Sunday, May 27, 2012

Argument by Fiat -- Yet More on Faith and Peter Boghossian

In his aggressive public campaign against "faith", Peter Boghossian is back with another lecture on the topic titled Faith: Pretending to Know Things You Don't Know. For most people, I suggest reading the title of the lecture and allowing your feelings about it to determine whether it could be valuable for you to engage. If that is what you believe faith to be, then you may want to watch the lecture and explore some of the out-workings of this belief, while having your ego gently stroked. If you don't believe that is what faith is -- along with the vast majority of people who have ever used the term -- then there's no sense in watching the lecture because Peter offers no argument for this controversial conclusion, rather he assumes it to be true and declares it to be so by fiat.

Unless, like me, you have a somewhat masochistic streak or other reasons for which you wish to engage communities of un-faith, rest assured that the title tells the whole story and go along with your day. At the risk of losing some readers here, you probably need not even read this post any further, but if you want a more in depth explication of the reasons the presentation is entirely impotent, or if you have an inclination to defend it, then proceed.

I've already hinted at the problem with Peter's thesis, but let me expound more fully: A) That isn't what faith is. B) Peter never demonstrates that people of faith actually don't know what they "pretend to know"; it's a bald assertion. C) To the extent that it is most likely true of some or even many faith claims (due to, for example, the mutual exclusivity of the claims), this does not mean it is necessarily true of faith itself or for specific faiths. This, as in his previous lecture on the topic, commits the fallacy of division

In addition to his central definitional thesis, Boghossian also wants to attempt to divorce faith from its assumed alliance to morality. He thinks being a 'person of faith' tends to automatically bring up the association in many people's minds of strong moral character, while Peter thinks being a 'person of faith' is essentially neutral, in terms of morality. This seems to me mostly uncontroversial; most honest people of faith don't claim to be inherently morally superior simply because they have "faith". Christians, for instance, readily admit that sin infects the entire human race, including all Christians, and that they do nothing to merit their salvation from the consequences, reality, and dominion of sin but recieve salvation as an unmerited gift. But if Peter wants to divorce non-specific 'faith' (that is, faith-as-process, rather than faith-in-X) from the cultural linkage to morality, no thinking person of faith would be troubled by the agenda (since we have faith-in-X, not faith-in-faith-as-process).

Peter goes on in his lecture to address 5 common assertions people of faith make, such as "My faith is true for me", and substitutes his definition for "faith", for the word "faith", to yield "My pretending to know what I don't know is true for me". He seems to think this a potent move, but why? "My faith is true for me" is already silly in itself. Substituting the words of your silly definition compounds the silliness, to be sure, but it tells us nothing about the nature of faith. It only tells us that A) people of faith sometimes say dumb things and B) that you are baking your conclusion into your premises, producing a circular argument (if any).

Peter goes on to address people who, when attempting to defend the use of "faith", use the term when they really mean "hope". The difficulty here is what seems to be a prescriptivist naivety that believes words to be ontological entities with hard, fast, immobile meanings and vivid, necessary demarcations. But there's no hard distinction between "faith" and "hope"; faith isn't synonymous with hope, but hope is (usually) an element of what constitutes faith, at least for the Christian (and I assume many faiths). Faith makes knowledge claims, but that's not all it does. And you can't change this fact by fiat; if you think faith and hope should have some hard, impenetrable boundary between them, you must make the argument, and he doesn't attempt to. With that said, I'm sure people he engages with sometimes improperly invoke "faith" when they should invoke "hope", or vice versa, but so what? This also tells us nothing about the nature of faith. 

But perhaps, since he is presenting to a crowd of presumably like-minded individuals (the gathering is hosted by some sort of 'humanist' group), he wouldn't object to my characterization of him offering no arguments here. After all, in no uncertain terms, he makes it clear that the primary objective for the talk is, essentially, wholly propagandistic. That is, operating on the presumption that faith is necessarily void of content or value, what are productive rhetorical ways to create cultural and linguistic shifts that would serve to best spread this idea. If this is the case, there's nothing inherently wrong with holding meetings for PR purposes, but the lack of any underlying foundation for the ideas you're looking to propagate remains a glaring problem. 

