Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tom Gilson proves Peter Boghossian's point

Christian apologist (and stalwart defender of traditional definitions of the word "faith," regardless of what the word means in usage) Tom Gilson has taken his paranoia with Peter Boghossian to a new level: he wrapped up all of his blog posts about him along with some extra materials into a free ebook available by subscribing to his website. I, along with at least one other, have posted a few times about Tom in the past, engaging in a blogged discussion with him, and it appears to have helped vault Tom into compiling a short ebook against Boghossian's recent Manual for Creating Atheists.

First, let's let Gilson tell us why to read Boghossian's book:

Reading Gilson's short ebook is a bit surreal and not entirely a waste of time--but not really for his defenses against Boghossian's books and talks; those are exactly as would be expected. Instead, in addition to the repackaged blog posts that compose it, an atheist can find pretty much every reason to want to pick up Boghossian's important book and put it into action. Indeed, I think Peter Boghossian might have received his best blurb yet--overshadowing those from Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins--from Christian apologist Tom Gilson in this odd little ebook of his. Gilson writes a few gems right at the beginning of his ebook:
Peter Boghossian wants to create atheists, and he’s the man for the job.
And, bearing in mind he's a strong opponent of the book,
While the Manual’s weaknesses are abundant, tactically and persuasively it’s brilliant. It will create atheists—count on it.
Atheists certainly are excited about it. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have promoted Boghossian’s work. Jerry Coyne, professor at the University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution Is True, wrote in an endorsement, “This book is essential for nonbelievers who want to do more than just carp about religion, but want to weaken its odious grasp on the world."
More importantly, the book is selling well. It went quickly into a second printing, and two months after its introduction it remains a chart leader in its philosophy-related content categories at Amazon.com.
I left there [the Reason Rally, 2012] thinking that if atheists ever had a real leader to follow, things could become nasty for Christianity and other faiths. Richard Dawkins, for all his fame, is no such leader. Whether Peter Boghossian is or not, I do not know—but he’s the closest thing so far. (emphasis his)
He has a following. He’s a master of persuasion and personal change theory. He’s latched on to something very powerful, for the methods he teaches in this book will undoubtedly create atheists. 
And then there's this rather shining one, which is such a good blurb for Boghossian's book, if we ignore the usual persecution complex bit at the end, that if I were his publisher, I'd dearly love to put it on the cover:
It’s too early to say—and predictions are dangerous—but I wouldn’t be surprised if ten years from now we realized that this book’s publication was a turning point in the decline of Christianity in the West, not only in the numbers of Christians, but also in the way we’re treated by the rest of our culture. (Strikethrough mine because that's nonsense, at least the second half of it)
Note, in all of this, that Tom Gilson is, himself, a self-described Christian strategist, so when he calls Peter Boghossian an "atheist tactician" in the title of his ebook, that's likely to be a qualified statement that Boghossian is really on to something. 

Now, how Gilson proves Boghossian's point

All of that aside, I'm interested in this tiny bit:
For the sake of our faith, and our children’s faith, Christians need to know about this.
My question is "why?"--and especially if Christianity were really true.

The answer is really quite simple, and as I've noted before, it seems Tom Gilson knows it: the objects of belief in Christianity that Tom Gilson considers so important are not discoverable facts about the world. Bereft of people inculcated in the faith traditions of Christianity to spread it, no one would ever become a Christian again. Its claims simply aren't discoverable--nothing in the world points to Christian beliefs on its own--and its history is just too shaky to get accepted and passed on outside of extant belief.

Other ancient religions that have died (or all but), whether we have their scriptures or know their histories or not, stay dead, classified as they are: mythology. The unique path to Christianity sustaining itself is Christians passing it along to new believers, so at the least, Boghossian isn't far off to call it something akin to a virus. The faith virus requires more than the introduction of ideas to spread, of course. Just as real viruses require a host with a gap in its immune system, the faith virus requires cultural context in order to embed itself. Lacking this context, which requires living, breathing believers (or a new personality cult), faith is seen as utterly unreliable and religion is nothing more than someone else's set of myths.

And look at the predicament this creates for the all-powerful God of the world's largest religions! If they were true, the most important pieces of information in the universe are hung upon a failed epistemology, faith. How could an omniscient, benevolent God have arranged things so that the most important articles of "truth" in the universe could possibly die out from the world and remain unrecoverable or only able to be salvaged from a nonsense book of internally contradictory ancient Middle Eastern djinnie stories? If an almighty God could have hung something more consequential on a less epistemologically sound line, it would require all his omniscience to think such a thing up. "Revelations," traditions, and authority simply do not possess the necessary grounding to do the job, and this is not controversial. In fact, everybody knows it--as long as they aren't turning the lens on their own beliefs.

As every Christian must know deep in her heart of hearts, this failed method--faith--equally sustains contradictory religions like Islam, Hinduism, and Shintoism. Regarding those religions, every Christian knows faith to be an utter sham of a way to claim to know something, say that Muhammad was truly visited by Gabriel and given the Word of God directly (a version of the "Word" that contradicts Christianity, as a matter of fact). From the Christian perspective, Islamic faith misleads Muslims. What Christians deny, though, is what every Muslim, Hindu, and Shintoist knows in their hearts of hearts, and for the same bad reasons: Christians, including Tom Gilson, do just the same.

To elaborate, every Islamic cleric in the world could tell Tom Gilson at length about the miracles and historicity of the Islamic beliefs, and historical evidence leans ever so slightly more heavily on their side. (We have better reasons to accept that Muhammad was a real historical figure than Jesus, even without the God-made-man nonsense.) They could tell Tom Gilson exactly how they know not only that Islam is the one true religion but also exactly how they know that Christianity errs in a grievous way on the central point. And Tom Gilson would ignore every one of them, talking about his "evidences" while they talk about theirs.

Again, then, I remind my readers--and Tom Gilson--of my point: If there is no God, then there is no evidence for God; there is only evidence misattributed. (I discuss this point at length in Dot, Dot, Dot, by the way.) Even if there were a God, if the claims of Christianity (or Islam) are false, then there is no evidence for Christianity (or Islam, respectively); there is only evidence misattributed. We see the same evidence attributed to various things: to Hindu post-hoc rationalizations, to Islamic post-hoc rationalizations, to Christian post-hoc rationalizations, and to everyday, ordinary psychology, sociology, and culture, no theism needed.

Why does it matter that Christian "truths" are not discoverable truths about the universe? This is equally simple: because it shows that Christian beliefs necessarily outstrip their warrant of evidence, just as do Islamic beliefs from Tom Gilson's perspective (inter alia).

This is why every Christian needs to know about Boghossian's book and the threat it represents to their faith. It's because faith is a failed way to know, and Tom Gilson knows it plainly, though he still wishes to defend it. It's because the objects of Christian faith are not discoverable facts about the world, and it's because the objects of Christian faith exceed the warrant of evidence that supports them, including personal testimonies and the historical record. Christian faith, however widely believed, fares poorly against even modest skeptical inquiry, something entirely untrue for essentially everything demonstrably true about the world.

Thus, Christian faith, including Tom Gilson's, as Boghossian said, is saying, "I don't have enough evidence to support my belief in Christian truth claims, but I'm going to believe them anyway." 

Pretending to know

Here, then, I will disagree slightly with my friend who blogs under the monicker "CounterApologist." He, like Gilson, though for different reasons, takes issue with Boghossian's rhetorical move in using the term "pretending" in his definition of faith: pretending to know what one does not know. Seeing his point--that pretending is an intentional act that we really can't assert Christians are engaging in, especially generally--I did not intend to take issue with his quibble, but I'll flesh out my agreement with the term here briefly since it fits.

The pretending lies not in day-to-day faith--CounterApologist and Gilson are right about that, since that is more of a passive way believing minds attribute evidence--but rather in confronting challenges to the beliefs. In those moments when life throws a curve ball, maybe a challenging moment like a senseless accidental death and maybe something as mundane as an encounter with a confident atheist (or believer in a different faith tradition), moments when the beliefs simply don't match the evidence of the world and it is clearly felt, the believer who maintains belief pretends to know something she doesn't. Maybe it's that Dad is in heaven now, waiting, and maybe it's that the atheist is an agent of Satan, or maybe it's just that God has a bigger plan, and we all have free will--it doesn't matter.

In those moments of challenge, pretending occurs to stabilize belief, even if it happens subconsciously or preconsciously. This is completely consistent with the definition for "pretending" that Google gives: "speaking and acting so as to make it appear that something is the case when in fact it is not," and if this still feels too strong, it's how we use the word when we call a bullshitter with the phrase, "don't pretend to be an expert," by which we mean "don't pretend to know something you don't," of course. And not all bullshitters are consciously faking it, especially if practiced in the art, but still they pretend to know things they don't.

It, pretending, doesn't happen all the time, but neither does a claim to rely upon (or even a thought about) faith as to claim to "know" something. When faith becomes relevant in the mind of the believer and survives the encounter, I am arguing that pretending to know something one does not know has occurred. Further, the more desperate the rationalization--that is, the more implausible the conclusion given the evidence--the more pretending is happening. Thus, like all exercises in religious apologetics, Gilson's book from front to back is one long exercise in pretending to know something that he does not know (which is a fair-sight nicer than the "making stuff up" I branded apologetics in Chapter 7 of God Doesn't; We Do).

