Monday, May 26, 2014

How dumb do I think people are?

In a comment, a concerned reader named Esther O'Reilly asked me how dumb I think first century Jews were. I think this is a legitimate question that deserves an answer.

A little background: The question was a response to my statement that I don't think it's surprising at all that early Christians and the Jewish communities depicted in the Bible would define "faith" as "trust (in God)," because they were still superstitious enough to think that deities and magical powers abounded, lacking better explanations for things. (I know, we're still that superstitious, but it's pretty much beyond debate that we're far less superstitious now, even in those regards. Many of the ancient superstitions that served us before we had science have been replaced by scientific explanations.)

Getting our bearings

So, the answer is that I don't think first century Jews were dumb, at least no dumber than people now, and I don't think people now are all that dumb either. Particularly, I don't think intelligence has anything to do with the matter. It's all about tools.

We'd do well to remember throughout this conversation, though, that until only quite recently, relatively speaking, letting leeches suck the blood out of someone was considered a standard element of medical care for a wide variety of ailments. This was based upon superstitions about how the body works--humours--that persisted for at least 2500 years, largely ending maybe a century ago, give or take a few decades. Except for a few legitimate applications in which their anti-coagulating properties were used to help with some surgeries, mostly in the 1980s, medical science revealed the superstitious nature of bloodletting and led to the end of the medical application of leeches. The point here, of course, is that we were largely clueless about how the body works, had a superstition, applied it in consequential cases, and persisted in it until quite recently when science revealed it to be worthless at best and probably a generally bad idea. People are superstitious, and without tools like science to do better by understanding the world, superstitions proliferate and perpetuate.

Looking around at today, well after science has come to a state of relative maturity and dispelled a huge proportion of antiquated, superstitious thought (it's now considered profoundly backward and ridiculous to seek leeching as a form of medical care by nearly everyone, for example), we still see a lot of superstitious behavior and belief. Grown adults are afraid of black cats for no good reason, the origins of this being in ancient Christian beliefs about witches and the Devil. All manners of hocus-pocus "alternative medicine" and trendy dietary guidelines are attended to with what we could definitely call religious zeal. People still wear, and refuse to wash, lucky underwear because sportsball teams are believed to do better for it. Oh, and yes, we're still bizarrely, almost inexplicably, religious. And this is all after science has done its work to cut away a huge swath of our superstitiousness, perhaps decimating it from pre-scientific times or more.

First-Century Jews

Frankly, people in the first century were, as examples of the animal species Homo sapiens, largely indistinguishable from people today. On average, they were just as smart, measured by intelligence, as people are now, and that intelligence was trained on the challenges of the day and trained by the tools they had at their disposal. One tool we have that they didn't is science, and that's very significant. Science is the first truly effective tool that we've developed for cutting to the heart of the matter of how nature, ourselves included, works. In the process of the explosion of scientific thought, as it progressed, save the dominant religions of the day, gods were utterly ruined by the findings of science. They weren't needed to explain lightning, weather, flooding, crop yields, infant survival, or almost anything else. Demons fell away too. They were superfluous to understand disease, geologic catastrophes, bad weather, mental illness, and almost everything else.

First century Jews didn't have this tool at their disposal. Guess-and-check, which is a very weak and informal way to think quasi-scientifically, was their best tool, and the problem with it is that it's immensely susceptible to biases, particularly confirmation bias. This is where superstitions come from (and, incidentally, hypotheses consistent with evolution can easily attempt to explain why it would be advantageous for a sentient animal to become superstitious--this being the key flaw in Alvin Plantinga's famous Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism: superstitions prove that we're very, very good at getting wrong but useful answers to how the world works).

Lacking science and possessing a plethora of mythological and superstitious accounts for the workings of nature, first century Jews weren't stupid, they were misinformed. They possessed models of the working of the world that would lead them to believe certain kinds of stories readily and to make attributions to gods, demons, fates, djinns, and all manner of other imaginary causes for the phenomena they experienced on a day-to-day basis, and even more for rare but significant events (like the ascension of a king or emperor to a throne, a decisive victory in a battle, or the arrival of a figure or movement who upsets the prevailing social order).

