Friday, January 10, 2014

Tom Gilson exposes faith as separate from knowledge

Recently, I indicated that Christian podcaster Phil Vischer let the cat out of the bag (inadvertently, of course)--by identifying faith with pretending to know what one doesn't know--by plainly stating that articles of faith depend upon "revealed truth," which I, of course, don't think actually exists. Apologist Tom Gilson's most recent response to me (Link), dealing with the ongoing discussion here (see label "Faith Discussion"), goes a long way to keep the cat running wild.

Since Gilson seems very interested in having me take apart something he writes in a piece-by-piece fashion, I'll indulge him in that way here to show everyone just what I mean. First, I'll quote him at length, from his blog.
Lindsay says,:
The problem is that the degree of confidence put in any statement should match the evidence supporting that degree of confidence. Thus, immediately bearing upon faith is whether or not it leads someone to hold a justified amount of confidence in the article of belief in question. It does not.
And later,
Hence, I have every reason to suspect that a better way to put this would be “faith is the additional confidence put in X that isn’t justified by the evidence.” To back this up, I hearken back to Tom Gilson’s remark from the other day, in which he said that faith “goes beyond provable knowledge.”
That’s a misunderstanding (if I understand him correctly). It seems like he’s thinking it goes something like this: “Based on the evidences I have a 35% degree of confidence in the truth of the Resurrection, but since I have faith, I’ll bump that up to 95% confidence instead.”

That’s not what faith is. It’s more like this: “Because I have sufficient confidence in the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the promise-keeping character of the one who raised Christ from the dead, I can also believe resurrection truth applies also to me and to others.” Or, “I have faith in eternal life for myself and for many, because I possess adequately justified knowledge of the Resurrection of the One, and of his character, power, and promises.”

That’s what I meant by “going beyond provable knowledge.” I don’t have apodictic (unassailable, mathematical) proof that I’m going to live forever. I’d have to live forever before I could have that! But I do have confidence that what has been true of God before will still be true of God now and forever. What’s been true of God before is a matter of knowledge; what is true of God for the future is a matter of faith.
Let's dig in now, bit by bit.
It seems like he’s thinking it goes something like this: “Based on the evidences I have a 35% degree of confidence in the truth of the Resurrection, but since I have faith, I’ll bump that up to 95% confidence instead.”
This is something like the case I'm making--with the all-important distinction that I think that the only justifiable degrees of confidence that someone can put in the Resurrection are abysmally low (almost surely zero, really). It's also something like a straw man of my case--I don't think people go through this thought process at all.

If such a process goes on, I think it goes more like this: Here's a piece of evidence related to the question of the alleged Resurrection, and any informed skeptical inquirer outside of the faith tradition would assign it maximum probability p of supporting the alleged Resurrection while those infected with the cognitive bias of faith-based consideration of that evidence will assign it value q, with q significantly larger than p. This gets repeated for every piece of alleged evidence.

Though I don't think it's usually an active, intentional process, this is how I think Boghossian's analysis of faith as "pretending to know what you don't know" gets its legs. Note that I call faith-based consideration (in brief, faith) a cognitive bias because it is a mechanism by which pre-existing hypotheses are sought to be confirmed. Faith is a bias that misinterprets evidence in favor of one's beliefs.

In general, though, I don't think people even bother assessing the probabilities, nor do they care. They just go with something like, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it!" (comma splices intentional and pejorative)

That put aside, we can get to the important parts.
That’s not what faith is. It’s more like this: “Because I have sufficient confidence in the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the promise-keeping character of the one who raised Christ from the dead, I can also believe resurrection truth applies also to me and to others.”
"Because I have sufficient confidence in the truth of the Resurrection..." is an admission that Gilson already believes it's true, confirming what I said above. It raises the question of "what constitutes 'sufficient confidence'?" This is a particularly salient question since everyone outside of the Christian belief tradition gives a confidence value precariously near or at zero for this claim.

I strongly suspect, not to answer for Gilson (whose answer I do want to read), that, when it comes to articles of the religious beliefs he holds in faith, what passes for "sufficient confidence" is "it's not impossible." Even this, though, is too generous because it's really "it's not impossible if we first accept that there are forces beyond nature."

