Faith, Doubt and Delusion pt. 1


Doing some reading and listening these next couple weeks around the ideas of “Faith, Doubt and Delusion“.  There are so many angles and nuances wrapped up in these topics that I can’t hardly keep to a blog, so I will attempt a series of blogs to help make sense with the thoughts that are banging around in my noggin’. 

How do we know what we know?  That is the work of Epistemology.  Being an educator and a teacher, I’m deeply empassioned about this topic.  Are beliefs the same as knowledge?  Can beliefs be informed by knowledge?  Or perhaps a more dangerous question, do our beliefs contribute to our knowledge?  Is knowledge only rational thinking, or are there other parts of our self that come into play? 

I will agree with every philosopher who has come before me, the answers to these questions matter.  They largely dictate and influence behavior, the things you actually do.  There is what we say we believe, then there are the things we actually believe.  Core beliefs, or perceived knowledge, inform our behavior.  Don’t tell me what you believe, just let me watch you for a week and then I can tell you what you actually believe.  What we ‘want’ to believe but are still growing in?  That’s a whole other matter; we are all moving from one place to another cognitively.  It’s either deeper in the same direction, or we are diverging paths altogether.  (Those complete changes in direction can be expensive by the way, but that’s another topic)

It is a search for truth, for what we can actually know that makes sense of our existence.  These are deep questions.  Our behaviors reveal what we perceive to be meaningful, typically what gets the majority of our attention.  These are the things we organize our lives around: family, sport, recreation, reading, disciplines, entertainment, adventures, escapes, medications, worship, groups, games, pseudo-communities, travel, vacations etc.  We are largely a consumer culture and we organize our lives around leisure, ‘the good life’ that we are striving for and feel entitled to with enough hard work. 

We want to make life meaningful and experience it as such.  We want our beliefs to match up with what we want.  But what if our ‘beliefs’ don’t work?  (That is the pragmatic question)  What if our beliefs are not based on good evidence?  (That is the reasonability question)  What if our beliefs are in fact not objectively true?  (That is the epistemological question)  These are dangerous questions, they may upset the apple cart.  As Morpheus says in the Matrix, waking up to these realities may lead you like Alice in Wonderland  to “see how deep the rabbit hole really goes“. 

The first step in response to asking some of these questions may be to venture to the other side of some fences to see what the grass feels like there and how the world looks from another’s perspective.  It can be unsettling to listen to the opposite claims of your own.  That raises a deeper question in me, if listening to another’s views that is opposite of my truth claims is not possible, what does that say about my claims?  It says that they are not on sure ground, that I have a hidden insecurity, that I’m not willing to be wrong.  I want to be sure about my beliefs, particularly if they are informing my behavior choices, this is how I live.  I want to know if there are blind spots that I’m not seeing, I want to use the reason I was born with and have grown in for deeper understanding.  I want things to make sense as much as anyone else, so why not at least listen and consider the voice of another?  In the world of Philosophy, that is called “confirmation bias”, that we only listen to or expose ourselves to those who share our conclusions.  If you claim truth, you ought to climb other fences to guard against only confirmation bias. 

This week, that contrasting voice is Dr. Peter Boghossian, Philosophy professor at Portland State University.  Peter is a passionate voice out of the world of reasoning and free thinking.  He considers Faith to be a “Cognitive Sickness“; an utterly unreliable process to bring us to the truth.  The result of faith beliefs without reliable processes of rationality, Bhoghossian would say are results that are based in delusion, not truth.  Here is a taste of his passionate assertions:

If you want to go deeper into Peter’s epistemology and general candor, I suggest searching out his lecture on “Jesus, the Easter Bunny and other Delusions” from January 27, 2012.   Peter is marvelously consistent, he is not against Christianity solely, he can’t make sense of any faith claims that are not grounded in reliable processes of the rules of rationality.  He seeks to debunk Judaism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism, New Age, relativists, postmodernists etc.  Any conclusions that are not based on the reliable processes of clear evidence is to be discounted as delusional.  He is equally hostile to all faiths and I actually find that kind of intellectual honesty to be refreshing, it is somewhat rare in my experience. 

