My guest stint at Times And Seasons went well enough that they decided to let me join as a permablogger, for which I am both grateful and excited. This coming Monday, I’m going to start posting weekly with the first in a series I’m planning about modern secularism and Mormonism. But I’ve got some general comments about the claims of modern secularists that I want to get to right now.
1. Atheism and Christianity: Not Apples to Apples
Any debate between a modern secularist (i.e. New Atheist or New Skeptic) and someone of religious faith starts with a tactical advantage for the atheist because atheism, as a category, has no history, no text, and no dogma. There’s virtually no content and therefore nothing to defend. The representative of religion, by contrast, is expected to answer for the history, text, and dogma not of theism (which, like atheism, is a mere category), but of Christianity (or other religions), which is a particular instance of theism.
A fair debate would either pair generic atheism with generic theism, or it would pit a specific instance of atheism against a specific instance of theism. It’s not as though there are no organized instantiations that fall under the broad umbrella of atheism, after all. Maoism would be one particularly unpalatable example, since it clearly embraced atheist belief in the non-existence of God and drew the conclusion atheists often draw which is that religion is irrational and dangerous. As a result, Mao bloodily repressed religion during the Cultural Revolution. Am I suggesting that atheism ought to be held responsible for the actions of every instantiation of atheism? Absolutely not, nor am I suggesting that Maoism is typical of atheism any more than radical Islamic terrorists are representative of religion (or even of Islam). I’m just illustrating how much of a tactical advantage it is to only have to defend a generic abstraction.
The reality is that the New Atheists actually do make specific, concrete claims that deserve scrutiny and require defense. In particular, the New Atheism entails myopicy materialism, radical reductionism, and extreme empiricism. Each of these is a contentious philosophical proposition, and none of them can be defended by pointing to scientific, quantitative experimentation. Nope, it’s experimentation itself that actually requires philosophical defense.
It’s not that modern secularists are deliberately avoiding these tough questions, of course. It’s more a matter of the fish not knowing what “wet” is. Scientism is so ascendant in particular regions of Western civilization that folks aren’t even aware that they have a specific paradigm, and much less that it might have feet of clay.
2. Not All Faith is Blind
I’m not going to present a comprehensive critique of materialism, reductionism, or empiricism in this post. It’s just too much to write. I want to emphasize, however, that my point isn’t necessarily that these views are wrong so much as it is that they are contested. This dispels the false impression which New Atheists often rely on that their particular claims are synonymous with reason and logic. This isn’t true. Reason and logic are contentless methods of establishing connections between ideas, but New Atheism actually consists of specific propositions that are not self-evidence.
I do want to talk about empiricism a little bit, however, because it ties into the most common atheist attack: that faith is belief in something without proof and is therefore irrational. After all: who would believe something without a reason?
Partially this is just an exercise in sophistry: to do something without any reason is, of course, unreasonable by definition. The crucial question is not “should there be a reason for belief?” but “what are good reasons for belief?” New Atheists would have you believe that scientific evidence is a good basis for belief, and they are right. They would also have you believe that that proposition is rational. It is not. They would also have you believe that there are no other good reasons to believe. That is absurd.
One of the most damning attacks on this empiricist view comes from Hume, who wrote from within the tradition of British empiricism. I’m going to quote from Professor Cahoone’s summary of Hume’s greatest work (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) because it’s more succinct than the original text and he’s better qualified than I am to summarize.
Hume started with the basic empirical proposition: “all knowledge and all ideas derive from experience”. He observed that two things are not observable based on the senses: the future (obviously) and also the concept of necessity. As Cahoone says: ” We cannot experience the future, and we cannot experience necessity. Therefore empiricism, according to Hume, must say that we have to cease to use such concepts.” Cahoone then goes on:
Now it’s crucial to recognize the radical nature of this conclusion, and even some students of philosophy miss this point. Hume is not merely saying that our knowledge of the future is uncertain. He’s saying something much worse. He’s saying we have no probable knowledge of the future either. That is we have no reason to believe… that the sun will rise tomorrow, no reason to believe that if I jump off the building tomorrow I will fall. None. No reason whatsoever. No rational justification for such beliefs.
That’s pretty bad, but it gets worse:
This means, by the way, that the very method of induction is in peril… One of the methods by which science works and by which we make inferences and try to gain knowledge is induction… What Hume is claiming is that the method of induction has no rational justification.
Hume still isn’t done, however.
Since we have no knowledge, not even probable knowledge of necessity in events, the future, we also cannot know the existence of forces that are unexperienced. Like gravity. For Hume there is absolutely no evidence that gravity exists. Now, one immediately wants to respond to this “This is crazy. Are you saying if I jump up I won’t fall down? If I throw a ball it won’t fall down?” Hume says: experience gives us evidence that things fall, but it doesn’t give us evidence that there is an unseen force making them fall. To believe in gravity is to believe in something, and what kind of a thing is it? A force. A power that is itself unseen and makes other things happen. Hume says, if you’re going to say that’s true, you might as well imagine that there are little gnomes or sprites in the world making things happen. In other words from Hume’s point of view it’s completely unempirical and even unscientific to go beyond the claim “things fall” to the claim “something unseen makes them fall”.