"...and in the promise-keeping character of the one who raised Christ from the dead..." just brought in a whole truckload of pretending to know things. We certainly do not know God exists, or this whole discussion would not be happening. Indeed, we have no good reasons to believe God exists and lots of good reasons not to believe it. Tom Gilson, though, bases his confidence in an assessment of the character of a being that we do not know exists. At this stage, Gilson has to pretend to know at least two things he doesn't to draw confidence from this source. He adds a third in the next clause: "I can also believe resurrection truth applies also [sic] to me and to others."
Or, “I have faith in eternal life for myself and for many, because I possess adequately justified knowledge of the Resurrection of the One, and of his character, power, and promises.”
This second rendition of his characterization of faith does roughly the same thing, mutatis mutandis, particularly in pretending to know: "...because I possess adequately justified knowledge of...." Note, in fact, Gilson's explicit claim to knowledge here--knowledge no one outside of his faith tradition would say he can possibly have and thus must be pretending to know.
That’s what I meant by “going beyond provable knowledge.”
This actually needed no clarification and says exactly what I'm saying--faith goes beyond provable knowledge. It's pretending to know things one doesn't know.
I don’t have apodictic (unassailable, mathematical) proof that I’m going to live forever. 
No kidding--sort of.

More importantly, though, Gilson doesn't have any proof of it of any kind. Everyone but Christians recognizes this plainly--and sees it as a desperate, false, and dangerous hope. It's insidious to corrupt the value of the life we know we have in a vain hope for a second one for which there is no credible evidence.

The profound irony here, though, is that this is exactly the only kind of "proof" Gilson and all other believers could claim for such a belief. Theological axioms proclaim it, and following the Christian development of those axioms leads to this belief. This is what apodictic means in this context, as the "truth" of mathematical propositions rests in relation to the underlying axioms of that system. At least Gilson recognizes that axiomatic constructions need not reflect reality. He pretends to know that his cherished one does, though.

Now we really get to it.
But I do have confidence that what has been true of God before will still be true of God now and forever.
What on earth has been shown to be true of God? We haven't even established that God exists--or what is meant by the term "God" for that matter (see my chapter-length discussion on this matter in God Doesn't; We Do, chapter 4). We "know" absolutely nothing about what has been true of God except what we pretend to know about it.

This is an incredibly important point. Once "what has been/is/will be true of God," or really anything at all about God, is brought into the discussion, the apologist (here: Gilson) begs the question, that is he pretends to know that such a phrase is meaningful.

He's invited at any point he would like to clarify what that idea means, but I'm quite sure he cannot do so without referencing his beliefs, making a claim to the validity of Christian scripture, or making an appeal about the objective universality of his subjective personal experience, i.e. things he's pretending to know.

To highlight this in brief: Once "God" comes into the discussion at all in anything like a claim to knowledge, pretending to know something one does not know has already occurred. That leaves open the question of where, exactly, this confidence is being  placed other than in what Tom Gilson pretends to know but does not know.

In attempting to clarify the distinction between faith and knowledge, Gilson's response gets weird.
What’s been true of God before is a matter of knowledge; what is true of God for the future is a matter of faith.
Please make clear note of the claim to knowledge. This is Tom Gilson implicitly admitting that he is pretending to know things he doesn't know about "what has been true of God before." He doesn't (can't, actually) know God exists, and thus he doesn't (can't) actually know what has been true of God before. Perhaps what "has been true of God" is a thing like knowledge, but without knowledge that God exists, it's just an assumption.

Let's get something clear, though. "What has been true of God" up until now, he claims, "is a matter of knowledge." This implies that for Tom Gilson, articles of faith, like the alleged Resurrection, are knowledge. That's just what Peter Boghossian is saying, though: since he doesn't (can't) know those things in actuality, he's pretending to know them.

This peculiar attempt at clarification fascinating for another reason. Gilson is careful to draw a line between faith and knowledge: "[but/and?] what is true of God in the future," he continues, "is a matter of faith." So, what Gilson pretends to know about God in the past constitutes a basis for what he assumes he can keep pretending to know about God later. Faith is the latter of these things.

