Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Faith and Knowledge

In my last post, I discussed the nature of my skepticism regarding claims of God, miracles and the supernatural. It's a response to the common theist argument that I'm being dogmatic, closed-minded, and that mine is just as much a matter of faith as theirs. Beyond the fact that this tu quoque* is not an argument, it does make me want to talk, again, about the question how do you get your knowledge?

When it comes to truth claims, again, I have two First Principles: first, that a claim should not be accepted until it has been demonstrated. Second, truth should be constant for all observers. We live in a world where journalistic balance requires two talking heads from either side of any issue to go on television and argue with each other for five minutes. We think of understanding of issues involves my version, your version, and the truth somewhere in the middle.

It doesn't always work that way, though, particularly in formal argumentation. In fact, the third of the Logical Absolutes is the Law of the Excluded Middle for statements of truth. For example, the statement "God exists" is either true, or it is false, not both at the same time and not any kind of halfway. One of the two possibilities is necessarily wrong. Theists make the claim that one can obtain knowledge through faith, and I propose that this claim is false.

What is "faith?" The apostle Paul wrote that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. I agree. Paul is saying that to have faith is to act as if your belief is true. He says "assurance," "conviction," regarding things hoped for, and not seen. He instructs us to treat hopes as certain and to use certainty as truth, without confirmation or evidence.

This is a bit of a tonal shift in the bible, and to me it is an indication that the writer of those words lived during a time when paradigms were beginning to change. If Moses ever saw a burning bush, a pillar of fire, or parted a sea, he would be past Paul’s definition – his faith would be the assurance of past experience, the conviction of things seen in broad daylight. In the Old Testament, faith generally meant "loyalty and obedience to God." The faith of Abraham was not in the strength of his belief, but in his willingness to obey God's command to sacrifice his son. This theme is lost when read with the New Testament definition in mind, as most Christians will. (I can’t speak for other religions but I note that “Islam” means “submission” to the will of Allah.)

It’s only in those writings of the first and second century that we get this notion that faith includes, even is defined by, credulity to the uncorroborated. Think about it—the early Christian writings were all both created and promulgated by faith communities organized around a single supposed miracle, that the Son of God died, and then rose again. At the time, few believed, nobody could prove, and--even though accounts of it include mentions of an earthquake, an eclipse, and the walking dead—the subject of whom had quickly vanished without a trace. The nature of this miracle was such that it was not obedience, but belief, that defined one’s faith.

Consider the miracles attributed to Jesus during his lifetime. If they ever happened, then I'd argue that the Disciples did not need purely Pauline faith. And yet, as Jesus is walking on the proverbial water, a patently undeniable display of power, the focus is placed on Peter’s doubt. The story, first written decades after Jesus’ death, says that when he tried to walk on water with Jesus, he started to sink, and Jesus chided him for his lack of faith. Was it not immediately demonstrated that Jesus had the power to keep him above the water? At that point, did Peter not possess both belief and knowledge? I’m sure it’s plausible that Peter had a Luke Skywalker moment to say “I don’t believe it,” with Jesus’ “O ye of little faith” serving as Yoda’s “That is why you fail,” but surely it is easier to accept that which you’ve seen yourself than, as Paul tells us, to believe without ever seeing.

If faith is a valid means to obtain knowledge of the real truth, then we should expect users of faith to reach somewhat similar conclusions about the important questions that go under the heading of “matters of faith.” It nearly goes without saying that this is false. We have over 30,000 different denominations of Protestantism alone, plus Catholics, Orthodox, Islam, Hinduism; the list goes on and on. We cannot even accept this as agreement on the claim "God Exists," because the attributes each faith and even each believer assign to God are mutually contradictory, and thus impossible.

It’s worse than the joke about the doting mother watching the marching band: “Oh, look at my Johnny, he’s the only one in step!” In the case of faith, not only is nobody in step, they’re playing off different sheet music, different meter, different tempo, their instruments are tuned for incompatible scales and their maps of the parade routes are wildly different. While this doesn't prove that all of them are wrong in their beliefs, we do know that if we have 100 marchers then at best 99 of them are wrong, and faith doesn’t tell us which it is, any more than you could judge the correct strain of music from the marching band cacophony.

It necessarily tells us that faith is capable of producing a false conclusion. It tells us that if we go on faith, we have no assurance we aren’t wrong, that somebody or nobody else has the right answer. This shouldn't come as a surprise--after all, we basically are talking about believing in god because you believe in god. If you accept a claim on the basis of accepting of the claim, it's circular, invalid. If you have an unsound syllogism you can "prove" nearly anything. Almost any theistic claim to demonstrate god's existence is going to begin with this presupposition that god exists, asserting that the emotion of certainty is actually real.

And as far as methodological naturalism goes? It generates internally consistent, testable, correctable models of the reality which we experience. It allows consensus to be built. If people disagree over facts, it allows for one person to be proven wrong. It generates new questions. It opens up areas about which we know nothing, giving further opportunities for our knowledge to expand. Whenever unanswered questions have begged the intercession of a higher power, further inquiry has unlocked the puzzles.