So much for science, but Hume has one implication left to reveal. Locke and Berkeley, empiricists who wrote before Hume, believed that there had to be more to physical objects than just our perceptions of those objects so that they could exist independent of our perceptions of them. In other words, these empiricists believed in some Aristotelean substance that is completely undetectable by any empirical means. Therefore, according to Hume, we have no rational to believe in it. This means:
There is nothing to reality… but impressions, surfaces, that which we perceive. Well this literally means for Hume that we do not know if an object continues to exist when it’s not being experienced.
Cahoone writes that Hume has discovered phenomenology, but it might be just as accurate to say he has discovered one consequence of quantum mechanics. According to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, “the act of measurement causes the set of probabilities to immediately and randomly assume only one of the possible values.” If no one looks at the moon, the moon doesn’t exist. Just a waveform. When you take that observation, the waveform collapses and you get an object, but only as long as you observe it.
All of this might seem rather esoteric and therefore irrelevant to everyday experience, but the problem for the New Atheists is that when they step outside of their laboratory and begin to lecture religious folk about epistemology, this is the ground they have chosen to tread on. If they don’t want to deal with Aristotelean metaphysics or phenomenology then they should admit they are not qualified to weigh on epistemological concerns.
The strong temptation for the New Atheists is to insist that the problem lies with philosophy. It makes simple things too complex. There just really isn’t any need to defend their paradigm because it’s self-evident. The irony is that in taking this approach, the New Skeptics are sweeping the Model Skeptic under the rug. Quoting Cahoone again:
Hume thus provided the model skeptic that all other philosophers would try to defeat. Philosophers to this day argue with Hume. His thought led to the greatest of the 18th century philosophers… Emanuel Kant.
It’s also worth pointing out that Hume himself well understood how unbelievable his logical conclusions were. Quoting Hume himself this time:
Most fortunately it happens that since human reasoning is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours of amusement, I would return to the speculations they appear so cold and strained and ridiculous that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further… Nature is always too strong for principle.
Hume didn’t actually believe the sun would not rise tomorrow. He believed that it would. Hume did not actually disbelieve gravity. He knew that if you drop a coin it will fall. The fundamental debate is not about “what should we believe?” but “what is rational to believe?” After all, that’s the claim that the New Atheists are making: tha it is irrational to have faith in God. Problem is, it’s also irrational to have faith in gravity. Kant wasn’t confused about Hume’s arguments either. He understood that Hume wasn’t actually threatening the scientific method, but he spent his life’s work attempting to refute Hume anyway. Kant’s point wasn’t “Science is correct after all” (that was never in dispute), but rather “We have rational basis to rely on induction”. For the New Atheists to try and ignore the Hume vs. Kant debate is not evidence of clear-thinking after all. It’s evidence of superficiality.
I get asked to define faith frequently. Strictly speaking, my argument doesn’t rely on my ability to do so since what I’m actually doing (citing Hume) is pulling the rug out from under secularism to put religion and science on the same epistemological foundation. Note: this doesn’t mean that I’m claiming that religious knowledge is the same as scientific knowledge. Science is defined by the ability to derive quantifiable, reproducible evidence and is thus a particularly potent form of human knowledge, and I do not deny that it has some special status. I simply reject the unargued premise that it is self-evidently rational. It is clearly not self-evident and, if Hume is right, it’s not even rational either.
According to idealism, going back to Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”, the only thing we can be certain of is the existence of our mind. The physical world–including all of science–is up for doubt. According to empiricism, the only thing we can be certain of is the physical world and thus it is actually the existence of a mind that is in doubt. I believe that to assume the correctness of either empiricism (realism) or idealism is impossible. I believe we’re caught between. Quoting Otto Neurath:
We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.
There is no certain starting point. Not belief in God and not belief in Science and not even our self since, by the time we start asking these questions, we’ve already had years of socialization and unconscious, imitative learning piled on top of a tangle of genetically evolved behaviors. We start out in the middle of the ocean. Authentic faith, in my mind, is just a strategy to deal with this reality, and in some other post I will explain my own brand of it. For now, however, my point is simply that the New Atheism has to choose between getting its hands dirty and defending the contentious philosophical propositions that make up its foundation or admitting that its self-confidence is actually a reflection of carefully cultivated ignorance. The simplest choice would be to adopt Kant’s rebuttal to Hume, but the New Atheists would first have to admit that such a defense is necessary, second have to accept the help of the founder of German idealism to rescue empiricism, and lastly actually go out and read some Kant. (Maybe not in that order, of course.)
3. About that Blind Faith…
At the end I want to point out that the idea of “don’t believe something without a reason” is also misused in a much more mundane ways. This applies to all those silly arguments about Flying Spaghetti Monsters or Celestial Teapots.
A friend of mine once asked if I would believe there was an invisible pink unicorn under my window. He was trying to prove that the default position, skepticism, entails disbelief. I replied by asking: “Are there hoofprints?” The point I was trying to make is that lack of information is never a good reason to believe, and that disbelief (as opposed to nonbelief) is just a kind of belief.
- Belief – I accept the proposition “X is true”.
- Disbelief – I accept the proposition “X is false”.
- Nonbelief – I don’t accept either proposition.