The question, again, is "why?" I've waited some days now for Gilson to address my central points in every post I've made regarding him so far: Boghossian is right in saying that faith is the word that we use when we put a higher confidence in a belief than is warranted by the evidence and thus that it is not a reliable way to claim knowledge. I don't understand why he didn't address this in the first place, and I don't understand why he hasn't addressed it now. Tom, if you're reading this, I intend not to proceed with you until you address this clearly and plainly. My strong suspicion is that you (Tom) are pretending to know things you do not know and refusing to admit it. 

Boghossifying Gilson

Since, so far as I can tell, my (surprisingly popular) Boghossification of the Catechism of Trent of 1566 is what led Tom Gilson to start talking to me in the first place, prompting my attention, I thought it might be fun to close by Boghossifying some Gilson. I've chosen a lovely passage from the conclusion to his ebook. I will not put it in block quotation format since I am changing it, but I will place quotations marks around it to mark the parody. I'm also inserting a neologism of my own make, supertruth, where it belongs. A supertruth is an article held as true regardless of whether it is actually true or not. I've also added all emphasis in the passage to highlight what I'm getting at.

My challenge is for anyone, Tom Gilson included, to illustrate for me that this is not how the word "faith" is being used in this passage. The rest of this post, save the very end, is Gilson Boghossified:

"That Christians pretend to know things they do not know is rational. It’s based on knowledge. It’s based on evidence. It goes beyond provable knowledge, but it’s hardly wholly divorced from it. Our pretending to know what we do not know can stand up to the challenge of creating atheists.

"Pretending to know what we do not know can stand, but can we who pretend? Can your children, whom we've taught to pretend, stand? Can your friends? Can you? Now that you’ve read this book, you’re prepared on one level. You know that pretending to know what you do not is still connected with knowledge. You still need to ensure, however, that what you pretend to know but do not know is connected with what you do know. The same is essential for all Christians.

"I haven’t begun to delve into all the knowledge claims that support how Christians continue to be able to pretend to know what we do not know. That wasn’t my purpose in this book. My purpose was to provide you some specific armor against the attacks of A Manual for Creating Atheists, and even more importantly, to encourage and exhort you to seek further equipping, for yourself and for people whose continued pretending to know what they do not matters to you. In the resource section to follow, you’ll find a small, manageable, and helpful list of websites and books for you to check out as you pursue that equipping [for continuing to pretend to know what you do not know].

"For there are people out there trying to create atheists. They are well equipped with persuasive tactics. Our best defense against them is a thorough, well-practiced knowledge of the supertruths [we as Christians cling to]."

Once again, Tom Gilson, I call upon you to repudiate all failed epistemologies--those that allow more belief than the evidence warrants--and the supertruths supported by them, faith and particularly Christianity among those, along with your case against Peter Boghossian.

Edit, 12-31, evening: I added a link to substantiate my claim that my interaction with Gilson may have helped vault him toward writing an ebook about Boghossian. This is relevant because of his subsequent response to me (point #2, here). To quote Gilson: "I’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence anywhwere [sic] that he helped vault me to writing the book. Sure, he hedged his claim with 'appears to have helped.' But even that’s unwarranted; there’s nothing anywhere to 'appear' that way." This is false (see here).

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Tom Gilson is confused about the term faith

As certain events have cropped up in my life all of a sudden, I only have a little time for a reply to Tom Gilson's latest response to me on his Thinking Christian blog (you can read it here), part of our ongoing discussion about Peter Boghossian's use of the word "faith" in A Manual for Creating Atheists--which I'm glad to say that Gilson rightly recognizes as an important book.

To borrow a phrase from Gilson, "in due time," meaning at the least when I have more of it, I'll respond more thoroughly to the issues he raises, since he seems to think this is very important. For the moment, though, short on time, I will merely make a huge point that I think is necessary to moving our conversation forward: Tom Gilson is confused about the term faith.

Now, of course, our primary issue of contention is on the definition of that word. Gilson hearkens to the literature and classical, denotative usage of the word, which he at one point summarizes by Augustine's famous "trust in a reliable source." I side with Peter Boghossian's "pretending to know something one does not know," or more accurately, "placing more confidence in a hypothesis or belief than is warranted by the evidence." This is a kinder use of the word than my own, which identifies faith as a cognitive bias that plays the role of putting more confidence in a hypothesis than is warranted by the evidence by distorting the role evidence plays in the evaluation of that hypothesis. This is not my point here, and it's not how I'm accusing Gilson of being confused.

Indeed, I think Gilson's understanding of the denotative use of the word and its appearance in classical literature is quite good, but I think it's irrelevant. Boghossian's insight into the connotation of the word "faith," meaning how it is used, as "pretending to know something you do not know" should supercede the classical denotation--that being the primary argument I made in my most recent reply to Gilson (which can be read here). While Gilson may be hung up on this point, it isn't how I'm accusing him of being confused about "faith" here.

Whether it be wilful obscurantism or genuine confusion due to using the same word for two purposes is not my goal to discern. I merely want to quote something Gilson has said to me twice now. First, he worded it this way:
Boghossian’s approach to faith undermines children’s freedom to choose anything but non-faith. Here’s how. Suppose Adam and Ann Atheist teach their children to think of faith the way Boghossian recommends. Those children will have great difficulty making their own assessment of the reasons for or against Christianity or any other faith; for their conception of faith would always be deeply rooted in terms of, “This is pretense; there is no evidence for it.” The question of whether there is evidence for faith becomes, “Is there any evidence for that for which there is no evidence?” The question become un-askable in its very form. (italics his, bold mine)
The second time he uses this, he writes:
This is incredibly confused thinking. Let me explain by translating what you wrote. Faith, they would be led to understand, is irrelevant. Thus when someday they come to assess the value of what they’ve been taught is irrelevant, they would know that this that they’ve been taught is irrelevant is, by definition, belief without evidence, and pretending to know what one does not know. Armed with those intellectual tools they will have a better, more noble opportunity to assess whether or not Christian faith is based on evidence and is relevant. Is that the case you’re trying to make? Really?! Do you not see how it undermines itself?  (italics his, bold mine)
Yes, it is the case I'm trying to make, and I was utterly confused about how this could confuse Tom Gilson, who is clearly quite intelligent and perceptive, until I realized he's juggling two completely different meanings of "faith."

We can talk about faith as an epistemology, a way of knowing and making claims about the world, or we can talk about faith as being essentially synonymous with the word "religion." We often do this in vernacular speech, saying things like "the Christian/Muslim/Hindu faith" and meaning the whole belief structure, which is the religion. I thought I had clarified that by changing the word faith (from the first quote of his above) in the relevant location in my previous response to the word "religion," but apparently not.

The most charitable explanation for this situation that I can think of boils down to that Gilson seems to think that Boghossian's argument isn't just fatal to Christianity but is so unfairly because he is using the term faith--putting more confidence in a hypothesis than is warranted by the evidence--to mean religion as well, as in "the Christian faith."

Because of this apparent confusion, he sees Boghossian as advocating that people, including children, be taught that the Christian religion is really the Christian way of pretending to know what one does not know, but this is an implicit admission on his part that to believe the tenets of the religion requires believing things that are not sufficiently warranted on the evidence.

Again, this is not what Boghossian--or anyone that's serious enough to count--is advocating. Boghossian is attacking the epistemological method that is "faith," not the religion itself. He is, in fact, clear on this point in his book: the religion, whatever it is, Christianity or otherwise, will fall as a consequence of understanding the word faith as it is used: putting more confidence in a belief or hypothesis than is warranted by the evidence for it, i.e. pretending to know something one does not know.

Admittedly, I know it's an aside, but I'm getting increasingly interested in how Gilson would handle my argument that the plausibility of the God hypothesis is almost surely zero, which I've argued in both of my books, as previously noted.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Why won't Tom Gilson answer my question?

A few days ago, I responded to Tom Gilson regarding his series of queerly obsessive posts about Peter Boghossian and his new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists. You can read Gilson's series here and my response here. Admittedly, I made an error in my response: I addressed it as a response to the culmination of Gilson's series, his open letter to Boghossian (which you can read here), and Gilson noticed the error, writing in his return commentary on my response,
I know I haven’t addressed your issues about whether Christian faith is a reliable way of knowing. I don’t feel bad about that: after all, you didn’t address most of my open letter, in the response you wrote to it. You even missed the two brief points where I showed that the question of faith’s accuracy or reliability was tangential to the question of how the word is conventionally defined.
So once again, I’m going to request that if it’s your purpose to respond to my open letter, would you please respond to the content and argument of the letter. If we work through that, then I think it could be very productive to move on to the new issues you raised. ... Until we work through the actual argument of my open letter, though, I’m going to have to regard it as standing with essentially no resopnse [sic] to it, so far.
To Tom:

My apologies, Tom. I did not ever intend to provide a point-by-point answer to your open letter. I find such endeavors not only tiresome but largely fruitless, though if you really want me to respond to you point-by-point, I might try to make time for that.

Instead, I sought to speak more generally to its theme and to the theme of the entire series. That theme, of course, is your defense that faith is a reliable way of knowing--your letter asking Peter Boghossian to be open to other definitions of faith than the one he used that you don't like--which brings me to highlight a particular part of what I just quoted from you:
I know I haven’t addressed your issues about whether Christian faith is a reliable way of knowing.
Of course, you mention that you don't feel bad about that because I didn't address particular points in your open letter, curiously including the fact that you included an argument that somehow the accuracy of the traditional definition of "faith" is somehow more important than if it is a reliable way to know anything. There's the rub, though, and perhaps it is the reason you didn't address my issue: for you, it isn't one.

