Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Pope Vischerified, following Boghossian

Tom Gilson and Phil Vischer seem not to want to engage with my challenge to them to Boghossify part of the Pope's letter about faith. To me, it seems odd that they would not welcome this opportunity to carefully engage the word faith in both context and meaning, but that is what it is.

Gilson's only reply to me so far (on Twitter): "James, I have trouble believing you’re taking this project seriously. No thanks."
Vischer's (also on Twitter): "Francis seems to be using the word accurately. Substitute with 'confidence in God's promises.'''

Now, I have assured Tom that as an exercise to complete the "Boghossification," I'm not at all serious, but as an exercise to engage with the definitions of the word "faith," I'm very serious. It's a useful exercise--so much so that it surprised me in that capacity.

Vischer's rebuttal appears more nuanced in quality. My problem with it is essentially that since I have to pretend to know God exists to use "confidence in God's promises," he hasn't actually succeeded in doing anything by moving it one step back (to faith in faith, if you will, instead of just direct faith). That makes me want to Vischerify a bit, here from the beginning of Section 4.

The pope:
4. There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim. The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God. Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives.
4. There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that [putting confidence in promises we pretend, but do not know, came from God] is a light, for once the flame of [confidence we pretend, but do not know, comes from God] dies out, all other lights [seem] to dim [for those who put there confidence there]. [We have confidence in promises we pretend come from God that] [a] light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, [we pretend that] it must come from God. [Confidence in promises we pretend, but do not know, come from God] is born of an encounter [we pretend, but do not know, is] with the living God who [we pretend, but do not know, exists and] calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we [insist, without knowing, that we] can lean for security and for building our lives.
I have marked all of my modifications in this Vischerification of the pope so as to make it clear how I'm interpreting the context, as it is specified that I should do so. My problem, if you will, is that since I don't believe in God, I don't know what the idea of "faith in God" even means, so I have to read it by context. This project is an attempt to engage with that context.

A huge point both Gilson and Vischer seem to miss in their defenses of the word "faith" from the notion of "pretending to know what they do not know" is that they cannot know that God exists in the first place. So every time they say that they have confidence in God's promises (like people from ancient story books that they cannot know aren't just literary inventions), they're pretending to know some things that they don't, chiefly that there is a God.

Here's to hoping that they come around and take me up on my challenge. So far, all they're doing is a fantastic job of proving Peter Boghossian right.


  1. I can understand why Tom and Phil would rather move the conversation to "faith IN" rather than "faith THAT" -- when it comes to their faith, the only way to preserve any dignity in the amount of intellectual time they've wasted is to insist that God is axiomatic or to resort to circularity.

    On some level it appears that they know your line of inquiry is so devastating that they can't allow themselves to engage with it, for fear, I suppose, that they will lose virtually all of that most basic human commodity -- respect. Respect from others, respect for themselves, respect for how they have used their time thus far, respect for what they have asked from others, etc. All that makes me wonder that, if we could remove the fear from loss of respect, how many deluded people would be able to free themselves from their delusions (and how one would even go about offering that).

  2. Hiya James - thanks for turning me into verb! Obviously you can't put confidence in the representations of an entity in which you don't believe. But by adding "pretend" to your Vischerification of the Pope, you've added Boghossification on top of Vischerification. You've created a mutant hybrid - some sort of Vischerhossification. This is an unnatural beast that should be put out of its misery immediately.

    Pope Francis puts confidence in the promises of God and/or the claims of Jesus because he has concluded that the sources of those promises/claims is trustworthy. So he trusts the sources, and then decides to invest confidence. "Faith" is simply investing confidence in a claim or representation. If you have faith in your local police, you have invested confidence in the pledges they have made to "serve and protect." If they repeatedly fail to do what they've pledged to do, you lose faith in them. That's faith.

    You can't "pretend" to invest confidence in a claim. That's common sense. The Pope accepts a source as reliable (the Gospel accounts of Jesus) that you reject. There isn't any "pretending" going on - the two of you (you and the Pope) have looked at the same data, and have come to different conclusions. And your differing conclusions lead you to different choices about where to invest confidence. Where to place your faith.

    Does that help? Hurt? Make any sense at all? Tell me if you think I'm out to lunch...


    1. Glad to verb you, Phil.

      I don't put "faith" in the police, though, I put trust. I trust the police will do what they do because I am aware of how our legal and executive systems work (in addition to how they are supposed to work). I also happen to know that the local police force exists, so you've given something of a false analogy here.

