Towards A Good Samaritan World

Saturday, December 09, 2006


Nato writes:

[D]efining all empirical knowledge as faith because it is always contingent is a great rhetorical success for those who want to demote naturalism, but like many such, it's a fickle victory. At some point, someone will notice that the relabeling doesn't invalidate Popper's central critique, and the new rubric would allow one to evaluate faith for how well justified it is in the same naturalistic context as before. Serves in Ronald de Sousa's "intellectual tennis without a net" can go both ways.

I can see why Nato sees my claim that empirical knowledge is ultimately based on faith is a rhetorical point, and to some extent it is. But I think it's also a substantive one. Consider each of the following propositions:

1. There is order/patterns in the world.
2. There are other people (i.e., other beings of the same kind as myself).
3. There is a God.

I regard all three of these as faith-propositions, or meta-beliefs. That in itself is not very illuminating, but it is not mere rhetoric; rather, it is a terminological innovation for what I think is a substantive similarity between the three statements.

For the moment, though, let's put the last one (Theism) to one side.

First, note that the first two claims are almost-always-tacit assumptions that underlie vast domains of reasoning. All empirical reasoning rests on an assumption that there is order/patterns in the world. All moral reasoning rests on an assumption that there are other people.

Second-- an extension of the first point-- anyone who denies the first two claims would be compelled to a skepticism that would constitute what we call madness. Imagine a skeptic about there is order/patterns in the world sitting in a cafe, drinking coffee, and reading a newspaper. Impossible! In merely lifting the coffee cup to his lips, he would be guilty of unpardonable superstition! Why, after all, should he believe that, when he lifts the cup, the coffee will also move? Merely because that has happened in the past? Again, there is no reason-- other than invalid inference from past patterns-- to think that, when he tips the cup, the coffee will spill into his mouth, rather than spilling out the other side of the cup, onto the ceiling. Reading the newspaper is even more absurdly superstitious: why should he believe that the words "Queen of England assassinated" have the same meaning as they have had in the past. Nor does he have any reason to think the sounds that emerge from the waitress's mouth-- "Shall I bring the check?"-- have any meaning, or that, just because other cafes expected him to pay his bill, this one does, too. He may as well simply walk out of the cafe without paying, except that walking involves an invalid assumption of object constancy (of the ground, that is) and of many other (as superstitious people call them) "physical laws"...

Similarly, a person who does not believe that there are other people would be a psychopath. He might, of course, refrain from killing others, merely because he foresaw consequences unpleasant to himself if he did, but if he could get away with it, he would have no more qualms about slicing up one of those pinko-grey (or brown, or tan-crimson) fleshy blobs with hair on top that move around and make noises with their lips and tongue, than he would about slicing up a watermelon. (Though he would probably be less likely to be a murderer-- a crime that benefits a person only in special cases-- than a rapist.)

Third, note that the statements are not only unprovable, but almost undefinable. Now, you might say that this is true of all statements; still, I think it is more radically so with these ones. A clever philosopher like, say, Hillary Putnam, could twist the phrase "the cat sat on the hat" into any number of ingenious paradoxes, and a tedious Cartesian skeptic might ask "how do you know?" until you ran out of answers, but the business of defining terms and providing evidence is nonetheless one that would not leave us feeling especially baffled. But how could you prove, or define, "there is order/patterns in the world?" Complete the following sentence: "A pattern is ..." Anything you say will be a travesty. Induction actually involves a sort of simplicity-ranking of patterns: thus we must be able to intuit that "the sun rises every day" is a "simpler" hypothesis than "the sun rises every day for 2 million days, then skips one, then two million more..." We prefer the simpler hypothesis, but how can you define which one is simpler? And anyway

Likewise, how can I define, or prove, that there are other beings like myself? Like myself in what way? How can I know that others ever understand me, rather than engaging in a complex game of mimesis, with all the words having no meaning? How can I know that other beings actually think and feel, or that their thoughts are in any way analogous to mine-- and what would it mean for their thoughts and feelings to be "like mine?" Some theorists of consciousness have arrived, I think, at the conclusion that we can never know whether other entities are conscious or not.