From here, I'd rather respond generally than directly to you, though I thank you for the implied leave to occasionally turn a question or pointed remark in your direction.


Now, normally I wouldn't care if Gilson addressed this point or that in anything I wrote except in cases like this, where it is the central point and only theme of the response I wrote. It's one thing to dodge tiresome details, and it's quite another to ignore the thrust of the commentary laid before you. And before he goes tu quoque on me, the very point I was making with my response is that Peter Boghossian, along with everyone else, is under no obligation to use a word in a particular way if the alternative way it is being used is valid. My case is that Boghossian's use of the "pretending to know" interpretation of faith is valid.

My question is why didn't you address the central point of my response instead of dancing around the periphery, trying to undermine arguments via ad hominems to Dawkins's credentials and appeals to orcs? Why argue for an irrelevant definition of faith, conventional or otherwise?


Let me expose Gilson's pedantry so that we can set it aside. Boghossian's call to "change the definition" is merely an attempt to bring an accurate connotative understanding of the word faith within the sphere of its denotation, which is more a call for recognition than an attempt to overthrow the meaning of a word. His case is that the word already means "pretending to know something one does not know" and that the change should be in our recognition of that fact. We could even see Boghossian's attempt here to be one of clarifying, since ultimately the entire point of language is to convey ideas clearly and accurately.

To squabble about the definition based on its historical usage versus what the word can be shown legitimately to mean in most, if not all, cases, is pedantry, and it is Gilson's case. Can there be any wonder I ignored it?

The methods of faith are tested?

In the strongest part of Gilson's reply, he made the following argument:
[F]aith has always been built upon reason and evidence as well. ... Tradition, revelation, and authority are among the raw materials of faith, but they are testable, and they have been tested, through historical, philosophical, archaeological, and other lines of evidence and thought. Augustine speaks of “trust in a reliable source” — do you think he had no interest in knowing how one could know that the source was reliable?
I'd love to know how Gilson thinks that revelation is testable, or how it's ever been tested (in a way that shows it is a reliable way to know things). Again, when what passes for revelation is correct, it is correct either by sheer luck or because it is blended with not revealed real observations about the world. I could roll a ten-sided die nine times to "reveal" Tom Gilson's Social Security number, but if I were to be right about it, it would be an artifact of knowing that Social Security numbers are composed of nine digits, 0-9, combined with outstanding luck. But "revealed wisdom" has often come from exactly this kind of divination, or that more disgusting, when not from the ravings of mad men (and sometimes women) claiming insight into the mind of God.

The relevant question, of course, is what standard of evidence Tom Gilson would require if some so-called mystic were to approach him and tell him that it was revealed to them (perhaps by God, perhaps in a dream, etc.) that he should abandon his family, his work, and his life, and renounce Christianity as false, in order to take up a life of solitude meditating vipassana in the jungles of Borneo until he achieve the ability to levitate. What would make Gilson accept that revelation as valid?

On the other hand, tradition and authority aren't exactly in the same category--I'm not sure it even makes sense to call them "testable" or "tested." Tradition is doing what people used to do, often uncritically, and it's a wonderful method for keeping cultural norms alive. This, of course, is problematic when the cultural norms being preserved fall out of step with the needs of contemporary society (e.g. refusing to use electricity) or when they're harmful in their own right (e.g. slavery and misogyny). Inquiry breaks bad traditions, and so adherence to tradition is an enemy of critical analysis.

Do I even need to comment on the reliability of proceeding merely on authority? No, I don't think I do. It's certainly too early in this discussion to have Godwin dragged in.

Authority, though, can be a valid method for obtaining knowledge, but for validity there is a requirement here, a chain of reliability that must extend back through every authority. If a single instance of questionable methodology exists in the entire chain backing a claim, the reliability of authority is utterly demolished. Critically, of course, the original source must also have relied upon valid methods.

Aquinas, for instance, could rest his case on Augustine, and Augustine could rest his case on scripture, but that requires scripture to be a reliable source. Even if Aquinas checked Augustine against scripture, this requirement still stands. The reliability of scripture, in addition to the reliability in the fidelity and comprehension of both Augustine and Aquinas here, are required to use such an authority as a reliable method. Augustine thinking the his source or method is reliable does not entail that it is. This is why I went on and on in my initial response about the importance of falsification. What methods for falsification does faith employ? That still goes unanswered, which is a shame because it's important if Gilson truly wants to defend faith as a reliable methodology..

To press my case

To Gilson's claim about faith being based upon evidence, there is no way around my conclusion, which agrees with Boghossian. One can claim that faith is built around evidence--which it may or may not be--but "faith" must be the word one uses when the confidence value one places in a hypothesis is higher than what’s warranted by the evidence. This was the whole thrust of my previous response, meaning the part of my previous note to Gilson that he decided not to respond to.

Now, if we get specific with Christianity, perhaps some nonzero plausibility is warranted (I don't think so, again, see chapter 5 in God Doesn't; We Do, or chapter 12 in Dot, Dot, Dot, where I explore this matter in great depth), but whatever that plausibility happens to be, it is low--certainly not certain, and altogether unlikely. The reasons it is so low are copious and thoroughly documented elsewhere, so I need not go into them here. What we take way, though, is critical: Christianity, and other religions, parade themselves far more confidently than the evidence for their beliefs warrants, and they do so under the banner of faith.

Putting more confidence in a belief than it is worth is exactly the way the word "faith" is used, whatever words have been spun into its classical definition. Faith is the word Gilson is using, along with the vast majority of other religiuus apologists, to mean: "I don’t have enough evidence to warrant belief in X, but I’m going to believe anyway."


Gilson is free to--and does--obfuscate this fact any way he wants, say by appealing to the testimony of others who’ve also fallen prey, like Augustine. Did Augustine, by the way, have interest in knowing if his sources were reliable? Yes, probably, but his methodology was also tainted by faith, so that interest may not have borne fruit. In fact, Augustine's faith in Christian Scripture was so unshakable that it is likely that the idea of original sin arose from his unwavering conviction in a copy of scripture that was mistranslated in relevant verse in the book of Romans. If we deem that Augustine was a conscientious and honest man, or merely grant it, then we see that his error lay in having a distorted understanding of which sources are reliable and why.

Instead, perhaps Gilson would like to hide his meaning with the word "faith" by claiming that evidence plus reason plus revelation equals sufficient warrant, but we have evidence that relies upon far more secure methodology that this kind of effort provides wonderful post hoc rationalizations of evidence, what I called "evidence misattributed," but not the kind of statistically sound warrant that Gilson, as an industrial and organizational psychologist, knows is required to draw confident conclusions backed by evidence. Again, if God doesn't exist or if the foundational roots of Christianity are false, than all evidence said to be in favor of God or Christianity, respectively, is misattributed to them. That means, to put it plainly, it isn't actually evidence.

The fact is unavoidable. The word faith is used to mean "I don’t have enough evidence to warrant belief in X, but I’m going to believe anyway." It’s unavoidable because they’re using the word faith for exactly this purpose, to jump an epistemic gap (or in more respectable cases like Bishop John Shelby Spong, to pretend it is far narrower than it is) that can only be bridged by evidence. That is, they use faith to pretend to know something that they do not know, just as Boghossian said.

Why it really matters

Gilson provides a good section in his reply to me titled "Why it matters," in which he charges,
Boghossian’s approach to faith undermines children’s freedom to choose anything but non-faith. Here’s how. Suppose Adam and Ann Atheist teach their children to think of faith the way Boghossian recommends. Those children will have great difficulty making their own assessment of the reasons for or against Christianity or any other faith; for their conception of faith would always be deeply rooted in terms of, “This is pretense; there is no evidence for it.” The question of whether there is evidence for faith becomes, “Is there any evidence for that for which there is no evidence?” The question become un-askable in its very form. (emphasis his)
This, of course, is not what Boghossian is advocating at all, which is a general appraisal of the evidence as a manner of determining which claims about the world are true and should be accepted and acted upon. This, though, is fascinating in its own right.

Let's suppose that Adam and Ann Atheist, being less confused than Tom Gilson about what Peter Boghossian wrote, teach their children to think of faith the way Boghossian recommends. Those children will have the opportunity to assess the reasons for and against Christianity and every other religion, but they would be armed in a way where faith is irrelevant to making their assessment. They would follow the reason and evidence that Gilson claims are a part of faith, and if he is correct, then they would conclude that Christianity, some other religion, or some parts of them are valid and believe and act accordingly. In other words, these children would believe exactly as much of Christianity, or whatever other religion, as is warranted by the evidence, and this horrifies Christian apologist Tom Gilson.

I suggest, then, that the reason Gilson's crusade against Boghossian really matters is because Tom Gilson knows how deeply it threatens the ability for Christianity to compete in an open marketplace of ideas that actually have to be judged upon their merit, as measured by their warrant from supporting evidence. Can beliefs like those collectively called Christianity survive an assessment where faith, even just as Boghossian construes is, is irrelevant? Of course not, and Gilson seems to know it.