Another important fact about Jews in the first century, and critically in the century before that, is that they were living in a sort of political oppression under Roman occupation. This is exactly the kind of extraordinary outside pressure that increases belief in desperate hypotheses. It's like when someone gets cancer and suddenly starts believing that acai berries have magical powers to cure diseases--the stress of the situation and desperation of the circumstances leads people to cling to potential sources of hope. The Jewish people traditionally were ones who lived in a brutal sociopolitical region filled with turmoil, occupations, genocides, and the like, and so their superstitions contained lots of desperate ideas about a savior-king, a Messiah, who would deliver them from their plight--a recurring theme throughout the Jewish portion of the Bible.

So we had people who were superstitious enough to make magical attributions for phenomena as a matter of course, lacking the requisite tool (science) to do better with a history of a certain kind of desperate hope who found themselves under somewhat serious political oppression. Those people were first century Jews, and they were ripe to believe certain kinds of things. The (fortuitous? maybe not) arrival of an unexpected social movement led by a political dissident, one who was charismatic enough to gather a band of followers through his public lectures, was exactly the kind of event that a whole lot of superstitious baggage ("prophesy") could get unloaded upon, particularly in the dissonance-reducing phase after the incongruously inglorious fall of their charismatic leader.

Superstitious people who believed versions of this particular story started writing it down a few decades later (after it became clear that Jesus' assertion that he was  coming back to start a new Kingdom wasn't going to happen), and as time progressed (including both historical events and the usual development of legends), the stories got more superstitious. The Gospel of John is so much more superstitious than that of Mark that it isn't even taken in the same family as the other three and is often regarded, even by many biblical scholars (but not the most conservative ones), to be a Christian manifesto more than an account of real events. It's often forgotten that the Gospel writers were writing to specific audiences to convince them to believe a certain way, but that's really how that was.

In short, intelligence being completely irrelevant, many Jews in the first century were ripe to believe a story about a figure like the one now recognized as Christ, and some did, but that's not the whole story.

First-Century Romans (and others)

It wasn't just Jews in the first century but also the Romans that surrounded them (and Greeks, among others) that are relevant here. It's very important to realize a great many of the facets of the story of Jesus were ideas that were not considered outlandish in the ancient world: stories of virgin births of important figures, particularly from maidens impregnated by deities, for instance, were rife. No part of the Jesus story would have seemed particularly outlandish, so far as stories about important figures went, to a great deal of the audience at the time. It's critical to realize this, and it's important to understand that some, but not all, is all it takes to get a movement rolling.

This would explain the Gentile conversion, particularly under the tutelage of the zealous ideologue Paul--Saul of Tarsus--who sought to convert people to his hyperreligious position "by any means." That his hyperreligiosity, visions, etc., could not be adequately explained at the time, as they could probably be now (e.g. perhaps by epilepsy in the temporal lobe), his attribution of his conversion and manner to a Spirit wouldn't just have been in line with contemporary thinking, it would have been powerfully persuasive. (One might note that it still is with a large segment of people today when we really should know better, Paul's audiences not having nearly so much of that luxury.)

In the ancient world, superstitions were in competition. The Bible is a veritable tome of competing superstitions, and like surely happened through the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 18, he with the story of the better magic got converts. At first the Romans and Greeks, among others, had no real use for the Jewish or Christian story, save on the small scale (the growing cult of Christianity that was tolerated for a time and then persecuted). Paul could only convert small groups, and by some of his angry Epistles, he clearly had trouble with the affair. As it turns out, even ancient superstitious people weren't immediately gullible to any story that comes along, and they were certainly not stupid.

Fourth-Century Romans

This story cannot be completed without talking about Constantine, because he made Christianity. Again, the populace at large is relevant.

