Monthly Archives: May 2013

What is the purpose of doubt?

Does doubt have a cognitive function, i.e., is it useful in certain circumstances?

It seems obvious that it does – otherwise, why would organisms such as ourselves be capable of experiencing the emotion of doubt? One purpose of doubt seems to be to get the organism to check whether what it took to be true is true.

(It also seems obvious that doubt can be misplaced, like pretty much any other emotion – a person might simply have a nervous habit of thought, or consistently underestimate their own abilities, and so on.)

For example, I’m walking along a path, and am supposed to arrive in a certain amount of time. After that amount of time comes and goes, without yet arriving, I might start feeling doubt about whether I’m on the right path. The doubt is a call to attention or action – to get the organism to check whether it should modify its beliefs given new data.

What is the appropriate response? Look at the new data, and consider modifying one’s beliefs. Then get back to action, now with a better picture of the relevant data.

Whenever doubt arises in this way, one must look at how to fit the new data into the array of theories one might be able to have, and which theory one should pick given the new data. It’s about theory choice, in other words. This is much discussed in philosophy of science, but is constantly happening in other parts of our lives. In the broad outlines, there isn’t much that is unique about science in terms of theory choice – except that the consequences usually aren’t as immediately practical.

In theological literature, much attention is paid to doubt in ‘God’. Doubt here is no different than doubt in other propositions. That is, some new data has come in, which bears on some belief and so prompts the organism to consider it and revise or discard beliefs as is most warranted. I.e., what is the most reasonable conclusion given this new picture of the data?

Doubt in God usually comes about from the problem of evil. I.e., something bad happens in one’s own life, which can prompt serious reconsideration of whether there is a good God. How do Christians explain this sort of data? Usually by recontextualizing the data – God thinks about the whole, and this thing is just a part. If one stays in a strong relationship with God, then later one will see how this part fits into the whole. What grounds does the Christian have for believing such a thing? Because they can look back in the past and see where things that were bad that happened to them ended up leading to good. For example, a business didn’t work out, but the lessons learned in that business then led to business success after that.

The point is that doubt, in its proper place, is useful – it is a stimulus which can lead to a better picture of just how the universe works. I don’t think the appropriate response, in terms of Christianity, science, or what have you, is to shrink from a legitimate stimulus – to run away from it. Central to Christianity is the notion of ‘restoration plus’ or ‘resurrection’ – of not avoiding things but going through them, and coming out the other side transformed (and, hopefully, for the better). The stimulus of doubt is like the call to action in the archetypal ‘hero’s journey’.


There is an idea in Christianity that the name ‘Jesus’ (from the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians usually take to be a person of a trinitarian God) has some special power. What does this mean?

It can’t be the actual sounds by which we pronounce the name or the way the name is written, as these vary. Furthermore, it can’t be the name Jesus, as many people are called ‘Jesus’ (and many were at the time when the historical figure presumably lived, which is a reason why the disambiguator ‘of Nazareth’, or similar phrases, was often used).

One possibility is a particular kind of concept which can be attached to the word ‘Jesus’ (spelt or pronounced whichever way). That is, the word has power the way any word has power in terms of being associated with a concept, except that it is associated with a specific kind of concept which may be relatively unique in someone’s cognitive economy, and so may have relatively unique capacities.

Certain concepts are more useful for interfacing in certain situations than others. Consider a picture of a room as a proxy for a correlated concept. One picture might represent the room as square, another as a blob. If the room were square, then it is easy to see how the former concept might be more useful than the latter in various contexts.

If this is right, then there are two questions that seem salient which follow from this. First, how is the concept which Christians refer to relevantly developed? (It seems that different Christians will have different concepts, overlapping in various areas. What is relevant for these concepts in terms of use?) Probably, spiritual experiences (such as conversion experiences many Christians have), stories about Jesus from the Gospels, and spiritual practices would be central to the development of this concept for an individual Christian, as well as cultural artifacts – songs, paintings, architecture, and so on – among other things.