I'm just going to say this again, pressing my case further: The fact is unavoidable. The word faith is used to mean "I don’t have enough evidence to warrant belief in X, but I’m going to believe anyway." It’s unavoidable because they’re using the word faith for exactly this purpose, to jump an epistemic gap that can only be bridged by evidence.  It is used that way because faith is not a reliable method for obtaining knowledge, and the methods that faith is based upon--tradition, authority, and revelation--are also not reliable.

Believers do this because they lack evidence and yet want to believe, so strongly in fact that they appear not to care whether or not faith is a reliable methodology. That is, Christians do not care to know what is true as much as they want to pretend to know things they do not know.

Again, Mr. Gilson, I call upon you to drop your argument with Peter Boghossian and to repudiate all unreliable epistemologies, faith--and the resulting Christianity--among these.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Rick Henderson's profound confusion

Two days ago, Pastor Rick Henderson wrote a blog piece for the Huffington Post Religion page titled "Why there is no such thing as a good atheist."

Yesterday, I responded, using Sam Harris's argument from his best-selling The Moral Landscape to tackle Henderson's charge that one cannot be a "good" atheist because there is no such thing as objective moral values without theism to ground them. That is, I sought to undermine Henderson's case that objective moral values must be rooted in something that atheism cannot claim.

Henderson, though, wrote his piece intentionally slickly. He worded things so that either one must claim atheism--and thus a lack of objective moral values, rendering the atheist not morally good (even if still moral)--or one must claim objective moral values, rendering the atheist poor at atheism. I dismissed this claim for brevity. Today, I'll tackle it, in addition to addressing Henderson's counter-argument against Harris's position.

Before I do so, let me note that his foundational argument about what constitutes atheism has been thoroughly dismantled by Dan Barker, author and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Those interested in this discussion would do themselves a favor by reading Barker's response to Henderson's original inflammatory piece. Barker does such a good job deconstructing what Henderson conceptualizes as being necessary "affirmations" of atheism (seriously, Pastor Rick, atheism isn't a religion and doesn't operate via affirmations, creeds, or any of the stuff that defines how your worldview works) that I need only touch upon these here.

Here, I want to object to Henderson's arguments about Harris. I also want to explain to him that he doesn't understand atheism. To do so, I will have to step on Barker's toes a little and deal with Henderson's three contentions that he describes as the "unforgiving boundaries of serious-minded atheism." Henderson gives these necessary "affirmations," quoting him here, as
  1. The universe only material.  If the universe is not purely material (natural), then we are conceding the existence of things beyond the natural.  These would be things that exist beyond natural explanation. That is by definition supernatural.  If there is supernatural reality atheism is not true. This is not offered as a proof of Christian theism. 
  2. The universe is scientific.  If the universe is not knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics, we have no confidence in asserting atheism. That would allow for unknown and unexplained forces, i.e. the supernatural or a god. This allows room for agnosticism, but not atheism. 
  3. The universe is impersonal.  If the universe has a consciousness or will, we are affirming pantheism at the very least, so atheism is defeated.  If the universe is guided by a consciousness or will, we are asserting some kind of theism or polytheism, so atheism is defeated.
I had intended to ignore these--and did in my original response--because I feel like they're beneath giving attention to, but since Henderson has doubled-down on them, I'll say something about them, which is to say I will correct them for Henderson. 

One: For all we know the universe is only material, unless we include abstract thinking as some "thing" in the universe.

Whatever may be, betting on a natural universe is a horse than has won every race it's ever run (to paraphrase historian and prolific writer Richard Carrier). While we may be wrong about this, the gap between our claim that the universe seems only to be material and knowledge that it is so is very narrow. At least billions of claims for the supernatural have been made, and in every case we have found errors or hoaxes parading themselves over ultimately natural phenomena mundane to the material universe. We may be wrong about this, but we have no good reasons to bet on it and every good reason not to bet on it.

Furthermore, there is the realm of the abstract, whose ontology (state of "existence") is not yet clearly understood. We have abstract notions like good and evil (and liberty, democracy, and six) that don't exactly exist in the way that the material universe exists but yet seem only to exist (see above paragraph for clarity on this "seem") as products of mental activity. That would make abstract entities and concepts apparently dependent upon the material, neutering Henderson's use of this "affirmation" for atheism.

Two: The universe is describable, and science is the best method we know of to do it. Also, science≠atheism, and while many do, no atheist is required to affirm science.

Henderson reveals his confusion with the use of the word "governed." Natural laws, like the laws of physics, are descriptive, not proscriptive. That is, natural laws do not govern how nature operates. Instead, they provide us with a method of describing the operation of nature. Those descriptions, the "laws of physics," are abstract entities that exist in our minds; they are tools by which we try to understand the world we live in. I go on at great length in my book Dot, Dot, Dot on this point.

Regarding science, I'll just quote Dan Barker's response to Henderson, because it's perfect as it is:
“The universe is scientific.” That doesn’t even make sense. It is only an epistemology or methodology that can be labeled “scientific,” not a thing, and certainly not the universe. What most of us say is that science (observation) is so far the only reliable way to obtain information about reality.
Three: The processes of the universe are impersonal.

Again, I will defer to Dan Barker's response because he does it wonderfully. I include it here only for completeness.
And how could anyone say “The universe is impersonal” when it contains persons? We atheists do assume that the processes in the universe (outside the minds of persons) are impersonal, and that assumption is supported by observation. We atheists are open to new knowledge, and would be astonished to learn that there is “something more” out there. Since everything we know about reality can be expressed in impersonal terms, and since we have no experience or coherent concept of a “person” that is not material, we are justified in insisting that those who believe in a personal creation should assume the burden of proof.
The only point I'll raise here on my own is that humans beings and their psychology are observable parts of the universe, which is to say that we can study ourselves empirically and achieve some understanding of ourselves, whether we have diverse personalities or not.

Rick Henderson is profoundly confused about atheism

In light of the three affirmations he believes that every atheist must make to be a "good" or "serious-minded" atheist, it isn't surprising that Pastor Henderson is deeply confused about atheism. In contrast to these being affirmations, something religious creeds depend upon, these are conclusions that many serious-minded atheists have arrived at by a careful consideration of our circumstances.

Henderson's confusion runs deeper still, though, as he remarks that "Prominent atheists have noted repeatedly and forcefully that there is no basis for meaning in such a universe." 

As Barker noted:
That is plain wrong. Our lives are full of meaning and value. He is confusing “meaning” with “ultimate meaning.” We atheists happily admit that there is no ultimate purpose to our existence, but we think this adds value to life. The truly good news is that there is no purpose of life. There is purpose IN life, and that is the only purpose that matters. An “ultimate purpose” would cheapen life, turning us into servants or slaves to a mind other than our own. That would rob us of our dignity and meaning, making us second-class citizens of the cosmos. Purpose comes from solving real-world problems, not from flattering the ego or submitting to the commands of a dictator.
This brings me back to the point I was leading toward earlier under headings one and two: minds exist. In minds, in the experiences of conscious beings that are sufficiently complex, meaning exists--as an abstraction. We are the authors of our meaning, and if no conscious beings existed to experience and put value on their experiences, meaning would not exist. Imagine, for example, a universe devoid of any consciousness whatsoever but genuinely created and operated by an omni-grade deity. What meaning is there?

And this is precisely Harris's point, a point that Henderson misses completely, saying, "[Harris] has essentially redefined good to mean well-being and evil to mean unnecessary suffering." Harris didn't redefine the words. Even a casual reading of The Moral Landscape makes clear that Harris thoroughly and convincingly argues that the only intelligible way moral terms can be understood is via their impact on the experiences of conscious beings, most pressingly in terms of well-being and, by extension, suffering. In other words, Harris's chief argument is that the objective salience of moral terms like "good" and "evil" exists in assessments of the well being and suffering of conscious beings, something that is true either with or without theism.

Henderson is confused about faith

Henderson had to reach for the Holy Hand Grenade--that is the apologist's tu quoque ("you also") bomb--sooner or later, and he lobs it clumsily by saying Harris has "let the cat out of the bag," meaning
Additionally, this is where Harris commits the same fault of all others who attempt to build a moral argument from reason. You have to assume a moral starting point. That starting point is neither a necessary conclusion within atheism nor demonstrated through evidence. It has to be assumed. That is the same as saying it must be accepted on faith.
No, it is not, and it isn't what Harris did. To reiterate, recall that Harris argued that devoid of the context of the quality of the experience of conscious beings, moral terms like "good" and "evil" don't mean anything. Henderson attempts to level that "Harris is not a good atheist" (half of the title of his essay) for this reason, that Harris has to smuggle in faith to get his job done.

Let's talk about faith, though. The most concise and accurate interpretation of the word faith that I have yet read is philosopher Peter Boghossian's observation that faith is "pretending to know what one doesn't know." As Boghossian is an epistemologist, a philosopher that studies how we know things and what it means to know something, this observation isn't willy-nilly nor is it mere snark.

Henderson is sure to disagree with this understanding of faith, and he's equally sure to be unable to give another that doesn't reduce to this. Regardless, this context is exactly how Henderson is using the term. To wit: "That starting point is neither a necessary conclusion within atheism nor demonstrated through evidence. It has to be assumed. That is the same as saying it must be accepted by pretending to know something he doesn't know."

Nota bene: As Henderson is fond of calling atheists, notably Harris here by implication, "self-contradictory," it will be interesting to see if he rejects Boghossian's definition of faith, given that it's exactly how he used it to make a case against Harris, but this is an aside.