Fourth, note that while everyone believes, in a way, that there is order/patterns in the world, and that there are other people (beings like myself), we often fail to apply them. For example, I might set my alarm clock for 8am and be late for work every day, yet I never apply induction to realize that the trip takes longer than I thought. Or I may insult other people, yet get angry when I'm insulted, not realizing that by the principle which I apply when I get angry would-- if I believe that other people are like myself-- I would frequently condemn myself. The word stupid could be applied to the first case, the word inconsiderate to the second, and notwithstanding the universality, in some sense, of the beliefs that there are patterns in the world and there are other people like ourselves, people very often behave in stupid or inconsiderate ways.

Fifth, note that to hold and apply the meta-beliefs is regarded as virtuous: we praise people who are smart, or considerate; we blame people when they are stupid or inconsiderate; and we recoil in horror from madmen and psychopaths. One does not, in general, regard mere beliefs as virtuous or not. If I think that New York City is the capital of New York, and you think it's Albany, one of us (me in this case) is mistaken, but neither of us is exactly culpable.

Now, do all these features of faith-propositions, or meta-beliefs, apply to the belief in God? Some clearly do; others, one may doubt. Certainly "there is a God" is a difficult statement to define or prove (trait 3 of meta-beliefs). Indeed, Theists would be the first to affirm that God is inscrutable, that we cannot know His full nature and our language about Him is often negative, e.g. He is Infinite, without end. (4) seems to hold as well: religious people who affirm God often behave in ways that suggest they do not believe in Him. (5) holds, at least among religious people: faith in God is regarded as virtuous, lack of faith is blamed, and atheism is regarded with horror.

While (1) and (2) are less obviously applicable, it may help to clarify that the following three sets of people:

those who claim to believe in God
those who think that they believe in God; and
those who really believe in God

Are different and may overlap in complex ways. There are certainly some-- and there may have been more in the past-- who did not believe in God, yet had to affirm it anyway for appearance's sake. Are there also some who do believe in some Higher Power, yet, repelled by the sterile theological formulations and the behavioral hypocrisy of professing Theists, and unsure how to express a belief which they cannot define, nonetheless classify themselves as agnostics or atheists?

Would a person go mad without having some belief in a Higher Power? This is more than I can say. And I also hesitate to write about the mysterious Heavenly worlds that are opened up to the mind-soul when one is in the act of worshipping God. Still, I hope that I've thrown a little light on what I mean by faith.


  • Some might want to say that you treat belief in God as a sort of axiom, and there's justice to this comparison. I also suspect that belief in God is in some senses continuous with belief in other people; agent recognition is a very strong thread in the thought of all psychologically normal people. Most would agree that rocks are not agents that intend in some way to sit there on the ground and slowly erode, but children might interpret things that way, and an adult who took the Gaia hypothesis too seriously might do the same. Some eliminativist reductionists, meanwhile, do their best to not recognize humans as veridical agents. Philosphers like Dennett have offered criteria for intentionality, but these don't leave room for a non-arbitrary dividing line between agent and non-agent, placing everything on a cline from least to most agent-y.

    One last note about pattern complexity: mathematics theoretically provides fairly objective ways of selecting simpler from less simple systems of equations. That said, applying those to the empirical world isn't necessarily a straightforward process.

    By Blogger Nato, at 7:53 PM  

  • To be honest, I don't really feel like responding to this post. It's like an Everest of confusion, requiring a myriad of little steps to conquer it and reach the summit. A very arduous task, and for what? So that Lance can remain unconvinced, clinging to the idea that there's no true knowledge except what we feel? The idea is so preposterous. How can you even argue for anything, let alone faith, if something as simple as "pattern" can't be defined? It's very ironic that Skepticism was created as a counter-argument against Deism, and now it's vogue to use it as a counter-argument against Naturalism. In this instance, Lance uses it to counter all of presumed knowledge except what we intuit through our feelings. It's also ironic that Lance, having previously decried empirical reductionism as unrealistic, uses Skeptical reductionism to support his own views on knowledge and faith. "Faith-propositions" and "meta-beliefs", Lance? What's wrong with the plain old vanilla "propositions" and "beliefs"? Oh, I see, since you can't really know if propositions and beliefs are true, you must clarify them with the "faith" and "meta" modifiers. You know, for someone who doesn't meta-believe we can define simple words without it being a travesty, you sure like to invent them it seems.