Romans were still superstitious, but the Roman Empire was having problems (largely due to political corruption due, I would venture). The Roman gods, the predominant Roman set of superstitions of the day, were starting to look like pretty bad explanations for things, as gods always do once things start going badly. (Incidentally, gods tend to look like worse explanations for things, often, when things go really well, so long as you have a tool like science to cut away the need for many superstitions.)

So now you have a people, the Roman people, whose superstitiousness was still as high as ever, maybe higher given the decline of their situation, whose superstitions were faltering. You also had a large and significant Christian movement that had been inadvertently strengthened by the attempt to persecute it out of existence. This was creating a major problem for Constantine, who solved it with what might be one of the more deft political maneuvers in all of history. Certainly, that's not indicative of a stupid person.

For those unaware, Constantine came up with a way to make Christianity the state religion while effectively making it seem to the pagans that he hadn't really changed anything except which pagan construct deserved most of their attention. As their operating emperor, which is to say earthly incarnation of deity, changing the focus of the pagan beliefs wouldn't have been overwhelming, perhaps even matter-of-course, and Constantine knew it. Meanwhile the Christians benefited hugely, not just socially but also politically as the bishops immediately gained considerable political power that even outlived the Holy Roman Empire and became the basis for the future realm referred to as Christendom, one of the most potent political forces the Western world has ever been under the control of. It's worth noting that had Constantine made his decision differently, we might be having this conversation about Mithra instead.

Once Christianity became politically installed, there's almost nothing regarding intelligence that has anything to do with belief in the ridiculous Christian precepts. They were the fabric of the worldview pressed into every mind under its thumb, and shaking off an entire worldview is really, really hard.

So, Not Dumb

Hopefully, what I've done here is make a plausible case using a rough historical outline of circumstances for why I think it wouldn't have been ridiculous for ancient people to believe in things like God. If one believes in God with the whole fiber of his being, even if God is not there, it isn't patently ridiculous to believe that one can trust God. All that said, the first century Jews, first century Near Eastern non-Jews, and up through the fourth (and nineteenth and present-day) people didn't believe these ridiculous things because they were dumb, they believed them because they were superstitious and, later, raised to believe them. The difference now is that we have a tool, science, and a body of knowledge procured through it that makes it look quaint, antique, superstitious, and silly to buy into that stuff now--though billions still do.

So, no, I don't think Jews in the first century were dumb, but to answer the question I was asked--how dumb do I think they are?--I have to reply, "roughly the same as us."

The difference

Science, a reliable method for picking apart what's going on and how it works, has changed the game completely. We don't blood-let anymore. The educated scoff at astrology. Nobody is an alchemist anymore except a crank here or there. But lots and lots of people believe that if you believe in the right kind of magic, you're automatically a good person and get to live forever in a paradise. What's going on?

On the utter uselessness of theological arguments

I get asked a lot lately, since I've stopped bothering with them, why I refuse to engage with theological arguments for theism, branded "the best" material that theology has. Here I'll make a short digression to explain why I refuse to bother with theological arguments.

The answer is straightforward: Miracles make theological arguments useless.

There are two sides to this coin. On the one side, we see that there are no continued miracles in this world, and this is probably the most substantive strike against accepting theism that exists. On the other side, we realize that if there were continued miracles, we wouldn't have theological arguments for theism at all because theism would be obvious.

So the quandary I find myself in regarding theological philosophical arguments for theism is that I shouldn't take them seriously unless there were still miracles occurring, but if there were still miracles occurring, I wouldn't need to take them seriously. The conclusion I draw is that arguments for theism are completely useless.

I should be able to stop here, but I guess I should address my "unjustified" claim that there are no miracles going on. To clear this up, by "miracles," here's what I don't mean. I don't mean hucksterish things and parlor tricks passed off as miracles to the gullible. I don't mean the lies about circumstances and people perpetrated by the Catholic Church, usually in the canonization process. I don't mean fortunate coincidences, including the kinds we've worked to achieve like someone's bone cancer coinciding with a time and place in which we've painstakingly learned to treat bone cancer. I don't mean important events that are really mundane from a more global perspective, like the birth of a child.