Then, how does such a concept actually work? (This and the first question are related.) I.e., if a relevant concept ‘Jesus’ does have power, what is it about it that allows the person employing the concept to interface with reality in such a way as to have the concept be useful? The obvious answer, as in the case of the concept of a square room, is that the concept corresponds to something in reality, and therefore allows for a certain kind of ‘navigation’ via the concept.

(These sorts of considerations bear not just on certain powers Christians may attribute to the name of Jesus, but also any sort of relationship at all, to some extent.)

These considerations make some sense of an idea in Christianity that the name ‘Jesus’ has special power.

Some reasons to start to explore Christianity

From the viewpoint of a secularist, what are some reasons to consider exploring Christianity?

1. If you want to connect to and make some sense of 1,500 years of culture. It is almost impossible to really understand the painting, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture of the past 1,500 years without a significant understanding of Christianity. See here.

2. If you look around yourself, and don’t think the promise of the atheistic utopia is manifesting. Indeed, it might seem that secular trends on the whole seem negative (although perhaps we are riding on scientific and technological capital).

3. If you start to suspect there are practical tools, developed within various Christian traditions (meditation, tithing, and so on), that can significantly improve your life or society in general – that are useful, whatever the intellectual context of their deployment.

Did Confucius really say x?

There are stories about what Confucius, the Chinese practical philosopher, said and did. At any point, one can ask: “Did Confucius really say or do x?”

Yet, in an important way, this is irrelevant. Either what is being said is sound or useful, or it isn’t. One can appreciate there is a tradition which has found practical use in the writings, and treat it accordingly. One does not need to believe the writings are ‘inerrant’ in some sense to do so – indeed, this just tends to cause problems.

Did Christ really rise from the dead?

If we are to understand the question in the historical sense, then we can’t know in a robustly warranted way. The lines of evidence are too weak to settle the matter.

What is a Christian to do?

Yet, it seems that what is important about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in Christianity isn’t that he actually rose from the dead – it’s rather the significance of this for Christians.¬†What is the significance?

The basic idea seems to be that, in rising from the dead, Jesus in some way conquered the power of death.

This is a separate question from whether death has been conquered. For, it could be that death has been conquered, but it has been achieved without Jesus resurrecting. At the same time, it is not at all clear within Christianity why God would take the form of a human and then die in order to conquer death (or whether this in some sense would be required).

Why is conquering death important in a practical sense? Because it implies the possibility of Heaven for humans, and therefore requires re-thinking how one lives – of focusing on not just the consequences of actions for now but in Heaven or Hell. So, as far as this goes, it’s not that Jesus resurrected, but rather the existence of Heaven that is central to Christianity.

Yet, many people insist that the historical question of Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection is central to Christianity. Given the considerations above, why would this be so?

The answer seems to be evidential. That is, some people think that we know there is a Heaven because Jesus resurrected. Therefore, this line of thinking goes, the historical claim is central to Christianity.

Yet, as suggested above, it doesn’t seem that the historical claim of Jesus resurrecting a) entails the existence of Heaven (Jesus could resurrect without there being a Heaven, and vice versa, there could be a Heaven without Jesus resurrecting, it seems), or, more importantly, b) is the only way to know that there is a Heaven. Indeed, one of the central religious experiences in Christianity leaves the experiencer with a knowledge that there is a God, and that there is a Heaven one can get to.

If one has other evidential bases for believing there is a Heaven, then it seems the historical question of Jesus’ resurrection becomes less central. Rather, instead of being the evidential basis, in that case it fits into what one already believes, and so has a kind of synergy, but isn’t necessary. Indeed, in this case, in importance it can come to be thought of as primarily symbolic or mnemonic – a tool for thinking about or remembering key truths about Heaven.

If this is the case, then one can take what is central about the idea of Jesus’ resurrection – that there is a possible Heaven for humans – and make the experiences (which occur nowadays) which support this notion closer to the basis of a kind of Christianity, instead of the historical claim, which it seems is difficult to know in a robustly warranted way. This would make Christianity more evidentially robust – the trade-off being a dilution of its historical focus. I.e., an emphasis on the living Christ instead of presumed historical claims about Jesus of Nazareth’s life.