Since Mark Jones linked Julian Baggini’s latest article in the new heathenism series, aptly titled “What is this foolish lust for uncertainty,” I wanted to add this post, but since I was away all day yesterday, it had to wait until now. Baggini points out that a lot of people, in a phrase borrowed by Mark Vernon from John Habgood (onetime Archbishop of York), are critical of the “lust for certainty” possessed by both believers and unbelievers, and then Baggini goes him one better, and criticises instead the “lust for uncertainty” that seems to characterise so many who are reluctant to stand by conclusions reasonably arrived at or statements justly believed to be true.
Of course, lest he should fail in his ongoing mission to discomfit the new atheists, Baggini couldn’t help but throw in the following (just to show that he hasn’t lost any of his original animus towards unbelievers who have become uncomfortably assertive about their disbelief):
Vernon’s advocacy of passionate agnosticism offers soothing camomile tea to those jittery after the triple espressos of the new atheists and religious fundamentalists.
Again suggesting, as it does, that the new atheists belong to an extremist fringe occupied, at the other extreme, by religious fundamentalists, leaves the new atheist (if s/he wants to claim that dignity) marginalised and discredited. But, surely, Baggini himself would be hard-pressed to find a new atheist who is all assertion and no qualification; it’s just handy to have an intellectual dumpster around so that you can feel pretty secure yourself from the justified criticism of others, as you disavow, virtuously, the extremes that you want to contrast with your own sweet reason.
Added later: I wrote this, and then visited Butterflies and Wheels, and Ophelia has already addressed herself to Baggini’s ever so careful way of hedging his bets. Ophelia’s peroration deserves to be quoted in full (but go over to B&W and read the whole thing):
Ok, I get it. Moderates have firm beliefs and we new atheists are extreme dogmatists. It’s one of those irregular verbs. You’re stubborn; I have a firm will. You’re bad-tempered; I’m passionate. You’re dogmatic, I have firm beliefs. You get the idea.
Get the idea? New atheists belong in the dumpster, where all the stubborn, bad-tempered, dogmatic “new atheists” belong. Well, Baggini has to keep his membership in the moderate camp safe — but that is not, notice, to class himself with the vascilating Vernon, who is a vermin of a different sort altogether from the intransigent extremists, whether new atheist or religious fundamentalist.
Nevertheless, Baggini’s point is a good one. There does seem to be a hesitancy amongst a lot of people to put things as boldy and clearly as their belief warrants. As Baggini points out, Vernon thinks that “[w]e live in an age intolerant of doubt.” The “promise of uncertainty,” says Vernon, in a Guardian piece earlier this year, is that, whether in “science or religion, only by embracing doubt can we learn and grow.” And, of course, in one sense this is true, although it has never been clear to me where religious doubt gets one. It is a common trope that religious belief is characterised by large doses of doubt and question. As I have mentioned before on this blog I have a book somewhere about — though probably stored away in a box in the garage by now, safely out of reach – entitled The Faith to Doubt. The idea of using this trope is to pull the fangs of the unbeliever’s argument by pointing out that religious belief is not all intransigent certainty, but includes an essential element of doubt as well.
However, what doubt is doing in the context of religious belief is toto caelo different from what it is doing in science. Of course, religious people doubt. When you have no evidence, and no obvious foundation for your beliefs, the act of doubting should come pretty easily! But religious doubt does not force you to look for evidence; what religious doubt forces you to do is to reaffirm your faith that much more firmly and confidently in the face of that doubt. Doubt is, in fact, a moment in the process called faith. Faith is not a singular state of mind, but a state which goes through many vicissitudes, from doubt about God’s existence or goodness, to doubt about the more arcane facts and features with which the narrative of faith is liberally sprinkled. We’re told that Mother Theresa (of rather ill fame, in my book) wrote to her “father confessor” that she had no sense of faith at all, and could not find comfort in the sense of a presence, that is, the presence of God, as she lived out her life of faith. By any reasonable account, this should have made her an unbeliever. But this is not what the person of faith takes from the story. It is the maintenance of faith — even if one only goes through the external routine gestures of faith which seem otherwise empty of emotional content or intellectual conviction — that is the victory of faith. Faith goes through what John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul,” when all the comfort, trust and conviction of faith retreats, and life seems barren and hopeless, and yet, by maintaining the external practices of faith one is, even in these moments of deepest doubt and question, still a person of faith, indeed, for this very reason, because it is faith held in the teeth of storms of doubtfulness, a person of very great faith. So it should surprise no one if at some point in the future, the very near future, perhaps, Mother Theresa (as she called herself, instead of using her Albanian name Agnes Bojaxhiu) should be canonised, and denominated a saint of the church. For remaining faithful, even in the face of great doubt, and possibly even in the face of the complete absence of real belief and confidence in the truth of faith, is to have, in the religious lexicon, the greatest faith.
