Posts Tagged ‘ethics of belief’

force for good?

December 21, 2010

Happy Solstice!

My independent study student has been wrestling with what I’ve come to think of (at Rebecca Goldstein’s instigation in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction) as the “atheist with a soul” challenge. I wrestle with it too.

The challenge, put succinctly, is to decide whether non-believers ought to concede the rational right of believers to believe. Goldstein draws heavily on William James’s famous essay “Will to Believe,” in which James rejects the standard of W.K. Clifford that it’s always wrong to believe anything on “insufficient evidence.” (That has to be scare-quoted, because the question of what constitutes sufficiency is itself a point of serious contention here.)

James may go too far in his defense of “belief,” and I’m personally very sympathetic in my own habits of belief-formation to the Clifford line. It’s finally a question, though, of how humbly ecumenical and “friendly” an atheist should be towards theists.

James said this debate is not mostly about God. Most of what humans have said and thought about God may even be “absurd” without tarnishing the religious impulse. It’s about life.
It’s about individuals coming to terms with their existence, and finding ways of living constructive, engaged lives.
With the semester at last concluded, I finally got around to watching the Hitchens-Blair debate in Toronto last month. Of course Hitch wiped the floor, forensically speaking, with his Right Honourable opponent.  But…
Blair’s humility and solicitude on behalf of those whose lives have been enriched by their peculiar personal religiosity still rings true to me. Or rather, not “true” but somehow “right.”
Yes, much harm has been done historically, hysterically, in the name of religion. Much harm has been done, period. I wish everyone found, in our shared natural and humanistic legacy, the sufficient ground for good that I and my fellow humanists find.
But when we come across good people doing good work and crediting faith with supplying their fuel, let’s look pragmatically to the fruits – not the roots. And let’s keep encouraging them to consider the inspiration under our feet,  in the stars, in the natural universe.
That said, though, I have to say too: Damn! Hitch is magnificent.

down the road

October 7, 2009

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin.‘ Nancy Sinatra

charles-darwin-tree-of-life-sketch-1837“Truth” continues, first with a cryptic statement from our authors I consider a howler: “One need not attack science to reject Darwin’s theory of evolution.” No?

Granted, Darwin’s theory of evolution is not to be conflated with evolution per se. It’s not a necessary truth that Darwin’s version, or indeed that natural selection in general,  is a comprehensively correct account of how species originate and evolve on Earth. It’s a contingent matter of fact that Charlie Darwin (and not Alfred Russell Wallace, or even Charlie’s grandpa Erasmus, or who knows who) was the guy who assembled and finally propounded in public the most cogent account of biological nature’s modus operandi. Fact is, though, it has yet to be supplanted after 150 years. It keeps looking more and more elegant and right, as far as it went. It didn’t go far enough to incorporate the facts of DNA and the double helix, for instance. But neither did it block Crick’s and Watson’s way. It was a fruitful hypothesis that has multiplied.

So don’t hold your breath looking for reputable scientists willing to “reject Darwin’s theory” outright. Jerry Coyne speaks for many: “We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. We should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.” Why Evolution is True

Ken Miller, a prominent theist, has testified that it’s “the cornerstone of modern biology… a powerful and expanding theory that unites knowledge from every branch of the life sciences into a single science.”  Only a Theory

Theories are not, as Darwin’s critics often fail to grasp, unsuccessful aspirants to factual status. “Facts get interpreted according to theories.” Without theories, there could be no facts. Gravitation is a theory, and most of us would say it’s a fact too. If we’re Humeans, we won’t say it’s an item of certain knowledge; but then we don’t need to say that, in order to stand our ground and navigate it. If we’re pragmatists, we’ll say it’s an extraordinarily useful belief that’s paid its way so far, one we’re perpetually prepared to act on. That’s pretty solid ground.

Fortunately, it gets better in this chapter. “We want to say that truth means something more than “very well confirmed”; it means “the way the world really is.” That’s the presumption, balanced in science by the humble admission that our inquiry into truth is nowhere near completion. That’s why C.S. Peirce— recall him from the James bio: the brilliant but bumptiousRoad_Closed_Ahead_sign.svg[1] philosopher James thanklessly helped and publicized– called truth the view which is destined to be arrived at in the vanishingly remote long-run. Meanwhile, we must regard all truth claims as fallible and all disconfirmations as progressive, useful, suggestive, & encouraging. Peirce gave science its best rallying cry: “Do not block the road of inquiry!’

