© Paul K Davis, 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 14, 2011


John 8:32 - You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.


I chose for us to begin this service by reading a quotation from Jesus, a noted theist, and then we presented a story based on a letter (see "Good and Bad Reasons For Believing" by Richard Dawkins, a noted atheist. I arranged this unusual combination purposely, because I believe there is a fundamental issue on which they agree. I see them both as vehicles of truth.

Truth is, of course, a very large topic. Millions and millions of people have spent billions and billions of hours searching for it. I consider myself fortunate to have been gainfully employed in the search for truth, as a scientist. The search is not easy. If it were, I wouldn't have a job. The best methods for finding truth about nature, that is scientific truth, began to be clarified about four centuries ago by such insightful and brave souls as Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Michael Servetus and Francis Bacon. But I believe the underlying principles can already be seen in ancient times in the teachings of the Greek philosophers, the Jewish rabbis, including Jesus, and sages of many cultures.

I was struck recently when I came upon a chapter in Richard Dawkins's book A Devil's Chaplain which he captioned "A Prayer for My Daughter". Wondering why an atheist placed a prayer in his book, I read it. It turned out to be a letter he had written to his ten-year-old daughter, explaining for her what he felt most important. To me it seems a notably clear explanation of "Good and Bad Reasons for Believing", which is title of the letter itself. We used it earlier as the basis of today's "Story for All Ages", and I would like to discuss it further with you, along with some of my own thoughts, some examples, and some references to earlier sages.

Dawkins is a scientist, and his most important message to his daughter is about evidence being the basis for knowing truth. He compares evidence with three other popular bases for claiming knowledge, namely tradition, authority and revelation. He does not object to the usefulness of these, but insists that for the purpose of knowing facts, the proper basis is evidence. In a couple minutes I will discuss the valid uses of tradition, authority and revelation, and also go on to a few other common bases of belief.

Dawkins's message is, of course, not new. Rene Descartes, in stating his rules for correct analysis, wrote "The first was never to accept anything as true if I had not evident knowledge of its being so." He elucidated this as including "carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice." Earlier still, Jesus had willingly allowed Thomas to verify by evidence that he was still alive. And before Jesus, Socrates at his trial offers "convincing evidence of what I say, not words only, but what you value far more - actions."

Reliance on evidence is important not just in science, but also in any aspect of life which depends on facts, or supposed facts. I've decided to investigate the evidence in regard to several issues, and would like to share some results with you.

A couple of times now I have been subjected to a claim that the manufacturing of a Prius automobile is so environmentally destructive that it outweighs the environmental benefit of operating it. The claim was more specifically made that, from start of manufacturing to end of disposal, a Hummer was more environmentally sound than a Prius. It was claimed to me this had been documented by an analysis in a published article. I decided to investigate, especially since I had read otherwise in publications I receive. I found that, in 2006, CNW Marketing Research had indeed published such an article, but that they had later updated their analysis, correcting the errors. I suspect these errors were actually a hoax perpetrated on the publication.

When the original claims are looked at in detail they are easily seen to be absurd. For instance, I was told that the environmental costs of transporting the nickel to be used in the battery were enormous. However, the total weight of nickel in a Prius must be a small fraction of the Prius weight, and the nickel is transported mostly by ship, which is even more efficient than by Prius. And even if it went twice around the world, that is about a fourth the distance I have now driven my Prius, so this environmental damage must be much much smaller than the damage of driving a Prius, let alone a Hummer. By the way, I'm not saying a Hummer or SUV isn't a legitimate vehicle for some needs, just that a Prius is much more environmentally friendly, and satisfies my needs.

Another case I investigated was the furor in May of 2009 in which some politicians claimed Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor had made a racist statement. One of them, Newt Gingrich, parodied her statement asking what would happen if a nominee had said "my experience as a white man makes me better than a latina woman". However this is not a genuine parallel of what Sotomayor had said. Research showed that her statement was "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." She claims not to be "better than", but to "reach a better conclusion" as a result of "the richness of her experiences". This also shows how subtle rearrangements and adjustments to a statement can heavily change its impact. By analogy, I claim that my experience as a scientist will often lead to my reaching better conclusions on scientific issues. But I do not feel and do not claim that this makes me in any sense a better person than a non-scientist. And Sonia Sotomayor did not claim to be a better person than a non-Latina.

Returning to Dawkins' letter, as he admits, the essential role of evidence does not mean tradition, authority and revelation are useless. Rather, they have other functions than providing us with true facts.

Among our most important traditions are our languages. The English say "yes" while the French say "oui". Neither of these is true or false, but unless the speaker and the listener follow the same language tradition, they will not understand each other.

We have here our song book, entitled "Singing the Living Tradition". I could simply have asked you all to stand up and sing about truth, but the result, apart from much stunned silence, would have been mostly cacophony. Instead we said, sing #293 "O Star of Truth", drawing on our tradition. The result was a bit more pleasant. Our cultures, our families, our congregations, our pastimes include many valuable and enjoyable traditions, but these do not tell us facts. For facts we need evidence.

Throughout history authority has been right up there with tradition in holding people to set beliefs. This was wrong when Anaxagoras was banished from Athens for teaching that the Sun shines because it is very hot. It was wrong when the Inquisition required Galileo to recant. And it was wrong when political appointees of President George W. Bush edited the reports of NASA scientists concerning global warming. It continues to be wrong when some politicians propose that communities should have the authority to prohibit or restrict building of mosques.