The default position should always be 3. [EDIT: I changed the order of the list at some point and didn’t update the text right away. So for a while it said “2”. My mistake.] That’s what real skepticism is about. Belief or disbelief without good reason are equally irrational. (This is why the New Skepticism is essentially the Old Dogmatism, it accepts fundamental premises without defending them.) The thing with pink invisible unicorns, however, is that without any evidence of their existence we actually have very good reasons to suspect their non-existence. Start with the fact that “pink” and “invisible” are contradictory terms. It’s like asking if someone believes in a version of the number 3 that is also even. Uh… no. Secondly, the word “unicorn” implies a whole set of characteristics, starting with something about the size, shape, and weight of a horse. Such an object would leave footprints. Given that assumption, the lack of footprints is not merely a lack of evidence, it’s strong evidence of non-existence.
I also have a basic understanding of both biology, evolution, and optics. I know what it would take to make something invisible, and I know that no animal observed has ever exhibited that kind of capacity. If there were such animals, we’d have evidence (footprints, droppings, running into them) and based no what I know about basic human behavior (what we find interesting, etc.) I’d have heard about them. I haven’t. In addition, we’d expect to find examples of semi-invisible animals as the ability slowly evolved. The lack of these things, given what we know, becomes once more evidence of non-existence instead of just a lack of evidence for existence. (The term for all of this is compossibility, by the way.)
Of course you can modify the term “unicorn” so that now we’re talking about weightless, flying animals that arrived from outer space and have no connection to Earthly evolution, but you end up introducing more problems than you solve and you start drifting away from the original meaning of the word. At this rate, you’ll have to explain why aliens would want to travel to earth (and how FTL works) and in the end “unicorn” would mean something like “a particular region of dense water vapor that is sort of horse shaped”. In short, you have to either invent ever more complex and less compossible explanations or you have to redefine the term to meaninglessness.
Does the same apply to the existence of God? Well, it depends very much on how you define God. The Problem of Evil, the argument that God can’t exist because an all-powerful and all-loving God would never allow so much suffering, is a perfect example of the kind of compossibility argument I’m describing. So there are valid arguments against God’s existence based on compossibility, but relying on merely “You should disbelieve in what you don’t have proof of” is irrational. You should always be neutral without a reason. (And the definition of “reason” might be b roader than just “scientific evidence”.) This is why even Richard Dawkins has conceded the possibility of some god-like entity that is actually just a super-evolved being. In short, the Flying Spaghetti Monster / Celestial Teapot arguments only work against very simplistic and naive ideas of God to the extent that they work at all. Like the rest of New Atheist dogma, they rely on cherry-picking their targets while pretending that they have no vulnerabilities of their own.
So if New Atheist arguments are so irrational, why are they so popular? The answers is simply that modern secularism is the ascendent religion of the current time. It seems reasonable because everyone else believes it, too. And that is what I’ll be writing about over at Times And Seasons, starting on Monday.
20 thoughts on “Faith Is Rational”
“…atheism, as a category, has no history, no text, and no dogma.”
Err, what? Atheism and secularism in general most definitely have a history:
There’s no official ‘Bible’ of atheism or secularism, but there are plenty of texts to that effect. You are correct, though, that atheism has no substantive dogma to speak of, because by definition the only requirement of being an atheist is that you don’t believe any deities exist. Secularism has a few more tenets, namely that religion and government should have some degree of separation, but it’s still pretty sparse compared to the official tenets of any major religion.
“It’s not as though there are no organized instantiations that fall under the broad umbrella of atheism, after all. Maoism would be one particularly unpalatable example, since it clearly embraced atheist belief in the non-existence of God and drew the conclusion atheists often draw which is that religion is irrational and dangerous.”
Mao and other communist leaders embraced official atheism because religious institutions represented a body of influence not controlled by the authoritarian state and therefore a threat to the state, not because Mao or any other communist leaders were trying to be something akin to atheist missionaries. Indeed, both communist Russia and China had and have at times allowed religion because it was useful to whatever goal they had at the time, for example marshalling support during WW2. Furthermore, purging all other religions allowed the communist leaders to institute their own cults of personality, further cementing the power of their dictatorship. I’d bet you dollars to donuts that if something akin to a freethinkers society had existed during the communist revolutions, they would’ve either been suppressed or taken over for use by the state like all the religious institutions were.
You can similarly argue till the cows come home that atheism was part of the official communist dogma as laid down by Marx and other communist philosophers and therefore represents one manifestation of atheism, but the disposal of nationalism (so as to allow for a worldwide workers revolution) was an equally if not more important facet of communist theory that every communist leader conveniently ignored because nationalism is super useful when you’re trying to create an authoritarian government. It’s clear the end goal for every communist leader was total power and their interest in atheism only extended so far as atheism was useful. Atheists who didn’t support the government would hang just like any religious person.
As I’ve said over and over, this example is like atheists who believe the Crusades are an example of pure religion rather than politically motivated leaders who used religion as a tool.
“Hume didn’t actually believe the sun would not rise tomorrow. He believed that it would. Hume did not actually disbelieve gravity. He knew that if you drop a coin it will fall. He just also knew that those beliefs have no rational basis.”
The problem with Hume’s reasoning, indeed the reason he himself would not live acting as if it were true, is that if he’s right it leads to a universe where there’s no point in believing anything anymore. How do I know I won’t spontaneously combust in the next second? According to Hume, I can’t deduce anything on that matter from my past experiences of not combusting, so I don’t really have any way to assure myself I won’t combust in the next second. But that’s obviously a ridiculous and untenable way to carry on your life. It’s the same problem that arises with Descartes cogito ergo sum argument: It’s all good and well to question whether we can *really* know anything beyond the fact that we exist, but if Descartes is right, we’d might as well all walk away from this discussion and never discuss anything again because there’s no point to a discussion where you can’t be sure that anything other than your consciousness exists. In essence, how truly rational is a belief that leads to such untenable outcomes that even the proponent of that belief won’t act as if that belief is actually true?