Since these presentations couldn't possibly do anything to persuade a genuine, intelligent person of faith to abandon their faith, you might wonder why I bother responding to them. It's a good question and, frankly, there probably are much better uses of my time. But there are also those people who are not yet believers, as well as people (whether Christian already or not) who may not be diligent enough in their thinking to parse this stuff out, who may come in contact with the arguments and find the superficial rhetorical force of them to be persuasive. Of course, I'm under no delusion that my blog has enough readership to act as any hugely significant counterweight to this effect, but there still is some value in making sure such things don't go unresponded to.  

Peter recently accused me of never having anything nice to say about him, and he was completely right in his charge (I since attempted to rectify it by offering him a sincere compliment). To offer some further redress:  one good recommendation Peter had in his lecture is that we attempt to separate beliefs we find noxious from the people who hold them, and to, accordingly, respect people even as we attack their ideas. And that we ought to treat them how we want them to treat us. I do try to separate ideas from people, (or sin from sinner) and I harbor no personal ill will against Peter, I only take issue with his ideas. Per his recommendation, but more importantly per my Maker's command. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Avengers and Freedom

With the record-breaking opening weekend box office, and all the surrounding chatter and hype, I don't have much to say about The Avengers that hasn't been said already by others. In brief I will say that I think it is right near the pinnacle of the genre, alongside The Dark Knight, and that it succeeds quite well as the summer blockbuster entertainment that it aims to be. Although I also think it falters on some levels (I mostly concur with the 'cons' listed here on The Playlist), on the level of superhero spectacle, and sharp, witty character dialogue and interaction, it is at the peak of the genre. Although, aside from Nolan's Batman universe, it's not a genre I find particularly substantive or edifying, offering mostly transient pleasures, and so you should take the praise somewhat lightly.

With that out of the way, I will confine my comments to a couple narrow observations on small aspects of the film, and offer (perhaps) a somewhat unique focus so as not to trod well-worn areas of comment.

I found Loki -- Thor's brother, the central villain -- to be a a somewhat lackluster heel, but his philosophy did interest me somewhat. Loki says he wants to free humanity from freedom; that the rat race of modern life is degrading and dehumanizing; that humanity, at its core, craves subjugation. All this, according to him, is the reason we should accept his rule over us. Well, as totalitarian and demented as this thinking is, he is onto something.

Though Loki's conception of the solution to the problem is perverse, human beings were created with an orientation toward an ultimate end. Contra the modern model of freedom that focuses on unrestrained voluntarism, true freedom is the freedom to have our will transformed into God's will that we would be conformed to Christ's image. The modern, secular model of freedom has no real 'content' of its own, it is just the absence of coercive or oppressive forces operating on the will. While true human freedom has a purpose and a goal. As David Bentley Hart says, "We are free not because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well." Choosing to do other than what God desires for our lives is, in fact, enslaving. So Loki's seemingly demented ravings actually have a significant kernel of truth in them (the devil's lies always do). 

One other thing I wanted to briefly comment on is when, in response to someone saying that Thor and Loki are "practically gods", Captain America retorts "there's only one God, ma'am, and I'm pretty sure He doesn't dress like that." It's a good line, and it's refreshing to hear in the context of a major blockbuster, as God becomes more and more taboo in our culture. However, even this line can only believably come from the 'old-fashioned' guy who has been frozen in ice for 70 years. Thor, being from the pagan pantheon of gods, would never say such a thing; Tony Stark's worldly solipsism would never permit him to make such an utterance; Hulk.. well, Hulk smash. You get the idea. On one hand it can be seen as a tip of the hat to the Creator of the universe, but on the other hand it could have been cynically placed in the mouth of a hopelessly benighted, 'old-fashioned' guy who literally is from another time, as he's the only one who would ever think such a primitive thought. Let's be charitable and assume it was the former.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On "Meta-Atheism" and Georges Rey

Our old friend Peter Boghossian recently posted a link to this short article from 2000, bearing the title Meta-Atheism, by Georges Rey who is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland. Why this old article is circulating I'm not sure, especially since it doesn't go much beyond Freud's standard account of religious belief as wishful thinking, only adding some particulars to the observation, but there it is.

