more concerned about maintaining our status quo than learning if God (or anything) is real gets in the way of even beginning to really try experimenting. The desire needed to move forward or to have belief is gone.

That is not to say that those who prefer to never ask the question are somehow inferior people. They obviously have found something worth living for, which can be commendable. But if God does exist, passing up the offer to come to know Him, just because we’ve found something satisfactory to bide our time, would deprive ourselves of greater richness, depth, and joy in life and eventually, a knowledge that discloses meaning in life.

I repeat: we have to desire the answer to this question before we can start asking the question. I have known another great many people, perhaps more than the refusing group to which I had just referred, who felt they performed the experiment of faith and received no results. I had shared with them some ideas as to how they could go about trying and verifying, which I will include here in an upcoming post. It seemed to me that they had tried these suggestions, but without the desire to believe. Sometimes they did it because they liked me and wanted to do it to please me. Sometimes they did it just to prove me wrong. But oftentimes they did it without the desire of knowing for themselves. And without that desire, they learned nothing. Though they went through the motions, they did not want to believe, and therefore never actually performed the experiment. It would be like trying to study the stars through a telescope, by looking through the telescope, focusing it very well, but never taking the lens cap off.

I know of people who tried suggestions given to them by believers with great diligence, and were frustrated that results did not come in the way they expected. When I asked them about believing, many had never actually started that part. They never desired to believe. I would ask them, “Just think hypothetically: if God did exist, and He did let you know what you’re asking for, but as a consequence you would have to change your lifestyle, leaving friends, maybe giving up some vice, or surrendering some behavior, would you still be willing to find out?” Those who felt like they had performed the experiment and had received nothing (from my personal experience only, N=about 45) invariably said either “No” or “I’d have to think about it”, meaning they hadn’t actually had the desire to believe up to that point. I was always surprised at the honesty of their answers, because I personally would feel sheepish for doing something like this just for the means and not for the ends. The ends in this case would usually entail that we change: we would have new experiences that we need to factor in to our calculations. If we were just going to ignore the experiences, why have them in the first place?

The desire to believe can be cultivated for some by contemplating those difficult questions of “why am I here?” and “does life have meaning?” and “can these answers be found?” I leave it to the reader to figure out what questions they have, what they’d be willing to give up in response to those answers, and ask themselves if they have the desire to perform such an experiment.


Diogenes said...

The whole point of performing a scientific experiment is to remove the human element; if performed correctly, the experiment provides empirical data that isn’t skewed by the background of the experimenter. While the results of the experiment might validate some scientific theory, the beliefs of the scientist have absolutely no bearing on the outcome of the experiment. The fact that a valid experiment is repeatable by other scientists is important, because another scientist with an entirely different belief from the first might perform the same experiment and obtain the same results.

Contrary to what is implied in this post, desire to believe is not a prerequisite for a scientific experiment; desire to know the truth is a prerequisite. Belief might be a motivator, but it has no impact on the nature of the experiment if it is performed correctly.

The experiment of belief is different. Apparently, desire to know the truth isn't enough; you must desire to believe in a certain outcome before the experiment is even performed; namely, you must desire to believe in God. Given the personal nature of the results of the "belief experiment," this "desire" requirement seems inherently flawed. Let me cite an example to illustrate my point.

I once met a woman who had joined a small religious organization that required that she give all of her property to the church. The group was led by a man they called "Patriarch Billings;" they considered him some kind of a "prophet." Each member of this organization worked in Billing's factories without pay, living in poverty and implicit trust in their "prophet." All this despite the fact that Billings himself lived in a huge mansion, sporting numerous vehicles, boats, four-wheelers, etc. Clearly, this man was taking advantage of the gullibility of his own followers.

This woman described to me her process of conversion. Her rhetoric was much the same as what I read in these posts. The prerequisite was that you have a desire to believe. I thought it convenient that those who finally joined this faith were itching to do so from the start. As you already pointed out, "People always seem to be able to convince themselves to believe or disbelieve evidences, depending [on] what they want to believe."

So, the "experiment of belief" is the only way to come to know God, but for the "experiment" to work you must already want to believe? It sounds like those who learn to believe in God were inclined to believe in the first place.

I make this distinction: I don't want to believe in God. I want to believe in the truth; and, if it so happens that God exists, then I want to believe in God. But I don't start out with a desperate desire to believe in God simply because I want the peace/meaning/direction that it might conveniently provide. I start out with a desire to know the truth, whatever it is. Given this starting point, am I lost to the "belief experiment," which has been cited as the only method of learning that God exists?

Mikha'el said...

Excellent points. I only have a minute at the computer now, but I want to say this:
"I want to believe in the truth; and, if it so happens that God exists, then I want to believe in God...I start out with a desire to know the truth, whatever it is."
What you said with this quote is a valid "desire"--insofar as one is willing to do what is required to know "whatever it is."
Forgive me for my rendition, however clumsy, for truly, the "desire" is the desire to know the truth. I think the misunderstanding came because I spent time focusing our attention on God, i.e. it would be the desire to know the truth in the case that "whatever it is" happens to be God. But yes, the desire to really know and to pay the price to know a thing is the desire to belief, put succinctly. Thank you for your comments.
I will address your other comments when I have another minute to type. Alas, I wish I had more time for this blog and were more responsive. Thank you for your patience and your thoughtful comments.