      See, that's what I think you guys are missing. As soon as "God" gets brought into the mix, pretending to know that such a thing exists (or is even saliently defined!) immediately comes to bear on the matter. Since you don't, Boghossian's definition works its way right in there. That's where the pretending happens. I do trust you'd call me out for exactly the same if I was insisting that I had that kind of trust in the Pink Invisible Unicorn or Great Pumpkin (or literally any number of things I could invent at this moment for the purpose).

      The definition I'm working with for "pretend" is "to speak or act as if something is true when it is not true." This definition does not require the speaker to intend to pretend, which would occur if the speaker knows that the thing is not true.

      Of course, "truth" is an impossible subject--we simply do not possess it outside of axiomatic regimes, and then it is beholden to the level of self-evidence of those axioms. We can't really depend upon words like "true," so I actually take the definition of pretend as a more accessible variant on the given one "to speak or act as if something is true when we do not possess sufficient justification to believe that it is true."

    2. Yes, Phil -- to be clear, those of us who do not share your faith-based beliefs about God care even less about this supposed God's motives, in the same way we don't care about whether or not Unicorns are actually friendly or quite aloof -- the question of God's trustworthiness, and Unicorn's friendliness, is entirely predicated on those things first existing.

      Imagine a physicist describing a particle in another universe whose existence could never be detected, but having absolute and complete trust that this particle's spin vector could only be a certain way. The assertion about this particle's spin vector is what your assertion about the Pope's trust in God sounds like to me.

  3. But my police analogy is, in fact, the dictionary definition of faith. That's what faith is, according to Webster. ("Strong belief or trust in someone or something.") So, according to Webster, you have faith in your local police. "Faith," "trust" and "confidence" are all related words. That's why some evangelists say, "Have faith in Jesus" while others say, "Trust in Jesus." Because those statements are synonymous.

    And Cal - I would agree with you, except that we don't have 2000 years of testimonial evidence from people who claim to have had personal relationships with unicorns, or who claim unicorns have changed their lives in meaningful ways. So, as much as I like the idea of unicorns, Jesus appears to be in a different category.

    1. Which is why Boghossian's analysis of this oft-misused word, "faith," is so important and interesting. These things don't actually mean the same thing if you look at the full capacity of how they're being used.

      I mean something different by "trust" and am careful to acknowledge that. I cannot help that other people, perhaps pastors, are less careful, though I can, and will, comment upon it. Look, for instance, at the intense confusion that arises from the scientific and lay usage of the word "theory." Scientists, and those who want to be clear about these words, are absolutely right to comment to distinguish the word "theory" from "hypothesis," and that from "speculation," and that from "guess."

    2. This is also why I think this "Boghossification" exercise is so good. Maybe you don't like doing it with the pope--fine. Pick a pastor that you disagree with (Joel Osteen seems to be a popular target, as does Pat Robertson, though maybe you agree with them and disagree with someone else, I don't know and won't assume). Boghossify something.

      As I've gone through a few sections of the pope's Lumen Fidei, among other documents, I've seen that the term "faith" is being used in a number of different ways. Sometimes it's definitely "pretending to know what one does not know," and sometimes it is better read as a misappropriated synonym for "hope" or "trust." You've noted that it's also used to mean "religion," as in "the Christian faith." There are still other ways it gets used--looking at the contextual meaning of the term.

      Because the Pope is talking about faith in God, it's easy to reduce this to "pretending to know" in pretty much every case except when it means "religion," just as it was easy to Boghossify a Vischerification of the pope's document to reveal, at least, the epistemic problems with making those statements, if we consider it contextually out of bounds to assert pretending.

  4. Phil: "And Cal - I would agree with you, except that we don't have 2000 years of testimonial evidence from people who claim to have had personal relationships with unicorns, or who claim unicorns have changed their lives in meaningful ways. So, as much as I like the idea of unicorns, Jesus appears to be in a different category."

    The point is that we need to demonstrate that something exists prior to describing its properties. It seems that you are asserting that if enough / many people make a claim about something then that something must exist? Is that fair?

  5. Okay, okay - let me see if I've got this straight. (And I'm not being sarcastic. I'm sincerely wanting to make sure I'm understanding your point of view.)

    In the Bible, the words "faith" and "trust" are more or less synonymous. In Webster's dictionary, the words "faith" and "trust" are more or less synonymous. But what you're saying - and Boghossian as well - is that now, today, in the modern world, "faith" has a specific new meaning that didn't exist historically. It's being used in a new way.

