A Quick Thought on Faith

The last 4-5 years have seen my views on many things change dramatically. I used to be well to the left on even the Canadian political spectrum, and now I find myself becoming more conservative, to the point that I could even contemplate voting Republican (once they’re done with Trump). This has come about in response both to things I’ve read and to events (more posts to come about that). I’ve found that as my views change, I occasionally find myself struck, when I hear a view I now strongly reject, by the fact that I used to hold it as an obvious truth.

So it was as I heard Jerry Coyne, the author of a popular (and excellent) blog (Why Evolution is True), talk about religion on the Rubin Report. (watch here and here) At one point (I forget where exactly), Coyne suggests that religious faith is problematic beyond the specific content of any particular religious doctrine, because it gets people in the habit of simply believing things without evidence. That is, there is something inherently harmful about the fact of faith in itself: it is a bad intellectual habit. A good intellectual habit, on this view, would seem to be to get as far from faith as you can, basing your views, as much as possible, on evidence.

Wow – I used to believe that, with some vehemence. And wow: I sure don’t believe it any more. Not at all.

I can think of two kinds of faith that we need and use on a constant basis. Without both, our lives would simply not be possible. The first is central to the possibility of a scientific understanding of the world – that is, the sort of understanding that Coyne would hold up as an alternative to religion. The second deals with our relationship with other people; I wonder if this second kind of faith doesn’t lead on to religion.

The first kind of faith is suggested in an article by Theodore Dalrymple, in which he responds – convincingly, I thought – to the “new atheists.” He makes the point succinctly: “if I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove.” Of course, the point can be generalised to include the whole of science. I believe global warming is a major problem, but if a well-educated climate science denier were to debate me, I would be reduced to appeals to authority very quickly indeed. The same would happen to almost all scientists aside from the climate specialists (although almost all real scientists would last longer than me in such arguments). The same will be true of any other field of knowledge: specialists might hold their own, but non-specialists must follow the lead of authorities.

Of course, it is probably true for most of what is understood about the world today that if we investigated any particular matter, we could eliminate most of our faith on the matter. However, for all actual people, the reality is that most of what we understand about the world is in fact a matter of faith. Modern science allows us to put our faith in sound authorities, but we do need that authority. The idea of eliminating faith and replacing it with reason is utopian, and like most utopian ideals, when it is forced upon the real world, it becomes a source of harm as well as benefit (in this case, the utopian ideal of eliminating faith obscures from us the reality of what is actually going on, for a start).

There is a second sort of faith, and this one has to do with people: we cannot live without trust. That is, faith in other people is necessary to a genuinely human life. If you couldn’t trust anyone else, you couldn’t even walk down the street – after all, you might get stabbed. More than that, a great deal of what gives depth and meaning to life comes from trusting other people. Imagine if your interactions with other people consisted of the absolute minimum necessary to sustain your life: you would trust other people enough to walk down the street, to work, and to conduct basic economic transactions. Nothing more. No pleasures of conversation, in which you might reveal something of yourself, no substantial or lasting relationships with others. Most people would find life intolerable without substantial (and thus trusting) relationships with other people, and I don’t think it is reasonable to see in such a life the pinnacle of human flourishing. A life worth living requires faith in other people – indeed, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that life is more worth living to the extent that we can rightly make use of such faith.

Accordingly, as in understanding the world, so too in our dealings with other people: the trick is not to eliminate faith, but rather to learn where it is appropriate and where not. And it is not hard to see how the matter of faith in other people might lead on to religion: our ability to have faith in other people doesn’t merely increase our chances of survival, but makes life far richer, far worthier of living, than it otherwise might be. What if religious faith is like that? What if we who are not religious are in a situation similar to that of people who miss out on so much of what life has to offer because they never trust anyone else, and thus never have any substantial relationships with other people?

I’m not religious, but sometimes I wonder if I should be.

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How Not to Criticise Big Ideas

I want to try to get clear about a faulty line of reasoning that I seem to encounter regularly. When people are confronted with an idea that is supposed to explain some large-scale historical or social phenomena, they often seem to think that by giving a single counter-example, they have refuted the idea in question, or at least shown it to be too simple. The thinking behind this is wrong, but before I get into why, let me give a recent example of the sort of thing I’m talking about.

A few days ago I came across this interesting article on how Richard Rorty saw the shape of things to come way back in 1998. Here’re the paragraphs that brought it all home:

“… something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

I think Rorty goes too far with the words “wiped out” – here’s hoping I’m right! – but there’s no doubt the passage is extraordinarily prescient. What struck me about the article, however, was the criticism the author made of Rorty:

Is his analysis a bit oversimple? Yes. Even within universities, there have always been optimistic champions of America, those who ever-passionately believe in the moral arc bending toward justice and work ever-diligently on formulating concrete, actionable policies that would make the country more just.

