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.

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