    Today, when people say "faith," they mean something like - "I believe this just because I believe this." Or "I believe this just because my religion tells me to believe this."

    Am I close to tracking with you? Because if a fellow Christian came up to me and said, "I just believe this because I'm supposed to," I would say they need to think more deeply about their beliefs. I'd tell them what they're calling "faith" isn't biblical.

    Does that make sense?

    (And Cal - I'm not saying testimonial evidence proves existence. Simply that testimonial evidence is, in fact, evidence. If 1000 people all claim to have seen a "flying saucer," the claim deserves more attention than 1 guy claiming to have seen a flying saucer. The two claims don't have equal weight. So unicorns and Jesus aren't categorically equal.)

    1. This is very important to understand because this "modern times" thing isn't a new thing. It's hundreds of years old now--following the Enlightenment. Before that time, it's not surprising at all that "faith" and "trust" were synonyms, nor is it surprising that everyone believed in superstitions like religions (or unicorns, or far more relevantly, garden faeries, which surprisingly were widely believed in until only about 100 years ago). Superstition ruled because we hadn't nailed down clearly what it means to know something. As we have become less dependent on--indeed unable to trust--superstition, the meaning of faith, in use, changed to reflect that.

      The Enlightenment is when things changed. They have changed further since, particularly in the last half a century when we've really started to come to understand that we don't really have access to certain knowledge. Even our best scientific models are only abstract models, and there is always some epistemic gap between our data and the model as well as between the model and reality. But we can gauge the widths of those gaps now.

      That's where faith falls apart and can't be called "trust" anymore. The intertwined definitions have been teased apart by noticing that the kind of "trust" that goes by the name "faith" doesn't have good reasons to be trustworthy. Perhaps they are beliefs, and it's a long shot that they are true beliefs (or they turn out to be true coincidentally), but they aren't justified beliefs.

      So, while that simple understanding of "pretending to know" being the right definition is one aspect of it, it goes deeper. You're right that that definition is not biblical, but I'm saying you have to engage something different, of the pretending to know kind, to put "trust" in the stories and claims in the bible.

      A further issue exists in that it is still considered woefully impolite to question faith or claims or beliefs based on faith. Up until maybe the last two decades, it wasn't even a possibility, and it's still almost always controversial if remotely successful. Dictionaries won't update until the controversy dies down, and they surely wouldn't have stepped on religious toes until all but very recently.

      I feel that the biblical definition of faith is essentially obsolete, and Peter Boghossian's analysis of that term is powerful at indicating why and how.

  6. Phil, Okay. I appreciate the fact that you are willing to express the opinion that our beliefs should be in proportion to the evidence.

    With regard to your reply to James, you and Tom (et al.) seem to misunderstand Boghossian's central point as being about the proper definition of the word faith. That word's historical roots, its variety of meanings, how others might use or mis-use it, all that has little to do with the fact that religious claims today are given special privilege only because they wrap themselves around that word. I think I can speak on behalf of many atheists when I say I couldn't care less how the word faith was promoted by Christians from a previous era, in the same way that I couldn't care less how the word "gay" was used 100 years ago. I care how the word is used now. And that's because the definition of words change as we subscribe to them new and evolving meanings. And so today, when someone uses the word faith to be synonymous with the word "know," then that person should be able justify that claim. If you cannot, then I can assure you that despite any prior interpretations of the word faith, faith moving forward will become exactly what Boghossian predicts it is -- a false claim about knowledge.

    To say it another way, Boghossian has made the Inigo Montoya observation: "You guys keep using the word faith to mean that you know something. But I do not think it means what you think it means."

    And that's the problem that the religious face. What exactly do you mean by "faith?" If you mean knowledge, then, well, be forewarned, you have some justifying to do.

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  8. (Cal - when I say I have faith in something, I'm definitely not equating faith with knowledge. I'll put faith in something BECAUSE of knowledge, but faith and knowledge aren't synonymous in any usage I would endorse.)

    Okay ... Trying to summarize the "faith" situation based on your understanding and my understanding.

    There are 3 commonly accepted usages of the word faith.
    Faith(1) - confidence or trust in a person or thing. ("I'm putting my faith in you that you'll feed my cat while I'm attending the American Atheists convention.")
    Faith(2) - related to loyalty. ("She attended American Atheists conventions faithfully for 27 years.")
    Faith(3) - A religious belief system. ("The Christian faith has very poor representation at American Atheist conventions.")
    Faith(2), a synonym for loyalty, seems to still be clean in usage. "You're a faithful friend." "He was my faithful dog." "I am faithful to my wife."

