How Faith Is Not Like Other (Revisable) Reflexive Assumptions

(It should not be necessary for understanding this post, but for the full backstory to this debate see my series on Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals, parts 1, 2, 3, & 4 and my post “On Teleology and Intellectual Virtues and Vices”)

Shane writes in reply to my post “On Teleology and Intellectual Virtues and Vices”

First, let’s define “Naturalism” (with a capital N) as the view that natural world which is investigated by the sciences is all that exists. Now it’s clear that naturalism is a strong metaphysical thesis. You say that we should be naturalists because naturalism has been predictively and explanatorily successful whereas non-naturalistic metaphysics has not. This seems false to me. Scientists operate with what one might call a methodological assumption of naturalism. And methodological naturalism (small n) has been a very successful research strategy, so we’ve got good reason to be methodological naturalists in our scientific practice. But the methodological assumption of naturalism does not imply the truth of metaphysical Naturalism in any way that I can see.

But why does it seem false to you to say that non-naturalistic metaphysics has not been explanatorily successful? Methodological Naturalism when it proves the only reliable way of categorizing and explaining the world that we have yet devised proves itself as the best metaphysics we have (if we can even call it a metaphysics itself, rather than, an ontological position among others in a larger metaphysical account).  The simple reality is that scientists are not just methodologically pretending the world follows strict causation but giving powerful evidence for the inference that it does.

Humean skepticism can always haggle with this but if you’re a Humean then you’re not only not accepting Naturalism as unjustified, you have to chuck out even less well-inferred supernaturalistic theories even more quickly.  Even Hume whose confidence in causality was merely probabilistic was merciless in demanding that all miracle claims be dismissed because they had probability rates of zero.

The world as we know it is causally constrained according to natural dynamics.  It does not accommodate supernatural forces or virgin births.  You cannot dismiss Naturalism as a mere methodological assumption and then turn around and claim supernatural events happen when convenient for continuing to persist in your religious dogmas from pre-scientific eras and then claim you believe in a Unity of Truth.  The success of Naturalism rules out all postulates of Supernaturalism or, at minimum, shows that tremendous greater amounts of confirmable knowledge are possible when strictly adhering to Naturalism than Supernaturalism, thereby giving the favor to Naturalistic accounts over Supernaturalistic ones in any given case.

Second, you want to dismiss my account of internal confirmation as mere ‘prejudicial thinking.’ You obviously want to build strongly negative connotations into the word ‘prejudicial’, but I think you are wrong to do so. Everybody starts life with a set of beliefs, some better founded, some worse. These ‘prejudices’ (which are not, NB racial prejudices, but just pre-judgments, pre-existing beliefs, etc.) are the very condition of the possibility of our getting to know things. If I didn’t have a set of mathematical beliefs about algebra and a set of beliefs about the veracity of my senses, I would not be able to acquire scientific knowledge of the natural world.

You’re lumping in nearly universally understood axioms of mathematical thinking and perceptive faculties which are hardwired into the brain with the prejudices of religious authority.  This is muddling and teaching people to lump all pre-logical thinking as all equally unfounded and arbitrary does nobody any service.

So, the problem isn’t that I have ‘prejudices’. Everybody has prejudices, and you can’t really make any progress without them. The problem with prejudices occurs when people aren’t able to critically reflect on their prejudices or are not able to reject a prejudice once it has been shown false.

No, mathematical principles and immediate perceptual assumptions that we are seeing colors, etc. are not “prejudices.”  Yes, we do all have other assumptions and, yes, every day thinking relies on frequent quick perceptual judgments and large stocks of settled opinions and never examined assumptions.  Without a base of preexiting knowledge and automatic assumptions, we would be paralyzed.  But the problem is that religious authority refuses genuine critical reflection.  You may have left Sunday School with assumptions that the Virgin Birth were real because as a child you trusted authority figures who told you that was the case.  But that’s no excuse for not rejecting such a nonsensical claim as soon as you critically examine it.

And religions explicitly teach people that doubt is either (a) a spiritual failing or (b) healthy as long as you don’t dare really actually leave the faith.  People are habituated against drawing the simplest inferences.  For an example of a simple logical conclusion that most interpretations of the Christian faith prohibits:  The Bible claims that a human being was born from a virgin woman in the age before there were scientific technologies that could mix sperm and egg outside the sexual act.  For a virgin woman to conceive a child under such circumstances was impossible.  Therefore the Bible is wrong and a virgin woman never conceived a child.