Sam Woods said...

I'm really enjoying the blog, Mikha'el. Nice to see that you are getting some debate with some fiber to it. Keep up the good work!

Mikha'el said...

Thank you again for your insights, Diogenes. At the outset, I need to acknowledge that I think you’ve stated what I hoped to state more clearly than I have, which is: the desire for truth is the factor that is needed.

I'm glad you can help me to clarify my thoughts, for I so often ramble and thus approach things from an unclear angle, or perhaps as I type, I forget to make things explicit that seem clear to me. The weekend gave me time enough to blog again. Allow me to follow through your response, addressing your arguments, making clarification where needed:

As you stated, the whole point of performing a scientific experiment is to provide empirical data. True. As I mentioned before, this is where the analogy with science fails. I continue to use the term "experiment" because it can be approached in an experimental way, i.e., there are (and will be) steps given in pursuit of knowledge, which steps will produce a result, likely immeasurable.

I think I’ve mentioned that with the experiment that I will outline, the results will likely be based on personal experience and not based on empirical data through current scientific measurement. The logic is as follows: if God does exist, He has the power to make Himself known empirically, scientifically, measurably—yet He does not. Those who have come to a knowledge of God have done so through experiences that are rooted first in belief, insofar as I can tell. The experiment of belief, as I have called it, is not scientific, in that it uses unempirical methods. But it is, as far as the Oxford English Dictionary is concerned, an experiment, given that it is “an action or operation undertaken in order to discover something unknown” or “a test, trial”. So, even though it does not fit the terms of a scientific experiment, it is on all counts an experiment. (Interesting side note: as we dig into the etymological foundation of “experiment”, we learn that it has the same Latin roots as “experience”.)

Hopefully we’ve come to some common ground on the fact that there are experiences that are valuable despite being immeasurable. You have cited “It is cold outside.” Temperature can be measured with scientific tools. I cited “I love my son.” That cannot be measured. I make the claim that those immeasurable experiences can lead to knowledge. God, as a supremely sentient Being, would have to allow that we gain that knowledge (i.e., no personal experiences with Deity would happen without His consent). We recognize that as a sentient being, God would not be a function; He is not restricted to predictable results like an algorithm or petri dish measurements. Just as we never know how an intelligent person will respond to questions, we cannot assume that God has to meet our answers in the way we thought best. If He exists, we cannot program His reaction or response, expecting that if we ask X, He will automatically respond Y in the way and with the timing that we want. While we cannot predict the manner or the timing of the answer from God, He has promised to respond to and answer the appropriate application of belief, according to those who have come to know Him. I suggest that there may be something in belief worth cultivating (a topic to be explored later), providing us with at least partial explanation for why belief may be a prerequisite for knowledge of God.

You eloquently stated that “desire to believe is not a prerequisite for a scientific experiment; desire to know the truth is a prerequisite.” I agree, as I stated previously. However, I would add that implicit in good science is the willingness to accept true results that were contrary to what we expected. In other words, implicit in our performing experiments, is the willingness to give up the status quo if it is not true. That same willingness is what I was trying to refer to as the prerequisite for the experiment of belief. We’re willing to accept the consequences of believing if that is what is required.

Hence, you mentioned that “you must desire to believe in a certain outcome before the experiment is even performed; namely you must desire to believe in God.” I’m sorry that I wasn’t clearer. The outcome of the experiment is not belief in God. The experiment would be meaningless and circular if that were the end result. Knowledge is the end result, however bold the claim. Therefore the desire required is the desire to perform the experiment, not the desire for belief in a certain thing. It is the willingness to do what it is that is required in the pursuit of truth. Anyone can believe in God without performing this experiment, or performing it badly. But the chances of knowing about God are greatly diminished without this experiment.

On that note, referring to your last phrase in this comment, I would like to correct my previous statements: I do believe that the “experiment of belief” is a valid method of finding truth with regards to God. However, I must concede, that if God does indeed exist, He is not limited to only this method to make Himself known. So I am grateful for your pointing out that I have been closed-minded and abrupt. Truly, though I have not experienced other situations, I have to be open to the possibilities of Him being able to reveal Himself in other ways. I cite this experiment as a method that has been used by many who have come to a knowledge of God, and, though their results are not quantifiable, they are promising. For those who have not come to such a knowledge with said experiment, I have already posted some complications with performing the experiment; just as there are many complications that will void scientific experiments, I intend to post a few more common complications hereafter.

You mentioned, “Apparently, desire to know the truth isn’t enough.” Prompted by your observation, I hope to find time to clean up this post, so as to not cause the same confusion later on. Desire to know the truth, as you claim, is enough, and with that desire, we acknowledge, there comes the equal willingness to pay the price to know (assuming that this is not a passive, wishful desire, but a real desire of a thinker and a seeker. The application of the experiment of belief to a passive or wishful desire will not suffice: this kind of seeking will not be fructuous. Those who have had to work to gain knowledge will likely resonate with that statement.)

