Theistic Satanism: Home > Philosophy > Reasonable theism

Reasonable (though not completely rational) theism

by Diane Vera

Copyright © 2003 by Diane Vera. All rights reserved.

  1. Scientific methodology vs. everyday life
  2. Theism as a pragmatic assumption in everyday life

In The existence of the supernatural, I explained why it is very likely that a supernatural realm exists ("supernatural" being defined as "beyond even the potential reach of scientific methodology"). Below are my thoughts on why a tentative, limited belief not only in a supernatural realm, but also in a God or gods in particular, is reasonable (though, admittedly, not entirely rational). For a briefer statement of my points below, see Why believe in a God or gods?

  1. Scientific methodology vs. everyday life

    Given the likelihood that a supernatural realm exists (see The existence of the supernatural), what should be our attitude toward the supernatural? Should we simply ignore it?

    In the context of scientific methodology, it is best to ignore the supernatural. For example, regarding seemingly paranormal phenomena, the scientific approach would be to seek natural explanations, and, if a natural explanation cannot be found, to suspend judgment, refraining from speculation about possible supernatural causes -- even if the scientist happens to believe that a supernatural realm exists.

    However, should we try to live our lives according to scientific methodology?

    Many scientists themselves do not. For example, there are plenty of scientists who believe in a God -- and who, in their daily lives, do such unscientific things as attend church/synagogue/mosque/temple/whatever and pray -- even while keeping God out of their research papers.

    Furthermore, it is not possible for anyone, even the most rationalist atheist skeptic, to live one's entire life according to scientific methodology. It is not possible to live our daily lives without making a lot of assumptions that are neither scientifically founded nor scientifically fruitful.

    Example: We meet people, we get to know them, and we make decisions about them based on our experiences with them. That's not scientific. Most of our ideas about other people are based on, at best, what psychologists would dismiss as "anecdotal evidence." It's not feasible to do a scientific study before every single decision we make. Yet we do need to make decisions, every day, regarding the people in our lives.

    I said that most of our ideas about other people are based on anecdotal evidence at best.  By "at best," I mean when we are fully conscious of the reasons for our beliefs and feelings about other people. But even that is not a feasible ideal, except maybe for folks with enough time and money to spend several hours a day in psychoanalysis. Most of the time, our decisions about other people are based at least partly on gut feelings -- and we aren't, in most cases, consciously aware of all the reasons for our feelings.

    Thus, most of our decisions about other people are not only not scientific, but they are not even completely rational. Nor can they be. It is desirable to be as rational as possible in our dealings with other people. But we cannot completely eliminate the role of gut feelings. Nor should we. A person incapable of feelings and intuition about other people would be a social cripple. We learn a lot more things on a subconscious, subrational level than we could possibly ever hope to learn on a conscious, rational level. A totally rational person, if such a person existed, would be an idiot-savant.

    Thus, while it can be beneficial to apply scientific methodology to our lives in a limited way, it would not benefit us to try to force our lives to be completely constrained by scientific methodology.

    Of course, on fundamental philosophical questions, we should aim at least to be rational, even if not completely scientific in our methodology.

    But is it to our best advantage, on philosophical questions, to be guided strictly by scientific methodology? Certainly it is to our advantage to be informed about any relevant well-established scientific findings. But it's another matter to try to live our entire lives -- or even to make our most fundamental philosophical decisions -- according to scientific methodology. Remember, naturalism isn't a finding of science; it's an aspect of scientific methodology. As we have seen, there is no good a priori reason to believe metaphysical naturalism, other than as a pragmatic assumption within the scientific enterprise. Is naturalism our best pragmatic assumption in other spheres of life as well? If not, then what kinds of pragmatic assumptions can we reasonably make?

    Different pragmatic assumptions may be appropriate for different purposes. For example, "innocent until proven guilty" is a reasonable pragmatic assumption in a court of law. On the other hand, "guilty until proven innocent" is a better pragmatic assumption when dealing with strangers who want access to your house or apartment, or who ask you on the phone for such information as your social security number.

  2. Theism as a pragmatic assumption in everyday life

    At least some people, especially those who have had truly weird paranormal experiences, may legitimately perceive a likelihood that a supernatural realm not only exists but impinges on at least some people's lives. For such people, does it really make sense to ignore the supernatural, for purposes other than the purely scientific? Simply ignoring the supernatural may not be the wisest course of action -- at least not in one's daily life -- even though ignoring the supernatural is necessary in science.

    However, if we don't ignore the supernatural, how can we deal with it, given that we have no sound means of knowing the supernatural?

    As in our social lives, we are probably best off following a combination of instinct, folklore, and personal experience, tempered by reason and by any scientific findings that may be relevant. Instinct, folklore, and personal experience are all vastly inferior to science as a means of seeking truth. Nevertheless, instinct, folklore, and personal experience are far from worthless. They, tempered by reason, do serve us fairly well in realms where not enough relevant scientific information is available. Instinct and folklore are, after all, key human survival mechanisms.

