Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Faith as "pretending to know things you don’t know", a tiny suggested change.

Peter Boghossian has suggested that we should replace the word “faith” with “pretending to know things you don’t know”.  There's a great little talk he did on Youtube.   Seriously, it's great.  Funny, incisive and impassioned.  Take a look.

He wants us to be clear on what faith is.  In particular to remove the muddled confusion of faith with “hope” and (presumably) “guessing”.  The resulting clarity in the term makes it clear what is really being claimed when “faith” is invoked and often shows the claim to be nonsense (and, often, very funny).  "I'm having a crisis of faith" might elicit sympathy.  You're probably not going to be very sympathetic, though, to someone who says "I'm having a crisis of pretending to know things I don't know".  That's one of Peter's examples and I won't spoil the talk by listing any more.  Not that I need to, they're easy to come up with:

  • People of faith: People who pretend to know things they don't know
  • Interfaith initiative: Initiative of people pretending to know things they don't know combined with other people pretending to know different things which they don't know either
  • The Faith Community: Community of Pretending to Know things you don't Know
Or my current favourite:
  • The Tony Blair Pretending  to Know Things you don’t Know Foundation

The amended name is not quite so catchy, not quite so enticing and has a tendency to raise the question of whether, since Tone pretending to know about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction was an utter disaster,  he shouldn't drop the pretending to know things he doesn't know altogether.

It's a very powerful technique.

But it's a tad authoritarian

One problem, though, with Peter’s suggestion is that he takes it that faith just is “pretending to know things you don’t know”.  Of course, Peter is entitled to his own usage of a word.  But then so is the “person of faith”.  The “person of faith” is quite entitled to retort that “pretending to know things you don’t know” is not how she uses the term and Peter is not entitled to force his definition on her.  "Bog off Boghossian, that's not what I meant at all!"

An amended Boghossian Technique

I think we can achieve the effect Peter is after, without being authoritarian with respect to language, by asking anyone using a “faith” claim to rephrase the claim with either:
1.       “pretending to know things you don’t know”.
2.       “hoping”
3.       “guessing”

Peter is entitled to ask that the “person of faith” clarifies her own meaning.  And those three pretty well cover all that she could mean. 

We might think that this reformulation emasculates the power of the technique.  ”Hoping” and “guessing” are perfectly acceptable and are not going to render some statements nonsense.  Consider “I have faith in God and that Methodism is the true path to Him”. "I pretend I know that God exists and that Methodism is the true path to Him when I know neither" is perfectly awful.   “I hope that God is real and I guess that Methodism is best path to Him” doesn't sound so bad.  In fact it sounds absolutely fine and that the speaker is perfectly entitled to her hopes and guesses.

I think that is because it is absolutely fine and that the speaker is perfectly entitled to her hopes and guesses.

Try replacing faith in any statement that involves messing around in other people's lives, though, and it's a different story.  That is because “hoping” and “guessing” just do not support messing around in other people’s lives.  You are perfectly entitled to guess x and hope y, you are not entitled (for example) to restrict access to public services because you have a funny feeling that x, or fervently long for y.

Far from emasculating the technique, I'd argue that it makes it more precise; we'll expose what we should and leave what we should leave unmolested.  We can also do it without leaving ourselves open to accusations of authoritarianism.

An example

Take "faith schools".   There are, of course, many existing techniques of facing the faith school proponent with what they are really proposing.  One of Stephen Law’s techniques is to draw an analogy from “faith schools”  to imaginary “political schools”.  How would we react if little Johnny didn’t go to Saint Tony’s Roman Catholic Junior School but to Comrade Stalin’s Marxist-Leninist Primary?  Only children of party members get in, teachers must sign up to a statement agreeing to the principles of Marxist-Leninism and the children are taught they must agree with Das Kapital. (Four pupils were expelled last term for visiting a Trostkyist website).  Makes you think, doesn't it?  

As will the amended Boghossian-technique.  The faith school proponent may balk at  "pretending to know things you don’t know schools", but are "hoping schools" or "guessing schools" any better?  In some respects it's even worse.  We could possibly make a case that it's ok to insist that parents of prospective pupils share the same hopes as the school; if, of course, we don't pay too much attention to the metaphysical nature of those hopes.  It's surely, though, horrendous to brainwash the children into hoping the same as the school.  Not "accepting that x is true", but actively hoping, really wanting x to be true.  Can you make it a requirement that teachers guess a certain way on certain topics?    

That's what we allow with faith schools.  We allocate the benefit of public money, both education and employment, based on whether you guess that transubstantiation happens,  or really really hope that transubstantiation happens or are happy to pretend transubstantiation happens.  None of these options are acceptable and merely insisting that the proponent of faith schools choose rather than equivocate is enough to expose her.


