Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Why Tom Gilson is wrong

This short post is a continuation of an ongoing blog discussion with Christian apologist Tom Gilson. Here, I'll directly respond to this comment he left on his own blog:
Further on your central question, James. You keep pushing on that, almost as if it were the test of whether I’m serious about this discussion. I remind you that in every posting, you have continued to parrot Boghossian’s definitions of faith without offering any serious answer whatever to the literary and historical reasons by which I’ve shown that he is wrong. If you were serious about this discussion, you would either respond and show that I’m wrong, respond and grant that I’m (at least to some extent) right, or hold your opinion in abeyance until you have opportunity to respond.
In effect, you haven’t responded at all to my central question. And mine preceded yours.
Later this week I will show that your own question flows from a flawed premise. But you need not wait for me to do that before you respond to the one that was put forth first in this discussion.
I'm not interested in having a discussion about these things in a winding comment thread on his blog, and so I'm posting a reply against my recent statement that I wouldn't interact with him until he addressed my central comment. As we can see, he thinks he has. Tom Gilson is wrong.

The only part of Gilson's note that's worth mentioning here is this:
I remind you that in every posting, you have continued to parrot Boghossian’s definitions of faith without offering any serious answer whatever to the literary and historical reasons by which I’ve shown that he is wrong.
I have done so. In fact, that is my central point--the methods of faith are unreliable and so faith is an unreliable way to know. The usage of the word faith helps determine its meaning. I thought discussing connotation and denotation in a previous response might have clued Tom in to this fact, but it failed to reach him. Of course, one cannot reach those who refuse to be reached, but I will try again.

Boghossian's argument is that pretending to know what one does not know, which is a rhetorically amplified version of failing to have sufficient evidence to believe and act upon a hypothesis and yet believing and acting upon it anyway, is how the word "faith" is used in practice. I "Boghossified" part of the Catechism of Trent, apparently drawing Gilson's attention to me, and I "Boghossified" Gilson to highlight this point. Let me quote from that part of his counter-Boghossian ebook, in fact, reverting to Gilson's use of the word "faith,"
The Christian faith is rational. It’s based on knowledge. It’s based on evidence. It goes beyond provable knowledge, but it’s hardly wholly divorced from it. Our faith can stand up to the challenge of creating atheists. (emphasis, bold and italics, mine)
Tom Gilson plainly admits that Christian faith "goes beyond provable knowledge." This isn't hard. That's identical to saying that Christian faith gives a higher confidence value to certain articles of religious belief than are warranted by the evidence. Tom Gilson is no doubt upset that Peter Boghossian calls this "pretending to know something he does not," but Boghossian's case is that the pretending-to-know connotation of the word "faith" captures exactly this meaning. Faith, in Gilson's own understanding, extends the confidence value in articles of the Christian beliefs structures beyond the warrant of evidence, or in his words "beyond provable knowledge." (NB: Plural because there are many, not all of which Gilson accepts.)

In short, because words have meanings captured not just in what has been written about them but also in how they are used (the written definitions evolving over time to reflect this ongoing dynamism in our languages), my point is that the literary and historical meanings of the word "faith" aren't the whole story--in fact, they're hardly relevant. In my opinion, Gilson is staking his entire case about the word faith on the notion that how a word was used is more important than how it is used. Here, of course, it's worth noting that when the literary and historical uses of the word "faith" Gilson is appealing to were laid down, nearly everyone held religious faith (a bias) and that it was a capital offense to say a skeptical word about faith (another bias).

Tom Gilson wants me to grant to him that he is "at least to some extent right" that the word faith has been used to mean something different than Boghossian's conception. That may be the case--certainly the people who used it didn't intend to imply that they were pretending. In fact, they were not pretending about their beliefs, though, my central case being that faith is unreliable, as it depends upon unreliable methods, it's almost definitely true, when using the word in a religious context, that they were pretending to know things that they did not know. That was rather the point of my Boghossification of the Catechism of Trent from 1566.

1 comment:

  1. You are entirely correct -- I pointed out pretty much all of this in a comment to a post you wrote earlier on this topic. On some level Gilson seems to understand that he has no answer to Boghossian's central point (that believers today call pretending to know what they do not know "faith"), so his tactic seems to be to pretend that Boghossian was trying to make a different point (that "faith" is a definitive, universal term that has never evolved and that its definition has the ability to alter reality? -- that's the best I can do with what he's written) and to then attack that. Classic straw man stuff.

    I like all this to a squid squirting ink. When faced with any skeptical rigor, the best Gilson can do is point to other, vague sources ("my blog,", "my book," "cumulative evidences," etc.), but this appears to be just obvious caviling to avoid facing a central attack for which he has no respectable answer. Truly an intellectual fraud if ever there was one. "Thinking" Christian indeed.

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