    That usage is still good, right? I can describe someone as "faithful" without secularists claiming I'm appealing to supernatural causation or feigning unwarranted knowledge, correct? (As opposed to "faith-filled," which would probably imply a high degree of religiosity.)

    If that's the case, it seems that the secularist complaint is the use of the word "faith" as a sort of post-Enlightenment mashup between (1) and (3).

    In other words, "I have faith(1) in Jesus because it is an article of my faith(3)." Which is another way of saying, "I am putting confidence in these specific claims about this specific person not because I've examined evidence or historical testimony, but because it is a belief required by my religious affiliation. And I really like my church. So stop messing with me."

    This usage is offensive to secularists A) because it's sort of nonsensical, and B) because this type of appeal has been granted a measure of cultural immunity from cross-examination. In other words, "Hey, Bud! Don't question my beliefs! They're RELIGIOUS!"

    And so Peter Boghossian is upset because he considers Christian belief delusional, but he isn't allowed to study it or treat it clinically as a delusion because of this special status. (The special status that prevents claims from being classified as clinically delusional if they are based in widely accepted religious belief.) So from his point of view, appeals to "faith" as an exemption from cross-examination defy logic AND frustrate his larger clinical and academic pursuits.

    Does this sum up the situation accurately? Can we agree on this much?

    Sent from Evernote

    1. Cal's most recent reply is essentially the same thing I would say. It's best not to think of what Boghossian is doing as "defining" the word or "redefining" it, if you want, but rather providing an analysis of the meaning of the word in practice.

      Of the accepted four definitions here, I think the focus is entirely upon (1). If I've read Boghossian right (I'm quite sure I have), (2) and (2'), meaning loyalty, would more accurately convey the intended meaning if the word "loyalty" was used instead of "faith." I agree with this assessment, since it really muddies the water and leads even celebrated theologians to present what looks like seriously obscurantist defenses of the term "faith."

      Boghossian's analysis is that we only colloquially use the term "faith" to mean confidence or trust in a person or thing--which should stop, applying the terms "confidence" or "trust" as is appropriate. When he's talking about the term "faith" in the way you reject, he's talking about putting confidence or trust in some person or thing that exceeds that provided by evidence.

      In other words, all of these attempts to defend "faith" on semantic grounds merely just keep proving his point (so please, keep them up!). What they're doing is showing plainly that even in their most impassioned defenses of their beliefs, Christians (and other believers) have to resort to extending beyond justification to support their beliefs--what he called "pretending to know what you don't know."

      Not to criticize your (and Tom Gilson's) attempts in this way, I would like to urge you to remember that many of us (myself included, but not Boghossian) were believers at one time. I, at least, am quite familiar with how religious people use and have used the word faith. I have overcome that--realizing that it is a misplaced trust. Spell it out again and again if you will, but I've already wandered in that valley of shadow and come out the other side.

  9. Phil,

    I think that the Boghossian stance on faith (let's call it the "future definition", or FD faith) is the proposal that all modern uses of the term faith as having trust IN a deity are bankrupt, in that that definition of faith (your 1) assumes that that specific deity exists -- knowledgeable atheists (those who have explored the claims of various religions, as opposed to infants) don't believe that the claim has any weight whatsoever. It's like my saying that I have faith in unicorns ability to walk through walls.

    So, yes, I understand that faith means that you believe that your god exists, and that he will behave a certain way. I think the claim is empty, because your faith claim (trust in) cannot exist without knowledge that your deity exists.

    The Boghossian stance on faith, FD, is that when the religious are making a claim about reality or a prediction (such as that they have faith that things happen for a reason, or that they have faith that things will work out, etc.), atheists (and the population in general in the future) will understand this to mean nothing other than a kind of hopeful speculation that is not related to any special or privileged information (to the point of being blithely ignorant of the actual circumstances).

  10. Why argue over the definition of the word 'faith'? It doesn't prove or disprove that a God objectively exists...

    Arguing over the definition of a word just seems like a distraction and a waste of time to me. Argue the belief in an objective god, not the definition of a word...

    1. Thanks for the comment, Daniel.
      "Argue the belief in an objective god, not the definition of a word." I quite agree. Here's the catch: the single, solitary, only pillar holding up belief in an objective God is faith. That means it has to be targeted in one way or another to have this discussion.

