Mark Trapp

Why I’m a Theist, a Holiday Message

Author note

This blog post isn’t about technology, so if you’ve subscribed to my posts or follow me because of my technology-related stuff, I wouldn’t be offended if you skipped over this post. The title is inspired by an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled, “A holiday message from Ricky Gervais: Why I’m An Atheist”.

How can you be sure the Sun will rise tomorrow? It’s not a question most people dwell on. We all take it for granted that some scientist—maybe it was Galileo or Copernicus or one of those guys from Italy or some-such a long time ago who bothered to find out—proved, using the scientific method, that when the Sun sets at the end of the day, it’s going to rise again the next morning.

What if I told you that there is no empirical evidence that sufficiently demonstrates the Sun will rise tomorrow? Poppycock, you say! That’s just like saying “Evolution is a theory!” But it’s true: we don’t rely solely on empirical evidence to arrive at the conclusion that the Sun will rise tomorrow.

Instead, we use an argument that goes something like this:

P1. The Sun has risen at the beginning of each day for as long as we’ve been recording it.
P2. We’ve created calculations to demonstrate the sun’s motion that, so far, have proven to been accurate.
P3. We have no reason to believe tomorrow will be any different than any other day in the past.

C. The Sun will rise tomorrow.

P1 and P2 are undeniably empirical in nature: observations dictate the premises. But what about P3? We can’t see tomorrow: we don’t know, based on observation, that tomorrow isn’t the equivalent of “Crazy Breadstick Tuesdays” at TGI Fridays and the laws of physics are going to break down, thus leaving us without our dear friend, the Sun.

But why do I bring this problem up? It’s not to say that science is bunk, therefore believe in God. In fact, science is good. Science is really good: it has vast explanative abilities. But science isn’t the sum total of our knowledge, and to claim otherwise is disingenuous and cynical. Science is merely one facet of what we call knowledge: so-called a posteriori knowledge. A posteriori is a fancy Latin way to say “after experience.” We know the things science teaches us because we can experience them.

But the other side of the knowledge coin is a priori knowledge: knowledge we know prior to experience. A priori knowledge is all the stuff science doesn’t help with: no observational data is needed to know that two and two make four, that the shortest distance between two points is a line, and that all bachelors are unmarried.

We know these things because we’re rational beings who have reasoned through them. We’re really good at that: much of our knowledge relies not on observational data, but on deductive argumentation.

But even deductive arguments can’t help us get to the premise, “we have no reason to believe tomorrow is any different than any other day in the past.” You just need one possible counterexample to discount that. There’s a very small chance a passing star might cause the Earth to be ejected from the Solar System, for example.

In fact, we have every reason to believe tomorrow won’t be the same as any other day in the past. We have mountains of empirical evidence to suggest that, unless you’re Bill Murray, tomorrow is going to be vastly different than yesterday. The temperature won’t be the same. The weather won’t be the same. You won’t do the same things.

So why is the Sun any different? Because we need to induce that tomorrow won’t be any different than today—as far as the Sun and the laws of physics are concerned—to function. Why? Why can’t we just get rid of P3 and the conclusion and live our lives like every day was our last? Because we wouldn’t get anything done. Think about all the things that require planning: farmers rely on induction to plant their crops and entrepreneurs use it to decide how to run their business. Something as simple as setting your alarm clock so you wake up in the morning requires a firm belief that it’s going to wake you up tomorrow.

Observational data and deductive argumentation are not sufficient to provide the basis for this induction. We take that we have no reason to believe tomorrow will be any different than any other day in the past as a matter of faith.

Oh here we go, now we’re into the bullshit part of this essay, where science proves God, Q.E.D., and you can go laugh about how dumb us poor theists are. But I don’t mean to say faith in the loosey-goosey way people tend to use the word faith: faith isn’t believing in irrational things in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary.

No, faith is actual knowledge derived outside of normal methods for deriving knowledge because the knowledge derived is necessary. It is perfectly valid, proper, and right to believe the Sun will rise tomorrow. Science and deductive argumentation don’t tell you that, yet nevertheless you do know it.

To be clear: this is not a knowledge placebo. It would be genuinely foolish to suggest the Sun won’t rise tomorrow, or that people who believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow are living in a fantasy world. No, it is a very real, albeit practical, form of knowledge. Consider it more like “filling in the gaps” instead of “believing in a delusion”.

And we use this method of deriving knowledge for vast swathes of our experiences. For example, unless one is a sociopath, it’s universally understood that murder—killing someone with malice aforethought—is wrong. It’s not wrong in a subjective sense: people don’t prefer life over murder like one prefers vanilla ice cream over chocolate. It’s wrong in a very real, concrete sense. I prefaced this by saying “unless one is a sociopath” because we don’t view people who reject this fact as quirky free spirits and to-each-his-own, we view them as unequivocally wrong.

Why is that? Why isn’t whether murder is a good considered a preference like ice cream flavor?

It’s not merely instinct: we don’t act on instinct alone. That is, we have the capacity to go against our instincts. If you are in a burning building and see someone trapped, your instinct might be to run and save yourself. Or it might be to “help the herd” and your fellow man. Or perhaps you have both instincts, and they are competing with each other. In the end, you choose what to do, not your instincts.

And its not merely societal convention because we learned it from our parents or community. We learn math and science from the same people, but they are not societal conventions, either. If no one ever told you murder was wrong it’d still be wrong, in the same manner that if no one ever told you two and two make four it’d still be right. In both cases, if you make the mistake, someone is going to correct you.

And that is the reason for the comparison between a mathematical law and a moral law like murder. There is always going to be someone to tell you the truth when you make a mistake. They are objective truths we know because someone, or something, else clued us into them. Whether that’s through observation, throughreading a book, or through your mother yelling at you.

But without something creating the knowledge chain, a prime mover if you will, there is no method by which one can argue two and two make four, or that murderis wrong. Two and two making four is just a convention your mother made up so you’d eat your vegetables. Evolution is just a “theory”. Murderers are just quirky free spirits.

And this is where theism comes in: the prime mover is God. That’s not to say it’s Jesus, or Allah, or Vishnu, or any of the religious frameworks out there. Those are implementation details in the same way that quantum mechanics or string theory are implementation details of the laws of physics. It’s to say that all of our knowledge is derived from something: that we didn’t just make it up, it’s not just some whim of fancy.

And like the Sun rising tomorrow, it’s not a delusional kind of knowledge meant to keep people from asking questions. It’s a necessary form of knowledge that lets us get from the premises we’ve made to the conclusions we have. Two and two make four because there is order to the universe and mathematics describes that order. Murder is wrong because it’s objectively wrong regardless of one’s preferences.

Science, or empirical evidence, doesn’t get us there. It merely describes this order. We can arrive at the conclusions we reach in science only because there’s something driving an underlying order to the Universe: that tomorrow will not be markedly different than yesterday.

So why am I a theist? I’m a theist because I accept the fact that science isn’t the end-all to human knowledge, and that God is the best “fit” explanation for large parts of our collective experience. I am a theist because God demonstrates that objectivity not only exists, but is necessary to an ordered universe.

That is, I’m a theist because I know the Sun will rise tomorrow.

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