Sunday, June 17, 2007

Atheism and Evidence

By Stanley Fish
Think Again
The New York Times
June 17, 2007

Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens believe (in Dawkins’s words) that “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world” and that “if there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural.”

In reply, believers, like the scientist Francis S. Collins (”The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”), argue that physical processes cannot account for the universal presence of moral impulses like altruism, “the truly selfless giving of oneself to others” with no expectation of a reward. How can there be a naturalistic explanation of that?

Easy, say Dawkins and Harris. (Hitchens doesn’t seem to have a dog in this hunt.) It’s just a matter of time before so-called moral phenomena will be brought within the scientific ambit: “There will probably come a time,” Harris declares, “when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgments themselves, at the level of the brain.” And a bit later, “There is every reason to believe that sustained inquiry in the moral sphere will force convergence of our various belief systems in the way that it has in every other science.”

What gives Harris his confidence? Why does he have “every reason to believe” (a nice turn of phrase)? What are his reasons? What is his evidence? Not, as it turns out, a record of progress. He acknowledges that, to date “little convergence has been achieved in ethics,” not only because “so few of the facts are in” but because “we have yet to agree about the most basic criteria for deeming an ethical fact, a fact.”

But we will , if we are patient. The field of “the cognitive neuroscience of moral cognition” (a real mouthful) is young, and “it is clearly too early to draw any strong conclusions from this research.”

Of course one conclusion that could be drawn is that the research will not pan out because moral intuitions will not be reducible to physical processes. That may be why so few of the facts are in. No, says Harris, the reason for our small knowledge in this area is the undue influence of – you guessed it – religion: “Most of our religions have been no more supportive of genuine moral inquiry than of scientific inquiry generally.”

This is a remarkable sequence. A very strong assertion is made – we will “undoubtedly discover lawful connections between our states of consciousness [and] our modes of conduct” – but no evidence is offered in support of it; and indeed the absence of evidence becomes a reason for confidence in its eventual emergence. This sounds an awfully lot like faith of the kind Harris and his colleagues deride – expectations based only on a first premise (itself asserted rather than proven), which, if true, demands them, and which, if false, makes nonsense of them.

Dawkins exhibits the same pattern of reasoning. He believes, like Harris, that ethical facts can be explained by the scientific method in general and by the thesis of natural selection in particular. If that thesis is assumed as a baseline one can then generate Darwinian reasons, reasons that are reasons within the Darwinian system, for the emergence of the behavior we call ethical. One can speculate, as Dawkins does, that members of a species are generous to one another out of a desire (not consciously held) to preserve the gene pool, or that unconditioned giving is an advertisement of dominance and superiority. These, he says, are “good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.”

Exactly! They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I “believe in evolution,” Dawkins declares, “because the evidence supports it”; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.

Dawkins voices distress at an imagined opponent who “can’t see” the evidence or “refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book,” but he has his own holy book of whose truth he has been persuaded, and it is within its light that he proceeds and looks forward in hope (his word) to a future stage of enlightenment he does not now experience but of which he is fully confident. Both in the vocabulary they share – “hope,” “belief,” “undoubtedly,” “there will come a time” – and the reasoning they engage in, Harris and Dawkins perfectly exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

What is and is not seen will vary with the faith within which observers look. Bunyan glosses the scene in which the townspeople mock Christian as he flees toward a light he can barely discern and they do not discern at all: “They that fly from the wrath to come are a gazing stock to the world.” Paul comments in 1 Corinthians 2 that to the man “without the Spirit” the things of the Spirit are “foolishness”; he simply “cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Those who have not found the arguments of natural selection persuasive will not see what Dawkins and his colleagues see, not because they are blind and obstinate, but because as members of a different faith community – and remember, science requires faith too before it can have reasons – the evidence that seems so conclusive to the rational naturalists will point elsewhere.

But what about reasons? Isn’t that what separates scientific faith from religious faith; one is supported by reasons, the other is irrational and supported by nothing but superstition? Not really. One of the basic homiletic practices in both the Jewish and Christian traditions is the catechism or examination of one’s faith. An early 19th century Jewish catechism is clear on the place of reason in the exercise: “By thinking for himself , let [the pupil] learn the sunny nearness of reason.” Christian catechists regularly cite 1 Peter 3:15: “Be always ready to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” In short, and it is often put this way, at every opportunity you must give reasons for your faith.