I reject the substitution of presupposition for knowledge. I have literally seen it argued that, in a non-theistic universe, trying to demonstrate the "evidence for 'evidence'" leads to infinite regress, whereas theists "know" that evidence exists because God is unchanging and thus the universe he created reflects that consistency. Note that the existence of god is simply asserted.

I'm fully aware of the limits of inductive reasoning, that science may approach truth without ever completely proving it. But on the principles that no claim should be accepted until it is demonstrated, and that truth should be constant for all observers, science does quite well. It has never even hinted at any need for a God hypothesis.

"Even if you can’t imagine the explanation, Sister, remember there are things beyond your knowledge. Even if you feel certainty, it is an emotion, not a fact."

--Father Flynn, from "DOUBT," written by John Patrick Shanley

*tu quoque: from the Latin, loosely translated, "I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I?”

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On Skepticism of Claims

I've decided for my first blog post to address a common argument that floats around the apologist circles: Methodological Naturalism. I've often gotten into online discussions that quickly got derailed by the accusation that I, as the skeptic/atheist/naturalist in the conversation, have a presuppositionalist, faith-based position that nothing supernatural exists.

This really does cut to the heart of the matter for me, for reasons which I'll explore in depth another time. But briefly, the apologist is attempting to frame the issue to their advantage; "Naturalism" is not a word that is used in scientific circles in the sense that theists use it. The apologist isn't saying that I'm a researcher of ecology or the flora/fauna of a given region, they are applying this "-ism" label to me to make implications about what arguments I'm necessarily going to reject out of hand for faith-based reasons. (It's the same reason that I don't think "atheism" is ever going to not be hors de combat: there's too much of a connotation that it's a dogmatic "-ism.")

I have had this accusation leveled at me in a number of ways. "You're blinded by your commitment to methodological naturalism," "you're biased against miracles," or most infuriatingly "what is your evidence for 'evidence?'" Anti-science apologists will quickly attempt to undermine the foundations of evidence-based epistemology, again as an attempt to frame the issue to their advantage.

I am not a methodological naturalist in the sense they mean it. I am perfectly willing to consider miraculous evidence for, say, the existence of God or the validity of the Bible. I am absolutely willing to hear them out the reasons to believe in a god. I love hearing arguments, evidence, apologetics, and I'm thrilled when any of them holds up to even casual scrutiny. It's not my fault that every bit I've ever been presented with has ultimately proven to be unsound, fallacious, or just flat wrong.

I have two principles that I start from, in addition to the Logical Absolutes. The first is that no claim should be accepted until it has been demonstrated. I don't say "proven." I don't say "evidenced." "Demonstrated" is a broad net, and can encompass rational argument, logic, or what-have-you. It's inclusive of naturalism, but not limited to.

On the question of god's existence, I call myself an atheist because the statement's truth has not been demonstrated to my satisfaction. I tend to believe the statement is false, but that is an induction, not a faith-based conviction. I'm open to being proved wrong, but I'll want to ask "how do you know?" It's not a glib question--I want to know how you got the knowledge.

I don't know how God's existence could be demonstrated to me. I've asked theists flat out to take their best shot, and the results are laughable. They'd much rather talk about biblical authority, or the Moral Argument, anything but what justification they have to believe that it is anything more than the house of cards it seems to be. This is invariably where they accuse me of having blinders, of being deluded, of having my own faith-based position, and I say that's bull. I'm perfectly willing to consider a miracle as evidence of the supernatural. But how does one know.

The problem comes in when talking about miracles. If I were the methodological naturalist they say I am, then I'd be explaining away, for example, the parting of the Red Sea as a combination of low tide, freak wind conditions and other ad-hoc speculation about possible causes. I don't insist on naturalistic explanations for such a miracle. But how do we know it actually ever happened in the first place? We can't discuss how it happened until we establish to some level of confidence that it did happen? Certainly the Egyptians record no series of calamities such as locusts, frogs, boils, etc, ultimately culminating in the death of their god-king and his troops, crushed beneath the waves.

Miracles have this maddening tendency to occur in times and places where we have, at best, anecdotal or textual evidence for them. I've helped cater weddings, and I can say that it took about four bushels of food to feed three hundred people, so five thousand people would be on the order of sixty-seven bushels (plus twelve--apparently omniscience has a margin for error of fifteen percent when you're breaking the laws of thermodynamics.) Getting all that from five loaves and two fishes is impressive--I have no methodologically naturalistic explanation. But all we have are copies of copies of thirdhand accounts that it ever happened at all, so it's not worth much to me. Modern day miracles are nowhere near that stupendous...somebody's cancer goes into remission, a plane crashes that only kills 99% of its passengers--these are things that don't need recourse to "it's a miracle!" Sure it could have been god, or it could have been the exhaustive efforts of pilots, engineers, officials in response to other crashes--how do you know?

My position, first and foremost, is "I don't know." I don't claim that science has all the answers; if science is good at anything it's good at showing that what we don't know is nearly infinite, what we do know is tentative, and some questions may never get good enough data to say for sure. But I'm not going to accept the claim is true unless somebody convinces me.

How do you get around the flimsiness of the arguments and evidence for miracles? The answer is, of course, faith, which deserves its own entry. As this has been quite lengthy enough, I will address that in a subsequent post, where I go over the second of my two first principles mentioned above.

"Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is closer to the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong."

--Thomas Jefferson