About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The irrationality of the "true faith-head"

I'll start by explaining how even "true faith-heads" can be sort of rational.

If two people start with totally different fundamental assumptions, one will never convince the other. I mean truly fundamental assumptions, such as assumptions about what even counts as evidence. Because of this, the most extreme religious dogmatist, no matter how stubborn, may not suffer any psychiatric illness or make any egregious error of deductive reasoning.

Note that the situation of such people relative to others is not symmetrical. In our everyday lives, we have standards of evidence that most people - religious or otherwise - accept. E.g. the fact that I can see no hippopotamus in my study when I look around is good evidence that there is no such hippopotamus in my study. If my lovely Significant Other pops in here in a minute, I can ask her if she sees one, but she'll think I've lost my mind (or, more likely, that I'm asking her as part of a philosophical thought experiment). Outside of religion, we have no trouble reaching consensus on most everyday issues because we use common standards of evidence and possess similar powers of observation.

Science typically deals with things that can't be observed directly with our unaugmented senses - often because these things are very small or very far away or no longer in existence. We have traces and indirect clues, but no one has ever observed, say, a brachiosaurus, only certain fossilised bones (and even the interpretation of them as fossilised bones requires a body of theory). But science uses methods that are continuous with our usual methods for inquiring rationally into the world around us. Over the past four hundred years, science has been able to tell us much about the world beyond observation by our unaugmented senses. It delivers reliable knowledge by using such methods as scientific instruments, highly precise modelling, conducting experiments that control for extraneous variables, using convergence of results from many lines of inquiry. Most of these are methods that we use in everyday life, but outside of science we don't always need to be so rigorous because everyday questions can often be resolved just by observing.

Applying ordinary kinds of reasoning from everyday life and from scientific inquiry, we can answer many questions. People who disagree can be brought to change their minds if the evidence is provided to them. Over time, science tends to converge on answers and to develop well-corroborated theoretical knowledge that is unlikely ever to be overturned, such as the knowledge that life on Earth evolved over hundreds of millions of years. That doesn't mean that the scientific image of the world is ever complete; there's always new stuff to find out. Still, there are many things that we can now be confident about - the approximate age of the Earth, the evolutionary explanation for the diversity of life and the apparent purposiveness of adaptations such as the eyes, the descent of Homo sapiens from earlier primates, and so on.

The people who can't be argued out of their position are those who have certain substantive beliefs about the world that go psychologically deeper than their commitment to ordinary standards of evidence. This certainly includes some religious people - the so-called true faith-heads. If someone believes doctrine X in that way, and is then confronted with good evidence (by ordinary standards) for ~X, she has many options including the option of claiming that ordinary standards of evidence are wrong or inapplicable. Someone like that can enjoy a hermetically-sealed worldview. No argument based on evidence can ever penetrate it. 

But notice that this person need never be irrational in the sense of refusing to apply the basic rules of deductive logic, or in the sense of refusing to apply ordinary standards of evidence in her everyday non-religious life. Nor need she be suffering anything like a psychiatric illness. Still, there's a sense in which irrationality is present.

Most atheists are open to evidence that God exists if ordinary evidence is supplied. In fact, there'd probably be no atheists around in Western countries if diluvian geology had turned out to be correct - i.e., if dating methods pointed to an age of the Earth of 6000 years, and if the fossil record and the facts about rock formation turned out to be consistent with a mass extinction in Noah's flood and the formation of the rocks and the fossil record at the time. Even now, there is probably evidence that could (in principle) come in to persuade an atheist to change her mind, though the historical record of the religionists is so dreadful that it will now take something remarkably compelling.

True faith-heads, by contrast, are immune to evidence. Since they are committed to certain substantive theological claims more deeply than they are to ordinary standards of evidence, they will even develop revised evidentiary standards if that is the only way out. In between, they'll clutch at all sorts of propositions that seem unhinged by ordinary standards. E.g., we see YEC Christians committed to a 6000-year-old Earth who will admit that the Earth looks 4 to 5 billion years old (using various dating methods)... but of course, God had His reasons for making it look that way when He created it 6000 years ago. One such person is currently arguing the toss about this over on Richard Dawkins' site. I can't disprove what he is claiming, but when it's viewed from outside it's plainly unacceptable.

There's no arguing with such people. All you can do is point out how they think and why that kind of thinking should not be given any credibility or respect by anyone who isn't already infected with it. You can also point out how arbitrary the deep assumptions that these people make really are and how baroque their worldview eventually becomes when they are pressed. But, in the end, they either see how unsatisfactory the entire picture is or they don't. No single argument can penetrate their sealed-off view of the world.

How many religious folk are true faith-heads in this sense? Well, I suspect it's a kind of sliding scale. It seems to me that it would be very difficult for a sincere and inquiring person to hang on to some religious doctrines unless they go very deep in her set of beliefs. It may take a lot of true faith-headedness to stand up for Young Earth Creationism in the face of all the scientific evidence. But I suspect that a fair amount is required even for belief in a loving and providential (and all-powerful, all-knowing) God. There is always a way out, to seal off such beliefs from ordinary standards of evidence, but if those standards are accepted it is not believable that such a being would have allowed the millions of years (and enormous amounts of misery in the animal world) needed to evolve us, or would have made its own presence in the world so un-apparent, or would have intervened at such a late stage in human history.