This is what I wanted to say about desire: The first step in gaining any kind of knowledge is to really desire to know the truth. I belabor, but not regretfully, thoughts that might help others to develop the desire for truth, and with that, the assurance that they will have to seek after it. I was trying to convey our necessity of being open to new knowledge and of being willing to experiment, to seek, to move, and not just passively hope that knowledge will bonk us on the head like the proverbial Newtonian apple. I intend that for believers and non-believers alike.

But if we are honest with ourselves, as many psychological studies have noted, we tend to understand what we want to understand, and see what we want to see. As a believer, I have to stand back and evaluate what I believe against that truism. Am I just believing in God just because it’s nice, convenient, or traditional, or just because I like it so much that I don’t want to let it go? I, as much as anyone else from any belief system, must have the desire to know the truth, as you pointed out, and to find out if the truth is God. I hope this blog gives some insight as to how one can successfully learn things of God, while at the same time maintaining their pursuit of knowledge through philosophy, in science, and about themselves.

I like the way that you phrased it, “I want to believe in the truth; and, if it so happens that God exists, then I want to believe in God...I start out with a desire to know the truth, whatever it is.” I think that that is appropriate. That fits the desire to know, at whatever price. I believe the misunderstanding came from, as I mentioned in a previous comment, that I was addressing the “desire to know the truth” under the assumption that the truth was, indeed, God. If one substitutes the topic of truth about for the topic of God, the previous post stands agreeable to both of us, I would think.

Contrast these two statements for an example of the desire.

First, here is what I am not referring to: “God, I want you to be there, please be there, I really need it,” and then convincing oneself that what you really want is true. Surely there are many people who pray to God and want Him to be there and believe He is there. But these people may believe any number of things along with their belief in God. As I mentioned in a previous post, they might assume that any experience they’ve had with God is somehow related to the veracity of their other beliefs, which may, in fact, be untrue. There will be later posts that address this in greater detail.

Now, what I am referring to is this: “I have heard from a variety of people that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if You are God, will you help me to know You? I would give away my current lifestyle and thought tradition; I would give up whatever necessary to know this truth, that I may deepen the meaning and richness of my life.” The statement questions: what are we willing to pay for what would be the greatest knowledge in the universe? If it were knowledge that we obtained, would we be willing to take the truth, no matter what it implied? I think having that desire, that hunger for truth, is necessary. Desire for a certain outcome to occur is not what is required: it is the willingness to take the consequences no matter the punishment. I asked myself, would it be enough to say: “God, I have not previously believed in you, feeling there was no evidence to support it. But I am willing to change my belief system and who I have become if you are there. If you truly exist, I want to know you.” My feeling is yes, if the desire for truth produced sufficient humility to the point that one is willing to address God. Perhaps the greatest interference with receiving results from this experiment is in fact the willingness to receive an answer.

This question makes us really consider our stance about our beliefs with regard to God. This is not a need for God to be there to justify our current belief systems, but rather a need for truth, and real desire for that truth. To what degree do we want truth? Just until it is convenient? Or are we really looking for the answer, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us?

But, added to that example, here are some thoughts to ponder. The statements in the example about changing from not wanting to believe to wanting to believe hinge on “if God happens to exist.” If we knew that God happened to exist, the question of believing in Him and trying this experiment is pointless, because the ends, knowing God’s existence, are already met. We wouldn’t need to try this experiment of belief, because we already have the results—knowledge. But, since we don’t know whether or not “God happens to exist,” we need a method of verification. I propose the experiment that I have been heretofore outlining. To do so will require the willingness of the reader, or in other words, the desire.

My post was intended to give preparation for one to try the experiment of belief in God. Though the desire to know the truth in my post focuses on the desire to know if there is a God, I hope that this clarifies that it is not a statement saying that we must believe in order to believe. More clearly, as you stated, we must desire to believe the truth, whatever it may be. The argument to “desire” to believe is more akin to the willingness to surrender one’s own opinion or viewpoint of something for more accurate information, if it exists. That is the desire that we all must have.

Now, as for that woman's experience, as a believer I say this: I think she was just as deceived as you do. Truly, if we are trying the experiment recklessly, investing our efforts in something untrue, we are only making it possible that we be deceived. I hope that my future posts will help people on all levels avoid deceit. We need the assurance that what we choose to believe in is not something untrue, even if we hoped for and desired for the something. I hope follow-up posts will clarify how we can do that.

There are a number of places that this experiment of belief can go wrong. Surely, as a believer I have to come to terms with these situations. One way that this could go wrong is the belief in something inaccurate or outright false. Another way is to perform the motions of the experiment without the willingness to believe, if that is what is required. I will post more thoughts on the complications later on, because I think they are key to this method of finding truth being valid.

As for her application of the experiment of belief: though she may have performed the “experiment of belief” insofar as I have outlined, I have not yet finished outlining. I have my doubts that she performed what I am referring to, because it didn’t lead her to knowledge. Nevertheless, I will be including posts that hopefully steer people clear from such pitfalls.