On Teleology and Intellectual Virtues and Vices

Below I quote Shane’s reply to part 4 of my series, “Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals” (for further background to this debate, check out parts 1, 2 & 3) and reply to him.  The topic has evolved into questions of teleology and the “point” of life, so little background in previous installments should be necessary to understand what follows in this post.  Feel free to comfortably start here without missing out on important information from other posts.  Shane writes:

“You would not accept one scientist’s claim over another’s on the illogical basis that the one is faithful to his wife and cheerful and the other is a sour adulterer.”

Indeed I would not, but that is precisely because the two cases are different. Natural scientific questions admit of empirical proof. And there is no obvious connection between a person’s life and the truth of his scientific theory. Religion poses questions like, “What is the point of human life?” which do not admit of such empirical answers and where the kind of life a person lives does seem to have some purchase on the quality of her answer.

It does not admit of empirical answers because it is an obscure way of putting an ethical question, rather than a scientific one.  But religion has no authority for theoretical guidance which rational ethical and conceptual clarity would not better provide.   And science has bearing here in helping us realize that we come from an unguided process without purpose.  There is no truthful teleology in the sense of basis for positing a guiding principle undergirding history or providing us with a necessary shape for our lives.

What we have, rather, are evolved sets of de facto “properties,” many of which have de facto functions.  What I mean by this is that hearts are best understood not as designed for purposes but as having evolved in such a way as to serve them.  Because of regularities of functioning and their connections to successful life processes and excellences in terms of their most efficient or powerful realizations of their functions, we can determine de facto goods for various organs or drives or patterns of thought we have, etc.  But none of this is cause for saying that our lives have any further “purpose” than to carry out their innate functions as powerfully as they can.  Rigorous philosophy restrains itself from leaping from the existence of functions which evolve undirected to intentions that give them those functions.  The sun was not “made” with the purpose of helping plants with their photosynthesis and me with my tan.

There is a real sense in which we can talk about the plants needing to perform the function of photosynthesis, but this function is a need in an existential sense.  They do not need to perform photosynthesis in order to realize a pre-ordained plan for plants by a designer of the nature of plants.  The plant only needs to do photosynthesis if it is to remain a plant.  The essence of the plant is to live as a plant, manifesting the characteristic patterns of features and processes which have regularly enough occurred across varying particular livign things to call them all “plant features” and plant functions.  To continue to persist in its complex orders which make it a “plant,” it must carry out various functions which (a) constitute plant patterns of behavior and structure and (b) perpetuate consistent existence as a plant through time.

But is there any reason there should be plants?  No.  Is there a further “point” to the existence of plants?  No.  These are not our artifacts, which we have infused with a point that led to their creation (and even the “point” behind the creation of a chair or an i-pod is only one of interest to a chair or i-pod using creature.)  And, of course, I think the same considerations apply to our own existence.  We have functions characteristic to our functioning excellently according to the complex structures which have evolved as the essential patterns to being the sorts of beings we are.  In fulfilling these potentials we are what we are well and, hopefully, we perpetuate our individual existence as long as we can manage by exploiting the functionality of our organs and our reason to the benefit of our continued persistence in being.

There is no “point” to our being in the sense that it serves no function beyond itself.  This is not to say that there is “no point” in performing any essential human functions excellently.  But this “point” is an existential one.   We are these sorts of creatures and so we have a vested interest in performing these functions that each constitute, perpetuate, and maximize our very being as what we are.  To not perform them is to cease to be what we are, either in the terms of our ideal functions or in terms of our complete annihilation in death.

Now I’ve already freely admitted that this kind of consideration does not provide anything like a rigorous justification of religious belief. my point in making those previous remarks was to challenge the model of religious belief-formation you had proposed earlier, not to defend a general sort of pragmatic account of justification.

The point I’m driving at is that it is people can have religious beliefs for some reasons, without those reasons adding up to conclusive proof. One has not thereby proven religion true, but neither has one just launched headfirst into irrationality.

But my point is that even though ethics, metaphysics, psychology, biology, et al. do not provide conclusive proofs, they are still grounded in reasons which are rationally defensible and consistent with our best knowledge of the empirical world, our most refined formulations of concepts, and our best applications of logic.  Religious thinking simply is not whenever it outright contradicts the very naturalism upon which our most powerfully persuasive knowledge claims are based.  Naturalist metaphysics, as put in practice in the laboratory, has shown drastic powers to both predict natural events and manipulate them which supernaturalist metaphysics simply cannot match.

Religious thinking, insofar as it incorporates arbitrarily accepted sources of authority does not meet the standards of rigor fit even for non-empirical investigation.  It is one thing to acknowledge, with Aristotle, that ethics does not admit of the exact precision of mathematics.  But it is another thing to make the standards for explanation even laxer than is possible in ethical investigation.  The difference between the conceptual rigor, logical approach, commitment to rational evidence, and attention to psychological and empirical realities in the field of philosophical ethics and in religiously guided discussions of the same subject is night and day.

There have been many deeply interesting insights into ethics from sacred texts and religious thinkers, but none of those rest on their religious authority or the pretensions to special authority of religious traditions or religious sacred texts.  Rather whatever insights into moral psychology and ethics that Jesus or Augustine offer is only as powerful as it is independently persuasive to reason in general and consistent with advances (present or future) in our empirical understanding of the world.