“Sure, science works just fine no matter what you think about epistemology, but that doesn’t make your faith in it rational. It makes it pragmatic.”
So then the problem becomes that religion is not only not rational, it’s not pragmatic either, because so far as I can tell science has a much better record on everything from curing cancer to landing on the moon than religion does.
“The default position should always be 2.”
The default position should be more of a combination of 2 and 3. In the absence of evidence, I can’t say X is false, but until evidence arises that X is true, I should operate as if X is false. That’s why the silly pink unicorns and teapots get brought up. Yes, I technically have no idea if there are pink unicorns or floating teapots in space, but unless evidence suggesting they exist comes to light, I have no reason to believe they exist.
“The thing with pink invisible unicorns, however, is that without any evidence of their existence we actually have very good reasons to suspect their non-existence.”
And the same applies to deities. Considering the vast array of characteristics and deeds classically attributed to various deities, you’d think there’d be more evidence of their existence and activities in the world and furthermore that the supposed evidence of their existence wouldn’t diminish as we find natural explanations for phenomena traditionally attributed to gods, such as the fact that charged particles rather than a hunky dude with a hammer cause lightning. And as we discover that phenomenon after phenomenon once attributed to a god actually has a natural cause, it becomes increasingly reasonable to suspect that every phenomena has a natural cause and that deities either don’t exist or at very least have no discernible effect on the world, in which case they’d might as well not exist.
“Just as with the definition of faith, New Atheist arguments are popular not because they are logically compelling but because modern secularism is simply the ascendent religion of the current time.”
This conclusion feels kinda like the claim that America is the new imperial power of the age. Well, if America is the new imperial power, we’re the most benign imperial power to date, and similarly, if secularism is the new ascendant religion, it’s pretty darn good living under a dominant religion where your worst fear is dealing with smug assholes.
Thanks for the long reply, Bryan!
You’re missing the point on this one. Obviously there have been atheists in history. I spend the bulk of the post going over Hume’s arguments in great detail, and Hume was a committed atheist. The point is not about history. It’s about categories. As you point out yourself:
That is the point, but you don’t seem to grasp the significance of it. “Atheism” is not a belief system, it’s just a category for a very diverse and sometimes contardictory set of belief systems. The belief systems that reside in the category of atheism have history, text, and dogma, but the category itself does not. Similarly, “theism” is just a category that also has no history, text or dogma. It is the belief systems inside theism that do.
For atheists to compare a category (atheism) with actual belief systems (e.g. Christianity, Abrahamic religions generally, etc.) is an extreme example of apples-to-oranges. It means atheists have no baggage to defend, but theists do and–because this is based on a mismatch of category vs. belief system, it’s an unwarranted tactical advantage. That’s the first problem.
The second is that, as I said, New Atheism is a belief system that does have baggage. Not much historical or textual baggage, true, but certainly dogmatic baggage. The belief system we call New Atheism embraces materialism, reductionism, and empiricism. These propositions don’t prove themselves, but New Atheists avoid having to prove them by pretending that they don’t exist.
By the way, I knew the Maoist example would confuse you because I’ve used it in other ways in our conversations, but in this case it only serves to illustrate why belief systems are harder to defend than categories. I already said in the post that I don’t consider it representative of all atheist belief systems, so your rebuttal on that score is for an argument that I never made. Maoism and New Atheism are two distinct belief systems that are both under the ubmrella atheist. The fact that they are so radically different in so many ways shows why attacking “theism” is such a bad idea. You need to actually pick out a belief system, not just a category, to focus your attack on.
You’re not saying anything that Hume didn’t already say himself and that I didn’t point out explicitly in the post. Of course it’s ridiculous to act as though we don’t know the sun will rise tomorrow. We do know that. But it’s incredibly important to point out that our justification for this has nothing to do with evidence. Have you ever seen the future? Observed necessity? Is gravity itself perceivable with our senses? No? Then you have to abandon the position that “you should only believe things if you have evidence”. You don’t have any evidence that the sun will rise tomorrow. This means the entire basis by which New Atheists differentiate themselves from theists is an illusion. It radically changes the nature of human belief. Instead of believing only what the evidence tells us, we believe some things because the alternative is untenable even if it’s irrational to do so.
Nothing you’re writing is actually a challenge to Hume, and none of it defends the empiricism that New Atheism relies upon.
That is simply preposterous. You’re literally stating that you should believe something (the non-existence of X) without evidence. That’s not only absurd, but it flatly contradicts the purported philosophy of New Atheism and underscores the fact that “skepticism” of the New Atheism is actually dogma. We believe in the non-existence of God without proof, and that is rational, but believing in the existence of God without proof is irrational. You’re reducing rational/irrational to just word gamses. Swap out “existence” for “absence” and suddenly you would have to accept a “blend of 1 and 3” instead of 2 and 3.
Don’t you understand that the difference between belief and disbeleif is nothing but grammar?
