Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hitchens and infuriating faith

I've a column with the ABC today, 'Hitchens and infuriating faith'.

The late Christopher Hitchens became incredibly popular with his anti-theist message.  What is it about religion that's annoying so many?  A sample:
perhaps what most boils the blood of atheists is that, in the Judaeo-Christian traditions, error is often baptised as a virtue. Scientists certainly make mistakes of procedure, assumption and logic. But in general they see errors as mistakes, not as proof of moral goodness. They do not have 'faith', strictly speaking. For the Abrahamic religions, faith is the euphemism given to needful metaphysical belief without good evidence. It is not provisional or contingent, as are scientific hypotheses - it will not be revised or discarded with new evidence. It is belief in an un-testable, often unknowable something, and pride in this belief. 
I suspect it is this pride that angers so many secular minds: a curious pleasure in oneself, which takes what is normally a trivial failing and makes it a profound blessing. Despite the lack of physical evidence, and the statistical improbability that one's particular deity, holy books and creed are The Real Thing, one has faith. And one loves oneself for it - just as the holy books proclaim.
(Photo: ensceptico)


Peter Fyfe said...

Seasonally adjusted greetings!

If faith is "needful metaphysical belief without good evidence", then scientists have faith. In just one example, many scientists "believe" in time travel. There is no real evidence that time travel is possible. Any evidence lies only in the mathematical theories (most of which would also support time running backwards to exactly the same effect).

Scientists tend to have a metaphysical belief that the mathematics is "ontologically" real rather than merely "epistemologically" apt.

Yes many math models are really good at describing and predicting reality and many times their predictions have lead to discovery (e.g. the neutron), but surely it's a leap of faith (by most reasonable definitions) to suggest something is real just because math says it is?

It's faith alone that says time really is linear.

Damon Young said...

Peter, apologies for the late reply.

Good question. I think something like faith can happen with some scientists. But the moral character of their assumptions and presumptions is quite different. And science as a whole - including biology, for example - cannot be characterised as an enterprise of faith, including the Pythagorian bias you note.

As it happens, I've actually addressed this question in a column I wrote a little while ago, which was held up for the holidays. It'll be on the ABC soon.

Peter Fyfe said...

Hi Damon - shall look forward to that article.

If we're being fair (not common praxis is this field!) some faithful folks likewise approach their enquiry into the big questions with a similar moral character to the one you're ascribing to science... some of rigour in the writings of the 'better' theologians and mystics would leave much science for dead, and at least they [usually] include the metaphysics. :)

And I'm not convinced we can assert the moral character of all or even most of science... especially under contemporary funding regimes?

I'm genuinely concerned that both "sides" of this "debate" like to take the high moral ground and i'm not sure either deserve it. Both have served humankind and both have committed unspeakable acts in spite of their codes.

The question for me is how do we break the false dialectic - for these two are so not opposites in any rigorous sense - and engage with the big issues instead of the sound-bitable ones?

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Peter. Different use of 'moral', mate. My point is that faith, in the sciences, is not a virtue. Knowing belief in something without evidence is not commonly lauded in mainstream science. It is in mainstream religion, including the canonical texts.

If 'rigour' is what you value (as I do), then we must be equally rigorous with our definitions. I believe 'faith' is quite different to assumptions and presumptions in normal science, however incorrect or inaccurate.

I agree that they are not opposites, i.e. simple contraries. But they are often opposed, i.e. in conflict over epistemology, methodology, methods. And this conflict is worth having, if it can be had in a generous, informed and progressive way. As an atheist philosopher who has read and enjoyed religious texts (from the gospels to Eckhart) and marvelled at religious art and architecture, I am trying.

Peter Fyfe said...

Hey Damon, thanks so much! You've inspired me to try and sort out some sloppy thinking. I needed the nudge. Cheers. :)