But authority also has a proper role. Governments quite properly decide which side of the road citizens should drive on. When this authority fails, the consequences are tragic. Our Congregation has a committee to decide who conducts each service when our Minister is away. Otherwise you might come one Sunday to find three competing sermonizers, and another Sunday nothing.

Revelation is, I think, a somewhat more ambiguous concept. Various religions have one or more books which they claim are revelations. But, as a practical matter, the adherents of those religions actually accept those books either from tradition or from authority. Some people actually examine the evidence for the validity of their books, and these, I believe, have come to some very worthwhile conclusions concerning what is of value in these books, both what is factually valuable and what is spiritually valuable.

To me, the word "revelation" most clearly applies to a process in which facts already known come to be better understood. This sometimes happens unexpectedly and in a short period of time. For example, in 1837 a young biologist named Charles Darwin had a revelation. He wrote in his notebook "I think" followed by a treelike diagram and then further explanations, concluding with "genera would be formed bearing relation to ancient types with several extinct forms." But this did not cause him to feel that he knew that evolution was the truth. Rather, he had spent some years aboard the ship "Beagle" collecting evidence, and he would spend 22 more years examining how this evidence pointed toward evolution by natural selection, before publishing his book, "On the Origin of Species".

In other words, revelation helps us understand, rather than causing us to know. If this process seems mysterious, I urge you to return here next week when Reverend Barbara Meyers will be talking to us on "Mysticism". I hope to gain further insight myself.

There are yet other processes not mentioned by Dawkins in his letter which people often use to settle their beliefs. I'd like to mention some of them now, and assess how they compare with evidence, tradition, authority and revelation. I will discuss: rumor, experts, intuition, inspiration and faith.

Perhaps the most common actual reason for people believing things is rumor. This could perhaps be described as a tradition in birth. I'm afraid our modern technology, especially the internet, has led to a significant increase in rumors. Just last week one of the largest one-day declines in the stock market was attributed to a rumor that French debt was about to be downgraded. Some rumors I have received by e-mail have been very nasty, including attacks on Moslems, undocumented immigrants, and others. One resource I would like to encourage you to use is the web site Snopes.com which examines the evidence, if any, for these rumors and posts the results. They helped me learn, for instance, that an email I received about an Imam admitting that all Moslems believe in killing all non Moslems was a fabrication. Be careful, though. I have received several emails which claimed they have already been checked against Snopes. When I did my checking, I found out otherwise.

Since no one of us can possibly examine the evidence about everything we need to know, often our best choice is to rely on experts. Experts are akin to authority. One difference is that we can each choose our own experts, whereas authority is imposed on us. This raises the question of how to choose which experts to credit. I think we must go back to evidence. Credentials are part of evidence here. Has the supposed expert spent time studying the subject? We should also make sure the supposed expert relies on evidence and sound logic. If so, then following an expert is just one step removed from studying the evidence oneself.

Intuition is another source sometimes claimed for knowledge. I think most people recognize that intuition is not always right. When intuition is good, I believe it is essentially a subconscious process of reviewing evidence and drawing a conclusion. If you have an intuition that the driver in the next lane is about to cut you off, it may well be that subtle aspects of the car's motion remind you of previous events. You are not knowing something without evidence, you are simply not directly aware of the evidence you have. Such intuitions can be quite valuable in a better-safe-than-sorry situation.

Inspiration and faith are also often cited in religious contexts. Inspiration comes from a Greek prefix and root, and means "breathing in". Since breathing in results in a mixture, I feel that such authors as the apostle Paul who used the term "inspiration" did not mean to imply total certainty, but only that truth was included.

A better use of the term "inspiration" is for that breath of an idea which, when within us, yields creative expression. It can thus be paired with revelation. Revelation helps us understand facts, and inspiration helps us express our ideas and develop actions which implement our values.

Faith often seems to be a last-ditch attempt to hold to a belief when all else has failed. Such should be rejected, just as we reject rumor. Neither has a foundation. Sometimes, of course, when we examine a rumor or an item of faith, it may turn out to be valid, but this should be after we find evidence. Without evidence, we simply don't know. We should claim, with Socrates, "to be wiser than they are: - that whereas I know but little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know." Not knowing everything we need to, or ought to, is one of the imperfections which we must accept, in keeping with the message we heard last week from Allysson McDonald.

Like revelation and inspiration, "faith" also has another meaning. When we call someone faithful we do not usually mean they believe something without valid reason, rather we mean they stick to their commitments. I say we should accept the term "faith" in this sense. Paradoxically, such faith does not mean sticking to specific beliefs. Part of my fundamental faith is in truth. My commitment to that faith means that I must be open to changing my specific beliefs when new evidence becomes available, or when I hear new lines of reasoning.

Let me now summarize. We began with the goal of finding truth. We considered the four methods - evidence, tradition, authority and revelation - listed by Richard Dawkins. Along with these I also discussed: rumor, experts, intuition, inspiration and faith.

My conclusions are: for facts, rely on evidence. Rely on experts when the evidence indicates that they rely on evidence. Use your intuition as well, when you have sufficient experience stored away somewhere in your brain to constitute the evidence that good intuition needs. Use tradition for communication and cooperation, and follow authority for safety and functionality. Accept revelation for understanding, and inspiration for expression. As for rumors - refer back to the first rule, and search for the evidence.

This is all part of my faith.

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