These terms “fact” and “truth” often get jumbled and confused. James is again a voice of clarity. “Truths emerge from facts… the facts themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.” And beliefs require believers, actors, doers. That’s us, the tellers and deniers of truth (and of falsehood), the theoreticians and experimentalists. When we respect logic and evidence and observation, mistrusting unexamined authority, we’re rational. That doesn’t mean we already own the truth, the whole truth etc., but simply that we’re on the road and on our way. We’re giving prejudice and superstition “down the road,” as my country cousins might say.

Sometimes truth runs afoul of our raisin’ (they might add); when it does, scientific rationality stiffens our resolve to stay on track. And scientific humility grants us leave to hit the occasional roadside attraction, in the form of  religious or spiritual speculation concerning matters that may range beyond our trip-tik and exceed the ambit of empirical inquiry: the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything. Science makes no advance declarations about this. Darwin himself pointed out that it’s more often those who know little, not those who know much, who are sure that a given inquiry is beyond science.

But the point here is that if we’re going to make time on our trip, we have to get back on the highway. We have to continue asking nature to yield specific information regarding particular matters of fact. Take care of the days, the years will take care of themselves: sound advice for students as well as scientists.

Why be rational? As Carl Sagan used to say, science isn’t perfect but it’s the best tool we’ve got. Acting rationally  maximizes our chances of getting knowledge, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the “occasional ego boost”  that comes from usin’ your noggin.

kierkegaard3Not many philosophers have openly embraced irrationality. (Many have courted her, but most often unwittingly or else with great reluctance and discretion.) Soren Kierkegaard, though, defended personal, “subjective truth.” His concern was not with how the world is, but with one’s own– his own– personal commitments in the face of “objective uncertainty.” If we can’t have the whole truth now, he implied, let us abandon the pretense of objectivity altogether and have ourselves a private, impassioned little fling. Let us take a leap of faith.

It’s a profoundly personal approach to faith and belief (less evidently to truth), but paradoxically there’s quite an extensive community of Kierkegaardians out there. (My old classmate George is one of their leaders.) They’re all individuals, they don’t have to follow anyone… but they choose to follow the melancholy Dane. For reasons, I imagine, not “because [they think]  it is absurd.” (Creo quia est absurdum, Kierkegaard liked to say.)

There is something willfully excessive about this view, but also something enticing– especially when weighing Kierkegaard against the philosophical giants of his time (Hegel especially) who were so confident of our human ability eventually to bring Geist, the great aborning  World Spirit of arch-Rationalist legend, to objective fruition.  But must there not be some reason why you or I should decide to “leap,” unless we’re comfortable with making life-defining choices arbitrarily? That really does seem irrational, and not in a good way.

But perhaps Kierkegaard gains in popular appeal by association with the romantic movement, and poets like “Bright Star” John Keats. If a short, intense, passionate life appeals, maybe Kierkegaardian irrationality does too. But still, is a preference for passion purely arbitrary? OK, that horse has suffered enough. I’ll stop.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism has a lot going for it, but “There are no facts” goes too far. Like Kierkegaard, his interest is not in the impersonal, objective truth but in personal passion and the expression of his own creative will. He treated life itself as his artistic canvas, and his personal style as an artful creation. The two great 19th century precursors of existentialism disagreed about God and another world, but their individualistic repudiation of Truth as something larger and more important than themselves is of a piece.

Much in our experience is subjective, but “it’s all subjective” really is a lazy untruth. That’s an ironic charge to lay at the feet of either the great self-styled philosopher of adversity (“What doesn’t kill me” etc.) or the tortured sufferer of “sickness unto death” but it seems accurate. Accuracy: another feather on the scale tipping toward some notion of objectivity as our goal in assessing matters of fact.

