There, Gilson quickly gets to offering an honest appraisal of himself:
It’s a matter of disposition. Apparently I’m not, primarily or by preference, a relayer and displayer of evidences. Evidences certainly matter to me, but they matter (along with all kinds of other ideas) as raw materials—raw materials for a kind of idea workbench, where I take ideas apart, put them together again, and check how they fit. (emphasis his)This is, as he states, an article of self-assessment that he has arrived at due to our Faith Discussion, particularly the tenacity with which I and others have pressed the question of "how do you know your beliefs are true?" with a requirement for corroborative evidence outside of the belief structure. (This requirement, of course, has been deemed unfair by them and necessary by us--an impasse akin to their take that establishing an account for universal purpose is necessary while we say it is at best illusory and at worst vain.)
Gilson goes further and illustrates for us the central metaphor of his essay: the idea workbench, telling us how he takes ideas apart and puts them back together again, along with how he determines whether or not they fit. He offers the following description for how this metaphor works in the "recent negative example" provided by analyzing the thought that “[f]aith, by definition, is always belief without evidence,” which he draws from Peter Boghossian's analysis of the term. Before assessing the idea, he writes,
I put this idea on the test bench, and I pull out a few other ideas to test this one against. I am confident these other comparison ideas are solid, true, and widely shared; so if the new idea doesn’t fit with them it fails the test, and it goes in the junk pile. (emphasis mine)
He then assesses this statement about faith.
So, here’s how that worked out recently when I took the above-mentioned definition of faith to the workbench. I pulled some comparison ideas out of my “good” pile. These were solid, true, non-controversial and widely shared ideas, listed here as numbers 1, 2, 3, and 5. I fastened them together (numbers 4, 6, and 7) with the screws and nails of logic.For an interesting exercise, observe his use of the word "fictional" in (1)--(3) and try to work through this seven-step process in that case. The mind boggles. Either way, I do, of course, find his conclusion a bit dubious.
Number seven summarizes the result: there was no place left in the assembly to include, “Faith is always belief without evidence.” That meant it didn’t belong in the good pile. It was a junk idea.
- Jesus Christ is universally regarded as a character (either historical or fictional) who promoted faith.
- His characters’ influence (whether historical or fictional) has been so great that for a great proportion of humanity for thousands of years, “faith” has been understood to be that which Jesus Christ promoted.
- The character of Jesus Christ is known (whether as history or as fiction) as one who presented evidences for faith everywhere he went.
- Therefore, for a great proportion of humanity for thousands of years, faith meant belief according to evidences: that’s how the word was used.
- Definitions are a matter of how words are actually, conventionally used.
- Therefore the definition of “faith” could never have been strictly and only, “belief without evidence.”
- Therefore it is not true that “faith, by definition, is always belief without evidence.” It can’t be: it doesn’t fit with other ideas that are known to be true.
For example, my general responses to his logical fasteners (4) and (6) are (4') Who cares? and (6') Who cares? If fifty billion people for fifty thousand years are wrong, they're still wrong. Boghossian is offering a contemporary analysis of the term, not an assessment of how it has been used or even how people think they're using it. If the "belief according to evidences" referenced in (4) is instead "belief according to what was believed to be evidences but is not," there's a problem there in the meaning of the word--one that the believers at the time would have been blind to.
Further, Gilson's conclusion (7) seems to contradict his statement in (5) since the implication of (5) seems to be ever-subject to an analysis of the term that may allow for the fact that the people who were using it were actually misusing it. I am not saying that Gilson's assessment is necessarily wrong here (even if I think it is); I'm merely pointing out that his confidence in it may not be as warranted as it appears--and this is without the most substantial observation about it of all, to which I will return shortly.
Gilson, to be clear, is very confident in his assessment.
