the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

on the unavoidability of proof, evidence and justification

Yesterday I had an occasionally heated, but not quite acrimonious discussion with someone about my desire to challenge 'people of faith'. She quoted a friend who said, basically, that she didn't care what wacky ideas people believed in, as long as they were harmless.

It's a familiar position, which can be encapsulated in the phrase 'live and let live.' It has, also, the great advantage of making us feel liberal and tolerant. The sentence, apparently wrongly attributed to Voltaire, 'I don't agree with what you say but I'll defend to the death you're right to say it', which manages to turn the live-and-let-live position into something heroic and gallant, is often quoted in these sorts of discussions.

Many philosophers, though, have pointed to the weakness in this position - not least because it seems to render philosophy obsolete. I'm very much an amateur philosopher of course, but I've read a bit of the stuff, and I know that most introductory texts on the subject will equate philosophy with argument. Whether such arguments are intended to persuade others or to clarify our own positions, or a bit of both, there's surely little doubt that arguments are what philosophy is about.

Ludwig Wittgenstein said that a philosopher who doesn't engage in argument is like a boxer who refuses to enter the ring. An overly pugnacious remark perhaps, but it emphasises the public nature of philosophical argument. It's one of the philosopher's tasks to engage in public debate, to challenge public opinion, to expose flaws in the arguments, opinions and beliefs of others, and to oppose them with stronger arguments and more rationally justified beliefs.

Now, the person with whom I discussed things yesterday would have no problems with any of the above, but her concern is that I seem to want to attack people for holding views which they have every right to hold, even if they're false or absurd. In other words, I'm like the philosopher/boxer who's not so much interested in climbing into the ring, but who wants to punch out the lights of anybody on the street who holds doubtful beliefs, whether they're interested in fighting or not.

There are many responses that can be made here, but two will suffice. First, the limitations of the boxer/streetfighter analogy need to be underlined. 'Anything goes' attacks, including abuse, scorn and the like, needn't and shouldn't be part of the repertoire, but the statement that anybody prepared to express an opinion or belief should also be prepared to justify it is hardly a controversial one. Instead of thinking of the boxer or streetfighter, it'd be more flattering to think of Socrates, who's said to have gone about eliciting the opinions and beliefs of ordinary Athenians, and then pointing out their weaknesses and inconsistencies, and replacing them with firmer and more rational beliefs (thereby earning the undying gratitude of his interlocutors, if the dialogues are to be believed).

A second response would question people's rights to hold or express any opinion they want to. Our federal government has enacted anti-racial vilification legislation, while various states have anti-vilification legislation based on religious beliefs and sexual orientation either on their books or pending. It's a controversial trend, seemingly based on the view that there are publicly agreed limits to the expression of opinions. Further, there's a distinction between having a right to hold or express a certain view and having a right not to have that view questioned or challenged (in an appropriately civilised fashion). Even if we assume that it's fair enough to talk about rights in this context (a big assumption), few would agree that our right to an opinion involves or extends to a right not be questioned on it.

Finally I want to say more on the 'live and let live' position. The obvious weakness in such a position is that it amounts to a sort of pragmatic relativism. Thus, to avoid fruitless argument, let's just say that all opinions are equally valid (even though we don't really believe it) as long as they don't harm us or our world. Such a position discourages debate and analysis, and seems to suggest that the concept of truth is of little value or meaning, and certainly not worth the trouble that arguments bring.

I would suggest that most Christians don't adopt a 'live and let live' position. And rightly so. They believe in their god, and many are none too comfortable with people who don't - as is shown, for example, here. They believe that this god exists, and that his existence is vitally important to our understanding of human nature, the universe etc. These are objective claims. The onus is on the promoters of such claims to provide proof. It's a simple and reasonable challenge. Faith, of course, isn't an argument. Faith, as I see it, is nothing more than a form of hope.


Blogger Nick Blasbeat said...

Hi, Nicholas here. Won't say to much on this topic, cause Richard Dawkins style Atheism drives me nuts. But here, nonetheless, is a relevant quote from Atran, S. & Norenzayan, A., "Religions' Evolutinoary Landscape: Counterintuition, commitment,
compassion, communion," BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (2004) 27, 713–770

The quote is a reply to a comment on the article which is included in the text; I can could print out for you next time if you want, although its pretty big (approx 55p).

