Saturday, January 22, 2005

Beware of Irrational Atheism

Thanks to Chris Lehmann, writing at reasononline in "The tedium of dogmatic atheism," I learned of Sam Harris's book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. The publisher's blurb for The End of Faith says this:
This important and timely book delivers a startling analysis of the clash of faith and reason in today's world. Harris offers a vivid historical tour of mankind's willingness to suspend reason in favor of religious beliefs, even when those beliefs are used to justify harmful behavior and sometimes heinous crimes. He asserts that in the shadow of weapons of mass destruction, we can no longer tolerate views that pit one true god against another. Most controversially, he argues that we cannot afford moderate lip service to religion—an accommodation that only blinds us to the real perils of fundamentalism. While warning against the encroachment of organized religion into world politics, Harris also draws on new evidence from neuroscience and insights from philosophy to explore spirituality as a biological, brain-based need. He calls on us to invoke that need in taking a secular humanistic approach to solving the problems of this world.
And so, we are to substitute secular humanism for religion. (Or else?) In order to defend liberty we must deprive you of it -- if you are religious, that is. A reading of Lehmann's review reveals the underlying flaw of Harris's hysterical anti-religionism. It seems that Harris, wittingly or stupidly, has adopted the following syllogism:
1. Heinous acts are committed.

2. Some of those heinous acts are committed in the name of religion.

3. Therefore, all religion is evil.
Why not this, instead?
1. Heinous acts are committed.

2. Some of those heinous acts are committed in the name of irreligious philosophies (e.g., Nazism, fascism, and communism).

3. Therefore, all irreligious philosophies are evil. (That includes secular humanism.)
Harris, on the evidence of Lehmann's review, strikes me as a knuckle-dragging, atheist ignoramus. And he has plenty of company at sites like The Panda's Thumb. There's Matt Young, for instance. Young is an atheist whose revealed attitude of superiority to religionists had already caught my attention. Now he's back, with more "profound" thoughts about religion (mentioned here and posted here). Young quotes an earlier essay of his, in which he wrote this:
The philosopher Antony Flew, now an emeritus professor at Reading University, recounts a parable about two people who chance upon a clearing in the forest. Both flowers and weeds grow in the clearing. One of the people, the Believer, says that some gardener must be tending the plot, whereas the Skeptic disagrees. They set up camp and watch, but no gardener appears. The Believer suggests that the gardener is invisible, so they patrol with bloodhounds, then set up an electric fence, but there is still no evidence of a gardener.

The Believer insists, however, that there must be a gardener, even if that gardener is invisible, silent, odorless, and impervious to electric shocks. The Skeptic asks how that differs from an imaginary gardener or no gardener at all. Flew uses his parable as a jumping-off point to discuss whether religion is falsifiable. Specifically, referring to the problems of evil and suffering, he asks what would have to happen to falsify a belief in God or in God’s love. Flew’s question is rhetorical; he clearly implies that nothing will falsify a firm religious belief. An Oxford philosopher, Basil Mitchell, agrees or, more accurately, admits that nothing can count decisively against the belief of the true believer; by definition, the believer is committed to a belief in God and is not a detached observer. That is, to Mitchell, the concept of falsifiability is not appropriately applied to a religious belief, whereas, to Flew, religion’s lack of falsifiability evidently counts against it.
Mitchell is right, because Flew's parable is incomplete. Flew fails to suggest the possibility that the instruments being used to detect the invisible gardener are inadequate (or irrelevant) to the task.

Young continues:
Another Oxford philosopher, R. M. Hare, responded to Flew with a parable of his own: A lunatic (Hare’s word) believes that the dons want to kill him. A friend believes otherwise and tries to convince the lunatic by introducing him to the dons and showing him that they are friendly, gentle people and mean him no harm. The lunatic responds that the dons are duplicitous and are really plotting against him, all the while pretending to be friendly.

Hare calls the lunatic’s belief a blik. This is a term that Hare has coined to describe a belief that is neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Hare notes that the friend also has a blik: The friend’s blik is that the dons are not planning to kill the lunatic. Hare considers this belief a blik just as much as the lunatic’s belief is a blik. That is, the friend does not have no blik at all, but rather has the blik that the dons are harmless. Precisely like the lunatic, the friend cannot prove his blik, because the lunatic can always find an ad hoc hypothesis to refute the friend’s arguments.

Hare’s article was influential, but it seems to me that it contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. First, the issue is not whether a sane person can convince a lunatic that the lunatic’s blik is wrong; he cannot. The issue is, rather, what arguments could both the friend and the lunatic use to convince a detached observer which one is right. In this case, it is clear that the detached observer would rule in favor of the friend, not the lunatic, because the friend would present more-convincing evidence.
And just what is that more-convincing evidence? Is it that the "are friendly, gentle people and harm"? How is that any more convincing than the lunatic's assertion that "the dons are duplicitous and are really plotting against him, all the while pretending to be friendly." A truly detached observer, given no more information, would necessarily adopt the agnostic position that the lunatic's blik is indeed a blik: a belief that is neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Young seems incapable of logic when he discusses religion, even by inference.

But Young plunges on:
Later in the debate, Hare notes his own blik that the steering column of his car will not fail when he goes for a drive. This blik gives him confidence, without which he might be paralyzed into inaction. Hare’s confidence might be based on a blik, but I have no such blik. Whenever I drive my car, I am perfectly aware that the steering column might fail. I am equally aware, however, that the vast majority of steering columns do not fail during normal use, so I drive my car in the uncertain knowledge that the steering column will probably not fail. This belief is not a blik; it is a statistical statement based on evidence, which I see all around me, that other cars have sound steering columns. Not all firmly held beliefs are bliks.

Hare’s position is that a religious belief need not be defended because it is a blik and can neither be proved nor disproved. Hare himself, however, distinguishes between bliks that are right and bliks that are wrong. Indeed, he seems to intend his lunatic to be analogous to the religious believer who supports his belief with ad hoc hypotheses. The issue, then, is not whether people have bliks but rather whether their bliks are right or wrong. How do we decide whether bliks are right or wrong? We look for evidence. Far from refuting Flew’s argument, Hare has strengthened it.
Young is right to criticize Hare for giving a bad example of a blik, in the case of the steering column. But Young then resorts to a false syllogism, which goes like this:
1. Humans have many firmly held beliefs.

2. Some firmly held beliefs are not bliks.

3. Therefore, there are no bliks; every assertion can be verified or falsified.
Here's the correct syllogism:
1. Humans have many firmly held beliefs.

2. Some firmly held beliefs are not bliks.

3. Therefore, some firmly held beliefs may be bliks; not every assertion can be verified or falsified.
In sum, Young persists in his (unreasonable) belief that religious belief* is falsifiable. He fails to see the incompleteness of Flew's parable about the gardener; he posits a (falsely) detached observer in the case of the lunatic; and he adopts a false syllogism about unfalsifiable beliefs.

Atheism is, at bottom, simply a dogmatic position. It is a form of religion, in which the believer hews to the unfalsifiable belief that there is no God.

In case you're wondering, I take the only scientifically valid position on the question whether there is a God: agnosticism. See here and here.
* Oddly, Young seems to be a practicing Jew who is also an atheist.