Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A curious aside in my discussion with Tom Gilson

A skepticism blog, Skepticism First, part of the Skepti-Schism Network, noticed my ongoing discussion with Christian apologist Tom Gilson and made a short post about it. It's a curious little post that makes a few requests, which I will enumerate, quoting the source.
0. "For a while at least, completely forget about the word “faith”. Pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead, about these things, in this order:
1. "In general, how do we determine what the proper definition of a word is?
2. "In general, how do we arrive at knowledge?
3. "In general, is it possible for us to arrive at knowledge of God’s existence?"
First, let me apologize for the odd numbering. The questions numbered 1, 2, and 3 follow the convention in the Skepticism First post, but I'd like to talk about these in the order they appear, hence numbering the first of them with a zero.

0. Completely forget about the word "faith."

I don't have a lot to say about this except that it seems very peculiar a request to drop the attention on the primary concept that matters here. That is to say, I don't think we can. The stated goal is to reach agreement, but the simple reality is that it's unlikely that agreement on this point can be reached unless Gilson (and any other believer) is willing to admit that faith is an unreliable way to claim knowledge and repudiate it as a method for arriving at, maintaining, or defending knowledge claims. Incidentally, if Tom Gilson were to do this, he would definitely earn my respect.

Since Gilson likes to accuse me of making unsupported claims, I will briefly elaborate on this one. Articles of religious belief, regardless of whether or not there are evidences claimed to support them, require faith--and not just "faith" but faith as Boghossian contends: giving more confidence to a belief than is warranted by the evidence supporting it. Gilson plainly admitted it, as I have pointed out: "The Christian faith ... goes beyond provable knowledge" (emphasis mine).

All this is to say that I'd be glad to drop the word "faith," as I think it's a thing even in concept that we should all drop and move beyond, but Gilson, so long as he maintains his beliefs, is utterly committed to it, as are those with similar belief structures.

Now, a disclaimer: beyond this point, I cannot claim enough expertise in linguistics or epistemology to do a thorough job with these hard, deep questions. I will make what notes I can.

1. Defining words

Oddly, one of the most heated and strange internet discussions I have ever been in regards how, in general, we determine the proper definition of words.

The very first thing to make note of here is that "the proper definition" for a word is a fluid thing that seems to flow with cultural evolution. That said, a word is an abstract symbol meant to convey an idea, hopefully clearly, often from one person to others.

Most important to giving words their meanings, I think, are meaning in contemporary use and accepted meaning. "Contemporary use" here means contemporary to the time of the writer or speaker and refers to the way, in context, that the words are likely to be intended and received. "Accepted meaning" refers to those intended meanings prevalent enough to have been officially recorded in an agreed-upon reference work, that is, a dictionary. I refer to those generally: usual dictionaries capture common use, and technical dictionaries capture technical use. Of note, these two manners of usage do not always agree.

That we define words at all creates a reciprocating situation in which the meaning of words plays. If I want to be accurate in my use of a particular word, I have to consult many sources: how the word is officially defined (if applicable), shades of connotative meaning, and how people use the word. If I'm using a word in a way that starkly goes against how the word is officially defined, then I have to have a very good reason to do so, and those reasons are typically most salient when they are derived from analyses of usage. In the vast majority of cases, though, the way I choose to use a word is constrained, at least in part, by what the dictionary indicates is meant by that word since it forms a standard by which the reader can understand me clearly in the event that she doesn't know the word I've used. That is, if I want to be understood, I had better stay close to the dictionary unless the connotation or generally understood use of the word are clear.

The reciprocation in this situation arises via what happens when people use words to mean something slightly or even radically different from their usual dictionary definition or historical application--even counting sarcastic use. When linguistic analysis reveals that the social weight has grown heavy enough, this new meaning is codified into new dictionaries--but all along the meaning of the word, in use and meaning, is being shaped by the dictionary's definitions of it.

As this applies to "faith"

I cannot comment with certainty about how pre-Enlightenment writers used the word "faith," although I can analyze that use (as I have in the past). What I can say is that one of the huge upshots of the Enlightenment is that evidential consideration of falsifiable hypotheses became the standard for how we can claim to know something--and for good reasons (because it, alone of our methods, reliably works). Increasingly since, the word "faith" has definitely taken on at least a connotative meaning, if not the plain intention in use, of extending one's belief beyond the warrant of evidence.