Comparing the faith’s decision to tenaciously hold onto absurd claims from ancient peoples to my perceptual judgment that my towel is green is just to muddy the waters with a patently false comparison.  And, in fact, even as certain as I feel about my towel being green, I am persuadable that I could have that wrong.  It is a revisable belief in a way that religious authority does not allow.  You will always believe in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, et al. as long as you are a Christian of any but the most illusion-dispelled kind.  Because of a group membership you have sealed off genuine possibility of revision.

Obviously this model of internal confirmation that I’m developing has strong affinities to the hermeneutic tradition. But it also has a strong affinity to the account of ethical traditions Alasdair MacIntyre has developed in After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? In both of those books, MacIntyre argues (in my view persuasively) that the kind of enlightenment hope for universal, rational ethics that you are putting forward is fundamentally impossible. Your position is especially surprising to me, since MacIntyre (again, in my view correctly) thinks that it is Nietzsche himself who most powerfully exposed the failure of the enlightenment project of ethics based on universal reason. On MacIntyre’s read we have to abandon the Kantian project of trying to have universal, a priori ethics and we are faced with the stark choice of either accepting Nietzsche’s perspectivalism or returning to a more modest Aristotelian tradition of ethics.

I think most of our ethical, artistic, literary, cultural and religious beliefs can only be understood on the basis of this kind of model of internal confirmation. But of course, there isn’t anything wrong with having artistic beliefs in this way. There isn’t anything wrong with having moral beliefs in this way. So, I want to say, there isn’t anything wrong with having religious beliefs in this way either.

What’s wrong with having religious beliefs in this way is that those beliefs purport to be about (a) metaphysically true propositions whose only source of claimed authority are ancient people wildly speculating without arguments about the nature of mysterious realms and the nature of cosmic sin and cosmic propitiation, etc.  Also (b) religious beliefs, unlike aesthetic and moral ones, flat out contradict the natural order and therefore must be rejected as false.  You can’t mock creationists and magic crystal believers but then say that the biological facts about human nature do not exclude the very possibility of a God-man and a virgin birth and a resurrection and a man swallowed by a big fish for three days and on and on and on.  If you say those things can happen, then just go the whole hog in contradicting scientific reality and just stick with the Genesis account.  What’s the difference besides “hermenuetics?”

Secondly, I disagree with MacIntyre in his reading of Nietzsche as a mere emotivist.  Nietzsche thought in terms of natural values all over the place.  In another post I began sketching for the first of many times on the blog my constructive views on ethics.  First of all, what Nietzsche was rejecting primarily was our ability to infer from our moral assumptions to genuine value.  But he considered it “equally childish” to be morally absolutist and to infer from moral disagreement that all value judgments were equal.  Unlike all the other quotes in this post, this one is from Nietzsche and not Shane:

Their usual mistaken premise is that they affirm some consensus of the nations, at least of tame nations, concerning certain principles of morals, and then they infer from this that these principles must be unconditionally binding also for you and me; or, conversely, they see the truth that among different nations moral valuations are necessarily different and then infer from this that no morality is at all binding. Both procedures are equally childish. The mistake made by the more refined among them is that they uncover and criticize the perhaps foolish opinions of a people about their morality, or of humanity about all morality—opinions about its origins, religious sanction, the superstition of free will, and things of that sort and then suppose they have criticized morality itself. (GS 345) (emphases mine)

Nietzsche’s concern was that we not take the assumptions that specifically “moral” categories of judgment were the only or the primary categories of evaluation.  But he by no means rejects all objective valuation.  His concern is rather that we look at value in naturalistic terms.  What promotes our excellence as organic beings, rather than as mythical a priori judging beings with supernaturally free will.  He rejects moral inuitionism because our moral intuitions were formed by both evolutionarily, genealogically, and as reflections of the ways of life of particular classes of people (the “slaves”, the “priests”, the “herd”, etc.) and as such they are not necessarily truth conducive.

Because various ways of valuing reflect the conditions of different kinds of life that they support and sustain, they have to be assessed in terms of (a) what kind of way of life does each way of valuing perpetuate and (b) how does each way of life stack up against our possibilities for various arete, for our abilities to be healthy creatures who like the rest of the animals have a strong will to express our powers and live, and an affirmative attitude that does not hate the world and its struggles, etc., etc.