Now, is Harris pretending to know something he doesn't know with regard to moral values? His argument for a "moral starting point" can be summarized in the following way (see The Moral Landscape)
  1. Value exists only in relationship to the experience of conscious beings;
  2. The only intelligible way to talk about moral values, at bottom, is in terms of the well-being and suffering contained within the experiences of those conscious beings; and
  3. The "worst possible state of suffering for everyone" provides a zero point (or nadir) for any experiential metric.
Not only is he not pretending to know something he does not know here, Harris isn't even assuming anything with regard to morality. Without conscious beings to experience, nothing can be valued (rocks cannot value anything); the moral reasoning behind any value can be described in terms of well-being and suffering; and any change from the "worst possible state of suffering for everyone" is necessarily toward less suffering.

What Henderson means to argue here, instead of that Harris is employing faith, is that Harris is smuggling in at least one moral value--that anything that moves us away from the worst possible suffering for everyone is good (and that which moves us toward it is evil). My question for Henderson, though, is what words would he use to describe those moves if not "good" and "evil"? Might I suggest that the reason he doesn't have better words than these (unless using a thesaurus) is because Harris is not pretending to know something he doesn't know to get here?

Henderson, then, misconstrues the acceptance of the definitions of words, be those technically precise or common, for "faith," in his context "pretending to know something he does not know." If this is the case, then Henderson is deeply confused on the notion of faith itself.

Henderson is confused about atheism, again

I withheld this commentary from the previous section of the same theme because his confusion arises within the context of his specific argument against Harris. I want to key in on just part of a sentence Henderson provides, revealing his confusion:
If [Harris's foundational moral value is] not a necessary implication of atheism nor demonstrated by evidence, upon what basis would any good atheist accept this as objectively true? (emphasis added)
The issue is Henderson seems to think it is possible for atheism to necessarily imply something potentially relevant (see his three "affirmations" to see what he thinks it implies). This is incorrect. The only necessary implication of atheism at its absolutely most strident is that whatever the cause of some phenomenon, it is not a god. Atheism doesn't even necessarily repudiate supernaturalism (though most atheists do, for good reasons)! Further, only a few atheists identify as being in the most strident case (famous physicist/author Victor Stenger is one example), and thus the implication of the position most people hold would be that whatever the cause of some phenomenon, it is very unlikely to be a god.

This reveals a confusion about atheism that is likely to have led Henderson to construct his distorted "affirmations" that every "good atheist" must make.

As an aside, note that my argument in the previous section (and previous response) makes the case that Harris's foundational moral value is demonstrated by evidence. That evidence is the experience of conscious beings, which is observable, potentially in tremendous detail. The basis for objectivity, then, is precisely its demonstrability by evidence in combination with Harris's clear argument for well-being as a bedrock moral value (but perhaps Henderson doesn't understand what is meant by "bedrock"?).

Henderson's counterexamples are morally confused

Henderson offers (rather tired) counterexamples to Harris's argument. I'll handle each briefly to finish. First,
If by some evolutionary chance in the future the number psychopath’s [sic] outnumbered the non-psychopaths the continuum of human well-being would look quite different from what it does today. The well-being of psychopaths is expressed in their utter disregard for others and delight in suffering. William Lane Craig points out that this means that the continuum of human well-being is not identically the same as a moral landscape. You can read more on that here. Seen in this light, Harris’ moral landscape could be ever changing, thus not objectively true.
Henderson misses the point, or rather a couple of them. The first is that objectivity doesn't imply or require immutability. It is a fact that some list of specific species of birds spent time in my yard today, and that different birds may frequent my yard in three months after the seasons change does not render such observations non-objective. If it is the case that the moral landscape is describable one way with one collection of conscious minds on the planet now and some other set later, it does not render those descriptions non-objective either.

The second point he misses has to do with the nature of his example. In comparison, perhaps, to what we could be with regard to our care and callousness of others--or more accurately our level of comprehension of other minds--we may very well exist in a situation in which the majority of us are "psychopaths" against some possible future standard. This has little or nothing to do with Harris's point. That point is that the salience of moral values is grounded in optimizing the conscious experience of sentient beings using a metric of well being. The delights of those beings must play some role in their well being, but it isn't the whole picture. Our delight in our rampant consumption of conscious, experiencing cows, pigs, et cetera, puts this point in stark relief, in fact.

No one ever said that sorting out the answers to these kinds of questions isn't hard, Harris's case is simply that it can be done using observable facts about the world. Indeed, it's secondary to Harris's argument that theology even tries to claim morality at all.

Second and third,
Finally, consider 2 cases that could not be considered immoral in Harris’ world:
  • Raping a comatose, terminally ill patient (child or adult) and then pulling the plug. There is no diminishment of well-being for the supposed victim.
  • Stealing $500,000 from a billionaire. What possible diminished well-being could the billionaire experience?
If we were to take Harris’ position seriously what grounds would we have to punish those who committed these acts? We could conceive of many other similar immoral actions in which no perceived well-being is diminished. Yet, we all, or at least most, would feel a sense of justice if we were to convict such persons. Is that sense of justice objectively true or a common delusion?
In the first of these two examples, Henderson shows remarkable horror in the reaches of his imagination, but the question is superficially valid. He underestimates the role of suffering, though, in exactly the same way that people who argue that riding motorcycles without helmets should be legal because it only can result in additional self-harm. In other words, Henderson lacks perspective and is thereby confused.

Consider a world in which raping a comatose, terminally ill patient (child or adult) and then pulling the plug is a reality. Indeed, you live in one now, and now aware of this possibility for yourself and your loved ones, you have incurred suffering that you would not have otherwise, had Henderson not so much as mentioned it as a hypothetical without a single real-world example to give it punch. You now bear in the back of your mind a tiny amount of worry that is likely to diminish the quality of your conscious experience. Thanks, Pastor Rick!

Further, there is the case of potential harm. People are involved in such a gruesome event. There is the family of the comatose victim, who not only has to suffer the untimely death (the plug was pulled, after all, and someone's bound to notice that) of a loved one but also the possibility that evidence will reveal such an act took place. That evidence may be obvious, medical, or a later recantation (perhaps after finding Jesus?) of the perpetrator. Further, the perpetrator, for whatever thrill he received in this act, will carry it. Something so small as a change of heart or mind will lead him to suffer--no doubt justly. A world in which this kind of thing occurs is demonstrably a worse world than a world in which this kind of thing never happens. We call that objective moral grounding.

The billionaire case is more curious in terms of what it reveals about Henderson's assumptions about the world. He assumes that the billionaire will suffer in no way because of the loss of utility of half a million dollars that he incurred, and superficially, again, this might be the case. It isn't certain, though, and it gets worse.

What if, for instance, the billionaire is a philanthropist (e.g. Bill Gates)? That half a million dollars would have eventually gone to reduce the suffering of perhaps thousands or maybe millions of people it is less likely to help if stolen. What if he is an investor that would have invested that money in some endeavor to alleviate suffering in some other way, perhaps via a technological start-up that solves a major, or even minor, world problem? This example, then, is idiotic without even getting into the meat of it.

The meat of it, of course, is the wider implication, which reveals how this example may actually work against Henderson's case. Imagine that we are in a world in which it is considered morally neutral (to say nothing of a moral positive) to steal anything, let alone half a million dollars, from a billionaire. Now things get complicated--too complicated for this already too-long post--because we do not know the ramifications of engaging in such behavior so narrowly defined. The previous paragraph lays out a possible harm, and a possible benefit may come from narrowing the wealth inequality gaps that many societies generate (this, in fact, is likely to be a benefit in societies with high wealth inequality).

Note that it would be conceivable to structure a society so that stealing only from billionaires is not considered illegal or wrong. Of course, it is likely that there are better ways to solve wealth inequality problems and the related suffering than by permitting theft from the most affluent members of a society, but that too would have to be determined empirically, resting upon the qualities of the experiences of the conscious beings living in any of those cases.

Instead of getting into a values argument about that, note that it brings us back to Harris's main point. There are hard moral questions out there that require salient ways to answer them. The only salient means for answering them are in terms of well-being and suffering of conscious beings, which can be observed as facts about the world. The question about stealing from billionaires, for example, cannot be satisfactorily answered by appeals to universal dictates of any kind, especially not those from "God," but must be determined via observation (real or modelled hypothetical).

And so here we see Henderson's faith as a source of his crippling confusion, at least in this particular example. He is assuming that property laws that protect the wealth of individuals are a de facto moral good, perhaps on the basis that he believes a perfectly good deity (that he has no evidence for) laid out a universal dictate that stealing is always evil, regardless of the effects on the experiences of conscious beings. If independent of the effects on those experiences, though, the relevant question that remains is what would make such moral laws "good"?

Rick Henderson is confused, and the source of his confusion appears to lie in the fact that he believes in a supernatural, unknowable grounding for moral values that is necessarily independent of the experiences of conscious beings. To paraphrase Harris again, this is one of the true horrors of religion.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Can there be good atheists? A response to Pastor Rick Henderson

Pastor Rick Henderson, in his Huffington Post Religion essay “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist,” sets to make a case that without a belief in God, it is not possible to ground moral values objectively. On that case, he rests a thesis that without objectively grounded moral values, it is not possible for an atheist to call himself--or be--"good."