    This whole post is a travesty. Your reductionist Skepticism has rendered all argument futile.

    By Blogger Thomas, at 8:20 AM  

  • Evidently this Thomas is not the doubting kind.

    By Blogger Nato, at 11:25 AM  

  • To Thomas:

    Well, I'm glad you took time to respond, despite "not feeling like it," because it's certainly interesting to read a variety of reactions. But really, what is your refutation of Humean skepticism? What is your refutation of solipsism? If it is a simple matter to refute Humean skepticism, then this post is of course misguided. The premise here is that Humean skepticism can't be refuted, at least without recourse to faith, which from the point of view of a partisan of pure reason is "cheating."

    Thomas writes: "Your reductionist Skepticism has rendered all argument futile." But no, I'm not taking a reductionist skeptical line, and no, I do not regard all argument is futile. It's simply that deep down, underlying all argument, is a foundation of what I am calling "faith," though in a somewhat innovative sense which has nothing to do with the "faith" of, say, a dogmatic seven-day creationist (which is, in this framework, simply intellectual dishonesty).

    Since I have this kind of "faith," then I regard argument as valid. And I think all of us do have this "faith": no one could grow up, no one could perform the simplest tasks of everyday life, without having and applying it.

    There's nothing wrong with ordinary "propositions" and "beliefs." They are real, necessary, inevitable, etc. What I'm arguing is that they're a different kind of thing from a mind's relationship to these meta-beliefs, or faith-propositions. It should be clear-- I hope-- from my description that not just anything can be a faith-proposition, as defined here. "The world was created in seven days," for example, has none of the characteristics of a faith-proposition. It's not even a candidate.

    One line of defense open to an atheist is to say: I agree with you that solipsism and skepticism can't be refuted by reason alone, and I accept your general description of the peculiar types of beliefs or mental inclinations or whatever that cause us not to be solipsists and skeptics. And it's no problem if you want to call that "faith." But I deny that your third faith-proposition, Theism, is of the same kind as the other two.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 1:08 PM  

  • A while back I wrote a post regarding my atheistic dating bigotry.

    Here is the, as Andrew Sullivan would call it, money quote:
    What about intuition vs reason? What if someone believes in the superiority of (not-explicitly-supernatural) intuition over reason? From a certain perspective, this is true. Axioms and the rules of logic are our intuitions codified. If base intuition is absolutely unreliable then reason has no traction, and Descarte's demon has won: we will never believe anything about the world that could be counted as true knowledge.

    The real virtue of reason and the logical system it implies is that it directs us to pare our intuitions hierarchically. If logic brings it to our attention that some later-acquired belief or intuition conflicts with a primal one like "A thing can not be 'A' and 'not A' at the same time and in the same respect," then our deeper intuitive belief directs us to discard or correct the shallower one. Religions, however, frequently direct us to change our system of logic to place the beliefs that constitute religious doctrine in a special category labeled "faith" to which we must not fairly apply our paring shears of intuitive consistency.

    And that bolloxes it all up.

    There is inter alia an empirical claim being made here about which I feel somewhat less sanguine than I did when I wrote it: I assume the standard logical axioms make their way into our intuitions in a manner more primary than our agent recognition intuitions. Further, it may appear that I conflate reason and empiricism. Trust that I do know the difference, but the extra jump from reason through epistemic justification to empiricism would have been a crippling digression from an essay on dating.