In case that doesn't clear it up, here's what I do mean by miracles: honest to God miracles, literally. I should note that contrary to many skeptics, whom I'm not sure are being honest about this, I would definitely believe in God if miracles were really going on, but please don't bore me by trying to convince me that they are. If they were, it would be inescapably obvious.

So, absent miracles, theism is made of arguments, not substance. If there were miracles, though, there would be no need for arguments for theism. The philosophical arguments for theism are a waste of everybody's time and a continued stain besmirching the otherwise mostly respectable family of fields called philosophy.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Going skydiving with Tim McGrew

In his discussion with Peter Boghossian, published on Justin Brierley's Unbelievable? yesterday, Tim McGrew makes a case for faith being like when someone goes skydiving. It's a matter of trust--trusting the parachute, trusting the person who packed it, and so on. Christians are understandably intensely eager to establish that the Biblical understanding of faith as trust implies that they're not pretending to know things that they don't know, like that God exists and will reward them eternally for their fealty.

McGrew's point was pretty obvious and seemingly good: faith is based on evidence, at times very good evidence. He cites a 99.93% success rate for parachuting, meaning that roughly seven out of ten thousand events are a failure. That's good evidence that someone going parachuting will survive the risk of his life, no doubt. The case McGrew makes is that closing that risk gap and believing one will land safely in a jump is faith--trust in the circumstances that is not reducible to hope.

Yesterday I said McGrew was just wrong about this. I think, frankly, that the mature view of the circumstance is that someone is jumping out of a plane knowing that there are problems seven out of ten thousand times and hoping that you're in the lucky majority. I simply don't think people actually have to close the risk gap in order to engage in risky behaviors. I also noted that most people are unlikely to possess the maturity to assess dangerous situations this way. (Note: I'm not entirely sure of this fact, not possessing relevant data, but I hope my intuition on the matter isn't too far astray and doubt it is given where I'm about to go with this.)

So this raises a good question: What allows people to take the plunge anyway? I think for the purposes of this discussion, which I expect McGrew and most Christians would agree are fair, we'll assume that the person is not simply ignorant of the risk, although that's likely true in many cases. McGrew says that what makes it possible is faith that isn't hope. If he's right, that's ugly for faith.

There is a well understood psychological phenomenon that explains how someone might decide to do something heedless to, though in full knowledge of, the risks involved. Colloquially, we hear it as, "It won't happen to me." Psychologists call it optimistic bias," a common cognitive bias that causes a person to believe that they are less at risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others," as Wikipedia puts it. In this case, optimistic bias would be (irrationally) concluding that one is among the 9,993 because the 7 failures are other people.

And I'm glad I turned to Wikipedia for a definition here (I helped conduct a research study in optimistic bias regarding smoking in pregnant women while an undergraduate, so I was already familiar with the concept). The Wiki is immediately poignant here, and so I'll quote the rest of the first paragraph, bold added for emphasis, citation notes left in place for reference.
There are four factors that cause a person to be optimistically biased: their desired end state, their cognitive mechanisms, the information they have about themselves versus others, and overall mood.[1] The optimistic bias is seen in a number of situations. For example: people believing that they are less at risk of being a crime victim,[2] smokers believing that they are less likely to contract lung cancer or disease than other smokers, first-time bungee jumpers believing that they are less at risk of an injury than other jumpers,[3] or traders who think they are less exposed to losses in the markets.[4] 
Here, then, we get some powerful reasons to believe that optimistic bias is likely to be in play regarding the feeling of trust that enables an inexperienced skydiver to jump from a plane. If that's what McGrew thinks makes a good example of faith that isn't hope, I'm glad to let him have it. As I've said before: faith is a cognitive bias, or at least it is intimately identifiable with them.

