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It seems to me that many religions, especially those with Abrahamic roots:

  • Claim that God loves us.
  • Claim that God is very powerful.
  • Are laced with caveats that purport to explain why a very powerful God whom loves us nevertheless fails to act as if he loves us, say by eradicating disease, or by redesigning us to no longer be attracted to the opposite sex once we're married, etc.

I think part of my mistrust of such religions is my own general mistrust of belief systems that are full of caveats about their own predictions. But, is there any rational basis on which to mistrust such belief systems?

Question. Is it possible to argue that belief systems that are full of caveats and/or exceptions in regards to their own predictions tend to be false? If so, what arguments are usually put forward in favour of this view, and what are the main rebuttals?

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  • One definition of "caveat" is "an explanation to prevent misinterpretation" - wouldn't any sufficiently complicated thing (eg physics) contain lots of caveats? Saying that the "predications tend to be false" also seems arguable - many philosophers (Augustine to Chesterton and many in between) have written about all the predictions that Abrahamic religion get right that other traditions don't. Mar 9 '15 at 19:43
  • @JamesKingsbery, I'm interested. What predictions do Abrahamic religions get right that other traditions don't? If you could provide a link or two, that would be ideal. Its worth pointing out, however, that every tradition gets some things somewhat right. "Even the broken clock gets to be right twice a day." Mar 10 '15 at 5:04
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You are basically arguing for Occam's Razor. It's a popular heuristic among philosphers and scientists, and much has been written on its general validity.

You may be suggesting an added twist: if no simpler hypothesis explains the data as well, then you should mark the hypothesis as "doubtful", presumably because you predict that an as-yet-unfound hypothesis will supplant the existing one(s). This is a valid form of Bayesian reasoning, but you can't get very far because it depends critically on the as-yet-unfound hypothesis. But does such a hypothesis actually exist? If one doesn't exist, then of course the inference is wrong, and it is devilishly hard to come up with sound non-constructive existence proofs for a hypothesis.

So as a practical matter, the observation might motivate you to look harder, but one probably ought not just conclude that a hypothesis with core idea but lots of tweaks and corrections is wrong unless it is actually logically inconsistent in ways that are not easily fixable.

(One exception: if everything is a correction, then the hypothesis may not explain anything in which case you do have the simpler hypothesis that does equally well: "stuff happens, including (list of stuff)".)

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  • I think the "caveats are bad" principle is very different from the usual form of Occam's razor. For one, the "caveats are bad" principle is meant to be a useful heuristic even with respect to those belief systems where its not 100% clear what they're even meant to be models of. Certainly, we should not have to consider alternative hypotheses; just the theory itself. Mar 9 '15 at 12:12
  • +1 - @goblin, I think this is as close as you'll find. There's no "caveats are bad" version of Occam's razor, because there's no theories* without caveats. At best you can compare one theory to another. *AFAIK Mar 9 '15 at 16:03
  • @goblin - I addressed that in my second paragraph. Specifically: all these caveats would lead to the rejection of the hypothesis if there was another with fewer caveats, but it is not at all clear that there always is a low-caveat hypothesis. For example, many forms of fundamentalism reject very many caveats, but the resulting mindset is usually highly problematic. Merely rejecting caveat-laden theories is not enough! As another example, consider the shortest known proof of the four-color theorem: very unwieldy with lots of special cases, but there may be none better.
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 9 '15 at 19:12
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The question seems to really be about why one should believe the Abrahamic religions, rather than belief systems in general. Since Goblin asked, here's a stab at providing a few predictions they (particularly Christianity) make that turn out to be correct.

Original Sin

The term original sin was first coined by Augustine around 400, but Christians point to their scripture as the source for this doctrine. The general idea is that each of us shares a sin that dates back to our origin, and whose effects persist throughout our mortal lives.

One prediction that this theory makes is that all people, no matter how wise they are inherently, will make bad decisions. This of course disagrees radically with much of earlier Greek thought. Take for example the "Gold Soul" people in The Republic: Plato (through the voice of Socrates) claimed that as long as we put this small group of people in charge, we could achieve a perfectable society.

Which of these two models do we think is right? Most well functioning governments today are based on a system of checks and balances, which seems necessary if and only if the doctrine of Original Sin is true.

Benefits of a Virtuous Life

One tenet of the Abrahamic religions is that to be happy, it is necessary to be virtuous. Specifically, the virtues are:

  • Justice - must give to each what he is due
  • Prudence - must know how to be sensitive to a particular situation
  • Courage - must persist in Justice/Prudence despite outside forces
  • Temperance - must persist in Justice/Prudence despite interior forces
  • Faith - once some knowledge has been obtained, persisting in certainty in that knowledge despite doubts (usually applied to knowledge about God). Not to be confused with superstition or credulity.
  • Hope - Keeping in mind some goal that is possible but uncertain (in religious settings, the goal is usually Heaven, but can be applied to other things as well)
  • Love - Acting for the good of others for their own sake

Before Christianity existed, philosophers wrote about the first four virtues (the Cardinal Virtues) extensively, and how they were required for a happy life. Experience also shows that a person can be made happier by following these. As an example, we all seem to know someone whose intemperance, manifested as substance abuse, has been made unhappy.

Faith is less obvious, in part because it is colloquially used to mean something different than what it means in a philosophical/theological setting. CS Lewis used the following analogy: when a surgeon tells you that you need surgery, it is easy to intellectually understand that. Faith comes in as the anesthesiologist puts on the mask to put you under. As I summarized above, Faith is persisting in knowledge of something despite doubts and seeming contradictions. Without this persistence, progress is obviously impossible: if one keeps changing one's mind, nothing ever gets accomplished.

Hope also means something different in a technical sense than is often used colloquially. Many of the great moral advances fall under the category of hope, that is, they were things that were desired, possible, yet uncertain. Just a few examples: the Civil Rights movement, the over-throwing of Apartheid, the defeat of the Nazis. Through this lens, it is clear that hope is a great motivator for good and creates happiness.

Love is a bit more obvious. The Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma demonstrates intellectually that acting selfishly can make everyone worse off in the long run, but more personally many of us have experienced how our loving others makes us happy.


To summarize: the above tenets of Christianity show that their predictions tend to be true, and confirmed by common sense and personal experience. As one gets into details, there are necessarily lots of messy exceptions, but life is messy after all, and a Theory of Life would necessarily be just as messy.

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    Except under a very broad interpretation of "The Doctrine of Original Sin", I don't think that the "if and only if" is warranted at the end of the fourth paragraph.
    – Dave
    Mar 10 '15 at 16:36
  • @Dave, fully agreed, only the "if" part is warranted. Mar 14 '15 at 1:38
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There are Gödel's incompleteness theorems which applies strong limitations to systems that can describe basic arithmetic.

My experience is that "systems that are full of caveats" tend to arise when people try to prove the unprovable and mangle the language to do it. However, my experience is that these mangled systems full of caveats also tend to be really close to something simple and good, so it's worth seeing what is nearby. To choose your example religions, it might be helpful to un-bundle the Abrahamic religions, and look at the individual groups' beliefs. After all, Westborough Baptists are technically of Abrahamic roots, though there is a strong movement within Christians to isolate them because they don't find Westborough's beliefs to be representative.

So, the existence of caveats and exceptions does not automatically question the validity of a religion. However, there is a strong correlation between such caveats and exceptions and greater issues which may be as unsurmountable as Whitehead and Russel's principia mathematica. That correlation may be a cause for such mistrust

EDIT:

By my readings of Gödel, there are certain behaviors that must appear if a FOL system can describe arithmetic. As a result, any religion (or theory in general), if successfully rendered down to First Order Logc(FOL), must have one of the following characteristics. One can pick one or more, but never zero:

  • Incorrect (must be wrong, somewhere)
  • Incomplete (must not have an answer, somewhere)
  • Unprovable (this is the usual solution for religions, and there's nothing wrong with it)
  • Intractable (If the rules are not recursively enumerable, Gödel doesn't apply)
  • Illogical (breaks the rules of logic)
  • Describes a world which contradicts the basic rules of arithmetic (always an interesting choice)

If the system can only be rendered down to Second Order Logic(SOL), Gödel showed that it is unprovable, which is also on the list. It is also valid for a religion to choose a logic outside of FOL and SOL, but it becomes difficult to use other logics when conversing with non believers because FOL and SOL are the most accepted formal logics out there.

It is very easy to accidentally admit arithmetic, especially if a religion has a statement about its own truthfulness (doing so has a strong tendency to admit a set-theory derived Peano arithmetic). Once this happens, it is hard to tear it out. However, it is very common for people to find "inconsistencies" in their interpretation and seek to resolve them. This creates ballooning caveats and exceptions. I find this often happens when a member of a religion tries to explain something from their text using FOL that was not truly representable in FOL in the first place. In my personal experience, almost ever one of these caveats or exceptions has arisen, not from the original corpus of the religion, but from an interpretation of the religion seeking to apply FOL.

I would like to draw an example from Jewish tradition, not to find fault in them, but merely because they provide some of the clearer examples I have seen of this behavior. Consider Exodus 31:12-17:

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 'Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you. Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work (melakha—מְלָאכָה) therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.'

In the middle is the Hewbrew word, "melakha." The text here is not inconsistent. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, there is no mathematical reason to distrust anything here. However, the rabbis have had to define melakha, which is glossed to English as "work," but very clearly has a more exacting meaning than its gloss would suggest.

Rabbis have spent thousands of years clarifying what melakha means. As the ages go on, they have gotten more and more complicated as they seek to be consistent. If you go to Mi Yodea, you can find exacting discussions as to whether "walking in front of the sensor of an automatic light" qualifies as melakha, because the use of electricity has been declared to be melakha.


I will draw attention to a particularly interesting contrasting opinion. Dan Willard's work circa 2000 regarding self-verifying systems that start from the Universe and are divided down from there (instead of building up from zero and one) are particularly interesting. They circumvent Gödel's theorems entirely by refusing to admit diagonalization. They would form a particularly interesting set of religions which admit arithmetic (very desirable for a math major!). However, I distrust anyone short of a PhD in mathematics to successfully write any religious document which adheres to the fine line Willard walked with his mathematical proofs (it's really easy to accidentally admit diagonalization when you aren't looking).

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  • As a student of mathematical logic, I'm a little sensitive to the misuse of Godel's theorems, yet at the same time I'm interested in what the connection here might be. Could you perhaps elaborate with a very explicit passage about the relevance of Godel's incompleteness theorems to the question and/or to your answer to the question? Mar 8 '15 at 6:24
  • @goblin: I have found many religions include a statement about the truthness of their own message, creating a self-referential loop. Such statements, often get interpreted in a way which accidentally creates a model which admits Peano arithmetic. Generally speaking, most religions choose to be unprovable (one of the accepted ways around Godel's theorems), but when members of the religion try to prove such unprovables, it often spirals out into one of the webs of caveats and exceptions you mention.
    – Cort Ammon
    Mar 8 '15 at 15:53
  • Okay, thanks for elaborating. Please don't delete this in the future, I can see that you've put a lot of work into it and I'd like to peruse it more carefully when time permits. Mar 9 '15 at 12:05

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