Of course, the pastor isn't so coarse as to suggest that an atheist cannot be moral, that is, well-aligned with regard to a particular cultural or ethical framework. Instead, Henderson stabs deeper at what is called the “value problem” lying at the heart of the branch of moral philosophy known as “moral ontology,” which is the effort to explain in what it means to say that morals exist. To arrive at his title, he plays upon the words by indicating that if an atheist is morally good, then the she is not very good at being an atheist--an odd idea in its own right that I won't tackle here.

Henderson's case is summarized concisely by his statement,
“There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.” 
In other words, he hopes to make the case that without the existence of objective moral values, morality can be taken only subjectively, or in his words, “at best” a “mass delusion.” As a Christian pastor, Henderson, of course, believes that he can ground objective moral values in his theology, presumably implying that he is avoiding delusion in doing so.

I hope to achieve a couple of goals with this response. First, I would like to remind Henderson and others that we can claim objective moral values, that is we can solve the moral value problem, without having to rest it upon any theology. Second, I'd like to show that theology cannot solve the moral value problem on its own and is a poor method for claiming values at all. In that way, Henderson's own position will be revealed to be the one that depends upon (but isn't) moral relativism, a core charge he lays upon atheistic moral understanding.

Real-world objective moral values exist

The value problem is an old one, and while I don't pretend to be a moral philosopher, I will take a moment to make mention of it. The problem is that while we can look to facts of or about the world, we seem not to be able to determine what in the world we should value. In order to arrive at values, we must smuggle in at least one, and the argument goes that values are not observable facts about the world. Henderson goes further, saying that without bringing in at least one moral value, “this view of morality does nothing to provide a reasonable answer for why it would be objectively wrong to torture diseased children, rape women or kill those who don't affirm a national religion.” If this seems preposterous, it's because it is.

This isn't nearly so difficult a problem as Henderson needs it to be, though. In fact, it was thoroughly explored and should have been put to rest in 2010 by neuroscientist Sam Harris when he wrote his New York Times best-selling The Moral Landscape. There, Harris lays out a sustained case that there is a bedrock moral value--the avoidance of (gratuitous) suffering and promotion of well-being for sentient beings such as ourselves and animals--that is so deeply rooted into the core of the notion of “value” as to serve as the only salient definition for moral terms like “good” and “evil.”

To summarize Harris's argument very briefly, his case is that everything that can be construed as a value has to be something valued by someone, meaning some conscious being, and that, at bottom, those values are measured against the well-being or suffering of that someone. To support the first half of that, he asks us to consider the existence of something that created no change whatsoever in the experience of any conscious being. What would it even mean to say that such a thing is valued? Harris states, in fact, that if such a thing exists, it is “by definition, the least interesting thing in the universe” (p. 32).

As Harris argues further, well-being is the only way we can intelligibly make sense of the term value (paraphrased also from p. 32), for this is the only salient metric for assessing the impact on conscious experience, wherein the term value obtains all of its meaning. We all recognize that all conscious beings experience varying states of well-being, including its converse--suffering. Further, and contrary to Henderson's claim about torturing diseased children, all emotionally healthy people recognize that optimizing well-being, which includes minimizing suffering for conscious beings, is a value we can call moral.

The point, then, is not that we smuggle in this value; it's that, at bottom, it is the only value that exists. If it must be smuggled in, then it is a form of universal philosophical contraband. Further, among emotionally healthy people, it is so common as to constitute a universal fact about mentally well human beings. This, then, is not just why we should bring in this value, it's why we must.

To close one common objection, I will also note that however complex these are, well-being and suffering are observable phenomena, even if they are experienced subjectively. These, then, being common to all conscious beings and together serving as the foundational value upon which all others are predicated, provide a salient objective grounding for moral values.

Theology does not provide objective values; it relies upon them.

My case here is shorter: theology pretends to provide an objective grounding for moral values by defining “God” as the source of objective moral values. That it does so is plain, as this is the only recognizable methodology theology has.

That there is an objective moral value that exists independently of belief in any God is captured by the fact that the only coherent way to describe a value is as Harris noted: in terms of some impact on the experience of conscious beings. We know conscious beings exist and have experiences, so Henderson and everyone else have to use the experience of conscious beings to make sense of the idea of value. Proceeding to tie that value to “God” merely gives their deity another awkward definition for theologians to juggle.

Theological “objective” moral values, though, are different. They possess a remarkable problem that observable--that is, scientific--objective moral values do not. The problem is that they lack any reliable methods to give them epistemic basis--that is, there is no reliable theological way to know which of these values are right and which are wrong. The "methods" of theology have been identified by Richard Dawkins as being tradition, authority, and revelation (See The Magic of Reality for an easy introduction), and the consequential problem with these methods is their utter unreliability.

To understand their unreliability, we must ask how methods like these could lead to correct assessments, except by luck. The only source of new information among them is in revelation, which even if legitimate is subject to every belief, whim, and prejudice of the person it is revealed to, masked by the cognitive biases we're all prone to. Though it is true that observations may lead to “revelations,” the tools that would make revelation a reliable method for gaining knowledge, moral or otherwise, are absent. How we know is as important as what we know, and the critical elements of falsification and revision simply aren't a part of the revelatory toolkit. We must agree with the alleged prophet in question, or else either we or the false prophet is a heretic!

Thus we see wildly divergent sets of moral values, say from Christianity, Islam, and Confucianism, and we shouldn't be surprised. Here hides Henderson's dependence upon relativism, then. Henderson himself notes it this way, thinking he's talking about the morals of atheists, calling them “the construct[s] of a social group” that “cannot extend further than a society's borders or endure longer than a society's existence.” This portrayal of culturally normative morals is a description of religious morality exactly.

Now, values from different religions and cultures overlap, of course, because there is an objective moral value that we can observe and all experience: the well-being of conscious beings. They diverge, though, because revelation and what proceeds from it, held on faith, are utterly unreliable ways to glean truths, thus often leading us to choose to value the wrong things, an all-too-common feature of religion.

Theology, then, rides upon real objective moral values--those rooted in the well-being of conscious beings--and perverts them with ideas it credits to divine revelation and refuses to try to falsify. That means it is not a source of objective moral values but instead an attempt to codify a particular guess at them, which it then pretends are universally and objectively moral.

That said, then, not only can there be morally good atheists, but also atheists have a potential leg up on becoming morally good.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Response to Tom Gilson's Open Letter to Peter Boghossian

After tweeting some about my excitement for Peter Boghossian's new best-selling book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, a Christian apologist and leader in campus ministry efforts named Tom Gilson contacted me, inviting me to read a series of thirteen posts on his blog addressing Boghossian and the book. Gilson runs a website called The Thinking Christian, which appears to be a very popular Christian apologetics site. Talking with Gilson on Twitter led to an offer for me to read through his posts about Boghossian and to write a response, which I've done, published below.

To Tom Gilson, in response to your open letter to Peter Boghossian,

Richard Dawkins astutely notes in The Magic of Reality, a delightful book meant to be read at the kids' table (have you seen it?), that the methods of faith rely upon tradition, revelation, and authority. I do not expect that this observation is controversial, and I hope it matches with your understanding of faith--the "trust in a reliable source" from Augustine, which you mention in your open letter to Boghossian, referencing David Marshall. To be clear, I'm rather sure we agree that trust in a reliable way of knowing, which may be called a "source" at times, is a sufficient grounds to make some kind of qualified knowledge claim.

We will diverge here in whatever agreement we have on this assessment, of course, since the point that Dawkins makes plain is that these sources of knowledge are evidentially not reliable and deserve none of the trust Augustine and others have extended to them. That is, I don't have a problem with a definition of faith like Augustine's, but the rub is in that word "reliable." To claim to know something as trust in unreliable sources, maybe you agree could best be called "pretending to know something one does not know," at least when it is something held with conviction--a key feature that distinguishes faith from simply being mistaken.

To the best I'm able to understand him, though he phrases it differently, Boghossian's point is exactly the same: faith is not a reliable way of knowing (that is, faith is not a reliable epistemology for claiming knowledge) because it relies solely upon what those outside faith traditions recognize to be unreliable methods. Tradition, revelation, and authority, even when wrapped up in the cleverest literary analysis, are wonderful tools for making ad hoc rationalizations of evidence, or, as I have called it, "evidence misattributed." These three, however, are terrible tools for making propter hoc explanations of evidence.

It seems clear that you have some understanding of this point, since repeatedly within your rather obsessive series of posts about Boghossian, you assert that Christian faith fails Boghossian's definition. Indeed, you dedicate a number of your posts, in part or entirely, to separating Christian faith, which you argue has nothing to fear from such an analysis, and Boghossian's description of faith in general. Surely, then, you do not accept that Christian faith proceeds merely from tradition, revelation, and authority? Or do you, since those three elements seem to serve as the backbone for how you understand faith, which you rest upon Christian scripture and doctrine and the ensuing cultural usage of the word that follows?

In fact, as I read it, you must not only get your faith from evidence but also your entire Christian view of the world. The relevant question, then, to put it to you, is how can you know that what you call evidence (for your take on Christianity) is not evidence misattributed to your admittedly biased view of the world? I contend that you do not know this because you cannot know it. After all, if there is no God, or if Christianity is at its roots false, then there is simply no evidence for God, or evidence for Christianity, respectively. In these cases, there is only evidence misattributed to them.

What about us?