Of course these are controversial claims about fundamental values and ethics and they require dozens of pages of my entire dissertation to defend them.  They may even prove wrong.  But nonetheless they can be argued for based on considerations of naturally ascertainable evolved functions in terms of which human excellence can be defined in coordination with our best empirical knowledge.  Whatever a priori categories are employed are those which are rationally defensible and involve no completely out of leftfield claims like “your sins need to be propitiated with blood” or “there is a realm of eternal suffering where God sends all those whom he does not save from their sins” or “because Adam and Eve ate a forbidden fruit, you are under a curse.”  To make a claim that our good is existentially definable in terms of that upon which our characteristic functions depend may go beyond empirical science and it may not win easy cross-cultural recognition, but it is in a totally different league from mythologies.

Each of those myths I just cited are all perfectly palatable as literature which possibly communicate unliteral “truth.”  But (a) even the most literal, non-supernatural formulations of those myths are philosophically disputable, (b) intepreting what the literal take-away should be is rather murky, and worst of all (c) the majority of religious people take those myths to be literal truths.

And, briefly, aesthetic claims can sometimes be argued on fairly objective grounds that there is no room to get into here.  But even where aesthetic claims boil down to irreducible differences in taste, they do not require the postulation of any speculative entities or impossible historical events, etc., and so are in a whole other class from religion.

Third, I absolutely reject your characterization of the religious life as a life submitted arbitrarily to authority. I think you have simply misunderstood how people actually come by their religious beliefs. What you are saying here is tantamount to the claim that every religious person at one point in their life simply walked into a church, heard a sermon and decided for no reasons whatsoever (”arbitrarily”) to become religious.

My primary concern is not with the psychological facts or unique personal histories of how individual people come to their religious beliefs, although those are also better explained by natural psychological and social psychological accounts than by the idea that there really was a God-man who rose from the dead and a Holy Spirit who enlightens people to the truth of his Word.  My concern is with their justification and how people, once having imbibed these beliefs in their mother’s milk are trained to protect their beliefs from inconvenient realities.  And they are habituated to treat “just-so” statements of faith in “just-so” authorities—the Bible, the Church, the words of Jesus, etc.—as not only credible authorities on metaphysical realms beyond any recorded experience but as positively indisputable authorities on such things.

Yes, as a psychological matter, I came to believe in Jesus out of all sorts of psychological and sociological influences.  I had my prejudices shaped by my parents, by ilicit leaps in logic from my minister brother’s success in life to the truth of his beliefs, by my deep desire to be good which predated our church-going, by the virtual brainwashing of Christian camps which isolated me from outside influences and indoctrinated me from morning to night, and on and on and on.

And, like you, when my faith was challenged, I treated abandoning it as the option of last resort.  So from the ages 14-21 I vigorously sought every means possible to find a hermeneutic which would combine my faith committed beliefs with what philosophy and science impressed upon me until I realized that the faith’s claims were simply contradictory to the natural world and to the demands of strict epistemological rigor.  The only real basis for “justification” was authoritative claims from communal authorities—”Jesus,” disciples, apostles, theologians, my youth minister as a teenager, my theology professors, etc.

Regardless of the embedded narratives and interlocking influences which in the real world lead people to religious belief, in their substance, when logically plotted out, what supports them cognitively as a system is reliance on authoritarian sources for all the specious metaphysical speculations and miracle claims, etc.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Next installment:  Against Faith and In Defense of Naturalism and Induction

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • shane

    “Methodological Naturalism when it proves the only reliable way of categorizing and explaining the world that we have yet devised proves itself as the best metaphysics we have . . . The simple reality is that scientists are not just methodologically pretending the world follows strict causation but giving powerful evidence for the inference that it does.”

    I’m not sure I understand exactly what your argument is here. It’s supposed to be an argument for the truth of a strong metaphysical claim, but you’re talking here about methodological naturalism. So I’m confused.
    The last sentence though makes it sound like an inductive claim.

    1. a can be explained naturalistically.
    2. b can be explained naturalistically.
    3. therefore for all x, x can be explained naturalistically.

    That’s an inductive argument, but as you know inductive arguments are the weakest kind of arguments because their premises don’t guarantee the truth of the conclusion.

    1. a is a swan and white.
    2. b is a swan and white.
    3. therefore, for all x, if x is a swan, x is white.

    The crucial point about inductive arguments is that they have to be open to falsification. If I show you a black swan, then I’ve proven that not all swans are white.