The "meta-atheism" the title refers to is Rey's claim that "despite appearances, not many people -- particularly, not many adults who've been exposed to standard Western science -- seriously believe in God; most of those who sincerely claim to do so are self-deceived." This is a formulation of the de jure objection to religious belief which Alvin Plantinga deals with thoroughly in his Warranted Christian Belief (in which Plantinga rigorously demonstrates why none of the de jure objections, in their various formulations, actually work as objections).

Be that as it may, it certainly isn't controversial to suggest that if God is not real, or there is no supernatural reality, that therefore religious belief is a product of wishful thinking or self-deception. That's obviously true, operating on that conditional. Indeed, even if God does exist and one religion is True, it still may be true that other instances of religious belief in other gods are products of these mental processes (though Christians would claim that they are products of a natural desire for God, implanted by the creator, though this doesn't mean that desire can't be commingling with other, fallen mental processes). So that hypothesis (even though I don't accept it, at least as regards Christian faith) is at least understandable.

What doesn't make any sense at all is Rey's particular enumerated list of 'extensions' of wishful thinking in religious belief and practice. These seem to be specific examples of how self-deception and wishful thinking manifest themselves in things believers do and say. Rey thinks certain things believers do and say betray that they don't really believe what they claim they believe. Let's see if he has a point, and address them:

1) Detail Resistance
2) Comparability to Fiction

Though listed separately, this is actually a single objection, with #2 functioning as an addendum to #1. The problem here is that he mistakes a well established doctrine of creation ex nihilo for intellectual incuriosity to detail, when really it's acute attention to the conceptual details of that doctrine which reveals there simply can be no mechanistic 'details' of the kind he's asking for, nor is there any reason to expect they should exist. On the contrary, expecting them (as he does) shows a lack of understanding of the doctrine. The lay religious person may not articulate this to him in his interactions with them, but it's what they're intuiting when they recognize his questions as 'silly'. The one example he gives of 'detail resistance' is justified 'detail resistance'. Ignoring the specific example, and attempting to make sense of the objection itself, it still fails; given the Christian doctrine of Incarnation -- that God became flesh in a very particular, fleshly Jew, in whom all truth and hope resides -- 'detail', or the finite, or the-particular-as-such is entirely redeemed, as David Bentley Hart explains in The Beauty of The Infinite. The details of the form of Christ are everything, and we have no desire to shy from them.

However, it is sometimes, with regards to certain questions, entirely appropriate to point out that the "how" of some process is at best of secondary importance, or possibly of no functional significance at all.

3) Absence of Evidence IS Evidence of Absence

Here he attempts to flip a common theistic refrain on its head, though he fails to do so. Absence of evidence can be evidence of absence, if the evidence that's missing is evidence we would otherwise expect to find were the claim true. Which is the case (to some extent) in the murder example he gives, but not the case as regards Christian belief, and so the supposed objection is really no objection at all. If Christian belief is true there is no reason to expect we should have more evidence that it's true than what we do in fact have.

4) Appeals to "Mystery"

Some believers appeal to 'mystery' or 'paradox' at times when they ought not to. When, for instance, an answer to something isn't actually a mystery, it's just something they don't know or understand. Believers ought to have more humility and acknowledge that just because they don't understand, or aren't aware of, something, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a mystery. However, certain appeals to mystery (as it happens, the ones that are most commonly made) are absolutely justified, given that an infinite God can't be fully apprehended by finite creatures. We can -- through His Grace, the Incarnation, scripture, tradition and the intervention of the Holy Spirit -- come to know truths that He reveals to us about Him, but as finite beings we by definition will not be able to have a full knowledge of Him. This "appeal to mystery" is entirely appropriate given the infinite-finite distinction.

