Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Faith as an unreliable process for finding the truth

I recently watched Prof. Boghossian's talk on faith. After that, I poked around google to see what others thought about it. Basically, he argues that faith itself is completely unreliable for ascertaining truth. This is trivially true. A Catholic, a Muslim and a Mormon can each have the exact same faith, in terms of conviction, and we know that at least two of those people(and possibly all three) are completely wrong. We know this because they each assert things which are mutually contradictory. If Christ was god, then the Muslim faith is wrong(or at least deeply flawed). If the Muslim is right about Mohammed being the last prophet, then the Mormon faith is wrong. If either of those faiths are correct in their assertions about the trinity, then the Catholic faith is wrong.

Furthermore, in addition to being unreliable by dint of leading to mutually contradictory "truths," conclusions drawn from faith are also unreliable in ascertaining raw data about the universe. As the Professor noted, you can simply study the real world impact of various claims, and they simply do not match what faith dictates should happen. We have a lot of instances of people making claims that should affect the real world, whether it be faith healers, intercessory prayer, divination, etc. When actually tested, there has not been a single instance in which a supernatural claim has been shown to have merit.

So, we have two points of data:
  1. Faith leads to contradictory conclusions, and is thus unreliable.
  2. Faith leads to conclusions about the natural world which are testable and are demonstrably false, and is thus unreliable.
The general defense I see against this line of reasoning is twofold:
  1. Faith in general might be unreliable, but a particular faith might be reliable.
  2. Faith might be unreliable for empirical conclusions, but might be reliable for conclusions about supernatural events or properties.
The problem with the first is that it is self negating. If faith is not a reliable process, how do you select which "faith" to embrace? If you have a reliable process of winnowing out the right truth claims from the competition, then you don't need faith to being with.

The problem with the second is that it is, in effect, begging the question. You have to first have faith that the supernatural exists, itself a matter of faith, before you can say that faith X is capable of explaining it. This is the equivalent of saying that my theory of snurk-hurdling is true because it alone explains the existence and nature of snurks. For a more "real world" example, look at the concept of canon in constructs such as Star Wars and/or Star Trek. There are elaborate arguments made about which bits are true, which are not and what conclusions can be drawn from those accumulated bodies of knowledge. The fact that the canons are(or can be) cohesive has no bearing on the fact that they are fictional accounts. The same goes for "faith claims." The fact that a faith claim may explain something about the nature of heaven is useless without first establishing the existence of said heaven. If all you are left with is a self-referential piece of dogma, then the best you can do is chase your own tail.

About the only quibble I have with the talk is that he included transubstantiation as an example of a claim that can be empirically disproven. Being familiar with Catholic theology, I can tell him that the Catholic theologians would immediately retreat to talking about "accidents" and "substance." In effect, the "substance" of the original materials, bread and wine, are transformed into Jesus, while the "accidents," the way that our senses perceive those materials, stays the same. Of course, this is an obvious cop out. It's just a dodge to avoid the obvious conclusion that transubstantiation is false by simply noting that there is no empirical change happening to the bread and wine.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Judge blames atheist for assault

So, a person was demonstrating in a Mohammed outfit, and a Muslim got upset and attacked him. This is a clear cut case of assault. You have no right to assault anyone else when you are offended. Well, the judge who was deciding the case sided with the attacker. And now there is a lot of criticism being tossed around.

Now, if there was no convincing evidence, then that's fine. But then the stupid statements started flying.

"You have that right, but you're way outside your bounds of First Amendment rights," Martin said, according to a recording Perce made of the court hearing. "I think our forefathers intended that we use the First Amendment so that we can speak our mind, not to piss off other people and other cultures, which is what you did."
This doesn't make sense. This is entirely within the bounds of the First Amendment. You have the right to speak your mind as long as it doesn't piss anyone else off? He needs to be fired, because he clearly doesn't understand basic Constitutional law.

But Martin also repeated his criticism of the atheist protester. "With rights come responsibilities. The more people abuse our rights, the more likely that we're going to lose them," he said. " We need to start policing up our own actions, using common sense, in how we deal with others."
No, we will only lose our First Amendment rights by capitulating to those who demand that we accord every silly myth some level of respect. The judge is just expressing a cowardly approach to the Constitution.

Asshat on CNN

I get really annoyed at posts like this one. Alain de Botton is spouting off about things that atheists can learn from religion. He starts off with about the stupidest thing one can say about it:
Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is "true."

No, Alain, that is the central point. If you build your worldview on a falsehood, then everything else is poisoned. If you ignore truth in favor of anything else, then nothing else you build can be trusted. And if you are deliberate in your rejection of truth as an important criteria, well, I have no respect for you in the least.

But on to his main point:
I believe it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling -- and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.
This is why I generally use "atheist" as an adjective, rather than a noun. My lifestyle, worldview and social behaviors are not confined to "atheist behaviors." There is no such thing. I am a secular humanist, if you are going to require a general label to understand me. Religion doesn't have a monopoly on singing or gathering together to remember someone who has died. It is not required for art or dance. These are all HUMAN behaviors. This is part of our shared heritage as members of our species. Religion may have insinuated itself into many of these facets of human nature, but it is not required, and it is certainly not a good idea to try and import it. In most cases, religion just hijacks the important moments in a human life for its own needs.

This is most apparent in my experience in funerals. Many times, people feel compelled to include a minister of some sort in the funeral of non-religious people. And, it is so tawdry, IMO, to bring in a priest or preacher who did not know the person to preside over the funeral. The most wretched version of this is when they turn the somber occasion of saying goodbye to a loved one into proselytization in front of a captive audience. I'm much more impacted by heartfelt words from other family members, not a canned Christian sermon from someone who never even met the deceased.

The practical upshot is that non-believers do NOT need to import the baggage of religion. We need to embrace our humanity, and forge our own individual approaches to life events.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Alas, real life

Real life is quite a taskmaster. I haven't updated this blog in a year.