The reasons you must give, however, do not come from outside your faith, but follow from it and flesh it out. They are not independent of your faith – if they were they would supplant it as a source of authority – but are simultaneously causes of it and products of it; just as Harris’s and Dawkins’s reasons for believing that morality can be naturalized flow from their faith in physical science and loop back to that faith, thereby giving it an enhanced substance.

The reasoning is circular, but not viciously so. The process is entirely familiar and entirely ordinary; a conviction (of the existence of God or the existence of natural selection or the greatness of a piece of literature) generates speculation and questions, and the resulting answers act as confirmation of the conviction that has generated them. Whatever you are doing – preaching, teaching , performing an experiment, playing baseball – you must always give a reason (if only to yourself) for your faith and the reason will always be a reason only because your faith is in place.

Some respondents raised the issue of falsification. Is there something that would falsify a religious faith in the same way that some physical discoveries would falsify natural selection for Dawkins and Harris? As it is usually posed, the question imagines disconfirming evidence coming from outside the faith, be it science or religion. But a system of assumptions and protocols (and that is what a faith is) will recognize only evidence internal to its basic presuppositions. Asking that religious faith consider itself falsified by empirical evidence is as foolish as asking that natural selection tremble before the assertion of deity and design. Falsification, if it occurs, always occurs from the inside.

It follows then that the distinction informing so many of the atheists’ arguments, the distinction between a discourse supported by reason and a discourse supported by faith, will not hold up because any form of thought is an inextricable mix of both; faith and reasons come together in an indissoluble package. There are still distinctions to be made, but they will be distinctions between different structure of faith, or, if you prefer, between different structures of reasons. The differences between different structures of faith are real and significant, for each will speak to different needs and different purposes.

Mine is not a leveling argument; it does not say that everything is the same (that is the atheists’ claim); it says only that whatever differences there are between religious and scientific thinking, one difference that will not mark the boundary setting one off from the other is the difference between faith and reason.

This does not mean either that the case for God and religion has been confirmed or that the case against God and religion has been discredited. (Despite what some commentators assumed, I am not taking a position on the issues raised by the three books; readers of this and the previous column have learned nothing about my own religious views, or even if I have any.) My point is only that some of the arguments against faith and religion – the arguments Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens most rely on – are just not good arguments. The three atheists needn’t give up the ghost, but they might think about going back to the drawing board.

3 Comments:

Blogger Dan Kritchevsky said...

I can’t help noticing how those myriad “faiths” never cease with their dogmatic claims to knowing the real story about how the universe works, and yet they’ve never once used that supposed knowledge to give us any sort of undeniable power to do what we otherwise couldn’t do.

Nope, not once in all of human history has faith ever proved itself in the way that "reason" has been doing to the point of transforming our lives so radically that the ancients would find our modern world an incomprehensible melange of miracles beyond number.

On the other hand, those utterly ineffectual "belief systems" do get scientific about one thing. Like con artists of all times and places, they relentlessly tell us whatever we want to hear.

And this canonical tool of the professional swindler would appear to be what Professor Fish is also employing when he obfuscates away this most glaring and absolute difference in credibility that can possibly exist.

Dan Kritchevsky

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fish has to try so very hard to purposefully misunderstand the point that Dawkins et al. are making, so that he can mischaracterize it, and then attack the mischaracterization.

Some might call that a strawman.

The best part though, what Fish refuses to address, is his implicit claim. If Dawkins et al. are wrong then Fish is arguing for Dualism. Something he is too clever to admit.

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surely faith in certain things, like the general clarity and explanatory force of Darwinian evolution, can be understood to be more useful to us than faith in other things, such as the idea that my actions, including those that I am yet to enact - are already known, and of concern to the omnipotent creator of the world.

If certain beliefs can be agreed to be more accurate or acceptable than others, surely this must also be the case with faith-based claims. Thus, Harris, Dawkins, etc. are not so much critical of the idea of faith per se, but of the tendency of so many to uncritically ascribe to fantastic claims without normal appeals to evidence. In other words, dogma.

Given that Dawkins and Harris are scientists for whom falsification plays an extremely important role in their work, to accuse them of acting with a similar faith to the Christian is disengenuous in the extreme. So, for example, the sensible (conservative) hypothesis that ethical behaviour is evolved remains open to falsification. It is trivial to point out that this cannot be said for many of the claims of the ardent theist.

Of course, religion is not the only domain in which fantastic claims are made; they occur everywhere from archeology to economics, yet only in (certain) religions is there the underpinning 'truth' that demands total submission on pains of your eternal existence.

M. Kidd

3:01 AM  

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