Now, obviously these kinds of considerations aren’t going to persuade you, as a non-religious person, but they aren’t meant to.

But I was a religious person–an extremely religious person–and they failed to persuade me.  And the reason was my commitment to truth forced me to step outside the self-confirming rationalizations of religion and subject religious claims to external tests to see if they survived them.  When they did not, I had to abandon the existential center of my identity.  I had to reject the religious practice and habits of thought which had fundamentally shaped my life, purposes, and sense of meaning in life.

And when you say that these considerations are not meant to persuade non-religious people, how can they have anything to do with truth?  I don’t exempt you from being able to grasp my arguments.  I do not require you to be a member of a special group to understand the truth.  It is suspicious whenever says group participation is a prerequisite of knowledge.  That’s strong indication of in-group/out-group psychology and (at its most dangerous extreme) cultic thinking.  It’s a fallacious view of truth.

They are meant to explain, from the internal point of view of faith how somebody can come to have religious beliefs, even while being an intellectually virtuous person.

This begs the question of whether it is intellectually virtuous to grant yourself beliefs which are shaped by allegiances to group participation, rather than their rigorous subjection to countering viewpoints and the constraints of external reality—which constraints are not esoteric but universally knowable if knowable at all.

The second part of my account would be to try to develop how life experiences and religious experiences fit into the internal confirmation of religious belief. By “life experiences” I have in mind primarily like moral experiences, aesthetic experiences and the like, but I also want to construe the term broadly enough that having more theoretical questions about theology or philosophy can count as life experiences too.

I do not understand what the above means or how theoretical questions can count as “life experiences.”  If you mean that my life experience of asking, “what’s the point of my life” by itself helps confirm religious beliefs then you’re certainly not committed to scientific rigor and the ways that investigation into the psychological causes of that question help undermine confidence that we ask it because it has a substantitve answer.

By ‘internal confirmation’ I mean the religious beliefs make us interpret our life experiences in certain ways, and the success of our beliefs in interpreting our experiences also provides a sort of confirmation to us that those beliefs are true. It is ‘internal’ confirmation, because you have to have the religious beliefs first before you get the confirmation, so it can’t count as a way of justifying one’s beliefs to others.

On the other hand, if one’s religious beliefs don’t do a good job interpreting one’s life experiences, then one will find one’s religious beliefs thrown into chaos, perhaps leading one finally to reject them. Call this a failure of internal confirmation.

Now, I think this process that I’m calling internal confirmation is a pretty common one in human thinking.

Yes, it’s called prejudicial thinking.  Anyone can make a system that is closed in on itself consistent.  But this has nothing to do with truth.  The only steps towards anything like objective truth we have are ones that do not depend on adopting a whole host of impenetrable assumptions and endless rationalizations of preordained conclusions.  Only insofar as we let reality shape our views rather than vice versa do we escape our minds’ powerful, natural bias towards confirmation of our existing and desired beliefs.  Training in the opposite habit of thought is training in vicious thinking.  Religion provides such training and therein trains people in intellectual vices and away from intellectual virtues.

And I think it does a good job explaining why Christians think Christianity makes sense and can’t understanding atheists and why atheists think atheism makes sense and can’t understand Christianity.

Now, obviously this kind of internal confirmation is not the best way of trying to make sure our beliefs are true, since, as we just saw, two contradictory beliefs can each by internally confirmed. However, I think internal confirmation is sort of what we’re stuck with, in the absence of more compelling proof either way.

It would be silly to rely on internal confirmation about mathematics or natural science. But I think it does make sense to allow religious belief (or disbelief) to be internally confirmed because I don’t think either the atheists or the religious believers have a knock down argument for their claims.

It is silly to rely on internal confirmation anywhere.   In fact, it’s more than silly, it’s the path to intellectual vice which reinforces the defects in our normal reasoning tendencies.  Atheists are not merely doing the same internal confirmation that religious people are.  Most of us anyway are rejecting the introduction of an extra postulated entity for which we see no compelling metaphysical or empirical reason to accept.  That is not internally confirming anything according to aesthetics or morality or just gut feelings.  We are demanding rigorous accounts of why we should believe in any proposed entity.

Metaphysically, God is defined a number of ways and nearly all of them require either outright dismissal or agnosticism since there is simply no way to either confirm or deny them.  There are some accounts of God which are morally refuted, some which are empirically discredited, some which are so abstractly and vaguely formulated as to provide nowhere near sufficient reason to accept or reject them and therefore insufficient basis for making practical decisions in accordance with belief in God.

And atheism is not itself a fundamental commitment the way a religion is.  Atheism is only the result of a prior commitment to external confirmation, conceptual consistency, logical rigor, and the sort of metaphysical naturalism that has been persuasively validated by the most severe standards of external confirmations we have—the laboratory and its abilities to split atoms, create laptops, and send people to space.

To equivocate between the inferences drawn that there is no God, which are made via only rationally universally acceptable arguments and religious inferences drawn that there is a God based on commitment to ancient traditions, contemporary familial and communal loyalties, and hopelessly vaguely interpreted personal religious experiences, is really to murky the waters unhelpfully.

Your Thoughts?

(For my reply to Shane’s reply below this post, please read “How Faith Is Not Like Other (Revisable) Reflexive Assumptions” and 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

    Dan, three quick thoughts in response.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.