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Note: This question is derived from comments by the original poster of an earlier question (on my answer to that question, How can theists respond to the argument that God is "unfalsifiable"?).

For those believers who admit that evidence of God is not falsifiable, how can their belief be useful to anyone but themselves?

How can such belief be communicated/taught to someone who isn't already favorably biased?

And most of all, how [can] competing [non-falsifiable] notions of God coexist without being completely relegated to the personal/private sphere?

  • Utility according to whom? Julian Edelman? Bob Vila? Da Vinci? You?? – Mr. Kennedy Dec 15 '16 at 19:50
  • @Mr.Kennedy - that seems adequately covered in the body of the question. You can't fit everything in the headline. – Chris Sunami Dec 15 '16 at 19:53
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    voting to close as not a philosophical question. it belongs in religion se. – user20153 Dec 15 '16 at 22:29
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    @mobileink I think that it is squarely in the philosophy of religion category, and this is the type of question that James' addresses in his "Varieties of Religious Experience" - moreover nobody in the religion SE's would understand falsifiability. – Alexander S King Dec 15 '16 at 22:39
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    @Alexander S King: well, except that the q is about God, not religion. Replace "God" in the original q by "the flying spaghetti monster", or "Marxism", or "man-made climate change" and you might get sth more philosophical. then it becomes an ordinary question about beliefs. – user20153 Dec 15 '16 at 22:48
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Can a non-falsifiable belief be useful? Picture this thought experiment: You have a "lucky" friend. When people are around him, things seem to go better. One person wins the lottery, another one meets his future wife, etc. For the purposes of the example, let's assume the effect IS real, but unpredictable. This belief isn't falsifiable, because it doesn't have a predictable impact. But in the aggregate it was useful, because the people who believed in it ended up having better lives (whether or not they know they did). Clearly, this is a contrived example, but it establishes a theoretical base case.

Similarly, if I believe in God, I am judging that I live in a meaningful universe with a moral foundation. If that is a correct belief, it is a useful one. It might arguably be a useful belief even if incorrect.

How can such belief be communicated/taught to someone who isn't already favorably biased?

In many traditions, you don't so much communicate your belief as you guide someone into a state of readiness to embrace belief. Ultimately you're just facilitating the relationship between the person and God, you aren't creating or controlling it.

How can competing notions of God coexist?

They can't always coexist, but in the cases they can, I think epistemic humility is the key. Let's say you and I both believe there is a giant mountain, shrouded in mist, that can be seen from both of our houses. Some people believe the mountain doesn't actually exist, it's just an illusion caused by shadows in the mist. But you and I both think we've been lucky enough to have seen it clearly during a rare time when the mist was thinner.

As it so happens, we have serious disagreements about some of the characteristics of the mountain. Some of the disagreements might be because we are viewing the mountain from different locations --seeing different sides of it. Other disagreements might be because it's hard to see through the mist --one or both of us might be wrong. But we could potentially at least agree that the mountain does exist, and that we are both talking about the same mountain, even while I legitimately believe you are wrong and I am right about some of the mountain's most notable features.

  • The mountain quote is going to stay with me for a while. – Alexander S King Dec 16 '16 at 1:27
  • I thought I saw some other mountains. – Mitch Dec 16 '16 at 3:33
  • Your first example either is a statistically significant effect or it isn't. If it is then it's measurable and is thus falsifiable. If it isn't then it's not really an effect at all. The current problem with evidence of the existence of God is that it is completely consistent with there being no effect. On the mountain analogy, that's pretty much the way Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their various internal factions view God. Turns out not to be enough to prevent the occasional slaughter. I wish I had a better solution. – Alex Dec 16 '16 at 12:15
  • @Alex. Not all things are measurable as we all know. But there are also historical evidences for the existence of God, and of course His creation speaks louder than measurements or words. – user3017 Dec 16 '16 at 20:23
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Arithmetic is not falsifiable. If you do arithmetic and come up with contradictory answers, we do not reconsider its truth, we stick by the math and assume you are wrong.

How can it be useful on anything but a personal level? Well, how can it? It is.

Can it only be passed along to those favorably biased toward it? Ask your random schoochild. They will probably insist it has in fact been communicated, and that they were not favorably biased toward it most of the time they were learning it, and may still not be, now that they know it. Is teaching arithmetic therefore some kind of abuse? This seems to be implied by the tone of the original question.

So the first two questions are simply biased attempts to apply a standard that is already quite far from universal into a domain where its relevance has already been explicitly rejected by most major players. (The ineffability of God, which rules out the application of the principle is asserted by monotheistic positions ranging from the Catholics to the Sikhs.)