Of course, tu quoque: How can I know--or how can Peter Boghossian know--that what we call evidence is not evidence misattributed to our own worldviews? The big point is that we cannot, just as you cannot, but we are in a good position to assess the width of the epistemic gaps between the evidence and our speculations about it because we lack the conviction of faith. The widths of these gaps tell us how confident we can be in claiming knowledge, with narrower gaps meaning we can speak with more confidence, and we can assess them by examining falsifiable hypotheses with empirical methods. In other words, we can be can be confident in what we claim to know by examining them in a way that tries to reveal how the evidence is telling us that we might be wrong. It's a lingering curiosity for me, perhaps that you have insights into, what methods faith employs to try to disconfirm its claims about reality.

In many cases, by this approach we can assess with remarkable precision how confidently we can claim to know something, the salience being rooted not just in explanatory capacity but also predictive power. As an industrial and organizational psychologist, you not only must understand this but have to have a keen appreciation of the statistical methods that define it--confidence intervals provide the meaning in my usage of that term. We, then, can claim what knowledge we claim in exactly the same way and with the same qualifications that you would claim to know something from a published result in your field of psychology, nothing less and nothing more.

For example, you are sure to be able to claim to know a great deal about the roles of various incentives on employee motivation, and you know that you can claim to know those things because you have reliable methods for determining them. For us, it's the same, but we do not (actually cannot) claim to know things that cannot be validated by methods of those kinds--and neither should you. This is a key difference between faith, which gives more than the evidence warrants, and more reliable epistemologies.

Hopefully it is clear that epistemic gaps of this kind are far narrower than those arising from the traditions, revelations, and authority of other people who also lacked a reliable method to determine if they were misattributing the evidence they claimed in a way that favored their convictions. In contrast, Boghossian's position of informed skepticism can only misattribute evidence to bad scientific or philosophical models, which he readily admits he's not committed to beyond the warrant of the evidence that supports them.

A good example here would be gauge theory from physics--the Standard Model gives us great predictions but may turn out to be the wrong explanation. The epistemic gaps here are quite narrow, so we're justified in using it as knowledge qualified by the resulting confidence. Still, we may be mistaken. If so, when the evidence warrants it, we are free to abandon the Standard Model for something that does better by the evidence; we're simply not convicted to any particular model. Honestly, if we really want to be able to get anything right, we have to be in such a position, which exposes the conviction, that is, faith, as the core of the problem.

Thus, for us, and really for you in all things except your religious faith, it isn't a question of how we claim to know that we are not misattributing evidence. Our entire process of evaluating hypotheses about the world is to consider what degrees of confidence we can put on knowledge claims and then to believe and act accordingly. No doubt you do the same, but with a cognitive bias like religious faith in place, I hope to convince you with this letter that you err when it comes to your faith.

The key principle: plausibility unwarranted by evidence

The key and relevant principle is that faith, seen as a cognitive bias (my own definition for it, which Boghossian cites on p. 36 of his Manual), leads someone to commit the error of naming what is merely possible as plausible, likely, or certain, and doing so specifically in a way that is unwarranted by the evidence. To be clear, the quality of the warrant on our knowledge claims is determined by the falsification process, an ongoing attempt to find better, more accurate knowledge, and it is never entirely certain. Further, it depends upon it, for we are all fraught with biases that must be overcome if we are to justly claim knowledge. If I'm right in calling faith a cognitive bias, my question for you is how you can know that you do not employ this bias to blind you to the fact that you're biased.

Now, I see Boghossian's "pretending to know" definition of faith to be a snappier variant on exactly this idea: that without rigorous and cautious methods, we cannot claim to know anything except the subjective experience of our lives. To claim general knowledge from subjective experience fits the definition of "pretending," whatever rhetorical malfeasance you accuse him of for the use of the word. In my opinion, being convicted to an idea unwarranted by the evidence--and often despite it--also fits the definition of "pretending," a point I expect you'd agree with if we weren't talking about your beliefs.

Incidentally, in case you didn't notice, if you replace "pretending" in Boghossian's definition with "claiming," you get an effectively identical meaning without quite so much rhetorical punch, so I'll merit you one small point in noticing the usefulness of rhetoric. No doubt you are already aware of that too, though, since you are likely to be a fan of Paul and his epistles. Whatever Paul lacked in knowledge claims warranted by evidence he made up for in spades with rhetoric, and I hardly think this point is controversial. Paul is famous for it and changed the world with it.

As I draw to a close, I will reiterate the key idea: Faith, as we see it from outside, is a mechanism by which a believer gives greater plausibility to a hypothesis than is warranted by the evidence. This isn't controversial. You, I expect, do it unblinkingly for Hindu claims about the monkey-god Hanuman, for example, and would agree in that case with what I argue in the fifth chapter of my book God Doesn't; We Do--that the only plausibility for the God hypothesis warranted by the evidence is almost surely zero.

If an almost sure zero chance is what you assign to Hanuman, Mbombo, or Virachocha but not to the Christian God, I fear you may be using your faith-based cognitive bias to misattribute the evidence. You do agree with me in the other cases that anything higher than "no chance" doesn't have the epistemological grounding it needs to be getting on with, don't you? Given that, I hardly grudge Peter Boghossian for using the rhetorically punchy, though accurate, word "pretending."

I think you'd do better not only to drop this particular case against him, but also to stop claiming to know what you do not know and repudiate all faith-based epistemologies--Christianity among those.

With kind regards,
James A. Lindsay

Edit: I had meant to include a link to Mr. Gilson's assessment of my "Boghossification" of some of the Catechism of Trent (link to my piece). If interested, you can see what he thinks about it here.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A distillate from Boghossian's Manual

A friendly reminder, this being a distillation of a general premise I think underlies Peter Boghossian's new book.

The believer is the one relying on a faulty epistemology (way of knowing),  so that can be used to press him where he belongs: on the defensive. Apologists love to reverse this to create an illusion of burden of proof, but they're the ones owing all the explanations. Don't let them. Keep asking them genuine questions, and if they answer with a counter-query, work to keep the focus on what you asked, using Boghossian's line "it's not about what I think; it's about what you think," or "reset to wonder."

In general, if you feel like you have to be on the defensive, the one constantly answering questions from a religious apologist or other believer, then you're doing it wrong and likely to be reinforcing their belief structure. It's not about how many questions of theirs you can answer--they don't care about that--it's about how many of your questions they can't answer. Therein lies "doxastic openness" and hence the opportunity to change minds.

Note that they use a method very much like what Boghossian recommends already, and they do it because it works, even without believable beliefs or a reliable epistemology.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Don't say the 'Th' word

In Letter to a Christian Nation, neuroscientist and author Sam Harris remarks about the term "atheist" thusly,
Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, "atheism" is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a "non-astrologer" or a "non-alchemist." We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.
 An "atheist," of course, is then a person, presumably reasonable, making (skeptical) noises in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs, making it a rather poor term for identifying something--or really much of anything--about that person. It's a term with little utility, and what use it has is not only unfortunate, it is also dangerous.

The reason is that atheism is a term of negation, as Harris makes clear by analogies. Atheism negates theism, a belief in God or gods. By extension, then, it is tempting to call those people who believe in God or gods theists, which is accurate and semantically appropriate. Asymmetric by definition, unlike "atheist," an argument that "theist" should not be a word doesn't hold water; I just go out of my way to avoid using that term, at times taking pains to do so.

Now, to disclaim, I am not a proponent of taboos being placed on words or ideas, and I'm hardly going to stand and moralize about the use of this term or that in one context or another. Words have meanings, denotative and connotative, and in the societies in which those meanings exist, there are complex social rules for using or not using various terms. Likewise, there are artful, and more commonly inartful, ways for violating these norms, replete with appropriate and inappropriate outrage as the cases may be. That disclaimed, I'm getting to the thrust: Don't say the "Th" word: theist.

Before explaining, I should note that by extension, I would recommend against using the "Ath" word (atheist) as well except that I can't. Because of the current status of thorough cultural domination of those who accept some form of theistic belief, at least in many places including the United States (from which I write) the "Ath" word is altogether too useful as a concise and totally unfortunate label. Instead, I advise avoiding taking the "Ath" word to heart and attempting to make it an identifiable part of one's identity.  Doing so is a dangerous invitation to use the "Th" word in exactly the way that motivates me here.

Now, to explain, consider that the "Th" word doesn't describe anybody, even if it is an accurate label for what may be a significant majority of the population of the world. Even if every Christian, every Hindu, every Muslim, inter alia, is technically a theist, none of them identify themselves that way. When someone, almost always an atheist who has embraced the term as part of her identity and is engaging in strident (online) activism, uses the "Th" word, we're left sorely wondering who exactly she is talking to. My guess is that they're talking to other ornery atheists who count "their atheism" as part of their identities and thus talking about those labeled with the "Th" word.

Particularly, to build upon that, Christians identify as Christians; Hindus identify as Hindus; Muslims identify as Muslims, etc., and it is likely that only a small percentage of people in any of those categories are familiar with the "Th" word. I certainly never knew of it until I started paying attention to atheist literature. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but it seems plain that if your intended audience has to look up the word that you are using to identify them, then you are not actually trying to reach them.