    Belief in a God or gods and other spirits is very widespread, to say the least. It is almost universal in nearly all human cultures that are known to have existed. So too are prayer, religious ritual, and, to a lesser extent, trance-inducing activities such as meditation and religious dancing.

    It is likely, or at least very possible, that such a nearly-universal aggregate of traits became so widespread because it has evolutionary survival value.

    Admittedly, not all widespread traits have evolutionary survival value. Some traits are just useless side-effects of other traits which do have survival value. Moreover, if indeed human religious tendencies do have survival value, this does not necessarily imply that any religious beliefs are true. Their survival value might be due strictly to one or more of the mundane consequences of religious belief. (See, for example, The Premise in The "God" Part of the Brain.)

    Furthermore, even if religious tendencies do have survival value, and even if their survival value does have anything whatsoever to do with a supernatural realm actually impinging on people's lives, then even the most widespread ideas about gods and other spirits may still be incorrect. Indeed, given the track record of human pre-scientific thinking, they very likely are incorrect, or at least inaccurate. Certainly, given the wide variety of theologies that people have come up with, they can't all be literally correct, and it's quite likely that none of them are literally correct.

    However, if you believe in the likelihood -- or at least a non-negligible possibility -- that a supernatural realm not only exists but impinges on at least some people's lives, and if you choose not to simply ignore the supernatural, then your best bet is to assume that at least some of the most widespread human religious ideas, though probably not literally correct, are nevertheless a good enough approximation for most practical purposes. Because the supernatural is by definition not knowable in any reliable way, we have no sound means of arriving at any better ideas.

    As mentioned earlier, some people may have intellectual justification, based on their own paranormal experiences, for at least a tentative belief that a supernatural realm not only exists but impinges on at least some people's lives. A far larger number of people do not have this kind of intellectual justification, but do have a strong gut feeling that there exists a god or gods or other spirits that will respond (at least sometimes) to human prayer or other religious activities.

    Is it wisest to ignore such feelings? Or is it wiser to act on them, at least tentatively, even while keeping in mind that strong gut feelings are far from infallible?

    Strong gut feelings are indeed far from infallible, and it is a good idea to question them. Nevertheless, in most aspects of life -- in our social lives, for example -- we are usually best off following them except when we're aware of a good reason not to.

    From a scientific point of view, the burden of proof is on whoever makes a claim.

    However, the question of what feelings we should act upon in our personal lives is another matter altogether. Given the vital role that our feelings do play, our personal "burden of proof" is not on the idea that we should act on a given feeling, but, rather, on the idea that we should not act on it. It is wise to stop and question whether there may be good reason not to act on a given feeling. But, in general, it is not a good idea to dismiss a feeling (especially a strong feeling) outright on the sole grounds that you can't justify the feeling intellectually.

    We should still aim to be basically rational. A mere feeling that something exists does not justify more than a very tentative belief. A tentative theistic belief can be a pragmatic assumption for the purpose of religious practice (acting on the feeling). For example, you cannot pray sincerely without at least a tentative belief that the god you are praying to exists.

    But, if we accept a supernatural (or, at least, possibly-supernatural) idea even tentatively -- and especially if we accept it on a not completely rational basis -- then how do we avoid opening the door to a flood of nonsense? To that end, we can:

    1. Reject beliefs that are obviously nonsensical.  For example, we can reject such blatantly self-contradictory notions as a God who is omnipotent and omnibenevolent yet inflicts infinitifold punishment for the sins of one little lifetime. We can also reject beliefs that outright contradict the findings of science, e.g. teachings based on the idea that the Earth is flat.

    2. Read skeptical literature and educate ourselves about relevant scientific findings.  For example, we should be aware that many "spiritual" experiences do have a natural explanation, even if we nevertheless believe that our God may be using them to communicate with us. (See Spiritual experiences and the brain.)

    3. Remember always that our knowledge is extremely limited, despite whatever "spiritual enlightenment" we or anyone else may have received.  One problem with fundamentalists is that they regard their belief system not as mere pragmatic assumption but as the Absolute Truth. And fundamentalists aren't the only people with a tendency to forget their human fallibility. Others include those who claim to "know the Truth" based on their spiritual experiences or on a perception that a god or a spiritual experience "changed my life!"

    4. Avoid making an inordinately large number of assumptions.  Another problem with fundamentalism is that it does make an inordinately large number of assumptions. For example, if you believe that the Bible is the Word of God, that's not just one assumption, it's a whole big book's worth of assumptions. You're assuming that every part of the Bible, individually, is inerrant and inspired by God. This would be a problem even if you were to entertain the idea of scriptural inerrancy on a tentative, non-dogmatic basis, rather than insist on it the way that fundamentalists do. (It is much more reasonable to assume that a sacred text contains some deep truths, without assuming every part to be infallible or even inspired.)

    5. Subject to the above constraints, we can survey the variety of religious beliefs worldwide and make our own best guess as to which beliefs seem to us most likely to be at least somewhere near the ballpark, as judged via a combination of reason, feelings, and personal experience.

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