To continue with some of the rest of his response, with far shorter commentary by me,
Faith is a gift of God in every case (Eph. 2:8-9).
Gilson is necessarily pretending to know that, per the above.
{It would be a strange sort of Christianity that required every person in all walks of life, every educational level, and every part of the world to study evidences and proofs in order to have life in Christ.}
It's a stranger sort of Christianity that treats such an idea as the most important one in the universe and doesn't give it this kind of attention. Even more accurately, it's a strange sort of Christianity--and strange sort of hypothetical Christian God--that depends upon such convoluted ideas that every person in all walks of life, every educational level, and every part of the world can't verify its truth without so much effort. No one on earth with even modestly functional cognitive capacities realistically doubts the existence of dairy cows.

It should be (but shockingly isn't) a gigantic red flag that intense and carefully arranged study is required for people to know what is posited as the most important fact in the universe about an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly loving deity.
Some accept Christ because they recognize how supremely good he is, providing freedom from guilt and from death through God’s great love for us.
I want to suggest a correction: they do so because they pretend to know these things, not because they know them. Not to assume their motivations, but they do so probably because they really want to believe them for some reasons other than their truth value or because they were indoctrinated as children and have never had a real opportunity to look outside the little circle of wagons faith places around its cherished beliefs.
And some of us really do examine the evidences.
But are only likely to arrive at an unbiased (outsider's) take on them by taking off the Jesus-colored glasses first, so that doesn't matter much. Those glasses are faith. They warp how that evidence is interpreted, as discussed, and they therefore aren't trustworthy. The believer's perspective of her religion is necessarily biased by her beliefs.
For all of us, there is something about faith that goes beyond the evidences. I stand by that with full assurance.
If this is true, if the all is meant universally, then it's an empty statement. If Gilson insists upon misidentifying faith with that which allows us to accept or act outside of absolute certainty, then it's both true and useless to say this.

The relevant question immediately falls to "how far beyond the evidences are we going in each particular case?" Higgs boson--less than 0.000001% chance of being wrong. Christianity--by my count, 100% chance of being wrong, and by a more generous outsider's count, 99.999...9% chance of being wrong, the number of 9s present depending upon the degree to which the lack of good reasons to believe and good reasons not to believe have been examined.
For my part, i [sic] find there is sufficient reason to be confident that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
I'm not in the least sure of what this means, but it requires pretending to know the following: God exists, God was in Christ, the world needed reconciling to God, whatever God did as Christ could successfully reconcile the world to God.
There is strong evidence that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again, that he taught like no other person, loved like no other person, sacrificed himself like no other person, led like no other person.
There is relatively decent evidence that some person or persons identified with a historical figure called Jesus that can be carved out of the Gospels in the New Testament lived (and thus died). The buck stops there, right where the pretending to know begins. Everything else listed depends upon pretending to know things about scripture and, really, about the idea(s) Gilson and others call "God."

I won't dwell or elaborate, but I urge taking a look at the "no other persons" part to realize how utterly unlikely to be true they are. Also notice how offensive they are likely to be to teachers, lovers, volunteers, and leaders.
For me, those facts are matters of evidence-supported knowledge, not “faith beyond knowledge” as Lindsay seems to think of faith.
Which facts? The only thing in the list above that qualifies as "fact" is that if Jesus lived then he died. That some Jesus character lived is, I'd say, highly likely and can be treated as a fact. To pass as "facts," all the rest all relies on substantial amounts of pretending to know what one doesn't.
Where faith comes in is in my decision to follow Christ and the word of God. It’s also in my confidence that the known goodness of God in Scripture is still available for me and for others today, and that it will last forever.
Tom, some friendly advice: before you write anything about faith, Boghossify it for yourself and see how it's going to be read by anyone outside the Christian bubble. I tried to invite you into my challenge (you're still invited, by the way) to do this kind of thing, but you refused. At any rate, if what results is likely to be what it sounds like to an atheist when you say these things, you might keep them quiet--or better yet, repudiate them completely. I'll let you do this one for yourself. For us, the result is pretty funny.
 I hope that helps clear things up.
I'd say it sure did, just like most of what he and Vischer have been writing lately, proving Boghossian's point again and again to everyone not too blinded by faith to see it.