Now, one can argue that God must have had a reason for these things. E.g., maybe God is so un-apparent because He values belief in his existence by those who believe despite the lack of evidence. Maybe those who believe in God are just those whom God has spoken to personally. Why not speak personally to everyone then? Well, maybe only some are receptive to the message (and God would know who they are). Why not make everyone receptive to the message, if you happen to be God? Well maybe you have a choice, if you happen to be human, whether or not you're receptive. Why not make all of us so that, given such a choice, we'll want to be receptive? Well, free will doesn't work like that...

By now we're moving toward a baroque and implausible idea of free will, what it means to choose to be receptive to a message from God Himself, and so on, but for the dogmatist, there's always room to move. 

Some people are beyond arguments based on ordinary standards of evidence, and they cannot be reached. The most we can hope is that they will eventually work out that the entire edifice looks wildly implausible from outside, and that that's a good reason to reject it in toto, especially if they realise that the deep assumptions they have been making were shaped by culture and are really rather arbitrary. If they don't ever get to that point - one that involves seeing through the effect of their own socialisation - we can merely point out to others that there's no reason to give any special respect to the beliefs of these people. There's no reason to adopt those beliefs yourself unless you already share the assumptions of the faith-heads. The hermetic sealing keeps ideas in as well as out.

Again, the sort of irrationality involved need not include making a clear mistake of logic or being unable to navigate safely around the world. It needn't include hearing voices or anything of that sort. Nonetheless, it involves distorting your thinking by giving an unjustified place to certain arbitrary assumptions that other people would not (and should not) make on the basis of ordinary standards of evidence. Those assumptions are used as premises, in effect, rather than drawn as conclusions from everyday observation or well-corroborated scientific theory. This is not ordinary irrationality, and yet there's a point in calling it irrational.


Brian said...

Russell, great post. I do disagree with you somewhat.

How many religionists are true faith-heads? If they have faith that is unshakeable, all of them. I think if it comes down to rejecting all of science to keep their faith, they will. I was reading an article by Barney Zwartz in the Age yesterday, and it pointed it out clearly to me. He's supposed to be all liberal, etc, but he's happy to lie about what Dawkins thinks, what science says, etc to keep his viewpoint about a good God.

Here's his article:

And my thoughts on it.

Russell Blackford said...

Wow, Brian, that was fast!

Brian said...

Sorry, just checked you site during lunch. I'm not stalking you, really. :)

Russell Blackford said...

I suppose one reason why I'd argue that not all religionists are true faith-heads is that some may actually be open to abandoning their religion when these sorts of arguments (those towards the end of my post) are made, and they think about them deeply. I'm an existence proof of that. I wouldn't assume that anyone is beyond ordinary reason until I've seen a bit of how he or she argues.

Brian said...

I see your point. I guess I was doing a no true faith head fallacy there. If someone gives up their faith due to evidence they never were a true faith-head. If they don't, they're a true faith-head.

I just find it rather frustrating when arguments are presented against standard canards, the arguments have force, but it's like they never were presented. Like Zwartz continuing his Atheist Crusader - Richard Dawkins - is a mirror image of the fundamentalists he argues against. Etc. I think I should get back to work or have a lie down before I choke on strawmen.

Ken Pidcock said...

You can't get inside of people's heads, but I've long suspected that there are relatively few literate believers who are true believers. They've just been culturally conditioned to understand that God is Good and are convinced that the concept of God must be kept propped up to sustain cultural morality.

This, I think, helps explain the intensity of reaction to the neo-atheists. Cultural believers don't think that Dawkins is challenging their beliefs (which they don't truly hold); they think he is threatening civilization.

The rational person entering into dialogue with these believers should make it clear that the conversation is about whether theism is a good idea, and not whether supernatural agents are present.

And I think it might be a good idea not to call them "faith-heads." But that's just me.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is possible to refuse to accept any standard of evidence, and be still deductively rational, because one can always go bayesian, and purely deductively force a probabilistic conclusion on a deductively rational faith-head. And no true faith-head could ever possibly withstand accepting the dawkinsian 'god does most probably not exist' statement. He would end up 'Error:doesn't compute !' stuck or his head would explode, or he would become atheist.

J. J. Ramsey said...

I'd be careful of talking in terms of "faith-heads" at all. The tendency to hold onto beliefs in the face of contrary evidence--especially ones in which one has much emotional or other investment--is not so much a religious tendency as it is a human one. What religious zealots do is just a particular case of the general human tendency. (Global warming denialism is probably a good example of a nonreligious instance of this tendency.)

If we keep thinking of that tendency as being religious in nature, then it becomes easier to forget that we can do it as well.

Anonymous said...

kynefski said it as good as it can be said.

I also agree, its a deep and frequently unconscious issue of civilization more than an issue of irrational supernaturalism.

You will be amazed how people set up their rational value system to conform to their material existence and needs - while denying it at the same time. In this case is the need for civil society, security and order (which a lot of neo-atheists take just too far for granted).

To claim that their value system is so maligned to empirical evidence without tracing where that value system arises from (i.e. its empirical basis) is strangely ironic.

And have I already said that kynefsji has an excellent point?


Anonymous said...

Personally I would be very careful about labelling everyone who believes in "God" as a true faith head lest you start to become what you are decrying... I have met a few atheists who would espouse atheism like a religion. You can't prove the existance of a higher being nor can you disprove it... so by denouncing someone as an unbeliever (in atheism)...
All things lie somewhere on a continuum... including idiocy and pigheadedness.

Anonymous said...

PS. Good Article

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts. People will believe things based on emotional and/or logical reasons, and using logic against emotion is pointless. It needs to be approached differently. I'm reading a book that goes into this. Check the excerpts on 'cognitive dissonance', 'emotion and logic' and 'confirmation bias' here- http://thereligiouscondition.com/

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