That should leave us wondering exactly why so many e-defenders of "atheism" are so quick to use the "Th" word, but haven't you guessed it? It others the people who are not atheists. The "Th" word, then, which has some limited academic usefulness, is socially being used to mean what might be captured by the term "anatheist," meaning a "not-atheist." A quick search of the use of the "Th" word on Twitter will hopefully reveal beyond doubt exactly what I mean here.

Notice how this depends upon the error of accepting atheism as a part of one's identity, ignoring Harris's oft-quoted comment that "atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world." It also depends upon a tendency to engage in exactly the kind of parochial, tribal behavior that the "Th"-word-using atheists are rebuking. As is often the case, this hypocrisy doesn't necessarily take away from the validity of their arguments, but it certainly distracts from it.

There are many ways to rationalize, and even to justify, the use of the "Th" word. One arises from the infrastructure of Twitter, where this behavior is common. On Twitter, there is a forced premium on almost obscene brevity, and the "Th" word describes a general category of people with only six characters (seven, if pluralized). Another defense is that it is a broad-stroke term that catches everyone that believes in God or gods under a single umbrella. This is useful for talking about them, then, but not necessarily to or for them. Another common justification strikes closer to home: it is the logical negative counterpart to the "Ath" word. Whatever the justification, though, the question isn't whether or not it is valid so much as if it is worth the ease with which it turns into an othering term and thus whether or not othering believers serves achieving positive societal goals.

So far as I can tell, it is easy to engage in othering, but it is far less often productive than destructive to do so. No one wants to be othered, and groups that realize they are being othered often get a sense of entrenchment and unity not otherwise available. To wit, note the (mostly online, largely on Twitter) growing "atheist community" (this should be plural, since there are already the seeds of denominationalism running rampant there, its own problem not to be tackled here). Simply put, there are better ways to communicate. Tackle specifics: particular religions or sects, particular arguments from theologians or apologists, particular beliefs or traditions. Save the broad brushes for places that they make sense, such as topics like faith--"pretending to know what one doesn't know," to follow Peter Boghossian's brilliant observation.

Thus, I hope you'll join me. Don't say the "Th" word.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Practicing my Boghossian, Catechism of Trent Edition

After reading Peter Boghossian's thought-provoking book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, I thought it would be rather interesting to engage in an exercise he recommends. Specifically, I am taking a piece of text and changing out the word "faith" for the phrase "pretending to know things one doesn't know," taking some license with the grammar for smoother reading. Because I think it would be good for more of this kind of thing to be out there, I encourage this behavior heartily.

I used the opening part of the Catechism of Trent from 1566, a bit of Catholic dogma that still defines Catholicism in large part. The results are predictably hilarious and, at times, go a long way toward clarifying the meaning of the Catechism. Please enjoy below the dashed lines.

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In preparing and instructing men in the teachings of Christ the Lord, the Fathers began by explaining the meaning of faith. Following their example, we have thought it well to treat first what pertains to that virtue.

Though faith has a variety of meanings in the Sacred Scriptures, we here speak only of that kind of pretending to know what one doesn't know by which we yield our entire assent to whatever has been divinely revealed.

Necessity Of Pretending to Know What One Doesn't Know

That pretending to know what one doesn't, thus understood, is necessary to salvation no man can reasonably doubt, particularly since it is written: "Without pretending to know what one doesn't know, it is impossible to please God." For as the end proposed to man as his ultimate happiness is far above the reach of human understanding, it was therefore necessary that he should pretend that it be made known to him by God. This knowledge, however, is nothing else than pretending to know what one doesn't, by which we yield our unhesitating assent to whatever the authority of our Holy Mother the Church teaches us to have been revealed by God; for those who pretend to know what they do not know cannot doubt those things of which God, who is truth itself, we pretend to be the author. Hence we see the great difference that exists between the kind of pretending to know what one doesn't know which we give to God and that which we yield to the writers of human history.

Unity Of Pretending to Know What One Doesn't Know

Pretending to know what one doesn't know differs in degree; for we read in Scripture these words: "O thou who only pretends to know a little of what one does not know, why didst thou doubt;" and "Great is thy pretending to know what one doesn't;" and "Increase our pretending to know what we do not." It also differs in dignity, for we read: "Pretending to know what one doesn't know without working upon that is dead;" and, "Pretending to know what one doesn't know that worketh by charity." But although pretending to know what one does not know is so comprehensive, it is yet the same in kind, and the full force of its definition applies equally to all its varieties. How fruitful it is and how great are the advantages we may derive from it we shall point out when explaining the Articles of the Creed.

The Creed

Now the chief truths which Christians ought to hold are those which the holy Apostles, the leaders and teachers of that which they pretend to know but do not, inspired by the Holy Ghost, have divided into the twelve Articles of the Creed. For having pretended to know that they had received a command from the Lord to go forth into the whole world, as His ambassadors, and preach the Gospel to every creature, they thought it advisable to draw up a formula of the Christian brand of pretending to know what one does not know, that all might think and speak the same thing, and that among those whom they should have called to the unity of the manner of pretending no schisms would exist, but that they should be perfect in the same mind, and in the same judgment.

This profession of hope and the Christian kind of pretending to know what one doesn't know, drawn up by themselves, the Apostles called a symbol; either because it was made up of various parts, each of which was contributed by an Apostle, or because by it, as by a common sign and watchword, they might easily distinguish those who stop pretending to know what they do not know and false brethren unawares brought in, adulterating the word we pretend is of God, from those who had truly bound themselves by oath to serve under the banner of Christ.

Division Of The Creed

Christianity proposes to those who will pretend to know what they do not know many truths which, either separately or in general, must be held with an assured and firm commitment to pretending to know what is not known. Among these what must first and necessarily be pretended to know by all is that which is pretended that God Himself has taught us as the foundation and summary of truth concerning the unity of the Divine Essence, the distinction of Three Persons, and the actions which are peculiarly attributed to each. The pastor should teach that the Apostles' Creed briefly comprehends the doctrine of this mystery.

For, as has been observed by our predecessors in pretending to know what they did not, who have treated this subject with great accuracy and devotion to pretending to know what they did not, the Creed seems to be divided into three principal parts which must be pretended to be known, though they are not: one describing the First Person of the Divine Nature, and the stupendous work of the creation; another, the Second Person, and the mystery of man's redemption; a third, the Third Person, the head and source of our sanctification; the whole being expressed in various and most appropriate propositions. These propositions are called Articles, from a comparison frequently used by the Fathers; for as the members of the body are divided by joints (articuli), so in this profession of pretending to know what one does not know, whatever is to be pretended to be known distinctly and separately from anything else is rightly and suitably called an Article.

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Now, because it holds a special place in my heart (Cf. God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges), I will include a few paragraphs from the first Article of the Catechism, hoping that others will take the time to read through and do more. I assure you, it's worth it. To make that clearer, I will include the various section headings as well, translated, of course.

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Pretending to Know What One Doesn't Know Excludes Doubt

The knowledge derived through pretending to know what one does not know must not be considered less certain because its objects are not seen; for the divine light by which we pretend to know them, although it does not render them evident, yet suffers us not to doubt them. For we pretend that God, who we pretend commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath himself shone in our hearts, that the gospel be not hidden to us, as to those that we pretend are different from us because they will perish.

Pretending to Know What One Doesn't Know Excludes Curiosity

From what has been said it follows that he who is gifted with this heavenly knowledge that he pretends to know but does not know is free from an inquisitive curiosity. For when God commands us to pretend to know, He does not propose to us to search into His divine judgments, or inquire into their reason and cause, but demands an unchangeable state of pretending to know what one does not know, by which the mind rests content in the pretend knowledge of eternal truth. And indeed, since we have the testimony of the Apostle that God is true; and every man a liar, and since it would argue arrogance and presumption to disbelieve the word of a grave and sensible man affirming anything as true, and to demand that he prove his statements by arguments or witnesses, how rash and foolish are those, who, hearing the words we pretend are of God Himself, demand reasons for His heavenly and saving doctrines? Pretending to know what one doesn't know, therefore, must exclude not only all doubt, but all desire for demonstration.

Pretending to Know What One Doesn't Know Requires Open Profession

The pastor should also teach that he who says, "I believe," besides declaring the inward assent of the mind, which is an internal act of pretending to know what one doesn't know, should also openly profess and with alacrity acknowledge and proclaim what he inwardly and in his heart pretends to know but does not. For he who pretends to know what he doesn't know should be animated by the same spirit that spoke by the lips of the Prophet when he said: "I pretend to know what I do not; and therefore did I speak," and should follow the example of the Apostles who replied to the princes of the people: "We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard." They should be encouraged by these noble words of St. Paul: "I am not ashamed of the gospel. For I pretend it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that pretendeth to know what one doesn't;" and likewise by those other words; in which the truth of this doctrine is expressly confirmed: "With the heart we pretend to know what we do not know unto justice; but with the mouth confession is made unto salvation."

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Some other section headings (those including the word "faith"), thusly translated, in the first Article of the Catechism include:
  • Knowledge Of God More Easily Obtained Through Pretending to Know What One Doesn't Know Than Through Reason,
  • Knowledge Of God Obtained Through Pretending to Know What One Doesn't Know Is Clearer,
  • Knowledge Of God Obtained Through Pretending to Know What One Doesn't Know Is More Certain,
  • Knowledge Of God Obtained Through Pretending to Know What One Doesn't Know Is More Ample And Exalted, and
  • Advantages Of Pretending to Know What One Doesn't Know Concerning God's Omnipotence