I’ve been listening to some of Peter Boghossian’s public lectures about the nature of faith. Here are a couple of examples, and they’re worth watching straight through. Here’s the first — entitled “Jesus, The Easter Bunny and Other Delusions: Just Say No!”
That is quite long, and there is a shorter version, dealing with roughly the same things, accessible here — entitled “Faith: Pretending to know things you don’t know”
Now, as most of you will know, when philosophers and others begin to criticise faith as believing things, people of faith will immediately turn round and claim that faith has nothing to do with believing. They will begin, as the Archbishop of Canterbury did with Richard Dawkins, talking in poetic language, which, no matter how you read it, simply cannot be understood as belief about things “out there,” but become, instead, about things “in here” — “in my head,” “conformable to my feelings,” and so on.
We are puzzled along with Dawkins. What could Rowan Williams actually mean by nature “opening itself up to its own depths”? But by slipping off into poetic language it seems as if he is no longer talking about things “out there,” and so the language of faith seems to escape the epistemic conditions necessary for us to be talking about “the same thing,” about something that could claimed with justice to be true.
Notice how important it is, if we are going to speak about our beliefs, and if these are to accord with the way things actually are, that we be able to refer to “the same thing.” When language becomes poetic in the way that the archbishop’s does in this instance, can we be confident that another person using the language of faith is speaking about “the same thing” that the archbishop intends when he speaks about nature “opening itself up to its own depths”? And how could he begin to show, not only that using this form of words makes sense, but that there are grounds for believing the sense that it makes?
Isn’t the archbishop pretending to know something that he does not know? It’s not altogether clear what it is that he is pretending to know, but he is making a claim to something having objectively taken place. For example, he speaks “knowingly” of a period of preparation for god to make himself known in a new way. However, if we put pressure on any one of the terms in this claim, could he show that there was (i) an old way in which god had made himself known, or (ii) a period of preparation or transition — by whom?, how identified?, how confirmed? — or (iii) an event that ties god’s new way of being known with the old way, and with the period of transition which prepared for the new way to come to fruition? The epistemic task here is simply insurmountable. The Jews, for example, who are followers of “the old way of god’s making himself known,” and stick to it to this day, do not see that there was an intervening period of transition, and would deny that god could be made known in the way supposed by Christians. They would deny that any transitional period or time of preparation exists in their tradition. How could Christians demonstrate that Jesus was in fact that Jewish messiah, and moreover that the Jews had simply misunderstood — and still misunderstand — what the messianic prophecies are all about? Does it make sense to say that what is being talked about is identifiable as “the same thing”?
Karen Armstrong tries to do an end run around this difficulty by saying that faith is not about knowledge at all in the sense of knowing things about the world (or reality generally). Faith is really a skill, like riding a bike, and only those who live the life of faith can understand what faith really is. It is simply a misunderstanding, she would say, to suggest that religious people believe things, or purport, let alone pretend, to know things that they don’t know. Religious believers, rather, are those who live in a certain way, and find that that way is somehow the way of life.
Of course, the serious problem with Armstrong’s position — and what amounts to a cognitive escape hatch — is that, as the archbishop had to acknowledge when backed into a corner, it can’t be held without ancillary beliefs, beliefs without which faith would only be a kind of emptying of the mind. And while the latter is often practiced by the religious in mystical states and meditation, it is hard to see that such states or practices, however beneficial, can be thought of in terms of faith. Indeed, meditation is something, as Sam Harris tells us, that anyone may practice and find useful. And this is simply not what religious people are claiming — and if it is what they are claiming, then we can cancel through by all the different positive beliefs of the religions, and simply go with the practice, which can have no implications for belief as such.
Of course, there are other dimensions of faith, dimensions which are not based upon beliefs or the claim that certain things are true, but are what might be thought of as self-help maxims. Ideas that are very common in Christian theology, like casting all one’s cares and burdens on Jesus, or sharing one’s sufferings with Christ, or Martin Luther’s idea that, “faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times.” (quoted under “faith” (qv) in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, 230-31) But even here, running through the “act” of casting one’s cares on Jesus, or staking one’s life on one’s confidence in god, there must be a fundamental believing in, not only the existence of a god, but in god’s interest in and care about and power to fulfil the lives of those who are faithful in this practical way. Faith, in this sense, is living in such a way as to pretend to know things that one does not know. There is simply no way around those fundamental beliefs.