Well sure, religion isn’t pragmatic for landing people on the moon or curing cancer. Are you seriously saying that it’s not pragmatic for anything at all? This is scientism at its most extreme: the idea that no knowledge that isn’t scientific is worth having. It’s obviously silly because no one, not even the most committed scientimist, actually lives that way. Or: Do you have quantifiable metrics to scientifically validate your personal relationships? No? Then quit pretending that religion isn’t worth having because it’s not science.
Yes it does, and that’s why I specifically gave an example myself with the Problem of Evil. What your argument highlights is just that arguments against God will have to rely on the specific definitions of God. Zeus throwing around lightning is not compossible with our understanding of modern physics. Plato’s conception of God is going to require a separate attack. It’s incredibly lazy of atheists to act as though an attack on one conception of God is an attack on all of them, and this further demonstrates the tactically useful inability to differentiate between an empty category (e.g. “God”) and specific belief systems (e.g. Zeus vs. the Platonic God).
I think it will be best for you to see the actual argument I make here before we debate it. That was just a teaser. The post will be published on Monday. I’ll link to it from here.
I enjoyed this very much. I think I’ll have to read it one or two more times to fully wrap my mind around it, but it sure gives a lot to think about. I particularly want to know more about Kant’s rebuttals to Hume, because I think some of the secularists I know make arguments along similar lines but don’t know anything about Kant or Hume.
Nathaniel, I enjoy that you are such a fan of Hume. You definitely stand out among your believing peers for that. I’m not at all sure that Hume would be a fan of you, though. We don’t have to guess what he thought about things like miracles… But that’s not important right now.
The important thing is in this quote:
Now, this is you quoting Cahoone interpreting Hume, but let’s say for the sake of argument that it is exactly what Hume meant. Even granting that, the argument still has to make sense on its own merit (no intellectual in 2013 should automatically subscribe to a position advocated by an intellectual in the 1700s).
First, although the English language is fluid, words have meaning. I would grant you some flexibility with the term “rational justification,” but if you are using a definition of that term that excludes methodical induction, you’ve gone off the deep end. For the sake of linguistic clarity alone, you should use a different term.
Second, your end result of putting science and religion on comparable epistemological footing is obscurantism in the extreme. An almanac predicts to the minute when the sun will rise and set. A scientific textbook describes the causation behind conception of new human life. Everyone who took PHIL 101 can understand the words in Hume’s critique of induction and causality, and Hume has some nifty brain ticklers. But the end result for a sane person should not be that we pretend that the knowledge science purports to have is just as “faith-based” as the knowledge a religion purports to have.
Third, the real-life problem (and the interesting problem) with induction isn’t what Hume pointed out 200+ years ago (zzzz), it is the kind of thing Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as the black swan problem. Here is Taleb’s turkey metaphor (quote loosely adapted because I lent my book out):
I love Taleb and this metaphor. The point he is making is not that it is impossible to know if you are a turkey or not. In fact, he spends a lot of his time pointing out which areas of human activity are susceptible to black swan events and which are not (his distinction is fragile vs. antifragile). The point is that when it comes to the areas susceptible to black swans, we should discount certain inductive conclusions (from risk managers and macro economists, for instance). The other point is that we should engineer systems to be antifragile as much as possible, but that is less relevant to your original post.
The reason why Taleb’s is an interesting problem of induction while Hume’s is not is that this actually has something to say about real life. Even Hume seemed to realize that his critiques of causality and induction were just word games. They are like Zeno’s paradoxes. Interesting things to tickle your brain with, but not the kind of thing a serious person uses as a basis for real philosophy. By the way, he definitely wouldn’t have used those critiques to say that religious and scientific worldviews both require comparable leaps of faith.
Side issue, now. I know you like to make this critique of induction because you think it evens the playing field between religious and nonreligious worldviews. Do you also doubt deductive reasoning? I’m curious.
Hmm, seems like my attempt at html quotes may have failed.
That’s weird, basic HTML is generally allowed.
I was trying to have the same set-off quotes like you had in your comment above, but I guess q and /q isn’t the right code. What do you use?
I’m sure it’s my fault, not your blog’s. I can barely spell html.
First, thanks for your meaty reply. I really appreciate thoughtful comments like this one.
I wouldn’t be so sure. After all, I don’t believe in miracles or the supernatural either.
That’s not the end result I’m proposing. Take out the phrase “just as”, and you’re much closer to the mark. I don’t for a minute believe that scientific and religious claims are equivalent, or should be treated the same.
I’ve written a lot about this myself in earlier posts. You should check out my series for Times and Seasons on epistemic humility. I quote Donald Rumsfeld (unknown unknowns) instead of Taleb, but the point is the same. Start with the first, if you’re interested.
I agree that the problem of ignorance is more interesting and relevant, and that’s why I wrote about it first. But I disagree that Hume is merely playing word games. Relying on authority here (for the sake of brevity), that would make Kant something of a fool for spending so much time and energy replying to him. I think that sweeping problems under the rug merely because they seem to have no practical implication is not justifiable.
There’s an additional point, however. My primary objective is not to convince everyone that the sun will not rise tomorrow. It is not even to convince people that we don’t have a rational basis for that belief. My primary motivation is semi-apologetic. There’s a very popular view (New Atheism) and it’s based on some word games of its own, especially the fact that it denies the existence of (and therefore necessity to defend) it’s own philosophical assumptions.