7 comments:

  1. This is devastating to the little sand castles that Tommy G. keeps on trying to build over on his blog every time you (and others) point out the gaping holes in his claims and arguments. It's also so predictable that he'll refuse to comment here in any substantive way, making excuses about time, your unwillingness to listen to him (as if your thorough take-down here isn't all that needs to be done to confirm that Tommy has nothing new or interesting to say), etc., and that he'll retreat to his little, culled herd of like minded toadies on his blog who can, together, convince themselves that the big, bad, outside world just doesn't get it.

    Now I've got to stop reading for awhile. But thanks for all you're doing.

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  2. Wow, those Christians are so confused.

    They want their "faith" to be some kind of gift from God where evidence isn't required but then also want evidence for their beliefs because part of them realises that belief without evidence is stupid. There's so much cognitive dissonance going on that it's a wonder they don't implode.

    What evidence could there possibly be to sufficiently demonstrate that this Joshua guy (Jesus is a poor translation of his name) rose from the dead? All we have is a handful of contradictory accounts, which we know were fabricated in places.

    People just don't rise from the dead but we know that people make up stories and have false beliefs about people rising from the dead. Given this knowledge it's only right to conclude that Joshua didn't rise from the dead and that the stories are nothing more than myths.

    There's so many problems with their statements it's unbelievable.

    If God gives people faith then how does someone who doesn't believe in god know that it came from a god or what this god is in the first place? How do they tell it apart from delusion, hallucination or mistaken belief? Why does it always seem that you get this gift from a god which depends on the culture of the country you were born and raised in?

    The whole thing is just stupid, which is actually a good thing because it means that applying the simple method outlined by Boghossian should get the believer to easily see the errors in their thinking and strip them of their god delusions.

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  3. I see on his blog Tom has finally admitted that there's no way to know if his religious beliefs are true.

    Tom wrote: "Note to James: if you’re right, you’re right. If not, then you’re not right. If we have no evidence-based knowledge supporting our faith, then we’re wrong. If we do, then you’re wrong. None of those conditional statements is controversial. Let’s move on to something more substantive, okay? And let’s not pretend that mere pronouncements such as you made repeatedly in your blog post can settle anything."

    What your blog posts have settled, beyond any reasonable doubt, is that neither Tom (nor Phil, et al.) can provide ANY good reasons to reconsider the obvious assessment that they are pretending to know something they do not know.

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    Replies
    1. Cal, I made a series of conditional statements. You drew a conclusion as if exactly one of those conditionals had been demonstrated. Where did you learn your logic?

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    2. Tom, from reading over some of your blog it is obvious that you don't understand what a circular argument is (among so many other problems), so I find it laughable that you would try and pull the "oh dear boy, your logic is terrible" card on anyone.

      Tom, all your faith-based claims (and that's pretty much all of your claims as far as I can tell) are conditional statements. You could line up a million of them and you still have -- nothing that demonstrates your premise.

      If. If. If. Demonstrate your premise -- that your God exists. If not, then my conclusion stands.

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    3. No, Cal. Your conclusion is that (paraphrased) "my blog posts have settled ... that I can't provide any good reason for you to reassess your position that I'm pretending to know what I don't know." You say now that if I don't demonstrate my premise, then your conclusion stands.

      The problem is, Cal, you haven't read all my blog posts. You've only read a certain subset of them, in which it was my purpose to answer specific errors made by specific people.

      If you want to see a demonstration of my premise, pick up a copy of the book I edited: http://book.truereason.org. (There's a print edition coming out soon; search "True Reason" on Amazon to pre-order it. It includes two additional chapters.)

      You probably claim to believe in evidence. You probably also subscribe to a scientific approach toward evidence. That should mean that you would refuse to draw a conclusion based on incomplete or irrelevant evidence. The evidence in my blog, upon which you drew the conclusion that I have no reason to believe in God, was (a) incomplete, for obvious reasons, and (b) irrelevant, because what you've read has been what I've written on other topics.

      You don't know what all my faith-based claims are. Seriously: with the very, very small sampling you've read, you could only pretend to know.

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    4. Tom, do you know what snake oil salesman and charlatans say? A version of, "Well, the conditions weren't right, you did it wrong, I said it another way, buy my book!"

      Thank you for making it so very, very clear here who you are, and what side of reason you're on. Truly, you crack me up.

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