If it is just fine to reject the criterion in math, why not religion? Imposing a candidate for the demarcation of what might be considered scientific as a minimum criterion for truth, is not reasonable. It is silly and prejudicial, implying that only scientific truth dares exist, and the rest of thought is just wrong. It also presumes that a specific, recent theory of what is and is not scientific truth is absolutely correct, despite continued criticism of it within the philosopy of science. I think that is, in and of itself an attempt to enforce a form of non-theistic religious dogma, fanatical adherence to a single source of truth, with a specific formulation of that source that ignores all attempts to dispute the chosen dogma. This is not a proper deployment of philosophical concepts.

The last question is one of politics, not logic, and we have seen it work politically almost everywhere. Every major culture has a diversity of religious opinion and does not disintegrate on that account. Even if the major players in the culture have a religion and a tradition in common, they still have diverse opinions about the details of God, unless some kind of tyrannical orthodox theology is imposed by force.

Why ask how something that always happens could be possible? (Would I ever ask how the sky could possibly be blue? Isn't that a silly and prejudicial framing?)

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How does one cope with an unfalsifiable (and hence: unprovable) belief? The simplest way is to accept it as an axiom. Ultimately, belief in God requires just that - an act of faith.

What good is it though? Some pretty obvious suggestions follow:

1. Ontological stop-gap

While science - by which I mean here the practice of constructing predictive theories that are then validated against empirical data - offers the best way we know of learning how the universe we live in behaves, there are clearly questions science as we know it is incapable of answering.

For example: how did it all begin?

Given that we have no concievable way of peering "outside" the universe, to the time when there was none - and yet the preponderance of scientific evidence strongly suggests that there was a beginning (what we call the Big Bang) - the act of creation by a personal God is as good an explanation as any.

We have no way of telling if that was the case (unfalsifiable), but it is an answer some people are willing to accept.

Another example would be why does the universe behave like it does?

Here we briefly touch on the anthropic principle and again God is as good an explanation as any. Notice that whether we accept a theistic explanation or not has no bearing on our ability to apply the resulting principles. Newton saw the laws of physics that he studied and codified as being instituted by the Divine - and that's a reasonable explanation for a first cause. It is unlikely that we will be able to determine with any certainty the circumstances that caused physics to be the way it is. Nevertheless, we are able to use the "laws" to our advantage, regardless of accepted origin.

2. Ethical foundation

A moral realist might well ponder whence the principles that govern ehtical behaviour and again, God is a reasonable explanation. Indeed, I would posit that religion is - at its core - an ethical proposition, rather than a purely ontological one. We cannot understand the Divine - we are told (which may well be true) - and we likely cannot fully understand the universe in which we live, but we can follow the ethical precepts that stem from revelation.

The idea that there may be no objective right or wrong is disturbing to many people. The world as "is" cannot inform us of what we "ought", for the very simple reason that in order for there to be an "ought" there must necessarily be an "ought not" - a path into the future we can, but must not take. Without choice, the "ought" becomes merely a "will".

Having accepted God as an ontological stop-gap - an answer to the unanswerable questions - it is not big stretch to accept that the same Divinity that set out physical laws also set out moral ones.

Given that ethics cannot be derived from empirical data, for reasons given above (the universe may tell us what results our actions may have, but not how we should judge these results and therefore the actions leading to them), such an ethical stop-gap is pretty much the best answer we can hope for.

How can belief be taught to one not already favourably inclined?

Most, if not all, evangelical work consists in improving the potential convert's inclination to the answers being provided.

Granted, most proselytism in history has taken place among people who were already favourably inclined towards this type of answer. It is a smaller step to accept you have believed in false gods, than to go from a "I have no need for that hypothesis" mindset to finding such a need.

Ultimately, however, the atheist must either accept that they have no answer to the kind of questions that God is the answer to - content perhaps with the view that neither does anyone else - or they will find that some agency outside this world must necessarily be introduced. God is perhaps the most palatable such agent, being both human-facing and favourably inclined towards humanity.

How can competing beliefs co-exist?

This has partially been touched upon in the previous section: all religions offer a similar type of answer and thus have an easier time co-existing with one another than with a worldview that rejects this type of answer outright. We have many historical accounts of competing religions existing in the same place - sometimes even relatively peacefully - but atheism has been hated by just about every religious society.

Much like relativity and quantum physics offer two views of the world that aren't quite compatible, two religions can debate which of them is closer to the "actual nature" of God and His commandments. However, neither of them will readily accept a proposition that not only are they both incorrect, but that the kind of answers they provide can never be correct.

