End of Faith in What ?

Several different threads here. All mentioned before – reading Sam Harris “End of Faith” itself, a discussion thread on MoQ.Discuss with End of Faith title and several spin-off threads, and a discussion thread on Chairman Parker’s Blog.

My position can be summarised quite easily.

Tolerance of (misplaced) religious faith is as dangerous as extremes of faith themselves; Harris is right in his warnings, and his analyses are much more sophisticated than the deliberately attention-grabbing headlines. We need to remember that this argument is about faith – bases of belief – rather than God per se. Nothing wrong with Dawkins / Dennett et al position in explaining religions in the scientific terms of evolutionary psychology / memetics either.

The problem that remains is that in this debate the scientists (Dawkins archetypically) are blind to the fact that much of science really is a (not-quite religious) belief system too – the bases of science are not as objective and value-free as science’s model of itself – a scientific “article of faith” almost. The “scientific neurosis” in Nick Maxwell’s terms. In Dennett’s terms the intellectual honesty is simply about exposing both religious and scientific faith to the same scrutiny and questions of evidence, not limited by either protagonists choice of weapons in that argument.

The reason this is such a big subject – a global issue, rather than just a problem for science itself – is not just that science-based technology is exponentially behind so much global activity, but that scientific thinking is a dominant meme in western (and western infected eastern) global economic culture, in all manner of debate, analysis and decision-making. Dominant, in direct competition with a god-based religious faith meme that is. In the Dave Gurteen reference in the previous post, I mentioned the “pedestal” idea. Whoever is perceived as “winning” is a natural target from those who are competing. This dichotomous winning / losing mentality is part of the Newtonian objective / logical-positive / cause & effect world model that says conflict is built-in to the dominant process – if you want an argument, or a war if you prefer, you can always have one. Test and critical analysis are fundamental to the methods of proof of knowledge, but they are not the sum total of wisdom in applying and using knowledge to make progress, solve problems or exploit opportunities.

Despite the hype, what the internet revolution (exponential evolution really) is exposing is how much progress can be made through transparent collaboration, and visibly interconnected communication.

That much seems clear, but we need values and wisdom to recognise progress, so there are important aspects of the issues still open to debate. One is the basis of values (ethics) – which for me are also part of the evolutionary psychology story, rather than any tablets of stone.

Another is teleology – purpose – if the direction (axis) of progress, betterness, can be agreed, there are still questions about what is driving it – is there some direction (agent action) towards this ultimate purpose. Natural explanations of this are the principle reason I take an interest in the Anthropic debates.

Related, but quite distinct is first-cause. Causation and the psychological impressions of both time and purpose, are one set of things, but any metaphysical explanation of the whole cosmos runs into a first-cause question – the something rather than nothing question.

Here the God answer runs into the “but where did God come from ?” question. In fact any positied first cause theory – even a scientific one – runs into this, and most importantly however much it is debate, my contention is that any hypothesis here must by definition be untestable in any direct empricical way. The right kind of answer here is a convenient, pragmatic one. The answer you choose doesn’t pre-empt any possible answers to questions in the experienced real-world domain, so no-one need be offended by anyone else’s answer here. God, it, the cosmos, the stack of turtles, always existed is as good as any answer. Mu too, makes the additional point that it is not a question even worth asking, let alone debating an answer, other than to discover that it is indeed that kind of question. The problem arises when some believe their answer here is somehow a fundamental answer to all other difficult questions of cosmic mysteries, particularly the aparently purposeful teleology. Err no; the first cause question is a special class, and not a short-cut to all other answers.

I’m an atheist – though in Harris terms, the distinction between atheist and agnostic is immaterial to a real atheist, and only really matters to a theist looking for an argument. I qualified my opening statement about religious faith with the caveat “misplaced” because, even though the first-cause “God” is a convenient fiction like any other first-cause – the question is the fiction, not the answer you choose – there are babies in the bathwater of theistic faith that need to be preserved. Not least that the religious traditions have indeed preserved (in those tablets of stone) many traditional (ie long-lived but evolving) values and ethics – which have no more fundamental basis – and a much more fundamental concept of collaboration – eudaimonia – love if you like, as an antidote to competitive conflict.

It’s the end of faith, in either god or science, being the tool of choice in making human progress. When all you have is a hammer, all screws look like nails. The power-boater may think he is driving his point home, whereas the sail-boater knows he is steering a course through life’s choppy waters. When all you have is a choice between objects, all decisions look like matters of faith or science. When you have a more fluid-dynamic inclusional view of the world as our oyster, that oyster can work those grits of difference into pearls of wisdom.

[Acknowledgements to Sam Norton, Alan Rayner, Ted Lumley, Nick Maxwell, Robert Pirsig, as well as those explicitly mentioned. – I’ll grow this into a properly referenced paper.]

6 thoughts on “End of Faith in What ?”

  1. Thanks Sam. I predicted “theists looking for an argument”. In fact this sophisticated middleground – between faith and science – is very much between a rock and a hard place – friends like you are few and far between.

    I’m laying low for a few days, not because of the expected reaction, but due to too just many balls in the air at once, and a day job to hold down. But I’ll be back. Apart from adding detail references and arguments, this post pretty well describes my whole position – which is why I had to write it.

  2. Interesting Sam, having now responded to the comments on your site, I see (a) the negative responses were all from defenders of science, and (b) not one response addressed the point – the causation / teleology and first-cause mystery, except perhaps Jim.

    (Though I see you pick that up obliquely in a later post of your own.)

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