But when Vernon speaks of uncertainty and doubt, this is not what he has in mind. Again, as with Regina Schwartz, whose article “Secularism, Belief, and Truth” I commented on in my last post, Vernon wants us to think that there is a kind of commonality between religious belief and scientific belief. He wants, as Schwartz unquestionably did, to think of these kinds of beliefs as all on a level, and such as to be always held with less than firm confidence. Indeed, the suggestion is, that all belief must, in the nature of the case, be held with modest uncertainty, knowing that all belief, as scientists have reason to know, is subject to doubt, question, reassessment and, eventually, perhaps, to radical change. And since scientific beliefs can change, and as such should therefore be held with appropriately tentative conviction, we should, it seems, recognise that scientific beliefs are far more like religious beliefs than the over-confident scientific atheists are prepared to acknowledge.
It is perhaps worthwhile to quote Vernon at length here. In his article “Uncertainty’s Promise“, explaining the role of uncertainty in science and religion, he says this:
My old physic[s] tutor, Carlos Frenk, is an excellent case in point. He is one of the world’s leading researchers on dark matter – as is advertised by a large poster that hangs outside his office. It is inscribed with five bold words: “Dark Matter – Does It Exist?” To put it another way, Professor Frenk has forged a career out of navigating the terra incognita of the cosmos. He believes there is dark matter. It makes sense of the way visible matter in the universe hangs together. But there are no guarantees. Moreover, that’s a fact that his peers ache to exploit. They seek to falsify his thesis, a negative process by which they hope to prove him wrong. That’s what you have to live with when your expertise is on what’s uncertain. And yet, Professor Frenk remains persistently sanguine. Falsity is the only certainty in science, he tells me. Science is organised doubt. It’s only when scientists can no longer say no to a thesis that it stands.
In religion, the parallel is called the via negativa, or negative way. It is as essential to theology as falsifiability is to science because of the nature of theology’s subject matter: God. We can’t understand God, observe theologians like Thomas Aquinas. And the false gods we cling to must be exposed; the idols we erect must be smashed. It’s another negative process, known in religion as entering the “cloud of unknowing”. But finally, when an individual can no longer say no to the true God, they find what is known as faith.
There are differences between the two, of course. Science seeks evidence to make its knowledge stand. Religion must rely more on the fullness of human experience: evidence can’t take you very far because the divine is darker even than dark matter.
I apologise for quoting at such length, but it is important that we see the trick that he is playing on us. And it is a trick (which is why I gave up reading Vernon with any seriousness long ago). Notice the difference between science and religion: “Science seeks evidence to make its knowledge stand. Religion must rely more on the fullness of the human experience.” ‘Fullness of human experience’ is fuzzy. What does it mean? Who possesses this fulness? How could we ever know? Just because someone like Alan Lightman had a encounter with an osprey which left him in tears? Is this an expression of the fulness of human experience?
It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears.
Lightman, it seems to me, tries deliberately to obfuscate matters, so that we are left without firm ground on which to stand, and he does it for the same reason that Vernon and Schwartz talk in fuzzy ways about supposed religious “knowledge”. But there’s an important difference that these addled minds don’t want to acknowledge. We can know when empirical evidence shows us that what physicists call dark matter is there. There is something there. It is there as a function within the the mathematical calculations which are confirmed by the evidence, whatever dark matter turns out to be. It may remain mysterious, but it will still play a role in our account of the world. Later scientists may be able to give more full-bodied meaning to what scientists now call dark matter, but this will not diminish the truth of what scientists now say about it. But the religious experience — it that is what it was? — of Lightman’s “look of connectedness, of mutual respect,” and of sharing the same land: this is all something very different, and it is really hard to say that this was, as Lightman wants us to think, something helpfully called knowledge. That privileged and profound sense of relatedness to the world of life, indeed, even to the cosmos itself, is not an uncommon, and can certainly be a profoundly moving, experience. But why would anyone want to confuse that experience with, and play it off against, the more critical knowledge of that same world that we come to know in scientific terms? Why should this enter into a discussion of the relationship between science and religion?
This was one of the problems with Thomas’ Kuhn’s idea of paradigm change in science — and here, I am afraid, I tread in territory which is largely unfamiliar to me, those places which were marked off on ancient maps with the words ‘There be dragons here’ — though of course the ready way in which religious thinkers adopted the language of “paradigm change” should have been an indication that there was something inherently problematic about it from the start. However, as I understand it, there is some doubt that paradigm change of the kind Kuhn had in mind actually does take place in science. Kuhn seemed more preoccupied with the conservatism of the scientific consensus than with the actual way in which new information was assimilated to existing paradigms. Einstein did not show that Newton’s calculations were wrong, and in fact Newton’s calculations and laws of motion, I understand, still do for the kinds of physics that earthbound physicists and engineers use every day. What Einstein’s theory of relativity does, as I understand it, is to offer much more accurate predictions than Newton’s, and that quantum mechanics, and even more advanced findings of particle physics takes Einstein a step further along in understanding the structure of the physical universe, and that the transition from one to another is not so much a process of adopting successive Gestalts or paradigms as it is of reconfiguring what is known by means of the assimilation of new and more refined theories which include newly imagined and discovered features of what had been, in earlier theories, only dimly seen, if seen at all. But there is not a totally new theory or paradigm, but one in which Newton’s can be taken as a first approximation. (But here, as I say, I speak from ignorance.)