When the word "faith" is used today, in the context of something like a way of knowing (Cf. "the Christian faith," meaning "the Christian religion," for a different context), it can nearly always be replaced with "putting more confidence in this claim than is warranted by evidence," or, following Boghossian, "pretending to know what one does not know." For example, a Christian may say that he believes Christ died for his sins and was risen because he has faith, and it is entirely apparent that what he means is "I believe Christ died for my sins and was risen not because I have enough evidence to warrant this belief but because I'm believing it without that warrant" (probably for some set of reasons that we'll pretend are inscrutable).

Gilson repeatedly makes the argument that there are evidences underlying faith, but as he said, faith "goes beyond provable knowledge." The understanding of faith Boghossian promotes, though, is believing and acting as if there is more evidence than there is or as if the evidence is more sure than it is. It doesn't matter if there is some evidence (or things that could be interpreted as evidence); it only matters if someone is putting more confidence in the idea than the evidence warrants.

Since Gilson says that faith "goes beyond provable knowledge," we have to conclude that he sees that in many, if not all, cases, Boghossian's analysis is accurate on this front. Complaints about rhetoric aside, if Boghossian's analysis can stand up to the trial of whether or not faith really is used to mean this in a good deal of contemporary use, then Boghossian's analysis deserves to become part of the officially recognized definition of the word "faith."

2. Arriving at knowledge

I am not a sufficiently skilled philosopher to elaborate at any length about this topic, but I will link to someone who is. Post-graduate philosophy student Alex (@SelfExamineLife on Twitter) wrote a wonderful primer about knowledge in August of last year. I should note that this topic alone, how we arrive at knowledge in general, could easily fill an entire section in a decent university library.

As just mentioned, since the Enlightenment, we have banked the acquisition of what we call knowledge on evidential consideration of falsifiable hypotheses, and that which is not supported by evidence does not constitute knowledge. In the parlance Alex presents, evidence serves to justify and (surviving) falsification serves to increase our confidence that our ideas are true. This is critical because the philosophical definition of "knowledge" is at least a justified true belief. As Alex notes, certainty is irrelevant--this is entirely about how much confidence we can put in what we claim to know.

As this applies to "faith"

Yet again, I return to Gilson's plain admission that faith "goes beyond provable knowledge." To get slightly more technical, this means that Gilson is plainly admitting, at the least, that the beliefs maintained by his faith may not be justified or are less justified than he assesses (and professes).

More curious is a question that I asked Gilson in my first blogged interaction with him, which he has failed to respond to so far: what methods does faith employ to try to disconfirm its claims about reality?

Indeed, my experience has been consistently that faith does not seek to disconfirm but rather only to find ways to confirm (hence its easy identification with confirmation bias). Of course, I'm not the first person to make this observation, not by a long stretch. If I am correct in my assessment that faith does not seek to disconfirm that which it aims to maintain, there's a serious hole in reaching the "true" part of the "justified true belief" minimum requirements to call its articles "knowledge."

To elaborate briefly, one of the biggest insights of the Enlightenment is that attempting to falsify or disconfirm hypotheses--and then rejecting those that fail the test--is a very reliable way to get rid of bad ideas. Over the intervening time, in fact, we've come up with very sophisticated methods by which we can approximate, with remarkable accuracy in many cases, how confident we can be in a hypothesis that has been subjected to and survived this kind of testing. While this will not lead us to "truth" (in the certain sense), it allows us to assess the confidence that we can justifiably put on a hypothesis that we have not yet falsified (we put no confidence in falsified hypotheses). It should go without saying that assessing ideas like this have allowed us to do things, like go to the moon and safely return, that are truly fantastic.

The method of falsification is evidential consideration; we test the hypothesis against the evidence and see if it holds water. If it doesn't, we put no confidence in it. If it does, we can put more (though not perfect) confidence in it. Our sophisticated methods (generally known as "statistics") can give us very clear statements of how sure we can be that we know what we're talking about.

Now we come back to Gilson's understanding of faith: it "goes beyond provable knowledge." That is, faith is a method that by its very nature does not rely sufficiently upon evidential consideration. In light of how we gather knowledge about the world, this reveals faith to be an unreliable method, meaning specifically one that puts more confidence in hypotheses than is warranted by the evidence. Thus, articles maintained by faith are likely to lack justification and are assigned an exaggerated assessment of their truth. Thus, faith is a bad way to try to claim knowledge.

3. Can we arrive at knowledge of God's existence?

This is only a superficially interesting question. In fact, it's only a question that means much of anything if God is essentially irrelevant. If God was relevant and evidential, as He allegedly was in the Bible, then this question would be as ridiculous as asking if we could possibly arrive at knowledge of the existence of dairy cows. In other words, the apparent relevance of this question reveals that belief in God is an article of faith that necessarily "goes beyond provable knowledge."