Friday, 4 May 2012

A little review you may enjoy

Colin McGinn has published a book  "The Meaning of Disgust".

After reading this review, I can't recommend reading the book.  I can recommend reading the review.

Sometimes criticism reaches the level of high art.


Wednesday, 2 May 2012

It goes like this Hesekiah

Hesekiah made an important concession on his blog:

I agree. I see we have something in common.

I don't mean "important concession" in the sense of "dumb pre-supper has admitted something he shouldn't have. Hah hah hah!" but that it is a concession that might allow us to have a dialogue; something that the standard pre-suppositionalist position (tactic?) of denying any common ground with an opponent prevents.

Abductive arguments

Now to construct a mutually convincing argument in favour of any proposition would require a whole heap of common ground between us.  As “proof” sets up an infinite regress to mutually “prove” a proposition would require infinite common ground: which is impossible.

We need very little common ground though to find out that things are not correct.  That allows us to argue not in a standard manner from common ground to agreement of how things are but from common ground to agreement of what is not.  It enables us to argue abductively:

Schemata of an abductive argument
1. E1
2. If A then E1
3. If B then E1
4. If C then E1
5. A or B or C
6. E2
7. E2 then not B and not C
8. Not (E2 then not A)
9. Thus A

Step 1 is our evidence.  In steps 2 to 4 we try to explain E.  In step 5 we give up trying to come up with more explanations.  In step 6 we introduce more evidence and note that it contradicts B and C (step 7), but not A (step 8) leaving us to conclude A.

It is crucial that we interpret step 5 correctly.  If we interpret it as saying there is no other explanation than A, B or C then it is almost certainly false.  At the very least we have no idea whether it is true or not.  If we interpret it as “we can’t, at the moment, think of any other explanation” then it is true and it is this that is carried to the conclusion.  The argument establishes that A is the only thing we can think of that is not evidently junk.

The argument is valid.  Not only is it valid, it's secure.  The evidence, obviously, is …well... that’s the evidence, that's the common ground.  Steps 2 to 4 are just analysis of the meanings of theories A to C, as are steps 7 and 8.  The argument also ought to be persuasive: what are you going to do, accept the theories that are evident junk or the one that at least stands up to scrutiny?

So it’s valid, it’s secure, you ought to accept A.

But A is not necessarily true, it’s just the best we have available at the moment.  A then is not proven.  Where A is not true, “A” is not “knowledge”: but you should still accept A (everything else you can think of is evidently junk).  It’s not proven, it’s not knowledge but you should still accept it: neither knowledge nor proof are necessary.

And it’s a valid argument that is not circular.  The conclusion, A, appears nowhere in the premises.  We have not assumed A to establish A. 

Now when we say it’s secure, it’s temporarily secure: 

New evidence may come forward, E3, that also contradicts A. 
Of course we may still prefer A to B or C as A, at least, copes with E1 and E2; which is better than either B or C do.  (Newtonian Mechanics is false, as shown by relativistic effects (the Newtonian mechanics “E3”) but we still use it for everyday tasks where it does work (the “E1” and “E2”)

Or we, or someone else, might extend step 5. 
“What about D?” says someone.  “Ooh, we hadn’t thought of that. 

Mind you this just changes the conclusion from “A” to “A or D”.  What really works as a refutation is providing both falsification of the existing theory (E3) and a new theory (D) which explains all the evidence.

What doesn’t remove the security is questioning the basis for A.  There is no “basis”:  the evidence, E1 and E2, does not “support” A in any inductive or probabilistic sense.   

Asking for a basis for anything is a non-argument: show where it’s wrong and what’s better.  The same goes for the entire style of argument.  I do not need to show a “basis” for thinking it true; it’s the best position I can manage, if you have a better one show it to me (D) and show how it is better (E3).  I don’t need to show a “basis” for logic: it’s the best position I can manage, if you have a better one show it to me (D) and show how it is better (E3).  I don’t need a basis for either of those two statements, I just think:  they're the best positions I can manage, if you have a better one show it to me (D) and show how it is better (E3)

The Transcendental Argument for God (TAG)

Above is a long (though not as long as I could make it) demonstration of an alternative theory to the "pre-suppositions" underpinning TAG.  The above is to TAG as D is to the model abductive argument: we don't need proof, certainty, or "knowledge"; this is how we can do things.

Have I got an E3 for TAG?  Why yes.  You see TAG is in much the same form as an abductive argument, a form that does not show that its conclusion is true, but that others are false.  But the "evidence" it takes is that an abductive argument isn't good enough, you must establish proof, certainty and "knowledge". Now if an abductive argument is not good enough then TAG, which is an abductive argument, is not good enough.  TAG argues for it's own rejection.