Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Are We All Faithful?

I'd like to use this post to respond to a comment I received from a theist regarding something I wrote. This comment refers to a general line of argument I have heard several times before, and it deserves addressing. It has to do with faith and we might call it the "everyone does it" argument (maybe there is a more technical name for this already). In any case, here is the form it recently took:
"I have yet to find anyone, religious or atheist, who doesn't operate on faith. Both are highly dogmatic, as evidenced by the strength of your value judgments, which can only come from a priori, non-empirical stance. We ALL operate on the basis that some things are true, yet without adequate proofs."
Before I can address this it is important to draw out and make plain all of the implications of the above statement. By saying that we "ALL" operate on the basis of some things without adequate proofs, the author is implying that empiricists are in the very same boat with all others. The author also implies there is no difference in the reasonableness and no distinction among varieties of belief or the sources from which they spring because ultimately, we all rely on faith. These are important implications and need to be put into words.

The author is correct in the last sentence of what he says. However, if we think closely about this, we can see that this is not a statement belonging to the faith-based side of the argument. This is a statement of empiricism. It is the empirical approach, which makes the profound realization that we "ALL operate on the basis of some things without adequate proofs". This is why the empirical approach is to say that we never know anything for certain, and must continually question and test our assumptions through a continuous pursuit of new evidence.

The faith-based position, on the other hand, says the opposite. When a believer says, "I believe in God", they are not claiming to "operate on the basis" of God existing "without adequate proof". To claim this is for the theist to put on empiricist clothes and seek to look like one of them for the sake of persuasion. In reality, the faithful mean something very different when they state their belief in God.

Rather, what the theist is saying is that "God is real" - he does in fact exist; not merely that they will "act as though God exists" for some pragmatic purpose. But it goes further than this. The theist claims to have knowledge of God's existence. This use of the word 'knowledge' is also very different than the empiricist's use of the word, for it is absolute. There is no such non-provision "knowledge" in the empiricist's lexicon. This faith-based 'knowledge' might come through some revelation or communion, through biblical teachings or experiences of events. All of these are very different than empirical methodology and miss the mark.

1) Revelation or communion:
This is a claim that knowledge (justified & true belief) can come to us through something other than our five senses. No such phenomenon has ever been shown to be true. Certainly empiricism is contrary to this belief.

2) Biblical teachings or events:
This is where someone claims to have 'figured out' that God exists by reading 'His word', or by observing something in nature, or by experiencing some unlikely event. Yet, if we are to examine the logic behind all of these claims, we find they violate core principles of empiricism.

So, it is the theist who believes that, contrary to "operating on the basis" of some things being true, he or she can "know" things with certainty, and without any (proved) causal connection between the object and the alleged knowledge in his or her head. This is why the faithful are not keen on their claims being tested and why they refer to changes in scientific theories over time as though it were a weakness rather than a strength. Arguments for faith and theism will commonly try to "wear empiricist clothes" but these are very different approaches to knowledge and one should be careful not to confuse them.

Yet, what if we look at empiricism itself, on its own merits? Doesn't empiricism rely on unproved axioms at some level?

At the base level of all knowledge, we ultimately can't know anything for certain, other than the fact that we, ourselves only, exist in some form or another. I might be a brain in a jar, or I might be some cosmic goo that's living a life of fantastic delusion. But at least I know there is something that is thinking about it because I'm the one doing the thinking. This was the essence of René Descartes' famous argument, "...I think, therefore I am".

No faith yet.

From there, we have to start making some assumptions. For one, we have to assume that what we can sense about ourselves and our surroundings are in some way connected to a reality of some type. It is true this is an assumption. However, how could we do anything unless we at least assume this?

Still, even this most fundamental of assumptions, for the empiricist, is but a pragmatic conceit. It is "operating on the basis of". And still, the true believer's claim that God exists exceeds even this foundational assumption in its certainty. Anything less would mean doubt, and men have been killed for less.

After this unavoidable 'foundational pragmatic assumption', we then get into matters of induction vs. deduction. Deduction is where we begin with known premises and end with a conclusion that follows from them. This form of logic is the most sound and, provided there is no faith within the premises, very few would argue faith is involved in these conclusions. That is, unless one wants to say that a computer or a robot can have 'faith'.

Induction is where things get trickier. With Inductive reasoning, we often move from the specific to the general, or from past experience to future prediction. For example, because the sun came up yesterday and all days previous, we will assume it will come up tomorrow. Because we have not been poisoned by carrots before, we will assume we can eat carrots in the future. Because all dogs we've seen have naturally had four legs, we will say that dogs, in general, have four legs. This is shakier than deduction because it is easy to go wrong. For example, if we had never seen a tree over 12 foot tall, we might induce that no trees are taller than 12 feet.

Yet, unfortunately, one will find that almost all thinking requires some form of induction. Even the strictest of deductive logic relies on some premises which result from induction, and even the belief that deductive logic is sound and will remain sound for all phenomena and all time is an act of induction.

In some of the very foundations of science, we inductively reason that physical laws apply universally, that they are internally consistent, that we can decipher them with logic and reason, and that knowing them gives us predictive power in computing future events. The very practice of science would not be possible without these inductions. This, no doubt, is to what the author of the comment above was referring.

The question we should examine is this: is induction equal to faith?