As I often get accused of being in a position that I would reject any evidence of God--for simply being unconvinced by what convinces the credulous--I feel I should point out that there are myriad ways that a God could convince me, and essentially everyone, that it exists. Universal, unequivocal apparition, for instance, would be pretty convincing, but even a strongly statistically significant confirmation of the efficacy of prayer or truth of Jesus' purported promises would probably do it. Indeed, as John Loftus notes in Why I Became an Atheist, it would be pretty convincing alone if Christians, in general, were identifiably better people than they are.

Given the historical advantage that belief in God has had (and still has), I contend that the amount of evidence we'd need is surprisingly little--perhaps all we'd need is a consistent, coherent Bible that is free of rambling ancient literature and absolutely clear and non-contradictory on its central point of purpose: the spiritual salvation of human beings (though some indication of knowledge unavailable to 4th century and earlier Middle Easterners would be helpful as well). The problem is that not only is there no direct evidence--like there reportedly was in biblical times--there is none of the expected sort of indirect evidence either. Given all of this, it's utterly asinine to accuse us of demanding unreasonable evidences for the extraordinary claims of Christianity.

Christians, I expect, mainly feel like the standard of evidence we demand is unfair because they cannot see that they, via faith (which I think of as a cognitive bias), are warping the evidence in a way that appears to support their beliefs (and we don't follow suit). (I base this on my own experience as a former Christian, though I cannot speak for all of them.) This is the heart of my "evidence misattributed" line, and as I point out in Dot, Dot, Dot, everything that a Christian attributes to God I could attribute to The Force from Star Wars just as easily and with every bit as much philosophical grounding, especially with the proviso that faith (in The Force) "goes beyond provable knowledge."

As this applies to "faith"

Faith is only a necessary object here because this question actually has relevance: we have no real reasons to claim knowledge of God's existence, so we have to wonder if there is any way that we even could arrive at such knowledge. Exactly the same applies to The Force (Star Wars), advanced aliens meticulously following the Prime Directive (Star Trek), and wizards (Harry Potter).

To be clear, we can only ask this question with a straight face because (1) we do not possess sufficient evidence to warrant belief and (2) we have been brow-beaten (and worse, historically or in less civilized geographical areas even now) by religious believers into having to treat belief in God differently than belief in Jedis, the United Federation of Planets, and Hogwarts with its anti-muggle protection charms. That is, we can only seriously ask the question of whether it is possible to arrive at knowledge of God's existence because belief in God is a belief unwarranted by the evidence that we've been taught not to treat that way.

Faith pretends to bridge the gap--a gap we now understand only to be able to be bridged by evidence. A good analogy is of a bridge, in fact. Envision that between us and knowledge lies a deep gorge. Evidence provides us a bridge to knowledge that we can cross. Sometimes, as when we discover a species new to science, the bridge is laid down effectively in a single plank. At other times, as when we investigate a complex phenomenon like evolution or gauge theory bit by bit, the bridge is made up of many planks, placed one at a time as the evidence becomes available. These planks are placed as close together as the evidence is good. There are always gaps between planks, but just like a real bridge, this doesn't mean that we're going to fall through if we use it. The confidence value we have is an assessment of how much of the crossing is covered in planks--99.99994% covered for the original announcement of the Higgs boson, absolutely safe to cross, and far, far better than that for evolution now.

Faith, then, is pretending there are planks where there are not, or that the planks that are there cover more of the space than they do--placing a higher confidence value in a hypothesis than is warranted by the evidence because it is extended a license to "go beyond provable knowledge."

When Tom Gilson says that there are evidences beneath faith, what this means is that some planks seem to be present in the bridges he's thinking of--but this doesn't matter. All that matters are the actual confidence values that these hypotheses get: how much of the chasm is covered by planks. Boghossian's use of the word pretending implies that believers are pretending that planks are there when they are not, that is that they are speaking and acting as if those planks are present, and Gilson is very concerned about this. All that matters, though, is that, when it comes to articles that depend upon faith, Christians believe--actively pretending or delusionally sincere--that there are planks there that are not.

As Dan Dennett has remarked, faith is a skyhook, attached to nothing, by which people believe they can ride over these nonexistent planks. But it doesn't work: this doesn't really get someone to knowledge, although it may mislead them to pretend they have knowledge. In every field of human thought other than their own cherished beliefs, this fact is recognized, and no one would dare attempt to cross such a bridge.

It's time to put faith away. It's time to stop pretending we can cross epistemic bridges we cannot cross. It's time to repudiate all failed epistemologies, and this chiefly includes faith.

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