My objective is not to counter atheism per se, because I don’t have any problem with non-belief in God or even with affirmative disbelief in God. Most of my favorite philosophers (Camus and de Beauvoir in addition to Hume) were atheists. I have respect bordering on reverence for some varieties of atheism. I just have a particular dislike for the New Atheists due to both their prominence (unjustified, I believe), their arrogance (have you tried wading through “The God Delusion”?) and the resulting detrimental impact it has on authentic discourse on these topics. I’m not saying that Christians aren’t arrogant sometimes, but usually the arrogant believers are already at the intellectual margin. They have a Creation Museum in the middle of Kentucky (come on, Kentucky) and it’s rather a bit of a joke, isn’t it? To my mind, the New Atheist–speaking philosophically–have roughly equivalent intellectual legitimacy but you’ll find their writings in Salon and the New York Times. (Thus making me deeply skeptical of the whole “oppressed atheist” thing, or at least its universal applicability.)
Citing Hume, I believe, is actually quite relevant in my particular aim because even a 200-year old philosophy makes short work of the specific claims of the New Atheists / New Skeptics / scientisim.
I realize terms can be problematic and there will always be some doubt about what, precisely I mean by those terms, but I think the Dawkins / Hitchens / et al axis is distinct enough to warrant separate classification.
Kind of a cop-out (long answer already), but here it is: I doubt everything. Just look at the Neurath quote aagin.
Use “blockquote” instead:
[blockquote]Something to quote.[/blockquote]
Use the carrots intead of square brackets, of course.
I know this is your style. It reminds me of your article about how the left wing is paranoid too (but not equally paranoid). As long as you don’t mind me pointing out that your argument takes one step forward and approximately one step back, I don’t mind making the point. I’ll get to what you say is your primary motivation below, but as long as we are in open agreement that there is nothing close to equal “rational basis” footing between religious and scientific approaches, I’m satisfied.
Do you take Zeno’s paradoxes seriously on a level higher than word games? Surely you must know the lifetimes of hours spent arguing over them by seriously intelligent people.
What about the “if a tree falls in a forest” question? I almost used this as another absurd example, but I’ve heard you say things about the moon that make me wonder if maybe you just have a tendency to care more about word games than you should.
If this is a major problem, I’m not aware of it, but good job pointing it out. However, it’s a non-sequitor to say that because Dawkins doesn’t fully justify every underlying philosophical premise in his book, that he is denying the existence of the premises.
It’s also probably an unfair generalization to say the New Atheism (whatever that means) necessarily involves those premises. First of all, I seriously don’t know what New Atheism means. If it means Dawkins + Dennett + Hitchens + Harris, then you have four individual people with different approaches and emphases. The only thing that seems to be universal among the modern atheist movement is that they lack belief in God. Beyond that, it’s a total crapshoot.
The atheists I read and interact with are typically happy to not only embrace, but defend those things. They don’t necessarily defend every premise from the ground up every time they make a comment, give an interview, or write a book.
The obvious reason is that nobody wants to read all that preamble every time an argument is advanced. Another reason is that these premises (or at least a form of them) are widely shared and accepted (at least among the intended audience).
I won’t sign up to defend every word of a book by Dawkins or anybody else, but:
1. I don’t think the problem you identify is a real or important one;
2. Even if it is, invoking Hume like you do doesn’t really help
I shudder to think that people would cite Dawkins or Hitchens as good sources of philosophical arguments. They are entertaining spokespeople for the movement.
Dawkins : Atheism :: Obama : Liberal Democracy
Hitchens : Atheism :: William Craig : Christianity
These figures serve their purpose, but you and I both know it isn’t to refine the details of the movement’s philosophical underpinnings. It’s a fair point–but maybe we could also say an obvious point or a cheap point–to say that these prominent spokespeople do not extensively justify all their philosophical assumptions.
I suspect that public leaders and spokespeople are almost always “at the intellectual margin,” as you say. Similarly, philosophers are almost always at the political or public margins.
I think the problem with the position that you’re outlining is that the “one step forward and approximately one step back” phrasing implies a single axis, and I disagree with that. Consider the following:
1. Rational Thought = Scientific Thought
2. Irrational Thought
2.1 Religious Thought
That (above) is the model I’m reacting to. This (below) is the model I’m posing:
1. Rational Thought
1.1. Scientific Thought
1.2 Religious Thought
2. Irrational Thought
2.1 Scientific Thought
2.2. Religious Thought
In order to post that model, I have to first separate science from being seen as identical to rational thought. It’s not. Science is constrained by our ability to objectively quantify (among other things), and is therefore a mode of inquisition only applicable to a subset of all possible questions. This subset is not necessarily limited (it has expanded dramatically over time), but there are good reasons to suspect it will never encompass everything.
So my case rests on two things:
First – Establishing that science is distinct from and depends on a more fundamental belief system.
Second – Establish that religion also hearkens back to a common source.
I don’t want to get too hyper-detailed about the simple models Im’ posing, but the use to which I’m putting Hume is to drive a wedge between science and the totality of all rational thought. I then put religion as an appendage to the same root (the desire to think rationally about the world we live in), but on a divergent path.
I don’t place infinite importance on them or obsess on them to the point of occluding other concerns, but I certainly think that they are more than mere word games. They require serious thinking about the nature of the world around us, and I think the world around us is substantially more weird than most people realize.