      As you may have noticed, people who believe in such a God aren't in a good position to analyze arguments about why it isn't justified to believe in an objective god because their faith prevents that level of inquiry. That's why I *identify* (not define) faith as a cognitive bias that prevents someone from doing proper analysis on their faith-held beliefs. In fact, their best defenders have even left the word "justified" behind, preferring instead the word "warranted," which until relatively recently (with Reformed Theology), was a technical synonym for "justified." Their argument about the meanings of those words gave them what hopefully is a last toehold on their unjustified beliefs.

      Peter Boghossian isn't arguing about the definition of the word faith, and following him, neither am I. We are *analyzing* the word in the way that it is actually used. Why? Because the less obscurantism surrounding that word there is, the more people who will be able see that faith is not a justified way to claim that you know something. Thus cuts the legs out from under unjustified beliefs. In other words, getting the meaning of the word faith right is an incredibly important tool in the discussion you say we should focus upon.

      The argument about the meaning of the word faith is stemming from those who want to deny how it *is* used for how it *has been* used when we were more rife with motivated obscurantism on that exact term.

  11. Many people of faith - certainly not ALL - are certainly NOT prevented from doing a proper analysis of their faith. Many of the world's most profound thinkers have explored their faith deeply and with great academic rigor. Simply because you believe in God does not make you incapable of exploring the truth of his existence or in challenging the surrounding beliefs of your faith. Martin Luther challenged much of the Christian faith of the day. Many Christian theologians spend many hours in deep pursuit of the truth of their faith. In the end, PROVING God exists actually would invalidate FAITH itself.

    1. This is a surprising comment, isn't it?

      Of course, I agree that you're right about the "not all" part. Indeed, it happens frequently. And once faith is analyzed properly, it is abandoned, and lo, we have new people freed of what Boghossian calls the "faith virus."

      If an attempt to explore faith, with any degree of academic rigor, seeks to establish that faith is a reliable way to know things, a basis upon which to make or defend claims to knowledge (upon which actions depend), then it is doomed from the start. Since the mechanism of faith is to seek confirmation for that which is trusted, only seeking ways to disconfirm faith constitute an intellectually rigorous way to analyze it. When that happens, faith either gets in the way or gets disconfirmed.

      Proving God exists would indeed invalidate faith: and this shows how bankrupt faith is--to say nothing of what it suggests about a God that requires it.

    2. Faith is bankrupt? I agree that "faith is not a justified way to claim that you know something." But I cannot understand how that makes faith bankrupt. Every human being on this planet has faith in things if we define it by your definition - putting confidence in something we pretend, but do not know, exists. I would argue that exercising faith is part of being human.

      James, indulge me for a moment and think of a person that loves you.

      Now I ask how do you KNOW that their love for you exists and is real? You can't. You think that person loves you. You believe that person loves you. You may choose to act as if that person loves you. There might be a great amount of evidence that person loves you. There might be many people that would testify that person loves you. But you cannot know. You cannot prove it because love is something that cannot be easily defined, it cannot be seen or measured. It is not something you can hold in your hand or touch. But it is a real thing. It is more than an emotion or action or feeling or state of being. One could argue it is a combination of all those things and more. It is something that exists but cannot be proven.

      You choose to believe that person's love for you exists because of the evidence and because of your experiences. Your actions and choices may be greatly influenced by that belief. If you do not live and experience life differently because of that love, than I would venture to say that person is insignificant to you and the fact that their love exists is meaningless to you. But that does not change the reality that their love for you exists. But if you do live and experience life influenced by that love, than could it not be said that you have faith in their love for you? I don't mean faith in the person, but in the existence of their love for you.

      I've always thought of faith as belief plus trust. You believe in the love this person has for you and you choose to trust that love by acting according to it. Even though you cannot know for certain it is there or that it exists, it affects your being and how you live your life because you allow it to. That is faith.

      Love is something that cannot be seen or measured or easily defined or proven. But it is a very real thing. It can be experienced and felt, and it can affect your physical, psychological, mental, and emotional well being. It affects your choices and actions. And that is beautiful. That is faith. It is not bankrupt. And I do not think you foolish for having faith in something you cannot prove exists and living your life according to that faith. I think to live life without any kind of faith (putting confidence in something you pretend, but cannot prove, exists) would be to live a dark, cold, lonely, meaningless existence.

    3. Is your goal just to defend people's use of the word faith when it applies to something for which there is a copious amount of evidence?