5) Merely Symbolic Status of the Stories

This objection is not very well articulated. First he objects to the internal coherence of the Christian doctrine of atonement (an objection which is predicated on a misunderstanding, which I will explain anon), and then says something about how if the Christian story is merely symbolism then the problems aren't relevant. Well yes, but so what? Is he saying that many believers do claim that such stories are symbolic? If so, how are they self-deceiving, according to him? I honestly can't make out what his point is here.

As for his objection to the doctrine of the atonement: One must first understand death as a consequence of sin -- rather than just something that happens for no ultimate reason, but just because of entropy or whatever -- and then one can begin to understand how the unjustified death of a sinless man can be an atoning death. I won't attempt to exegete the entire doctrine here, but he is missing the very fundamental first principles of it and then declaring it incoherent. Of course, if God doesn't exist, and death isn't a consequence of sin etc. then the atonement of Jesus doesn't make sense either, but what he's really objecting to here is the internal logic of the scheme of atonement, when that logic is absolutely pristine and he simply doesn't understand it.

6) Betrayals By Reactions and Behavior

The example he gives here may be somehow inconsistent for certain faiths, but not for Christian faith. And I suspect his confusion is a result of a confusion that is common among Christians too, which he just accepts but which is false; namely, that our eternal destiny is a disembodied heaven which we arrive at upon at the instance of our death, when actually our hope is in bodily resurrection and in New creation, a New Heavens and a New Earth. None of which has yet to come, and so mourning at death (which is a consequence of sin, and antithetical to God's plans for creation) is completely consistent and appropriate. Again, his confusion is somewhat understandable since even a wide swath of Christians share it, but it's his (and their) confusion that leads to seeing mourning as contradictory when it's perfectly consonant with orthodox Christian belief. "Blessed are the mourners, for they shall be [future tense] comforted". Jesus, significantly, didn't say "cursed are the mourners for there is nothing to mourn." Because there is something to mourn; death is inimical to God, God's enemy, and Christ defeats his enemy at the cross. Because of Christ's work death has no ultimate power over us, and therefore we don't sorrow like those without hope, but we do mourn a loss to the waste and destruction of death. For now.

7) Belief is Not a Matter of Choice

Again, his point here isn't all that clear. It seems to consist in nothing more than ponderous musings on the nature of 'faith' and how faith differs from simple 'belief'. Well, yes, quite. And? He does make the unsupported assertion that "I suspect you can have 'faith' only about what isn't really a serious contender for truth." Oh you suspect that, eh? Cool story, bro. I suspect differently. Glad that's all cleared up.

Somewhat more seriously, faith is mostly invoked with regard to propositions that are not matters of efficient, material causality, and so when he talks about "a serious contender for truth", he's pitting religious belief against scientific empiricism as a means for finding out truths about material causality -- something people of faith don't use faith for, at least not in the vast majority of cases, so the objection is just absurd and amounts to no more than "faith doesn't do what it isn't intended to do".

8) Projection

Here he merely asserts that humans have the capability to project meaning into things where it might not be there. Of course, he doesn't make an argument showing why this is what is occurring in all or most instances of religious belief, but merely asserts that it's something that can happen. Indeed it can, though I'm not sure how this supports his hypothesis. If the meaning he believes is being projected into things is actually there and he just isn't apprehending it, then it's his senses which are damaged, not the supposed 'projector'. And assuming said meaning isn't there presupposes atheism, rather than lends support to it as a conclusion.

In addition to each of these claims having problems within themselves, many of them don't even have any logical link to his central hypothesis about self-deception. His #3, for example, is just an attempt at a standard atheistic argument about God's non-existence. It's a de facto objection, not the de jure objection he was claiming that he was making. It's about the likely truth of religious belief, not whether religious persons are self-deceiving for holding to the belief. The objection, even if true, would not establish that religious people were self-deceiving when noting that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This is true to varying degrees of a number of the listed objections.

Granted, this isn't a scholarly piece, and it comes with a disclaimer that he has developed the argument in more depth elsewhere, but with such carelessness of thought and with so many fundamental errors and misunderstandings, I can't imagine the argument gets anything but more convoluted and confused in its 'deeper' incarnation.