But my point is not to give an accurate account of contemporary physics and cosmology; my only purpose here is to expose Vernon’s trick. He wants to level religious and scientific belief, so that we are always doomed to express ourselves in beliefs which are subject to qualification, question and doubt. But the kinds of qualification are very different, and the questions and the doubts play very different roles in science and religion, and trying to level them in the way that Vernon does is, in my view, simple prevarication, and he should know better. The idea is to lull the religious into a kind of false confidence in the processes of what might be called “coming to know” in religion. But the confidence is utterly misplaced, because the “coming to know” is only the flip side of doubt, not a confirmation of something doubted. The scientist makes predictions, and when the equations come out wrong, then there is no reason to believe what the equations claim to be true. The religious believer does not make predictions. What the religious believer does is to go through a process of doubting which is in a sense inevitable for anyone with even a modicum of integrity, because there is simply no evidence upon which to base confident belief, and returning to faith after going through the process of religious doubt is not a process of confirming anything, but is still making a leap of faith, because all the believer can do is to “rely more on the fullness of human experience” — as Vernon so helpfully but confusingly puts it — than on any evidence actually encountered. The fullness is only a subjective confidence that one has arrived at something that is genuinely fuller, something like Lightman’s moment of recognition in his encounter with the osprey. But what on earth can fulness of human experience mean? Vernon goes on to say that in religion “evidence can’t take you very far because the divine is darker even than dark matter,” but that is simply to acknowledge failure, not to ground faith.
So we come back to Baggini. Certainly, there is room to doubt, but we should not doubt, simply because we are afraid to say something that questions the certainties of others. Baggini suggests that there is a dangerous “dogmatophobia” at work here, “the liberal fear of being judgmental of the beliefs of others.” So we are afraid to say, what is true, that religious ways of killing animals, to use Baggini’s example, is unnecessarily cruel and should be prohibited. If Muslims and Jews think it is necessary to kill animals while they are still conscious by slitting their throats, then they must either eat meat that is haram (or its Jewish equivalent) or become vegetarians. The religious idiocy that demands cruelty has to learn to retreat before the moral imperative to cause as little suffering as possible. In precisely the same way, the old Christian prohibition of suicide, which underlies religious opposition to assisted dying, will have to give way in the face of the much more important principle of the freedom of the individual to choose the manner and time of one’s own death. Religious rules regarding women and purity, women and dress, and women and their role in the religious community: all these must simply change in response to the requirement that all people be treated equally.
As Baggini justly says:
… there is no choice that has to be made between [the extremes of] certainty and uncertainty. Rather, certainty is a matter of degree. It may be that nothing is certain, but not everything is equally uncertain. It is not certain that global warming is both real and anthropogenic, but that does not mean that those who advocate action on the belief that it is have fallen victim to a lust for certainty. The mistaken ones are those who make too much of this uncertainty and use it as a reason for inaction.
Beliefs also are of very different kinds. Scientific findings are in one category of belief, and can be held with much greater assurance of their truth than the multiply different beliefs of the religions, all of which cannot possibly be true. As Baggini says so well:
The mark of a mature, psychologically healthy mind is indeed the ability to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, but only as much as there really is. Uncertainty is no virtue when the facts are clear, and ambiguity is mere obfuscation when more precise terms are applicable. [my italics]
And a society based on the idea, as Regina Schwartz would have it, that all beliefs are equally uncertain, and that all beliefs must be allowed to play a role in the way that our societies are organised, is a recipe for disaster.
Take one belief as a closing example. There is a cultural belief, which is deeply rooted within the hermeneutic tradition of Islam, that women are second class citizens — supposing that Islam recognises the idea of citizenship for women at all – and that they should conceal their faces and their bodies from men who are unrelated to them by family or marriage. This is one of the practices that Muslims have been permitted to import into societies which are firmly based on the ideal of the equality of men and women. This means that women from societies largely governed my Islamic principles, when they come to, say, Canada, or the US, or Britain, who may come to these societies where equality is valued, precisely because equality is so valued, may end up being as bound by the values they sought to escape, as they were in their society of origin. Women in Tunisia, who have been living and working and dressing as they chose, are now afraid that the “moderate” Islamist party that won in the recent elections will be under strong pressure to restrict women to the home, and to other restrictive Islamic practices regarding dress and relationship. If this happens we in the West will lament that this should happen, yet we think it is perfectly in order for women to be imprisoned by these practices in the midst of free societies. Expressing certainty that these practices are unacceptable is itself apparently not acceptable. It will be interpreted as racism or Islamophobia. And so liberals in the West remain largely silent to the injustices that are being suffered by Muslim women in ghettos in Western cities — like London or Toronto or Paris — where Muslim practices are all but mandatory, even though women can be found who will tell you that they wear the hijab willingly as an expression of their faith. I think we must do better than that. For all Vernon’s religious talk about the fulness of being human, we need to recognise that religion has no monopoly on what it means to be human, and we need to be prepared to subvert religious ideas of humanity in favour of ideas which can be given a more secure foundation in critical thought about political society and how best and most justly we can organise our relationships.