"Hogan suggests we agree with his positivist view of religion
(and magic) as a spontaneous and rash form of causal reasoning
that more reflective reasoning (favored by science)
strives to overcome and replace.
Response. Ever since Edward Gibbon, in the History of the
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, attributed the fall
of Rome to the Christian infusion of religious obscurantism
into rational forms of Roman law and governance (Gibbon
1789/1994), many, if not most, scientifically minded
philosophers, historians, and scientists have adopted a positivist
view of religion similar to Hogan’s (cf. Dawkins 1998;
Diamond 1997; Horton 1967; Nielsen 1996; Popper 1950;
Russell 1948). We don’t.
A crucial difference between science and religion is that
factual knowledge as such is not a principal aim of religious
devotion, but plays only a supporting role. Only in the last
decade has the Catholic Church reluctantly acknowledged
the factual plausibility of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin
(Geitner 1999). Earlier religious rejection of their theories
stemmed from challenges posed to a cosmic order unifying
the moral and material worlds. Separating out the core of the
material world would be like draining the pond where a water
lily grows. A long lag time was necessary to refurbish and
remake the moral and material connections in such a way
that would permit faith in a unified cosmology to survive.
Religion survives science as it does secular ideology not because
it is older than, or more primitive than, science or secular
reasoning, but because of what it affectively and collectively
secures for people. Religion underpins the “organic
solidarity” (Durkheim 1912/1995) that makes social life more
than simply a contract among calculating individuals. It creates
the arational conditions for devotion and sacrifice that enable
people and societies to endure against even terrible odds.
In breaking one vicious cycle, however, religions almost
invariably set in motion another. The more strongly individuals
uphold group interests, the more they risk fighting
the interests of other groups, as Hogan implies. The absolute
moral value that religions attach to in-group interests
practically guarantees that the ensuing conflict and competition
between groups will be costly and interminable, and
they will only be resolved in specific cases by banishment,
annihilation, or assimilation of out-groups and their ideas.
Nevertheless, proselytizing religions may also contain “humanist”
elements – especially in early stages of expansion –
that foster tolerance and openness (e.g., early Christianity
and Buddhism). The dominance of “secular” ideologies
stemming from the European Enlightenment have arguably
lessened the compulsion for religious exclusion –
not so much by dampening religious passion, as by transforming
religious belonging from a mainly ascriptive to
more voluntary forms of association and action.

3:18 AM  
Blogger Nick Blasbeat said...

I guess the other thing that always gets me about this sort of thing is also the fact that while you may well be right and so forth, when you set the evidentiary bar reasonably high, there is a fair amount of culture which doesn't get let through; ethics or political theory, for instance. Very few people are actually able to be consistent regarding this. Perhaps one of the few was Hume, who took his Empiricism so seriously that causal relationships were reduced to a reflex produced by psychological habit. But he built an escape hatch; since he regarded human beings as motivated largely by their passions he argues that philosophy is largely irrelevant once one leaves the study, so there is no need to take seriously one's strange beliefs since they couldn't be causally effecacious on one's actions in any case.

3:26 AM  
Blogger Stewart said...

Many responses could be made of course - I'm trying, not very successfully, to avoid turning this blog into something philosophical or overly rational, though i do despair at the wilful ignorance of some religious devotees.

I agree (it's pretty damn obvious) that factual knowledge is not the principal aim of religious devotion, and i've reflected a little on the psychology of religious belief in earlier posts here and elsewhere. It's more this psychology that I'm interested in.

It's often been argued, as in this quote, that religion provides a bulwark against rampant individualism (of course their argument is more nuanced than this), and, while there's no reason to assume that non-belief entails greater individualism, I think in practical terms it often does. Also, the solidarity function of religion obviously has its positive side, which envious and miserable non-believers like me tend to play down.

I'm also interested in my own psychology here, and why i find bowing down to a religious creation so personally affronting.

Having said that, I find the modern Catholic Church's new 'if you can't beat em join em' attitude to science pretty hilarious and I'm sceptical about their reasons - the fact is, they've been damaged hugely by being on the wrong side of history on these questions and desperately want to avoid further damage. This has weakened them among those in the world who care about such things (very few in number).

Also, considering the incredibly viscious nature of the anti-secularist, anti-science tirades coming from so many mainly yank websites, it's hard not to want to get stuck in at times. I wouldn't want to set the bar so high that i can't grab hold of it and beat a few people about the head...

But seriously, what's noticeable about most religious argument is that the evidentiary bar is usually lower than an ant's arsehole. That's why it seems to me more fruitful to look at the human need, and the human egotism, behind religious belief (man in god's image, the interdependence of the celestial and the terrestrial, the transcendence of death and contingency etc etc).