You’re on your own with Foucault and Habermas, I developed a blind prejudice against them both long ago. My  bad, I suppose.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000) was intriguing and original– I spent part of a party drinking with him in the kitchen once– but I’veQuine never had any trouble communicating about rabbits (“gavagai!”), even after a drink or two. (I used to wonder, with that string of initials,  if he might not have been a good spokesperson for the Seagram’s label.) His indeterminacy thesis seems overblown, but I’m sure he was right to emphasize holism and the web of belief. Novel experiences invite creative and experimental assimilation. That’s the spirit of science.

bertrandrussellthumbFinally, Lord Russell. He often said things he didn’t mean, for the sheer shock and amusement of it. I’m pretty sure he didn’t really mean it when he wrote, “Better the world should perish than I or any other  human being should believe a lie.” That’s on a par with Hume’s pricked pinky, an instigating statement designed to provoke serious “out of the box” reflection. And it echoes Clifford: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

I’m with James on this, though: “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.”

We’ve all swallowed our share of lies and inadvertent untruths, and peddled ’em too. Thankfully, the world has survived our collective duplicity and ignorance. We must hope it’s getting better at detecting the truth, and wanting to.

handling it

October 5, 2009

curieMarie Curie (1867-1934), Nobel laureate in chemistry, 1911… “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”

She knew she wasn’t dreaming. Only in philosophy class, and in Hollywood, do apparently mentally-healthy people really entertain that improbable hypothesis. “No one in his or her right mind ever really wonders whether the world exists.” (And even those who believe everything is predestined look both ways before they cross the street.)

I’ll bet Madame Curie also knew that not all human questions are as responsive to scientific habits of inquiry as those whose answers were radium and polonium. The best questers after truth know when to wear which hat. They learn how to pose productive questions. But they also learn that some “imponderable” questions are well worth pondering anyway.

Our chapter begins with some good, productive (though debatable) questions. Here’s another one: is it always and everywhere wrong, in an ethical sense, to believe anything on insufficient evidence? That was W.K. Clifford‘s view. William James disputed it. More about that next time. For now, let’s take note that the resolution of this dispute depends heavily on how we answer the question “What is truth?”

Is it correspondence, coherence, satisfaction, pragmatic utility, or something else? Is it necessary or contingent? Is it objective or subjective? Can you blame the voice of youth for asking…? Maybe we just can’t handle it.

But that won’t be our assumption here.

There are contingent, empirical truths. I’m typing on my computer keyboard right now, as a matter of fact. (Well, I was when I wrote this. Is it still true?) There are necessary, logical truths.  “2 + 2 = 4.”

And there are much more interesting candidates for truth, hotly contested by intensely interested humans. “Is there a God?” is much more interesting, and should be much more controversial, than “Do you believe in God?” (There’s actually considerable dispute as to the gospel truthmore… epistemological relativism is not true for everyone… knowing the truthalready knowing… really really… radical skepticismsuperstitionfideism.) BTW: here’s what atheists talk about when they gather at their big  annual “shindig,” according to Jerry Coyne.

Does experience generate knowledge? Are there innate ideas? Is the mind a blank slate? Is this a world of pure chance? Are we evolving? Do I have a meaningful future? Do we? What’s going to come of this world, and our species? Is life good, or no good? Is the truth about all these things already settled? Or does truth– like other items more commonly mentioned on bumper stickers– happen? If so, what makes it happen?

Imponderable? Not at all. Let’s put on our thinking hats.

What about thinking itself? Is it immediately in touch only with ideas in your head, representations of allegedly real things we can’t directly encounter? That was John Locke‘s assumption (no, not that John Locke), shared by Hume. James the radical empiricist had another idea.

But David Hume (1711-1776) (more… & more) was still wedded to representational realism, and concluded that knowledge is beyond us. But habit and custom, sentiment and decency, are not. On his skeptical/empiricist view, we  can lead perfectly respectable, responsible, neighborly, happy, honest lives without possessing– or knowing that we possess– absolutely-certain knowledge of what is true.

little fingerHere’s a nice Humean challenge:  Is it unreasonable (“against reason”) to “prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of [your] little finger”?  David said no. (And David was a nice guy.)

What do you say? world destruction

o “prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of my little finger” would not be
unreasonable (“against reason”)?