On a personal level, one who is inclined to accept God as an answer to unanswerable questions may not be content with any specific interpretation of this answer (in ontological or ethical terms), but may nevertheless believe that the correct answer is out there, somewhere - perhaps diluted amongst the competing messages. One's personal quest for faith becomes, therefore, an attempt to distill Divine wisdom from the dregs of imperfect human understanding and teaching.

Addendum: Unfalsifiable beliefs as zero-value propositions

I feel this answer would be incomplete without touching on the epistemic considerations of an unfalsifiable belief. I choose to call such beliefs "zero-value", by which I mean that their adoption or rejection has no effect on the rest of our knowledge.

It doesn't matter whether we believe God set down the laws or physics or not - we can make predicitons based on them based on what we discover them to be, rather than their source.

A belief (hypothesis, theory) has positive epistemic value if it allows us to make (reasonably) accurate predictions we would not have been able to make, were we to leave this belief out of our predictive model.

Conversely, a belief has negative epistemic value if its adoption causes the accuracy of our predictions to decrease.

Aside: It is worth noting that a belief may have both positive and negative value, depending on the domain. Newton's laws are perfectly useful in everyday life (positive epistemic value), but acquire negative epistemic value if we try to apply them outside their proper domain. Neither the relativistic nor the quantum-scale universe obeys Newton's laws.

A "zero-value" belief is perfectly neutral: it neither adds to our knowledge (as evidenced in predictive ability) nor deducts from it. Russell's teapot is an example of such a "zero-value" proposition: it's existence (or not) has no bearing upon our predictive abilities - as long as we do not try to falsify it. Arguably, because it is a falsifiable belief (we can scour space until we've found it or checked every last cubic inch), it has at least the possibility of having a non-zero epistemic value. More contrived - but airtight - examples are trivial to come up with (undetectable dancing unicorns and such).

The key point is that we can add or subtract any number of such "zero-value" propositions to and from our sum of knowledge and they will not affect the rest of it in any way - as far as ontology goes.

Ethically, the matter is not as clear cut, because ethics are not subject to predictive evaluation. Ethical systems are themselves unfalsifiable.

Whether multiplication of zero-value propositions in our system of knowledge is necessary or a sin against Occam's Razor is a matter of personal choice.

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If I misinterpreted any of these questions, please let me know, but as I understand them:

How can the truth be useful?

Acknowledging the truth is a necessary first step for reconciling our relationship with God. That goes not just for ourselves, but for anyone who will give it due attention.

"...that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation." (Romans 10:9,10)

How can the truth be communicated?

We speak and teach the truth as well as we can, remembering that it is only the power of God that can change hearts:

"I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase." (1 Corinthians 3:6)

"So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:11)

How can competing notions be resolved?

This is a real problem, and each person will deal with it differently. Ideally, the truth should be sought with prayer and humility, but as humans we fall short of the ideal. We do the best we can, and God will preserve the truth according to His plan. The Bible has predicted that there will be many who will distort the truth for their own purposes:

"Now there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies that even deny the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction on themselves." (2 Peter 2:1)

One thing that should be made clear is that errors in interpretation don't undermine the authority of God's revelation. By faith we recognize that authority, but that doesn't insure that we will always interpret correctly. For that reason, prayer and humility are necessary.

  • This post is being discussed on meta. – user2953 Dec 16 '16 at 9:32
  • Given how low-rated this answer was, I took the liberty of editing it somewhat heavily to highlight the real philosophical content I perceived in it. The main changes are the intro and the summary, I left all your internal content alone. I also converted your quotes to links, since people were getting distracted by them. Feel free to revert if this does not respect your intentions. – Chris Sunami Dec 29 '16 at 5:39
  • @ChrisSunami. If people are getting distracted by perfectly acceptable quotes, it's time for them to reevaluate their motives. – user3017 Dec 29 '16 at 10:39
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For those believers who admit that evidence of God is not falsifiable, how can their belief be useful to anyone but themselves?

A non-falsifiable belief could be useful if it leads to actions that would remain useful given a true belief. For example, suppose a child believes the forest is haunted and refuses to enter at night. In reality, the forest is full of dangerous nocturnal animals and entering is risky for small children. Perhaps this haunted forest is a contrived fiction to keep children out of dangerous areas and works more effectively than rational argument.

  • False and falsifiable are different. Your answer seems to conflate them. – virmaior Dec 30 '16 at 2:07
  • False and falsifiable are different. But False and Non-Falsifiable are pretty close to the same thing. Haunted Forest is an example of a non-falsifiable claim. – user3646932 Dec 30 '16 at 14:55

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