29 November 2006

The Case for Faith (1)

A reply to Sam Harris’s “A Dissent: The Case Against Faith”

[Headnote: This posting is a reply to this piece in Newsweek, 13 November 2006, by Sam Harris. I’d meant to do this sooner, but I’ve been busy.]

When someone attempts to criticize (note that I did not say critique) the Christian worldview by referring to “scientific insights” which supposedly defeat any Christian claim inarguably, as Harris does, I am prepared not to take him seriously. This notion of “scientific insights” is the product of a view of reality—a view which, as a Christian theist, I do not hold—which is itself being critiqued by the so-called postmoderns. It is a view of reality which is presupposed, not proven—or even provable.

Ask yourself how “scientific insights” ought to be received if the following assertions hold (see Betty Jean Craige, Reconnection: Dualism to Holism in Literary Study; location unknown: these are from my reading notes and I neglected to note the page number):

1. Things and events do not have intrinsic meaning. There is no inherent objectivity, only continuous interpretation of the world.
2. Continuous examination of the world requires a contextual examination of things. The persons doing the examining are part of that context.
3. Language (including, as far as I’m concerned, “scientific” language) is not neutral but is relative and value-laden. It is the medium through which we do our thinking.
4. Language and discourse (even “scientific” language and discourse, on my view) convey ideology, and a society’s intellectual discourse rests on political values and effects society in political ways.

The implications of postmodernism for scientific thought are unpleasant, to say the least. For one thing, the knower has no access to reality; all he has is language, interpretation. Sadly, the postmodern critique, if true, means that language does not ‘label’ real categories of meaning, categories which exist independently of language. The knower, in our case the scientist, ‘creates’ the universe he studies by creating the categories which he subsequently ‘labels’.

Behind the “scientific insights” to which Harris alludes is a decision, a pre-logical decision. And it is this: that for all practical purposes (to give the formulation its softer form) God does not exist. The decision is a decision made at the outset to know in accordance with epistemic norms (i.e., rules of inductive inference) which begin by denying the very things which Harris believes the application of these norms have falsified!

Then there’s David Hume. He’s important to the discussion because much of scientific thought and discourse employs causal inference reasoning. A certain event E1 precedes a subsequent event E2. We observe that for as long as the two events have been observed E1 always (or at least more often than not) precedes E2: it has rarely, if ever, been observed that E1 occurs without E2 occurring afterward; and E2 is rarely, if ever, observed but that E1 occurs prior to the observation of E2.

While this sort of thinking does seem to make sense, Hume wants us to slow down and really think about it.

“When we look about us towards external objects, and consider the operation of causes, we are never able…to discover any…necessary connexion…which binds the effect to the cause, and renders the one an infallible consequence of the other. We only find, that the one does…follow the other. The impulse of one billiard-ball is attended with motion in the second. This is the whole that appears to the…senses. The mind feels no sentiment of inward impression from this succession of objects: Consequently, there is not, in any single, particular instance of cause and effect, any thing which can suggest [a]…necessary connexion” (An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, sec. 7, para. 7, emphasis mine).

When you translate that into everyday language what Hume is saying is that although you see E1 precede E2 every time you observe the two, what you don’t see is that “quality” (or thing) which “binds” E1 and E2 together in such a way that E1 can be known to be the cause of E2.

If you are thinking something like, “Well it just makes sense to conceive of the whole matter in this way,” then you are doing just what the postmodernist says you are doing: creating categories of meaning, in this case, ‘causality’. You are creating the universe you study because you don’t really know that there really is such a thing or quality as ‘causality’.

Of course, you could say, “Well, it can’t just be a coincidence that E1 always precedes E2.” Perhaps you are right, but the postmodernist will have the same response: you are creating categories of meaning. Besides, you don’t really know that the two can’t be coincidental. (Well, you can on a Judeo-Christian view of the world, but since Harris denies that view it doesn’t really matter.)

But even if we just wanted to dismiss the postmodern critique as easily as Harris wishes to dismiss the Christian worldview, there is another matter. Science is supposed to be an empirical matter, free (or so we are told) of philosophical (and hence unprovable) speculation. The whole notion of causality is a philosophical notion, not a scientific one; causality certainly is not a matter of empirical observation. You may infer that E1 causes E2, but only if ‘causality’ exists. And whether ‘causality’ exists is not a scientific question. (You see? Philosophy really does precede science!) And, in a nice bit of irony, since ‘causality’ is not empirically subject either to falsification or probabilification, it is a matter of faith.

It’s almost humorous to see the same people who demand empirical probabilification for everything, take on faith the very notion (i.e., ‘causality’) that makes possible this probabilification. Let’s say, just for purposes of argument, that there is no ‘causality’. These “scientific insights” that Harris speaks of are no insights at all. They simply comprise portions of a non-theistic myth.

There is a range of philosophical matters behind the “scientific insights”; and they make science problematical. Harris ignores them; or he doesn’t know about them. Given that he studied philosophy as an undergrad, at Stanford no less, I doubt that he doesn’t know about them. So he ignores them.

This is relevant to his overall criticism of religious belief. As he writes in the seventh, and final, paragraph of his article: “Religion is the one area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give good evidence and valid arguments in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet these beliefs regularly determine what they live for, what they will die for and—all too often—what they will kill for.”

With this posting as a sort of background, I’ll deal with this issue of evidence and argument presently.


About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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