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.

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