15 April 2008

Shaky Ground

It is instructive to observe one of the strategies that some people use to cling to faith.  They attempt to blur the distinction between faith and reason by using terms like “having faith in reason” or “believing in science.”  Author and physicist Paul Davies says “science has its own faith-based belief system” and dismisses the incontestable validity of reason with a shrug, saying, “so far this faith [in the order of the universe] has been justified.”  David Berlinski refers to science as “the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith,” while conservative Doug Giles regards atheists not as people who don’t believe in God, but as people who “believe in not believing.”

The conflation of faith and reason has two sides to it, pulling in opposite directions but amounting to the same thing.  The first aspect is that by holding faith and reason side by side as if they were epistemological equals, faith is endowed with a prestige and validity that it does not deserve.  The second aspect is that by implying or explicitly stating that reason is just another form of faith, reason is discredited.  The one artificially boosts faith; the other unjustifiably diminishes reason.  It is the latter that I am focusing on in this post: the arguments that attempt to discredit reason by saying, in effect, reason is no better than faith.

There is an implicit confession in this attack, which astonished me when I first noticed it.  It reveals that some faithful apparently know that they are on shaky ground.  They go to great lengths to evade it, but at least on some level they know that reason is valid and faith is not.  This is indicated by the logic of their argument.

Let me explain.  For a religious person that is confident that faith is equal to or superior to reason, his arguments should follow this form: “Despite evidence to the contrary, I have faith that it is so.  Therefore, it is so.”  The conclusion is demonstrably wrong - something is not true simply because one believes it to be - but at least such a position represents a defense of faith on its own terms (i.e. as an arbitrary assertion resting on the absoluteness of faith).

However, what does it say about a religious person when he attempts to sully reason by giving it the characteristics of faith?  This is an astonishing position to take for somebody who allegedly holds faith on a par with or even superior to reason.  If a man is accused of cheating at cards and he knows he has not cheated, he will declare righteously, “I did not cheat!”  He does not leap up and say “Oh, yeah?  Well, you cheated, too!”  Such a reaction would imply guilt.

Similarly, it is very revealing to see religious people not even attempt to justify their faith, but instead say, in effect, “Oh yeah?  Well, your science and reason is just as bogus as my faith!”  It betrays a lack of confidence in the faith that they cling to.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.  Observe the strategy used by proponents of “intelligent design,” which despite protestations to the contrary, is essentially a creationist argument.  They generally frame the situation to seem like it is the academic institutions that hold Darwin’s works as infallible scripture, and any “skepticism” of creationists who put forth “reasonable” hypotheses of intelligent design is to be silenced as heresy.  The religionists accuse scientists of blindly defending a Darwinian “orthodoxy” that forbids questioning even in the face of alleged “evidence” of God’s fingerprints.  This is a deliberate distortion that flips the issue on its head.  The religious zealots are made to look like “scientists,” while the actual scientists are turned into popes, bishops, and inquisitors driven by blind faith.  

This is an astounding tack to take for the creationists: to attack science by casting it as an institutionalized religion, as if it were the scientists who are dogmatically adhering to a faith that brooks no questioning.  Do you see the implication here?  The nastiest insult that anti-Darwinists can think of hissing at scientists is to accuse them of being… religious!  But this position is intelligible only if the creationists themselves regard faith and religion as untenable.

For another example, take the Doug Giles’ quote that I mentioned above, in which he goes out of his way to distort the nature of what “atheist” means.  He refuses to believe that someone would not believe in God for rational reasons, insisting that an atheist is actually one who “believes in not believing in God.”  In other words, an atheist simply “has faith” that God does not exist, as opposed to knowing that God is an arbitrary construction.  

Putting aside how ludicrous this is, let’s ask: why would Doug Giles hurl “faith” as a insult?  Why would he strain to accuse non-believers of believing?  By Mr. Giles’ own faith-based standards, if the atheist believed (via faith) that there was no God, then would that not, for him, be a superior standard of knowledge than simply knowing (via reason) that supernatural entities don’t exist?  So what does it say about Mr. Giles that in his contempt for atheists, he ascribes faith to them?  Again, the accusation is intelligible only if Mr. Giles himself assumes as a premise that faith is ridiculous.  And since he is an explicit advocate of faith and religion, he must be capable of some extraordinary logical contortions and evasions to work it all out in his mind.


Mike N said...

Great post SB. I'v run accross a few people who use such arguments as you describe who I would say are just not honest at all. But there have been others who are so concrete bound they wouldn't know how to challenge any idea on principle. In their minds, there is no way their parents and all the other adults in their lives could possibly be wrong. They are comfortable with faith because it excuses them from thinking or worse, learning how to think.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Discussion or debate with a fideist is analogous to chess:
- It doesn't have much to do with the real world.
- It is entertaining.
- It is intriguing, e.g., in learning all the main opening moves.
- You can buy hundreds of books detailing a variety of "moves," mostly by fideists but sometimes by advocates of the pseudo-alternative, scientism.

It is a game I sometimes enjoy. I have learned techniques for probing a particular fideist's position. (Not all fideists open with pawn to K4.) My favorite questions for them are:
- What do you mean by "faith"?
- What do you mean by "reason"?
- How do you decide, in a particular case, whether to use faith or reason?

Such a discussion, of course, is nearly always fruitless in terms of changing someone else's ideas. But sometimes the discussions can reveal a lot about the person I am talking to. And knowing the nature of some individuals can be very important if my life depends on them to some extent: police officers, doctors, and neighbors.

SB said...

Thanks for the comments, gentlemen.

Burgess, I loved your analogy with chess, and also appreciate learning a useful word: fideist. I did not know this word - or I had forgotten it, which amounts to the same thing! - but it is precisely the sense that I was looking for. It's much better than "religionist" because "fideism" captures the idea of a doctrine that knowledge rests upon faith. Thus it explicitly relates to epistemology instead of mere religious zeal.