In other writings I have noted that 'faith' is used in many ways in our language, and it is important to delineate between them. I draw a distinction between 'faith' and 'confidence'. Often when we say, "I have faith in my friends" what we really mean is, "I have confidence in my friends". To test that out, imagine saying, "I have faith in that random stranger". We might let our friend hold our wallet but not the stranger. The difference here is that we have past experiences which give us a pattern by which we can make future predictions. Certainly the predictions are not infallible, since people and things can sometimes behave much differently than a past pattern suggests, and we cannot directly observe the future - but they would seem to be more reliable than taking random actions.

So, confidence is "belief because of the evidence." Meanwhile, the faith that people like myself criticize is "belief lacking evidence or possibly even despite the evidence" - a very big difference.

What induction is not is the reaching of a conclusion because of no evidence. Induction is also not the reaching of a conclusion based on things for which we have no reason to suspect are connected to our conclusion. This would completely rule out #1 above (revelation or communion). What's left would be #2, Biblical teachings or events.

Here we might be in the realm of induction. However, there is a range of quality and good sense between instances of induction. Not all induction is of the same quality (remember the good and bad examples mentioned above). Not only are faith and induction distinct, but the comment also implies that one induction is as good as the next. This is plainly not true.

It is at this point that we get into the basics of good skepticism. Carl Sagan said that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" and that seems to be sensible advice. If I notice that after many times I leave my trash can in the street, a neighbor moves it onto my lawn, then I can reasonably suspect that it would happen again. Here we have a rather ordinary claim, and it requires only ordinary evidence. However, if I notice that many times I bet on the horse races and wore green socks, that I won, it would not be reasonable to induce that green socks were causally linked to my winning. That is because such a claim would be extraordinary, and the simple correlation between the green socks and winning at a bet would not be of an extraordinary level to justify such a claim.

The claim that an invisible all-powerful personified entity created the universe and plays a role in it is so extraordinary, that a reasonable person would need some sort of absolutely extraordinary evidence before deducing or inducing such a thing. And, even if such a thing were done, the layer upon layer of further extraordinary claims leading to the specifics of Christianity or any particular religion would each be even more extraordinary than the last because of their increasing specificity. Even if this could count as some form of induction, it is clear that it is of far less reasonable nature than the inductions normally employed by scientific empiricists.

In the end, however, it is doubtful faith-based notions even qualify as any form of sound logic or reasoning. At their heart, they are superstition and ideology from a previous irrational era in human history, and ultimately incompatible with even the basic foundations of modern human rationality. But that won't stop the faithful from trying (earnestly and honestly in most cases) to find some way of equating that irrationality with modern thought. By imagining there is some comparison, it makes it easier not to look squarely at the fact that they have been trapped by a medieval (at best) perversion of reason that preys on our weaknesses and imperfections as thinking beings. In this way, people convince themselves there is some compatibility between what they want to believe, and what they know makes rational sense - it is a coping mechanism.

The employment of this coping mechanism stems from a more fundamental belief that life is somehow meaningless without god/s or the supernatural, or that not believing in such is somehow immoral. Both of these misconceptions are deeply ingrained in our culture and history. Until someone understands the true (and secular) basis of ethics, and until they really understand that a meaningful and happy life is possible without supernatural beliefs, they will continue to harbor that strong desire to believe such things, and a deep fear of disbelieving them. Those desires and fears will continue to trump their good sense - the same good sense they are perfectly capable of applying in all of the other mundane situations in their life. Thus, they will concoct all manner of rationalizations and self deceptions to maintain unfounded beliefs. One of those rationalizations, which I have discussed here, is the attempt to equate empirical reasoning with superstitious faith.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wafa Sultan

I was recently made aware of this interesting clip by my friend, Al Robison (thanks Al). It is a Syrian-American psychologist named Wafa Sultan, appearing on Al Jazeera. As you can see here, she is very critical of Islam, and has apparently been making quite a stir since September 11, 2001. Although she "doesn't believe in Islam" she still calls herself a Muslim. She also says that she is a "secular human being". It would be interesting to learn more details about how she views the differences in these terms.



Sunday, December 09, 2007

TED & Rev. Tom Honey on God

I've been meaning for some time to post on a wonderful website of which my brother made me aware. It's called 'TED' (www.ted.com), which stands for: technology, engineering, and design. However, its topic is more broad than one would imagine, for all three of these terms are meant in their widest possible sense. In effect, the site features talks by some of the world's best professionals and thinkers in a wide variety of fields. The talks are always stimulating and deal with cutting-edge ideas. I can't recommend this site enough.

But this post is about one talk in particular. Under the section 'Is there a God' one will find a good assortment of speakers. But the presentation that I thought most profound was Rev. Tom Honey's. Honey is a vicar in the Church of England. He addressed his deep questions on God in the wake of the south Asian tsunami of 2004. Rarely have I seen such humble and honest introspection; such personal integrity and sincerity in a public presentation. In addition, Honey's ideas are stimulating and moving, his conclusion possibly the best that we see in the future evolution of human religion. I look forward to his continued exploration of these thoughts.

His conclusions in the last segment are worthy of quoting, but I'd prefer not to spoil his presentation, and recommend viewers simply watch the whole (nearly) 20 minutes.