Of course, the analogy of the skydive is a pretty bad one to use regarding faith in God, but that hardly helps McGrew's notion of faith. First, we know--the same way that we know, and do not have faith in, the fact that chickens exist--that there are parachutes and that parachutes work when successfully deployed. We do not know God exists in this way, and even if we allowed space for the idea that God does exist, we don't know that God does anything. Second, optimistic bias probably only constitutes a modest, but significant, part of the Christian's faith, other biases being more prominent.*

It seems likely, though, that McGrew has unintentionally revealed that the way he conceives of faith is likely to be based in the consistent application of one or more cognitive biases. In the case of Christianity, not only does one have to close the gap from the justification of the evidence to the conviction of belief (largely, I would propose, by wishful thinking, a broader cognitive bias of which optimistic bias is an example), he also has to justify that the evidence supports Christianity at all, which is highly susceptible to confirmation bias. There may only be one cognitive bias at work in McGrew's conception of the faith of a skydiver, but there are several in operation in the faith of the Christian believer. By definition, cognitive biases irrationally close of the epistemic gap between the reality of the situation and one's beliefs about it.

Boghossian calls this "pretending to know something you don't," and we can discuss if that's an unfair characterization of it in light of the fact that the faith-filled epistemic gap is very likely to stuffed with the results of various cognitive biases. Pretending, generally, may not be the right word for this since our biases are not intentional. For this reason, it is a strong and accusatory word, and it's unsurprising that Christians recoil from it and take rather serious offense to it.

In my mind, though, there is a key difference between mere cognitive biases and the special one called faith, and it is assent. Typically, one does not actively assent to the results of one's biases. Instead we are blind to them and rationalize them somehow. Faith, though, by the Christian definition for it requires full assent, 100% agreement. Conviction by faith, then, is the rationalization for those biases, and it is one that according to Christian beliefs must be chosen intentionally. If faith isn't pretending to know something you don't know, then it is a label for the mechanism by which you act as if you know something you don't know, and those are near enough to the same thing to be getting on with. The only distinction is that articles held in faith are believed sincerely as a result of the faith itself.

Boghossian may be wise, then, to add a short addendum to his take on faith. Perhaps it's better to see faith as "pretending, in full sincerity, to know something that you don't."

*Optimistic bias in Christian beliefs being chiefly that, among those who still believe this kind of thing, they're more likely to go to Heaven (roughly 70% of Christians believe this about themselves) than to Hell (only roughly 2% of Christians believe this about themselves--from which we can conclude that Hell is for other people). [These statistics are documented in Hood, Hill, and Spilka, The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, 4th ed., and they are approximated here.]

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Post debate, Peter Boghossian and Tim McGrew on Unbelievable?

Peter Boghossian (Portland State University) and Christian philosopher Tim McGrew (Western Michigan University) had a discussion on British faith-debate podcast Unbelievable? hosted by Justin Brierley, published today, 24 May 2014 (Link). I'd like to make a few points, though I don't intend to give a thorough run-down on the debate. I also won't comment about winners because I think the idea of winning a conversation is stupid to the point of being embarrassing for people that we make a sport of it. (Full disclosure: I think the debate was a draw because the substantive point of the matter could not be settled because the relevant data concerning how Christians and other religious believers use the word "faith" is not available.)

The short-short summary of the discussion is that Boghossian forwarded in his book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, the idea that a workable analysis of the term "faith" in use is "pretending to know what you don't know." He calls this a definition for the word, which would hinge upon the outcome of such a linguistic analysis if we ever have the nerve to do it properly. In the debate, and in the book, Boghossian lists this definition as secondary to the less inflammatory "believing without (read: on insufficient, see below) evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence," which isn't far from the established uses.