    What I believe remains intact is that accepting intuitions as axiomatic is a fairly justifiable strategy as long as we're not tendentious in the paring process. I believe this relates to Lance's comment that "the world was created in seven days" does not fit the criteria for a "faith-proposition" as Lance defines it. The relation would be that a faith proposition is something fundemental and at least quasi-axiomatic, while the seven-days proposition is of much higher level. Some fundamentalists want to raise, say, biblical inerrantism to an axiomatic truth to rule out contravention at the start, but of course Lance wouldn't go along with this even if he thought biblical inerrantism was defensible. We agree on the heirachy (in broad terms) but there are critical differences at the trunk of the tree.

    Can we bring empirical findings to bear in evaluating our most basic intuitions? At first blush, it would seem we could not, leading to Lance's position(as best I can understand it). After all, you cannot use the presumed truth of something you're attempting to prove in the proof thereof. We could also just make claim and counterclaim on what the most basic intuitions (or faith-propositions?) are. This logical impasse would very much seem to put anything no provable a priori on a level with faith.

    But Lance's skepticism of the possibility of judging more complex from simpler hypotheses is what shuts him off from the solution. Complexity and information theory show unambiguous ways of determining the informational content of both datasets and systems of equations. Drawn through the eye of this math (mathematics being 100% a priori!) Popper's tactical/procedural defense of what looks like induction in empiricism becomes a sort of compression method. What simplifies the datasets of our lives? Empiricism.

    This is all a blurb of an abstract of a sketch of that chain of reasoning, and I'm sure about a billion objections will be mounted along the way, but it seems to me that it's defensible. Why do I think it is? Because it fits my understanding of the why and how of human cognition. I can't prove it based on those epirical findings, but they suggest to me that the logeto-mathematical vindication of our intuitive assumptions about the way the world is will come via that route.

    In the meantime, appeals to faith - including faith-propositions - continue to amount (in my eyes) to throwing up one's hands and saying "I dunno but it works fine if you just go along with me."

    By Blogger Nato, at 2:31 PM  

  • re: Nato.

    Very good, very interesting. Let me try to clarify and then move forward. First, this:

    "Lance's skepticism of the possibility of judging more complex from simpler hypotheses is what shuts him off from the solution. Complexity and information theory show unambiguous ways of determining the informational content of both datasets and systems of equations. Drawn through the eye of this math (mathematics being 100% a priori!) Popper's tactical/procedural defense of what looks like induction in empiricism becomes a sort of compression method. What simplifies the datasets of our lives? Empiricism."

    No, I'm not necessarily "skeptical of the possibility of judging the more complex from the simpler hypotheses." This is the Ockham's Razor principle, I think. Certainly I endorse, and routinely apply, the Ockham's Razor principle. If confronted in an argument with a contrary position which is defended on the basis of Ockham's Razor (e.g., the world can be explained from materialist premises, no there's no need to posit "souls"), I would typically counter by denying that Ockham's Razor is applicable (e.g., the world has not been adequately explained from materialist premises, and we have strong reasons to suppose that it never can be). Of course, in the ordinary course of one's thinking Ockham's Razor is more a rule of thumb than a hard-and-fast law (sometimes the more complex hypothesis is true, after all). But the problem is deeper than that.

    I think Hume uses the language of "deductive" and "inductive" reasoning to describe the situation; and he writes a disproof of the validity of inductive reasoning, which was deeply disturbing to generations of philosophers. Karl Popper's "tactical/procedural defense of what looks like induction in empiricism" is the smartest counter to Hume of which I'm aware. For Popper, all knowledge is "conjectural," in that it consists of elaborate yet-to-be-disproved theories. We frame hypotheses; we make predictions from our hypotheses; and if we observe one counter-example to the hypothesis it must be abandoned (or anyway modified so that the counter-example becomes explicable). For this reason Popper calls all our knowledge "conjectural." Now, in a way this is just as skeptical as Hume? What do we know? Nothing; all we have are not-yet-disproven conjectures. We can say that the theory of gravity continues to be tenable; but can we say that "we have strong reason to believe" that the theory of gravity is true? I don't see why this follows from Popper's account, unless we simply assert it, which would beg the question.