[L]ook again at what my approach offers that the usual evidential approach does not. It uses ideas that every halfway-informed person already has stored away in their “good” pile. Contrast that with an evidential approach, whereby, for example, we could argue for days over whether Suetonius serves as reliable near-contemporary attestation for the existence of Jesus in history. I don’t think the arguments against that are very good (I am informed about these topics, even if I don’t write about them), but that doesn’t mean the disputes couldn’t go on for days! No one, however, could rationally disagree with any of the “parts” I used to build my case against Boghossian’s definition. They’re all part of the common mental furniture of educated Westerners. If there’s a weakness in my case, it’s not in the parts, it’s in the assembly. (bold his)I just did, quite rationally, I think, without getting to the big issue. At any rate, he doubles-down on this assessment immediately after, writing,
And I can’t think of anyone pulling together any strong objection to what I wrote, either to the parts or to the fasteners. Instead they said, “Where’s your evidence?” It’s a valid question, yet it has nothing to do with the case I had built.I'll grant this all, though, about the case he built to get to the epistemic matter that forms the centerpiece of our discussion. His case is that Boghossian is using the word "faith" in an illegal way. My rebuttal is essentially that the analysis of the word faith offered by Boghossian hinges upon whether or not there is enough evidence for the Christian belief system--independent of that system--to accept that the historical use of the word "faith" was ever valid in the first place.
Here, I'll take a moment to talk about that use. I must note that Gilson asserts that the biblical definitions of faith, including as characterized in the book of Hebrews and the famous Doubting Thomas story, indicate that faith means trusting the evidences believed to be in hand while waiting for confirmation (of things promised) to come. We shall come back to this, and for all intents and purposes, I'm fine with calling this idea biblical faith.
Gilson, of course, is not a dealer in evidences, but he is quite sure they are there. He writes,
Still I have to face the fact that although I like my approach well enough, it frustrates people who really want the evidences. I’ve tried to satisfy them by saying, “Look around the shop—the evidences are everywhere! Go to the libraries—the evidences are everywhere!” But this frustrates them, too, since they want me to put the evidences on the bench for display. The problem is, that’s not me: I don’t display things that way. I take them apart and put them together instead.First, a correction--at least for my part. I am quite familiar with the various kinds of evidences Christianity claims, so I do not expect Gilson or anyone else to put them on the bench for display. I have already found that sort of evidence unconvincing. One of the last things I want to do is read more of it without something more convincing to motivate me. Thus, I evidently want the kind of evidence some insist is impossible (because the claims are of the supernatural, which is, by definition, beyond nature and thus physical evidence).
That said, this is what I have to hone in upon: "Look around the shop—the evidences are everywhere! Go to the libraries—the evidences are everywhere!" This brings me back to the big objection to his seven-step rejection of the idea that faith is belief without evidence. The idea is too simple for Gilson to see it because Gilson is wearing Jesus-colored glasses and cannot see the glare of this five-word statement. It is this simple: Jesus could have been wrong.
"Jesus Christ is universally regarded as a character (either historical or fictional) who promoted faith," Gilson writes. What if Jesus was simply wrong to do so?
Take two quick notes before proceeding. One, the faith Jesus promoted is, I trust Gilson would agree, biblical faith. Two, if I've understood him right, biblical faith means trusting the evidences believed to be in hand while waiting for confirmation to come. Commenter Jenna Black refers to this as a schema by which the evidence is analyzed, offering a wonderful analogy of putting together a puzzle while looking at the picture on the box to know what the pieces represent.
Biblical Faith Looks Like Confirmation Bias
To get back to the question, what if the faith Jesus promoted, biblical faith, is what it appears so overwhelmingly clearly to be: an exercise in preparing oneself to be a victim of confirmation bias? Look at how it plays out:
- Take what you already believe you know to be true and consider it true (use it as evidence upon which to base trust);
- Listen to the claims of an authority (who may be fictional) about certain future events; and
- Wait until something happens that can be taken as confirmation of those claims, considering this, when it occurs, as evidence as well. (And repeat.)
At any rate, Gilson is correct to have assessed that this is how I would respond. I can use Black's puzzle metaphor, indeed, to do it. When putting together a puzzle,
- Assume that the puzzle you are working matches the picture on the box (say it's a puzzle of a vista of a blue sky mistakenly placed in a box for a cerulean lagoon puzzle--or even of another patch of sky);
- Use the picture on the box to interpret the pieces as presented, placing them where you think they will go; and
- Consider it a victory when any pieces fit and something to keep waiting for in faith when they do not.