Issues with issues

McGrew, a Christian, predictably takes serious issue with Boghossian's attempt to tease out the meaning-in-use of the term "faith." In the final word of the discussion (which is odd because he also got the opening statement), McGrew says that Boghossian should take up his point with the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). Since Boghossian is candid about the fact that he intends this understanding of the term "faith" only in religious contexts, so as to disambiguate it from synonymous better choices like hope, trust, and confidence in everyday speech, the relevant definition in the OED McGrew is referring to is the second, and it's an odd choice for raising his point.
2. Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
The OED already explicitly states that faith, in the religious context, is based not upon proof (which I will argue, despite protestations of apologists everywhere, means "sufficient evidence to warrant belief"), but instead upon "spiritual apprehension," which absent proof of "spiritual" anything carries no weight beyond the metaphorical. So, the OED, though no so explicit, already gives Boghossian's definition for "faith" in the religious context. I am assuming that sending listeners on a silly wild goose hunt isn't why McGrew was giggling about the idea of contacting the OED at the end of their discussion.

More importantly, I'm troubled by McGrew's inconsistent application of his take on the word "faith." Sometimes, as with Christianity for him, "faith" applies. The parallel for Islam doesn't apply, though, presumably because he doesn't believe Islam and does believe Christianity. At other times, it seems like "faith" does and doesn't mean hope, at the same time.

McGrew's working definition is something closer to the OED first definition, the common-parlance use that Boghossian says needs to be disambiguated from the religious-context use, this being a major point of Boghossian's Manual. To paraphrase him, McGrew suggests that faith is confidence that one extends in an uncertain circumstance in which something significant is on the line and in which there is a lack of control of circumstances. This definition is complex and more detailed than the one given in the OED, which only lists "complete trust or confidence in someone or something," so perhaps he too should contact them for a discussion.

To understand my qualms with McGrew's application of the term, I have to delve into the small number of examples that came up in the debate as tools to discuss the use of the term. Since I don't currently have time to listen to the full debate again, I'll have to go by memory here, so forgive me if I leave any out. There may have been, particularly, examples specific to Christianity, but since McGrew is very likely to be biased on this point as a Christian anyway, I'm not going to waste time pointing out that fact if it happens to be the case in any specifics.

These examples, to the best of my recollection, are:
  1. Faith in Islam (specifically, Boghossian asked if McGrew has faith or evidence that Islam is false, which I think is quite a clever way to ask the question).
  2. Faith in a parachute while skydiving, and/or the person who packed the parachute.
  3. Faith in whether or not chickens exist (another clever question by Boghossian--why don't we use the word faith regarding the existence of chickens?)
Faith in Islam

McGrew's contention is that one has faith in something like Christianity because the fate of one's soul is on the line, implying a risk and circumstances beyond one's control in which one decides to place one's trust in the religious articles based upon the best assessment one can give of the available evidence. Between the lines here is the fact that one is placing trust without knowing, but that's something McGrew would be likely to agree with, so I won't harp.

I agree with McGrew that there's a risk involved in the circumstances surrounding Christianity, those being beyond one's control, but they have nothing to do with a soul. They have to do with taking a social plunge into a cult that believes in the literal truth of absurd and sometimes disgusting nonsense, but we'll set that aside too. The point is that McGrew says that Christianity qualifies for faith for this reason, and that Islam doesn't.

McGrew, who said plainly that he has read the Qur'an, is surely aware of the risks to his alleged soul if he fails to accept Islam as the absolute and highest truth. The risks are the same, in fact, as in Christianity: missing out on Paradise and inviting oneself into eternal torment in Hell. Having heard of Islam, one is bound by this risk, but McGrew specifically says that there's not a risk in rejecting Islam, something close to, "Why would I use the word faith if I'm venturing nothing on Islam?"

This is an outright dismissal of Islam by McGrew because, having heard of Islam, having read the Qur'an, in fact, he automatically is venturing something on Islam, if his central point about the venture of Christianity is noetic and not social, as it was. Tim McGrew ventures (almost) nothing socially on Islam, and his flat dismissal of the idea that the word "faith" applies here for him (but does apply for Muslims) belies the fact that he thinks faith only applies to ideas one already thinks are true. He then uses the term to close the confidence gap between warranted confidence and outright belief, which is what Boghossian says faith does.

