18 December 2006

The Case for Faith (2)

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

[Headnote: This posting is the second installment of a reply to
this piece in Newsweek, 13 November 2006, by Sam Harris. The first installment can be read here.]

“Religion,” according to Harris, “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.”

One gets the sense that Harris believes that all people everywhere are somehow obligated to give good evidence and valid arguments in support of their truth claims. It’s not that he thinks it’s a good idea, or that it would be awfully nice if they did so. He thinks they ought to. And why not? Anyone who makes a truth claim in biology is required to give evidence and make valid arguments.

But so what if they are? Did you note in Harris’s article (if you read it) a certain disdain for the arbitrary ethics of Christianity? A system of ethics in which doing the ‘right’ thing means that others may still suffer, is to him unreasonable (in addition to being contrary to genuine morality). By virtue of being ‘unreasonable’ the Christian ethical system is arbitrary.

But aren’t there a couple of things arbitrary about Harris’s worldview as expressed in his article? I mean two things: (1) his arbitrary valuation of a child with over 75% of her body over a simple blastocyst; (2) the demand that people give evidence?

Note that in criticising Christians for their stem-cell ethics he complains about the fact that they seem to place a higher value to a blastocyst, which has no self-awareness and, hence, no awareness of its own suffering, than to a self-aware child. Ask yourself this question: Why should the suffering of a 7 year old be of more value to anyone, than that of a blastocyst? Harris, in getting around my charge of arbitrariness, might assert that it is the self-awareness of the 7 year old that makes her suffering of more value than that of a blastocyst (and that assumes that it makes sense to talk about the suffering of a blastocyst; I agree with Harris that it doesn’t). But if he does so, he has only moved the locus of the arbitrary valuation; he hasn’t done away with it. The arbitrariness is this: either self-awareness over the lack thereof, or suffering over against the lack thereof. In other words Harris claims that the self-awareness is of more value than the non-self-aware; or he asserts that suffering (in terms of where to expend our energies) is of more value than non-suffering. He could also assert both.

Now, one just has to wonder why Harris is permitted to make his arbitrary decision about value, but the Christian is not. As Spock would say, “Fascinating.”

I raise this issue of ethics, because it seems quite clear to me that Harris believes that people have an ethical obligation to provide evidence and arguments. That is to say, that there is a normative feature to the making of knowledge claims. If this is so, then again one has to wonder just where Harris gets off putting anyone under any moral obligation whatsoever. He would certainly object to any Christian putting him under some moral obligation.

I deny that Harris is entitled to an answer, on the grounds of his own worldview. He may complain all he wants, but he is not entitled to good evidence and valid arguments. His atheistic worldview makes it only ‘nice’, but not required. How could it be required?

Of course, the answer is that Christians must give evidence and arguments because their beliefs determine, as he puts it, what they will kill and die for. But this consideration rests upon his conviction (unjustified, in the article to which I’m responding) that there is something immoral about all this killing and dying. There may very well be, but he offers no evidence or valid arguments that it is. The Christian is under some obligation, on Harris’s view, only because Harris (and others) believe there is something wrong with all this killing and dying. Again: there may be, but he offers no justification for this belief, while at the same time demanding justification from the Christian. Fascinating.

But let’s take him seriously, at least for purposes of argument. The requirement to give good evidence and valid argument is a requirement to justify Christians’ deeply held beliefs on the basis of inductive or deductive reasoning, or both. And while it no doubt seems reasonable to Harris, not only do I deny that it is (on the grounds that he has not shown how anyone has this moral obligation) I also claim that it is problematic. Both types of reasoning are fraught with difficulty:

1. A number of difficulties are involved in an attempt to justify many Christian beliefs by resort to inductive reasoning. First, such reasoning cannot justify any tenet of Christian ethics. Ethical reasoning is properly dedcutive, unless one believes that ethical issues can be resolved by majority vote. Second, such reasoning cannot justify the most fundamental of Christian beliefs; I mean the existence of God, of course. In order for a set of facts to justify belief in God, one would some how have to explain just how one knows—having never met a god—just how any set of facts demonstrates the existence of any god or gods. Neither could inductive logic justify the claim that the Bible is the word of God. Let us imagine that every claim in the Bible were verified by scientific and historical investigation. For example, let’s say that it were demonstrated—even to an atheist’s satisfaction—that the universe is only a few millenia old. This would not tell an atheist that the universe is a creation of the God of the Bible. More than likely, it would tell him that evolution does not require as much time as previously thought. “Luck guess on Moses’s part!” he would likely say. Let us also say that it were demonstrated, again to an athiest’s satisfaction, that Jesus of Nazareth did come back to life three days after he was dead and buried. So what? Would that simple fact justify each and every Christian belief? It certainly would not tell us that God exists. The fact alone would not tell us that he died for our sins. The most it would tell us is that some law of nature which we don’t understand was in operation at the time Jesus came back to life. “Wow,” he would say, “we certainly have a lot of research to do in order to understand how that happened.” So the Christian who wants to meet Harris’s demand for ‘good’ evidence is going to find that he is on a fool’s errand.

Inductive logic also has difficulty in a different way. The problem we have is justification of knowledge claims. I’ll accept the current definition of knowledge as justifed true belief. Inductive logic might as best tell us whether we are justified in holding a belief, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the truth of the belief. Let’s say that the Bible’s narrative of creation is true. Let’s also admit that at present it seems difficult to demonstrate this. Perhaps this is just because we don’t have access to all the empirical data that we would need in order to carry off the demonstration. The Christian’s beliefs may very well be true; he just can’t demonstrate that yet. On the other hand, let’s say that in the next few decades it becomes possible—somehow—to demonstrate the truth of the Biblical creation narrative. The Christian ought to celebrate with caution: inductive reasoning can produce at best a confidence in the probable truth of his beliefs, not the proven truth. Probability is the best we can have when relying upon inductive reasoning.

2. Deductive reasoning also presents a problem. A logical gap exists between Christians and non-Christians between the differences are systemic. What I mean is that Christianity is a system of beliefs, all related to one another organically. Since I tend to believe that the Christian faith is formalizable, I also believe that it is an axiom system.

An axiom system is comprised of (1) a set of definitions {D1, D2, D3,…Dn}, (2) a set of primitive statements (i.e., axioms) {A1, A2, A3,…An}, (3) a set of rules of inference and (4) theorems {T1, T2, T3, Tn} which are derived necessarily from the application of the system’s rules of inference to the definitions and the axioms. Therefore, with respect to any system (S), a proof of any theorem T is a proof of T in S. Anyone who rejects S must necessarily reject T.

Let us say that the proposition God exists is at issue. And proof of the truth of God exists will be nothing more than a proof that the statement (specifically, in this case, a theorem) God exists is logically deduced from defintions and axioms which have had certain rules of inference applied to them. The denial of any definition or axiom must result in a denial of the statement that God exists.

This problem will also attend the attempt a demonstration of any tenet of Christian ethics. Deny the primitives of the system and you must deny the tenets of the system. It is necessary that this be so.

It probably looks as if I’ve given too much away, and Harris has us. In actuality he is in the same boat with respect to his worldview. Usually this gets overlooked because debates between theists and atheists are usually framed in terms of the law courts. The Christian is normally cast as the prosecutor; he therefore has the burden of proof. Apparently, the atheist’s position is the ‘default’ position if the Christian fails to make his case.

In actuality, non-Christian worldviews have the same burden as the Christian worldview. The law court is not a fitting analogy; in the contest of worldviews there are many parties. Mars Hill is a more fitting analogy. Philosophers and other thinkers representing a handful of worldviews are present and each makes his case against all of the others. The Christian must make his case; and so must Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, and atheist.

And Harris’s is fraught with the same difficulties as those I just expained regarding the Christian worldview.

This is why, as Harris points out, religion is an area in which, to a certain extent, adherents’ beliefs are respected. Religious committments, even Harris’s, are understood as being pre-rational in nature. There is a logical gap between any given belief system and other.

Some system will prevail in this country. Harris claims to object to ‘religious’ systems prevailing. The fact is he doesn’t really mind if a ‘religious’ system prevails. He just wants it to be his.

In my next, and final installment on this subject I’ll deal with Harris’s criticism of Christians’ ‘unreasonable’ and immoral bioethics.


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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