    But, earlier you were wanting to rule out the very possibility of miracles a priori. “There just can’t be any miracles or other non-natural phenomena because they violate the laws of nature; and because there are no supernatural phenomena, therefore Naturalism is true.” But you can’t say this on pain of vicious circularity. It would be like saying: “All the swans I’ve seen so far are white, therefore by induction all swans are white, therefore if somebody tells me he has seen a black swan I know he’s lying because all swans are white.” Well that’s just obtuse; you can’t get an a priori dismissal of black swans from the inductive argument that all swans are white. In just the same way, you can’t get an a priori dismissal of the possibility of miracles from an inductive argument for metaphysical Naturalism.

    I’ve granted you that methodological naturalism is a valuable research strategy in the natural sciences, but I have yet to see a really strong argument from you, or anybody else as to why metaphysical naturalism is supposed to follow from methodological naturalism. And, of course, methodological naturalism, by itself causes no problems for a religious person.

    About “prejudices”.

    I see my earlier example above wasn’t clear. science also relies upon a sort of prejudices. Once upon a time, long long ago we thought there were two different things: theories and observations. You formulated a theory, then you went and tried to get observations to verify it through empirical experiments. But, lo and behold, all observations already depend upon prior theories. Say I’ve got a theory about how far a ball will shoot out of a cannon. I set up my experiment and run it and observe that the ball goes exactly where I predicted. The prejudices latent in my observation here are my mathematical beliefs (the ones I used to run the calculation in the first place) and the prior theoretical belief in the accuracy of my senses. NB I’m not saying that sensation itself is a kind of prejudice; I’m saying that my view about the veracity of what I sense, when I’m healthy, sane, etc. is a kind of prejudice. The point is a very simple one but examples are easy to find in the history of science. Take astronomy for another example. We’ve got optical telescopes that we use to make observations to test our astronomical theories. But our ability to use optical telescopes depends upon the correctness of another theory: our optical theory, which depends upon our knowledge of geometry and a whole other series of experiments and observations which themselves also depended upon some prior theoretical commitments. More generally, a contemporary philosopher of science might say: all observation is theory-laden.

    The hermeneutic point I’m trying to get across about religious, moral, aesthetic and cultural beliefs is closely linked to that point in the philosophy of science.

    “What’s wrong with having religious beliefs in this way is that those beliefs purport to be about (a) metaphysically true propositions whose only source of claimed authority are ancient people wildly speculating without arguments about the nature of mysterious realms and the nature of cosmic sin and cosmic propitiation, etc. Also (b) religious beliefs, unlike aesthetic and moral ones, flat out contradict the natural order and therefore must be rejected as false.”

    Well, I think (b) is wrong for the reasons I adduced just above. You are seeming to want to rule out religion a priori because of your prior commitment to metaphysical naturalism. But you haven’t given me any good argument for the truth of metaphysical naturalism yet. So (b) is out.

    (a) is also a non-starter. “Look how stupid religion is–those sheeple will believe anything.” This is the same kind of rhetoric one commonly sees in political discussions: “Those damn {liberals/conservatives} just aren’t reasonable. They just arbitrarily believe whatever foolish nonsense people tell them to in {Manhattan/Kansas}.”

    However, as I’ve already described earlier, this simply isn’t how or why people come to be religious (or how we come to hold the moral or political beliefs we hold either). I don’t believe the things Christianity teaches just because some crazy people in ancient Palestine said so. I believe it because it makes sense to me, it coheres with my experiences (religious experiences, moral experiences, perhaps aesthetic experiences) and because nobody has ever given me a /good/ reason to think that it is false. Look, I’m granting you that these reasons I have to be religious in no way guarantee that my beliefs are true. But neither you, nor Clifford, nor Dawkins, nor Mackie, et al have given me any /good/ reason to think any of my religious beliefs are false.

  • Chris

    This discussion is moving in an interesting direction. Dan, in relation to the first points raised in Shane’s post, I wonder if you could comment on the possibility that naturalism (as defined above) and religion represent non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). This possibility was raised by Stephen Jay Gould and criticized by Daniel Dennett. It holds, I believe, that when religion makes claims about things outside the purview of naturalism, then naturalistic evidence can neither confirm nor disconfirm these claims. If this were true, it seems that arguments about naturalism (such as those considered above) would not be decisive in the debate about faith, and that other arguments for and against faith as an additional source of knowledge would need to be considered.


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