Friday, 22 June 2012

Pretending to know things that you don't know!

During an interesting interview on the new podcast, the Malcontents Gambit (43 minutes that I highly recommend) Peter Boghossian spoke in his usual clear and convincing way.

Discussions on the subject of faith require a clear definition of the terminology, and Boghossian has proposed a solution to this problem, which appears to clarify things rather well.  If you haven't come across Boghossian (and he does suddenly seem to be coming very much to the notice of the rational thinking community now) then you should Google for some of his work or see the links in the previous post.

Peter Boghossian - knowing things that
he can know

His definition of faith is "pretending to know things that you don't know".  Just substituting these words in a sentence often makes an obscure theological or doctrinal question turn into a clearly defined problem with a simple solution.

For example, when asked whether it is possible to have a meaningful and purposeful life without faith, he suggests that the question should be re-phrased by substituting his definition of the word faith.  The question then becomes "Is it possible to have a meaningful and purposeful life without pretending to know things that you don't know".  Surely the answer is then obvious.

Boghossian claims - I think rightly - that there are almost no situations where the word 'faith' needs to be invoked in the English language.  All too often the concept of faith is confused with hope, which is an entirely different thing.  People also tend to use faith as a system of epistemology - i.e. a system for the study of knowledge.  He suggests that the faithful have no right to claim that they have anything to offer on this topic.

When challenged that relying on the scientific method is the same as relying on faith, he quoted a martial arts friend, Matt Thornton, who insists that this is 'like suggesting that abstinence is a sexual position'.

Humanity's technological progress is solely attributable to recognition of the existence of external reality - not a faith.

The 'problem of induction' is often thrown out by proponents of faith.  They suggest that you have to have faith in order to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow.  Going back to the definition of faith helps with this though.  We do know why the sun appears to rise.  It is a simple matter of celestial mechanics and it would be very surprising if this changed overnight.  Faith does not come into the matter.

Truth matters because it enables us to make our lives better, improve life in our communities and promote better justice.  In fact, if you do not value objective truth, then the thing that you are valuing is arbitrary.  That is part of the problem of faith.  Indeed, even just having faith is a form of injustice to yourself.

Antagonistically, but quite sensibly, he criticises people who make claims about what will happen to them after death, and especially about what will happen to him.  He suggests that anyone who tells you that you will go to hell shouldn't be allowed to have any form of adult responsibility.  Maybe they should be allowed to write fiction, but not to do anything where rational decisions are needed.

There are four impediments to rational thought:
1/  Subjectivity and objectivity are too often confused.
2/  The definition of faith is not clear enough, and faith is too often confused with hope.
3/  Confirmation bias plays too large a role.
4/  Belief in belief - people tend to think that it is good to believe in something rather than nothing.

In feedback that he has received so far, he notes that people almost never say "Look, you're wrong and here's why" but almost always they will tell him that the bible says something different.  Almost all the e-mails he receives are an unsophisticated form of confirmation bias.

Amusingly, he also proposed that Gene Roddenberry's eponymous Mr Spock (in Star Trek, as you know) might actually have done damage to the cause of rational thinking.  By making Spock a character who has no emotions, there is a danger of people associating that quality with all rationalists.  Surely that is not something we would want, but setting that desire aside, Michael Schermer's book, The Believing Brain seems to shed light on the issue.  The hypothesis that we make our decisions and develop our beliefs emotionally, and then use our conscious powers to back them up rationally, is now very well supported.

He says that almost every moment of his waking day is spent discussing these things.  Interestingly he makes the surprising and refreshing claim that every single person in the world can be reached by rationality.  Personally he believes that the best way to reach difficult people is to be incredibly blunt and honest with them - as Richard Dawkins is.  He also suggests that you should never allow an argument to be shut down by someone claiming to offended.  As he says, "Your offence means nothing to me".

He finds that evangelical fundamentalists are easier to talk to than mushy moderates.  These are the sort of people that you can have a beer with!

Let's hope for more gems like this!

Related posts:
Introduction: Elect the fourth horseman - some candidates!
One from yesterday: Elect the fourth horseman - some candidates!
And from earlier this evening:  Boghossian leads by a mile


Geoffrey Hughes said...

Well summarised! I've seldom read so much condensed wisdom so concisely formulated.

Plasma Engineer said...

Thank you sir.