Nor is there any way around the fact that those beliefs conflict with the beliefs of so many other people about the things that people pretend to know. Thus Christians believe that in Jesus god has come to be known in a new way, whereas Jews do not think that this is true, and Muslims believe that both Christians and Jews are wrong, and that they alone know the truth about the way things really are. They too pretend to know things that they do not know, and could not possibly know. That’s what the idea of revelation is doing, trying to take up the slack between the claim to know and the absence of evidence.
But this is also what cognitive sickness looks like. When Dawkins says that god is a delusion, what he is saying is that, cognitively, people are making claims to know something which they cannot know, because there is simply no evidence that things are as believers claim things to be. If things were the way believers purport them to be, then there would be evidence; there would be ways in which believers could come to agree that they are not only speaking about the same thing, but could give reasons for thinking that they are speaking about the same thing. But what Philip Kitcher calls the symmetry argument is decisive against any such claim. The symmetry argument goes like this. A, B, and C, grow up in different cultures and there come to hold different religious beliefs. Had A been brought up like C, they would very likely share the same or similar beliefs, allowing, of course, for the influence of disbelief or missionary attempts (sometimes successful) to convert As to Cs’ belief system. The point is that they do not pretend to know the same things that they do not know; they pretend to know different things that they do not know, and convincing As that Cs’ beliefs are true, does not fulfil the epistemic requirement that they must have some way of discerning “the same thing.” This is where evidence comes in. To claim that we are speaking about the same thing, we must have evidence that each can acknowledge as indicating that the same thing is what we are talking about. This takes evidence which is independent of the beliefs themselves, and faith does not provide such evidence. Indeed, it cannot provide such evidence, since then it would not be faith but fact, and every reasonable person would be compelled by the evidence so to believe.
That’s one reason we now have airplanes, computers and atom bombs, regardless of the cultural background of those who know about the principles which underlie their construction and dependability. When two materials scientists speak about the strength of materials out of which jet aircraft are constructed, they base themselves on well-known principles of the physics of different materials, and the rigorous testing through which they are put. The first commercial jet passenger aircraft was the de Haviland Comet. I have reason to remember this aircraft, because parents of students at my school in India died in a crash of the Comet taking off from Calcutta airport, and there were a number of other disasters as well. The crashes, initially thought to be due to pilot error, were traced to metal fatigue. As the Wikipedia entry says:
… a few years after entering commercial service, Comet airframes began suffering catastrophic metal fatigue, which in combination with cabin pressurisation cycles, caused two well-publicised accidents where the aircraft tore apart in mid-flight.
By means of checking and testing it was determined that the investigators were talking about the same thing, which is vital if we are to talk about reality at all, and be able not only to progress in our technology, but come to know things that were not known before. The problem with religion is that it does not provide a way of doing this. Attempts are made to do so by trying to fix doctrines at specific stages of development, and then ruling out any other ways of thinking about the matters in hand, but this really is a form of self-deception, artificially establishing limits and then refusing to allow anything to change one’s mind. As Professor Boghossian says, this is the crucial test as to whether something is reasonably held to be true. If no circumstance could change your mind, then it is a matter of faith, of pretending to know something that you could not possibly know.
And as Boghossian also says, the simplest way to deal with this form of self-deception is simply to say “NO!” Not only is this simple and effective, we must insist upon it. We must insist that people demonstrate that they are talking about something that can be identified, so that we are reasonably thought to be talking about the same thing. If we cannot identify something as the same in different contexts, then we are speaking about feelings, about subjective preferences, about things that could easily be otherwise if we felt differently or approached things from a different angle. It is vital for the health of our societies, as Boghossian states, that we detach certain things from faith. Morality, for instance, does not depend on faith at all, and it is not only wrong, it is dangerous to suppose that there is an essential connexion between faith and goodness, an assumption that is made altogether too often, because of the enormous moral profile that religions have created for themselves. The Vatican, for instance, claims to speak for everyone, for the good itself, in making its moral demands, despite the completely amoral character of the Vatican and its machinations in societies around the world. Islam claims to have the blueprint for the perfect society, and yet the madness and inhumanity of every society governed by Islamic principles is evident to anyone with an ounce of humanity and moral insight. Faith is clearly a cognitive sickness, and it creates moral wastelands which are coextensive with it. We must carry out the laborious practice of detaching morality from faith. Whenever anyone makes a claim about faith and morals, we must be ready to challenge faith, and affirm morality as a human project, always in the process of growth, change, and, with a will, progress, never to be bound to pretended knowledge of things we could not possibly know.
Having just seen this over at Jerry Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True, and it being so apposite to what I have been saying (following Boghossian), this early Peanuts cartoon makes the point very clearly: