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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Greta Christina on converting the religious

Greta Christina has an excellent piece on AlterNet. She argues persuasively against the silly idea that there's something inherently intolerant about attempts by atheists to persuade the religious to become atheists. While this should go without saying, it's useful for her to put the detail of the argument. Basically, it goes like this: religion is one hypothesis - or, rather, a set of numerous hypotheses - about how the world works; and there is nothing wrong with testing such hypotheses, arguing about them, and attempting to reach agreement on their epistemic status.

I totally agree, and I add that there is no great benefit to diversity if it means a diversity of false beliefs. Diversity of art forms, cuisines, literary traditions and so on can be aesthetically pleasing, but it's rather different with beliefs. We should look kindly on diversity of beliefs insofar as it is evidence that no one belief is being imposed by political power, something we all have reason to fear. However, this kind of diversity is not something to be pursued for its own sake. We should prefer true beliefs to a diversity of (mostly false) beliefs.

Where I do have a quibble is that I think Greta goes close to something like a logical positivist position, with all its inherent paradoxes. Once you start saying that hypotheses are unacceptable unless they are empirically falsifiable, the obvious rejoinder is to ask whether what you just said is itself an empirically falsifiable hypothesis - if it's not, what is it? It doesn't, for example, look like an analytically true claim (something that must be correct as a matter of logic). You need an epistemological position that is at least rich enough to accommodate its own claims.

But I don't think she needs to go down a path that involves any paradoxes. All that needs to be said is the following.

The senses of human beings are limited, so there are many truths about the world that we can't observe directly. Indeed, our senses often mislead us. When it comes to events that happened a long time ago, or which are very distant from us, or which take place on a very small scale, it is extremely difficult for us to obtain knowledge. Direct observation won't do the job.

However, for the past 400 years science has become increasingly able to obtain robust knowledge about very ancient, very distant, and very small-scale events. In principle, its methods can be useful in assessing many kinds of hypotheses about events that are hidden from direct observation. The techniques it uses involve, among other things, the rigorous application of an everyday method of reasoning, namely hypothetico-deductive reasoning. By combining this with mathematical modelling, arguments from consilience, and instruments that extend the senses (telescopes, cloud chambers, geiger counters, etc.), science is able to develop powerful lines of convergent evidence to support hypotheses that would otherwise be no more than arbitrary speculations.

Some religious claims - for example those about the Earth's past - can be tested and falsified by these distinctively scientific means. Others, however, are left in the category of arbitrary speculation, since we have no way to tell whether they are true or false. They are not like logical principles (such as modus ponens) or epistemological principles (such as "prima facie, believe what you see with your own eyes under good conditions") that are widely and inter-culturally accepted and can be discussed, clarified, and refined, as happens in philosophy. They are more like speculations that were made about very distant events at a time in history when human beings had no real evidence to ground such speculations and no real way to test them. Religious claims fitting in this category are, indeed, useless, because it is possible to imagine an infinite number of them without having any reason to believe that any particular one is true, or any way at all to choose among them. It would be freakishly unlikely for any particular one of these arbitary claims to be true.

No paradoxical epistemological principles are required here, just the true observation that it is arbitrary to believe in any particular one of the infinite number of claims that could be made about unobservable and unevidenced events.

With that caveat, I'll send you off to read Greta Christina's wonderful essay.

12 comments:

David said...

I, for one, welcome any and all attempts for atheists to convert me away from my religion.

Eamon Knight said...

Meh. Anything that smacks of evangelism gives me baaaad flashbacks. ;-)

Jim Lippard said...

Russell: What do you think of J.S. Mill's argument in _On Liberty_ that it's good to have debate even on the things we consider to be well-established truths, so that they don't become "dead dogma"? Isn't that effectively a case for the value of diversity of opinion, even if many of them are false?

Scott Hedges said...

Russell, isn't it false though that we can genuinely separate the "beliefs" from the effects of those beliefs? Specifically, by "attacking" religion, aren't we also attacking people who can't (or won't) separate their beliefs from their "identity".

Isn't this the howl of the cornered beast we are hearing? Isn't it indeed true that by saying "we want to convert you" from their point of view we are also saying that "we want to destroy you"?

It seems to me that a society that lives under modern Australian or American law, can not ALSO be a tribal society, or one ruled by "Sharia Law" or one where there is a religious test for citizenship ... etc ... etc ... America has room for Amish Farmers, and Mormons etc ... but there are limits.


Sullivan ran this today on his blog:

"The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions -- racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war -- which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action ... [H.G. Wells] was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity."

And we appease or ignore those forces at our peril.

He's right about this ... isn't he?

Russell Blackford said...

Jim, Mill wasn't saying that we should keep a few people around with wrong ideas so that we could take a kind of aesthetic pleasure in it as we do with diversity of cooking styles. That would be terribly patronising. What he was saying is that even ideas that are true should be constantly tested, even if someone has to play devil's advocate. I agree with that.

Roger said...

I think it's probably useless to try to convert believers- not just religious believers, but everyone who holds opinions for emotional reasons- but it's worth arguing against them so that other people can see why there is so little reason in their beliefs and that people adopt them for emotional reasons. If people adopt them they are less likely to persuade themselves and others that they have rational grounds for doing so.
It's also worth remembering that it's better to argue against, not for, beliefs. We can't be certain what is right or true; we can be pretty sure about what is wrong and false and can criticise those things enthusiastically.

Jim Lippard said...

Russell: I didn't mean to use Mill as a challenge to the distinction you drew between diversity for aesthetic reasons and diversity for its own sake, i.e., wasn't suggesting that Mill was arguing the former. But it seems that Mill's argument is more than just diversity of belief as a show of evidence that there isn't political imposition going on, rather, there is some value "for its own sake"--namely, the continual challenge of the status quo. (Though you're right that can be done by a "devil's advocate" as well as expression of a sincerely held belief.)

It's not that we "keep a few people around with wrong ideas" just for the pleasure that brings--I suspect we both agree that having such people around (in existence) isn't a choice that we or a government has a legitimate power to regulate. It's that the challenge they raise is intrinsically beneficial. (Though again, of course you're right that we don't want false beliefs running the show, or false beliefs for their own sake.)

But I think it does, in fact, also bring various kinds of pleasure, ranging from entertainment, instructive examples of error, occasional inspiration of insight that leads to true belief, etc.

Russell Blackford said...

It's one of the difficulties in Mill - not that I think it can be avoided. He does think that a marketplace of ideas (not his phrase) will converge on the truth, but he also thinks that it's valuable to test the truth constantly even after we find it. Both of those things are probably right, at least up to a point, but there's a kind of tension there if we take them both beyond a certain point. If a truth is really well established, e.g. that the earth is (approximately) spherical, there's going to be a point where no one really wants to test it, and there's not a lot of value in doing so. But of course, a lot of things that might be true will never be so well-established.

Then again, I'm saying this off the top of my head without going back to the passage in Mill. Maybe he covers this somehow.

Ophelia Benson said...

America has room for Amish Farmers, and Mormons etc ... but there are limits.

Arguably more 'room' than it should have, since (thanks to Yoder v Wisconsin) it allows Amish adults to take their children out of school in the 8th grade, and since some renegade Mormons have lately been practicing forced marriage.

Ophelia Benson said...

America has room for Amish Farmers, and Mormons etc ... but there are limits.

Arguably more 'room' than it should have, since (thanks to Yoder v Wisconsin) it allows Amish adults to take their children out of school in the 8th grade, and since some renegade Mormons have lately been practicing forced marriage.

Roger said...

"Mill... thinks that it's valuable to test the truth constantly even after we find it."

Surely the important thing- as Popper said- is that we cannot know we have found the truth, only that we have demonstrated that some things are not true.

Scott Hedges said...

@Roger:

It's also worth remembering that it's better to argue against, not for, beliefs. We can't be certain what is right or true; we can be pretty sure about what is wrong and false and can criticise those things enthusiastically.

How can this be? This statement to me seems to be exactly the failure of a science as a world view, the refusal to admit to itself that it is a superior world view.

We know a great deal about what is right, not that we can but tell what is what is wrong, we can't live merely as an opposition movement, or naysayers.

Unless "people of conscience" (as opposed to "people of faith") start acting like they know what is "right" and indeed stand up for the only way we know of "knowing" ... we are going to always be accused of not standing "for" anything.