This kind of complacence is exactly what I’m critiquing. Why is it a word game to ask if the moon collapses into a waveform if it’s unobserved? It’s a serious question about quantum mechanics. Remember Feynman’s quote: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” I’m not reveling in imponderability. I’m reacting against what I see as intelletual smugness. Yes, science sure is nifty and I’m happy that GPS works. But to extrapolate from “look at this awesome stuff science can do!” to “we now understand the world” is to violate Taleb’s position most egregiously, especially when we have right in front of us solid evidence that we don’t really understand the world.
A lot of the mocking I see directed at religion comes precisely from a foundationless and meritless sense of overconfidence that silly questions are just silly. Soemtimes they are. Sometimes they are not.
I’m not saying they don’t “fully justify”, I’m saying they refuse to even talk about it.
I’m curious: to you apply this logic to theism as well? The only thing that seems to be universal among contemporary religions is that they accept belief in God. Beyond that, it’s a total crapshoot. That’s absolutely a true statement. There’s no universal agreement on any principle of religion. This seems like a self-serving double standard. When it comes to atheism, you must evaluate the views of every atheist as an individual, and you therefore are prohibited from discussing subsets of atheism. But when it comes to theism, what? Denominations are valid terms because they are institutionalized, and therefore all the followers are identical lemmings? The notion that the existence of a formal institution precludes wide and vociferous dissent among members is absurd, so if the fact that Dawkins / Hitchens / etc. are all unique snowflakes means that one cannot talk about their common views, how can one talk about Christianity as a valid category?
I’m not willing to give people a pass on bad arguments because they are popular, nor do I think it’s a matter of not “extensively” justifying “all” of their philosophical assumptions. It’s much more fundamental and egregious than that. Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with them, however, due to your unfamiliarity with the New Atheist movement broadly speaking. (Not a dig, a sincere point.)
I’m willing to fully embrace this model on a theoretical level, but I’m a little fuzzy on what “religious thought” means. There are plenty of thoughts-about-religion that are rational. And there are plenty of thoughts-by-religious people that are rational. I suspect, though, that the very term religious is too fuzzy to use as an adjective to directly modify thought. How do you know if a thought is a religious thought or not?
But that’s all on a theoretical level. On a practical level, it is so common that religious thought is irrational that the two categories seem linked even though they aren’t necessarily linked. So again, I am happy to concede a small semantic point if that is all you are making.
Seems like we agree that “universal agreement among all members” cannot be a prerequisite for making a reference to a group. Fine. That wasn’t my question. I’m really just wondering what you mean when you use the capitalized term New Atheism.
Yes, I think that institutions, denominations, revered texts, and official creeds help justify reference to a group. And if someone like you points out that everyone is a snowflake, nobody will disagree, but neither will we become paralyzed as to our ability to refer to groups.The standard should be: is reference to this group helpful and intelligible or not?
If I say the Mormon position on this or that is silly and unjustified, you can agree or disagree, but we all know what I’m referring to. The group is more or less defined, and even if you find a Mormon who dissents, it doesn’t render the group reference invalid.
When I was a believer, I belonged to the Church of Christ. If I encountered someone saying “the Church of Christ position on ___ is silly and unjustified,” I might very well have agreed with them because I dissented in many ways. But I wouldn’t waste anyone’s time attacking the group reference.
So maybe there is a valid group of New Atheists. I’m willing to accept that there is such a group, and I might even be one, so whatever. But here is why I’m suspicious. There isn’t any such institution, they don’t have denominations or creeds, and the only people I see using that particular term are complaining believers.
I’ve read books and articles and watched lectures, debates, and Q&A sessions by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Ali, Singer, Krauss, Mehta, Meyers, Carrier, Christina, and those types. I think you are probably thinking of a lot of the same people when you say New Atheists. Do you have a separate article where you try to hammer out what the central points of agreement are in this confederation? It might be worth doing if you think it is important to use the group term New Atheists.
I’ve also read and watched Lewis, Swinburne, Plantinga, Craig, Lennox and others less intellectually reputable. I recognize that these guys are different in some ways from the Old Theists, but it would feel weird grouping them together as New Theists, right?
“This is why even Richard Dawkins has conceded the possibility of some god-like entity that is actually just a super-evolved being.”
Sounds like King Follet Discourse Mormonism to me! Go send the misssionaries! ;)
Monica linked me here. Miss you, man, and I hope all is well.
That’s precisely one of the misperceptions that I want to address head on. And this misperception is that it’s not “religious thought” that is so commonly irrational, but rather just thought, unqualified.
The reality is that most people believe things for irrational reasons, and religion just happens to be one of those things. So does atheism.
There are two caveats to this.
First, atheist tend to self-select for people who have consciously thought about religion in the same way that religious converts do, whereas the population of religious people is dominated by those who haven’t necessarily thought seriously about religion once in their lives. They are merely acting out their unexamined lives, which is what most people do most of the time unless/until challenged (which is why Socrates and Jesus and such tend to get themselves dead, people don’t like having to examine themselves). So I think that the atheist population is probably more rational than the theist population, but it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. Comparing theist converts to atheists would be closer to apples-to-apples.
Secondly, there are plenty of people who are atheist for irrational reasons. This is obscurred by the fact that atheism is awash in the rhetoric of logic and reason, but it’s clear from the “conversion” stories (irony intended) that a lot of atheists (especially the strong atheists) are the mirror image of their former theistic selves, replacing one set of rather absolutist, irrational beliefs for another.