Using the analogy of the box to guide the puzzle reveals that Jenna Black, like Tom Gilson, is also wearing Jesus-colored glasses. She, like Gilson, sees the world through the interpretive lens of the Christian belief system, and it appears that she, like Gilson, cannot do otherwise at this time. They don't realize that they're wearing glasses. The world just looks how it does to them, and it looks like Jesus.
As noted, Tom knew that I would say something to this effect, commenting to Black,
Now if I understand James Lindsay, he’ll say that what you call a helpful schema is actually a package of misbeliefs that we attempt to shore up through misattributed evidencesThis isn't exactly what I am saying. I'm saying that we need to use great care in choosing the schemata we're using. In the case of Gilson's appeal to biblical faith, the simple question, "what if Jesus was wrong?" which is unthinkable to Christians, is enough to throw doubt upon the Christian schemata (here, plural for certain, as there seem to be many schemata, not all of which Tom Gilson would endorse).
I am, however, saying quite plainly something like what Gilson is asserting. In the situation where someone is using a bad schema, they are very likely to misattribute evidence. Again, I'm asking Tom Gilson how he can claim to know--instead of just saying he believes it without knowing it--that his particular Christian schema is a good one. I'm quite sure it's not.
Gilson's Jesus-Colored Glasses
To make my point, then, I return to a couple of illustrative statements from Gilson that are suggestive to me that his Jesus-colored view of the world is likely to be fraught with confirmation bias of the faith kind. Facing the question of how he would disconfirm his belief in Christianity, Gilson writes this almost lucid statement,
I’ve been asked, “What could cause you to give up your faith in Christ?” Some Christians answer that question, “The bones of Jesus Christ, showing he didn’t rise from the dead.” I think that’s weak. It’s too safe, for one thing, because how could anyone prove they were his bones? My answer instead would go like this: Any fact discovered anywhere that seriously undermined the tremendous coherence I find in the Christian worldvew [sic]. (emphasis his)What lucidity is here--his focus on the coherence of a worldview defined by an idea that serves to pretend to answer every "big" question coherently is a bit foggy--shines through to Gilson's eyes in distinctly Jesus-colored light, though, as he immediately reveals,
When I take ideas apart and put them back together again, they fit together best when I assemble them according to a biblically-based view of reality. ... When I try to assemble all those kinds of things in alignment with a Christian understanding of reality, they work.They work in other ways too (arguably better--many apparently profound mysteries simply evaporate when not using any biblical account of reality), and so here's Gilson looking through Jesus-colored glasses. Here's Gilson plainly doing his puzzle while looking at a picture of Jesus. Whatever may be true of other kinds of eyewear, I think it is safe to conclude that it's hard to see clearly when your glasses are stained with the blood of Christ.
He attempts to glimpse around the edges of his glasses, though, to be fair. He writes,
No, it’s not flawless. There are a few pieces still laying on the workbench, puzzling me as to where they belong. But they come together that way a whole lot better than when I try to put them together in any other shape.Notice here that Gilson's statement depends upon him apprehending what the other shapes look like. My assertion is that we don't actually know what reality looks like and are finding the shape as we go. With Gilson, not only does he appear to be assuming certain shapes, we are left wondering about those assumptions given that we know that he sees the world through Jesus-colored glasses. He reveals something of this problem to us, though not to himself, by going on with,
If I try to assemble an atheistic/naturalistic framework, for example, it leaves humanness orphaned on the workbench, with no place to belong. I can’t find a place to attach it—at least not without hammering it into an unrecognizable shape. (emphasis his)This is a curious statement. Tom Gilson seems to be saying that he cannot make sense of humanness without his Christian beliefs, and that this particular hang-up is perhaps the biggest one he has. I will not try to convince Gilson of anything regarding humanness but instead will just let this point hang there as it is: humanness crucified on the cross of Christianity.