Faith in chickens

McGrew argues that he doesn't have faith that chickens exist because there's nothing ventured on believing that there are chickens. He does not examine the reason for this, though. McGrew, along with everyone else, knows there are chickens. There is no evidential-warrant/belief gap here. This response was incredibly weak, and his unwillingness simply to admit "we don't have faith in chickens because we know there are chickens" tells most of his strategy: don't let faith and knowledge get on the same field.

By talking about a venture being required for "faith" to apply, McGrew exposed that it is centrally concerned with belief on a lack of knowledge. That's something I expect McGrew is likely to admit, but the important observation here is that "faith admits no doubt," which isn't just a common theme, it's an outright dogma of the Christian belief structure. If faith admits no doubt but is only appropriate in cases where there is doubt, faith is used to close the epistemic gap beyond the warrant of evidence.

Faith in parachutes

Despite his protestations, McGrew is simply wrong that "hope" is the wrong word to use in reference to the outcome of a skydive. He openly admits that skydiving carries some margin of error, a failure rate that results in venturing one's own life to circumstances beyond his control in a certain percentage of cases. That is, he knows that he doesn't know that it's going to come out okay if he jumps from a plane with a parachute on his back.

Where he's wrong--or worse--is in saying that faith, not hope, is what allows him to jump, but we'll come back to this point in a moment because it's bigger than this example alone. Let's suppose instead, though, that he isn't wrong, that it's faith that allows him to take the dive. What does he mean by this, since he explicitly says it's not the same as hope in this circumstance?

Hope is the feeling and desire to come out on the survival side of the statistic, and McGrew specifically said this is an example where "faith" applies but "hope" does not. So McGrew is saying that a mature and rational consideration of the statistics and the risks with the desire to come out good isn't sufficient to skydive. One needs something more, faith. If he was just flatly assessing the odds and taking them as they are, hope (and some courage) is all he actually needs. I won't put words in his mouth, but it seems very much to me like he implies that faith closes the confidence gap involved in the situation, or, put more plainly, lets him pretend to know something he doesn't know--that the dangerous portion of the statistic is irrelevant or doesn't exist.

[Edit: I elaborated on this section the next day after it occurred to me that McGrew might be directly connecting faith that isn't hope with cognitive bias. (Link)]

Open-eyed maturity

In all three examples, while making an effort to present a case that "faith" doesn't mean extending one's degree of confidence beyond the warrant of evidence, McGrew reveals that this is exactly how he's using the term himself, even if he puts his explanation in a pretty Sunday dress. I understand his reluctance to admit it, and I fully appreciate that he can't say that he's pretending to know things he doesn't when he invokes the term faith, but he can't escape it, apparently. The tricky part about pretending to know something that you don't know is that, unless you're faking it intentionally, it entails pretending that you're not pretending. This is the central bias of faith.

A mature understanding of probabilities and risks doesn't require people to pretend to know things they don't know, but the amount of maturity required here is, perhaps, quite astounding. I, personally, do not need to pretend to know I won't die in the process in order to skydive. I only need to know that only a very small proportion of people do die in that endeavor and the hope that I'm not going to be one of them. If there's a one-in-ten-thousand chance I'll die on a skydive I've elected to take, hope to be one of the fortunate 9,999 is all that a mature mind needs to be willing to take the risk, should the reward (the experience) be deemed to be worth that chance. Faith, meaning something distinguishable from hope, simply is not necessary. Getting to this state, though, I think took me a great deal of sober personal reflection on the matter, including upon my own mortality. I don't think everyone does this, and maybe not everyone can.