By focusing only on his own environment, academia, Mr. Rorty’s arguments also seem strangely parochial. During the 1960s, the academic left may have started to turn its back on poverty, but actual politicians on the left were still thinking a great deal about it: Robert F. Kennedy was visiting poor white families in Appalachia; Lyndon B. Johnson was building the Great Society.

Right through the ’90s and into the 2000s, we had left-of-center politicians singing the praises of hope, rather than the hopelessness that Mr. Rorty decries.

I should start with the qualifier that I haven’t read the book in question, so my response to this criticism of Rorty should be taken with a large grain of salt (though knowing what I do of Rorty, I doubt he would have been knocked over by what I’ve just quoted). But defending Rorty is not the real issue here. Rather, we have an example of a specific kind of criticism of explanations that seek to explain large-scale human phenomena.

To say that Rorty’s analysis is “a bit oversimple” is to import a heavily loaded assumption into the conversation about what we should expect from an adequate explanation. Clearly the idea is that a less ‘simple,’ and thus more adequate, explanation would not have failed to account for certain pertinent facts (e.g., optimistic champions of America in universities and beyond). The fact that these things are not covered by Rorty’s analysis is thus considered a failure, so that the demand that lies behind this line of thought must be that a fully adequate analysis would include every single detail you could think up.

A more severe variety of this criticism would replace “a bit oversimple” with ‘wrong.’ Some months ago I was telling some friends about a man I’d read about who, having had two children by a woman, not only decided against marrying her, but also decided against playing any substantial role in the lives of his children beyond financial. This was an expression, I claimed, of the lack of regard for the family and its attendant duties in our time. No!, came the response, and an example was given of parents who dote excessively on their children, the very opposite of what I had been suggesting. The same assumption was at work in this criticism: a single counter-example is sufficient to refute the theory, or at least to show its overly simple nature.

If Rorty or I had been trying to set out a law of math or physics, which must apply to every conceivable case, the counter-example criticism would be justified. There are, however, other ways to think about these things.

The comparison of the body politic to a human body goes back a long way indeed. Plato’s analogy of city and soul is well-known, and many have seen in Thucydides an analogy between the progress of an idea in a city or in Greece to the progress of a disease in a body. So let’s think this analogy through.

Imagine if you’re told you have pancreatic cancer, and that you’ll likely be dead in six months. If I were to respond to this diagnosis by saying that your body has a vast number of entirely healthy cells – the great majority of them, even in the pancreas – that wouldn’t show that the diagnosis is wrong. A cancer diagnosis does not assert that every single cell in the body has cancer – and this is true of pretty much all sickness. What matters is that cancer is present, and that there is a logic inherent in the body that means that we can predict, from something that is present in a tiny fraction of the body’s cells, that the whole body will be dead in a matter of months.

With this in mind, look back at Rorty and the criticism made of him. What if the phenomenon he’s pointing to is like a disease in a body? Just as there are healthy cells in a body that’s fatally ill, so too can there be people in academia and beyond who don’t fit Rorty’s case, but that need not affect his analysis. What’s important is that he has identified something that can determine the future of American politics, just as pancreatic cancer can determine the future of the body it’s found in (and before you go getting too upset about the analogy, remember that many diseases are not fatal).

That this manner of thinking can possess genuine foresight should be clear enough from the fact that Rorty saw something the shape of our current politics back in 1998. Not only that, but the sort of foresight at issue here is, in certain contexts, far superior to anything empirical-scientific. No number crunching, data-driven analysis could possibly have seen what Rorty did, and certainly not so far back.

This is not to say that the analogy of a disease to ideas that are said to be driving society is always appropriate. Many ideas are merely partial, though even here, alternate cases can present complementary phenomena – e.g., I’m inclined to see both economic factors and a backlash against political correctness as important to the presidential election result, but not as conflicting phenomena, but instead like two streams running into a river. (And in the case of the example from my conversation with a friend, I’m inclined to see two sides of the same phenomenon: the breakdown of the conventional idea of the family can find expression both in a lack of regard for children and for an excessively sentimental relation to them.)

There is a potential problem with this disease-analogy, of course: how do you criticise it if counter-examples are not necessarily refutations? I’d be inclined to find the answer by pursuing the disease-analogy further, but I think I’ve written enough for now.