In my view, the real dichotomy is not “religion / irrationality” vs. “secularism / rationality” but rather “religious and secular rationality” vs. “religious and secular irrationality”.
I think atheists, yourself included, drastically oversimplify the relationship between formal institutions, official creeds, etc. and what the adherents actually believe. Mormonism is actually a terrific example of this. You write: “If I say the Mormon position on this or that is silly and unjustified, you can agree or disagree, but we all know what I’m referring to,” but that’s not actually true for the simple reason that Mormonism is an atheological religion. We have formal texts, but no creeds and no official theology.
I’m not saying that there’s no cohesive body of belief at all, but I am saying that it is substantially harder to pin down than secularists tend to believe. In my anecdotal experience, this is because most atheists either have very limited experience with religion, or come from very strict, doctrinaire religious backgrounds and therefore think they have familiarity with religion broadly when they actually have experience with only a very narrow particular subset.
I also think that there actually are secular proto-institutions. I’ll get into this more in my series of posts on Times And Seasons (starting Monday), but based on a functional analysis of the role that religion has historically played in society, I would say that scientific establishments (e.g. universities and scientific organizations) are actually being co-opted to replace institution as, for example, bastions of authoritative speech about things that truly scare us. I realize this is a really weird way of looking at the world, but I think that it’s actually accurate. I’ll give you one very specific example: after the Sandy Hook massacre, there were widespread calls to have the DNA of the killer tested to try and ascertain what had caused him to kill innocent children.
Anyone with genuine (i.e. “rational”) scientific understanding knows how absurd this is. The idea that we can find some kind of an evil-mass-killer gene is ludicrous. But what is actually happening is that society is looking to its most respected institution (increasingly science as opposed to religion) to explain the question of why bad things happen. The comforting narrative that we all want to hear is that there is something qualitatively different about evil people that makes them not like us. Religion would have irrationally said “He was possessed by a demon”, and now science is being made to say (not by genuine, rational scientists) “He had a mental disorder.”
Obviously atheism is not as institutionalized and formalized as religion. Some religions have no creeds, but no atheists have creeds. Some religions have no formal institution, but no atheists have a formal institution. I get that. What I’m saying is that the same social forces that warped rational religion into irrational institutions are presently at work on rational science, and if you extrapolate out a few centuries it’s really not hard to imagine at all a secular creed and secular dogma.
I think that stubborn insistence that religion is irrational (in practice, if not of necessity) while atheism is rational actually enables this transition by denying that there’s any need to be vigilant.
Not yet. I’ve been thinking about these things and emailing friends privately for quite some time, but I’ve only recently starting writing publicly. I outlined some commonalities in the piece, but I’ll work to provide a more substantial definition. That’s a perfectly reasonable request.
I don’t think the theist / atheist divide is actually useful, ultimately. I’m targeting New Atheism, but I don’t consider that to mean “modern atheism” or “contemporary atheism”. As I’ve said: I have absolutely no beef with atheism. I can’t stress that enough. I might start using the term “New Skeptics” just to try and separate my target from atheism proper.
You have to understand that I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in entering the broader “theism vs atheism” debate. Absolutely none. What I’d love to see happen, however, is a new alignment that was “rational people vs. irrational people”. I’d love to see Young Earth Creationists and the New Atheists put in a bucket together, and folks like Thomas Nagel and John Lennox put into a bucket together.
I’m not actually calling for a literal categorization of everyone as rational / irrational, but I’d like people to think along those terms. It’s my opinion that a sincere and authentic atheism and a sincere and authentic faith have very, very little to disagree about of substance, and that a bombastic and arrogant atheism and theism are two peas in a pod.
Thanks, Walker. That was a great article. DMM, you might find it interesting as well, simply because it reflects some of the positions that I’ve outlined that you find odd.
So there you see the echo or my earlier claim that the religious fundamentalists and the atheist fundamentalist are essentially two sides of the same fundamentalist coin.
Some questions as I digest this, Nathaniel.
1. I think I understand Hume’s basic assertion that we can’t have rational knowledge of anything without directly observing it with our senses (correct?), and you point specifically to the future and the concept of necessity. How does the “concept of necessity” work? I feel the necessity to eat food to survive. Is that not experiencing necessity with my senses? Or does the concept of necessity mean something else?
2. Then there’s the future. How is it that we have no *probable* knowledge of the future? My question is, if we can say the sun has risen 365 days a year for millions of years on earth isn’t “evidence” that it will rise again tomorrow, what is it? To me this would imply that to make sense of our future we rely exclusively on probabilities since we have no evidence whatsoever of *anything* concerning the future. Couldn’t it then be said that rational belief doesn’t (only) rely on what can be directly experienced by the senses but on what the senses regard as most probable given what has come before? What am I missing in Hume’s argument?
3. If we don’t know an object exists if we are not experiencing it, how do we explain the effects of the existence of that object? Are the effects of the existence of an object, for example, getting hit by a bullet fired from a gun I can’t see or hear, considered “experiencing” the object (the gun)? Or am I bound by my senses’ lack of input concerning the gun itself to conclude that it is irrational to claim the gun exists at all?
I talk about the mirror image effect of theists/non-theists here: http://theslowhunch.blogspot.com/2013/02/hearing-and-knowing.html
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