6:10 AM  
Blogger Nick Blasbeat said...

This part of the article is putting the 'solidarity' aspect a little stronger than the rest of the article, which is more about the psychological underpinnings of religion than this aspect of the argument. One of the more interesting arguements, which I can personally relate to, is what they call 'hair-triggered'attribution of agency. The suggestion here is that it is adaptively advantageous to 'see' agency in anything that moves; i.e. its better to have a lot of false positives when a single false negative, which could prove fatal. Jesse Bering, also a psychologist has some interesting and similar arguments regarding the way in which our intuitive causal ontology also feeds into religious and indeed non-religious, but 'meaining-inducing' cognition. If you want, I could email you some articles if you like. Also, while much egotism may indeed be expressed through religion, 'humanism' has plenty of that too. Not that that neccessarily has anything to do with Atheism. That is one of the few good things about Post-Strucutralism actually; although it has more to do with it as a theory than a practice, its profound anti-humanism relieves it of some of the humanistic hubris.

Anyway, religiousness and the reverse is probably hereditary (thanks Pinker....); the rest is probably ex-post facto rationalization, as with just about everything else.Also you say its 'damn obvious' that factual knowledge is not the object of religion, yet you would not neccessarily know that from some of the more strident critics. They seem to move from the fact that religion makes factual claims to it suddenly becoming a explanatory sheme on a par with science. Now you can of course critisize religion on the basis of its false factual statements; but it seems irrelevant if you are trying to understand the phenomenology of religion, which is partly your interest at least, yes?

On the American thing; yes its quite incredible, and one day I will have to look into the history of it all or something; maybe its' the Straussian conspiracy. Or perhaps we just need to read the national genome. Interestingly/disturbingly on the Gene Expression website (know it maybe? - right wing libertarian genetic determinism, in this case the epithet being utterly apt) they argued that there is a -0.8 correlation between importance of religion to people (based on the Pew Global Attitudes survey)and the national IQ; perhaps that's your answer, although I am not sure how that works with America; you would have to severely diaggregate the data.

In any case, if I lived in America, I would probably have an inverted cross branded into my head like Glen Benton; I'm a tad contrary and have grown up my whole life with people rubbishing religion. All the while espousing views just as idiotic and less interesting. Perhaps my response is even more idiotic. But I guess if I am going to help matters at all, I have come to the view that it is utterly irrelevant to think that irradicating religion is part of that process; it seems akin to the 'let's assume a can opener' theorem in economics. I have to start from our utter stupidity, credulity and weakness and not expect any more. Also, unlike you, it seems utterly obvious to me why people are religious; if things were a tad different for me, I can easily imagine being a Jesuit or summat. :)

7:43 AM  
Blogger Nick Blasbeat said...

I guess I have some more direct questions:

Why do you think you have the attitude you do towards religion? (perhaps you could just tell me which post to read)

What evidence (if any) do you think could justify a religious-type claim?

I find this particularly interesting:
"I'm also interested in my own psychology here, and why i find bowing down to a religious creation so personally affronting."

The Grand Inquisitor has someting to say about this:

"There is for man no preoccupation more constant or more nagging than, while in a condition of freedom, quickly to find someone to bow down before. But man seeks to bow down before that which is already beyond dispute, so far beyond dispute that all human beings will instantly agree to a universal bowing-down before it."

The Brothers Karamazov p331

One of my lecturers who affected me rather deeply, and who was one of the catalysyts for taking a different view of religion (and indeed in reading Dostoyevsky!) always said it boiled down to this; as he said "Who you gunna serve?". I can imagine that many would find it profoundly wrong and probably a bit disturbing, but again, I instantly related to the Grand Inquisitors words. Funny you used the word 'bow'; that is what immediately made me think of that bit.....

8:09 AM  
Blogger Nick Blasbeat said...


well im back to hating the christians again after watching the glass house the other night. There was a Christian Swimmer on there that was soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo fucking annoying.

12:59 AM  
Blogger Nick Blasbeat said...

Man, what did you think of the world cup final / Zidane headbut incident and all that shit. I dunno, Italy were pretty good and that penalty that France got was bullshit, but fuck that Materazzi guy is annoying; it was hard not to feel he got what he deserved, even if the whole thing was stupid. Apparently he tweaked Zidane's nipples and spat on him.....

5:05 AM  
Blogger Nick Blasbeat said...

Long-Ass story about atheists being persecuted in the states. Might be of interest....

5:22 AM  

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