I've seen it from shoddier minds, and I really didn't expect it from McGrew, to be honest--though perhaps I should have, given that it's gaining a lot of currency lately. There's a pedantic attack on the proposed understanding of faith, "belief without evidence," which is obviously not written to be technical but rather as imprecise shorthand, and it crops up a lot. 
You can't say no evidence if you mean not enough evidence!
In an important, technical publication, I would totally agree. Everywhere else in the social universe, though, yes we can, and we mean the same thing by it.

Let me expand upon this, though, so that even in a trite technicality kind of way, it's technically correct. If faith is being used to close the confidence gap beyond the warrant of evidence to the level of belief (which is typically complete belief), then there is no evidence for what goes in that gap, and yet that degree of belief is held anyway, thusly on no evidence. This, though, is stupid. Mature people don't fuss with this kind of pedantry; they just use shorthand and recognize that other people use shorthand and ask for clarification--not blast challenges--when needed.

Informed people don't really even think about belief this way anymore. Take a scientific article, say general relativity (because McGrew brings it up in a different context). We don't "believe" general relativity. Indeed, we don't even talk about general relativity being true outside of colloquial, everyday speech. We talk about two main components of general relativity and draw the line: its predictive potency, with error bars, and its explanatory salience, particularly how not ad hoc it is. When we say that we "believe" general relativity is "true," we mean that we appreciate that as a theory it is pretty low in ad-hoc-ness, matches the observed data to a sufficiently accurate (and stated) degree, and provides remarkably good predictions within the same or another sufficiently accurate (and stated) range.

It's a bit ironic that this comes up since McGrew opens the entire discussion by pointing out that non-experts talk about fields they find interesting in ways that are decades out of date. It's a bit sad that he brings this up since technically this understanding, employed by some scientists better than others, is one of the philosophy of science, not science itself. At least he got his chuckles in, though, again.


Do you know what's Orwellian? Accusing your opponents of doing something really dastardly and contemptible that they didn't do in a hope to score rhetorical points to stir people into going against them. That's one example of an Orwellian thing to do.

McGrew, though the thought is hardly unique to him, complains that Boghossian's attempt to redefine faith is another kind of Orwellian thing, an outright attempt to undermine belief by controlling language. He accuses Boghossian of making a Newspeak mockery of the word "faith" (which he thereby tacitly admits in the process is required to maintain belief in religious articles, the evidence not being sufficient to warrant it). That sounds pretty bad on Boghossian, trying to modify the language to make a mockery of faith and foist unbelief on a blinded populace, and no doubt lots of Christians, maybe even McGrew, are eager to believe it. But.

Boghossian has only said about a million times, including directly to McGrew in the discussion, that he's calling for a linguistic analysis of how the word is used, saying the definition should reflect the results. McGrew clearly understood this point, agreeing that it could be determined empirically and getting into the idea of some kind of unscientific Internet poll that pretends to try to uncover this. Calling for an honest, evidence-based appraisal of something along with calling for our agreed-upon understanding of that something to follow the appraisal is about as un-Orwellian as it is possible to be.

Instead of being so Orwellian, Boghossian should realize that "faith" has always meant and will always mean what the Bible says it means. Amen.

The central point

The central matter of the discussion, the contemporary (and maybe older) use of the word "faith," remains unresolved. McGrew, the far more experienced debater, came off tighter in what he had to say and hid his weaknesses well, better than did Boghossian. Still, as we've seen, he left quite a gaping hole in his case just by virtue of having to use a word that actually means what he says it doesn't mean. Boghossian directly called for what is necessary to resolve the dispute: empirical evidence about how people use the word "faith" in a study that is appropriately designed to reveal just that. Absent such a study, Boghossian says people use it that way, McGrew says they don't (while doing it unintentionally), and very little gets resolved. No Christian could admit, even to herself, that's what it means, and many atheists are unwilling to use a word like "pretending" with its accusatory connotation.

Interestingly, we should note that both participants agreed that empirical evidence on how the word "faith" gets used would resolve the debate. The reason, of course, is that it would provide the requisite knowledge, which would render faith--pretending to know what we don't--in either position irrelevant.