    Indeed, by drawing us into the arcane realms of "complexity and information theory," Nato underlines that the closer you look at-- the more you dissect-- the meta-belief that "there is order/patterns in the world," the stranger it seems. I discovered this by studying statistics: behind "common sense" inferences that we make every day, I was bewildered to discover that there are extremely complex mathematical functions which it requires very advanced study to understand.

    In short, I accept induction. I believe that it is valid. I'm grateful to Karl Popper for elucidating its nature. This belief in the validity of induction can neither be proved nor doubted. In practice, it is a psychological impossibility for us to doubt it, even for a moment: no sooner does a skeptic complete his argument than he immediately begins engaging in all manner of practices that presuppose the validity of induction. To see order/patterns in the world is an indelible part of our minds and souls, and the ultimate Cartesian skepticism can never have any real hold over our minds even if we can't refute it logically.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 4:21 PM  

  • re: "Religions, however, frequently direct us to change our system of logic to place the beliefs that constitute religious doctrine in a special category labeled 'faith' to which we must not fairly apply our paring shears of intuitive consistency.

    And that bolloxes it all up."

    I would agree that some religions do instill a certain intellectual dishonesty, and the word "faith" is an excuse for holding onto claims which have been refuted or shown to be groundless. This argument is, among other things, an effort to rehabilitate faith. That all religions ask their adherents to cheat against reason is a claim which I am not so ready to accept.

    And materialism can also demand violations of "intuitive consistency." The claim that we humans are deterministic automatons, lacking true power of choice, is radically inconsistent with every single second of my personal experience in this life.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 4:30 PM  

  • Some notes that I fully intend to be short. When I say that Popperian "induction" becomes a compression method, I mean that it reduces the subset of knowledge needed to generate the whole. Though this can never be proof that one's knowledge is True Knowledge, parsimonious accuracy is unassailably more expedient than its competitors. Thus, we don't need to prove something is True Knowledge to have an objective reason to believe (contingently).

    Second I agree with you that our inductive intuitions are incredibly basic, and that those who want to deny those standard presuppositions based on appeals to other intuitions do so at their own peril.

    Third, I used the weasel-word "frequently" on purpose, when talking about faith and religion. Then I get to make my intimation and hide behind that caveat as much as I want.

    Finally, I'll just reiterate for the bajillionth time that I see no need for materialism to require humans to be choiceless automatons. Of course, some materialists do see that need and take hard eliminativist positions, but they're dunderheads. Philosophically speaking.

    By Blogger Nato, at 6:09 PM  

  • re: "Finally, I'll just reiterate for the bajillionth time that I see no need for materialism to require humans to be choiceless automatons."

    Hey, calm down! I realize that my view that choice is an experiential reality which is incompatible with a determinist, physicalist world is an opinion with which there can be legitimate disagreement. I'm simply giving it as an example of a case where someone might feel that materialism compelled them to hold views inconsistent with their most fundamental intuitions, as you feel religion compels people to do. If so, this calls into question whether the intuition-suppressing character that you attribute to religion is really unique to religion. One might feel, that is, that submitting to materialist dogmas creates a similar kind of cognitive dissonance to what submitting to religious dogmas does.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 6:53 PM  

  • Ah, the difficulty of tone in text; I was actually intending to make light of the fact that I was dredging up what I know you to know, but felt compelled to state it again for the imaginary audience who might have missed previous episodes. In any case, I by no means believe articles of pernicious faith to be unique to religions, though it is rare outside of religion that doctrine will explicitly valorize irrationality. Rare, but not vanishingly so: Ecofeminists* and other such repulsive "leftist" ideologies make similar moves. I should probably also note that even those religious sects that pretend to scoff at worldly evidential standards still employ them as often as possible. Scoff at reason many do, but few find comfort in the lable "irrational".

    *These chuckleheads actually decry rational epistemology as a tool of the patriarchy! Apparrently society is supposed to valorize "the woman's way of knowing," which apparently equates to empathy and connection to the earth or something. Oddly, it accomplishes much the same as the "elevated" role of women in Victorian society.

    By Blogger Nato, at 8:43 PM  

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