What I appreciate about the thoughts that Dr. Boghossian puts out there:

  • He is not a postmodernist, he does not believe that all truth is relative to the individual.  His assertion is consistent, truth is the result of reliable epistemic processes based on evidence.  He is a staunch claimer of absolute truth that can be known and finds fallacy that opposing truths can both be evident in reality. 
  • He is a learner, he is ‘open’ to being wrong and challenges all his hearers to be willing to have the humility to do the same.  (Those of us in the Faith category don’t have a strong history in this kind of openness)  He is genuinely interested in what he calls the Twin Goals:  “maximizing” true beliefs and “minimizing” false beliefs.  This requires an honest committment to ongoing learning
  • His central thesis is clear, truth is the result of reliable processes.  If a claim is not based on actual evidence or perceived evidence, it is bad belief and unreliable; thus delusional.  Faith cannot be pointing to truth because is a claim without rational evidence.
  • Just because someone feels strongly about a certain truth claim or position, doesn’t make it true.  They may even have the kind of conviction that they would die for it, but that doesn’t make it true.  He states that conviction is only evidence of the presence of conviction; I found that to be a reasonable argument. 
  • He seeks to align his rational beliefs with reality.  He works within his local prison community trying to empower prisoners and their faulty rational choices through the training of the Socratic method of reasoning for better choices.  I truly admire someone who puts their strong beliefs or truth claims into action, we need more practitioners out there.  His beliefs inform his behavior, that is  epistemologically consistent.
  • He avoids labels.  Doesnt’ find it helpful to claim to be an atheist or some other pre-determined category to have to explain or argue out of with attached baggage. He simply just wants to be perceived as a rational thinker who is honest about the inquiry and processes towards truth. 

What I would push back on with Dr. Boghossian:

  • The hard rationalist approach to me paints Dr. Boghossian into a corner.  It starts with the assumption that the only thing that can be trusted or reliable to lead towards truth, is the result of a rational process only with displayed evidence.  This would discount much of what is being pursued in the Social sciences, the Neurological sciences and Mathematical sciences.  There are research pursuits of learning that are aimed at the micro and macro level of the univers that in fact cause and effect relationships are being quantified but on completely different plains.  The evidence of effect is showing up far from the cause and we know little about why or how this is happening.  It’s interesting, but leaves many of the facts in the world to mystery so we certainly can’t make truth claims off of it except that it reveals how much we still really don’t know about this world and how it works.  So if you narrow down the only things you can know and base life on to the limitations of human rationality, it appears to be a very narrow path for living.  (I suppose Peter would say that narrow path is preferable to wide road of possible delusion)
  • Dr. Boghossian doesn’t need me to care, but I fear this hard-rationalist project will get slaughtered as the global community seeps deeper and deeper into both cultural and epistemological postmodernism.  The hope of the Modernism project that rational thinking, reason and progress will win the day to help with the world’s problems didn’t work for WWI, WWII or any other atrocity we’ve seen over the past 100 years or more.  My hunch is that postmodernism isn’t going anywhere, rather it will define our future projects.  It will be a harsh deconstruction of reason-only explanations for reality, it will be open to mystery, it will be skeptical of truth-claims and it will be unrelenting in its chaos of embracing relative truth.  I don’t embrace postmodernism, I think it’s only evidential end is a kind of chaos, but I do believe that hard-line rationalism will get creamed in the ongoing transition.  I can’t prove that, it’s just a hunch.  😉
  • There is a growing number of people of faith who love science, love math and think it is time to be reasonable about our rhetoric with people of oppostive views.  We don’t believe in a young earth, we are willing to learn and change our minds on some nuances, we are willing to admitt that there are other apects of self that influence our behavior than simply reason and aren’t unglued about the fact that we may not make sense to the entire populace, particularly hard rationalists.  That doesn’t mean we can’t discuss, share coffee/meal over topics, listen to one another, challenge each other, tell each other they are wrong.  This is all reasonable discussion without the rhetoric that ought to be banished to the popular political culture only; it’s a poison to truth-seeking.  As Peter doesn’t want to be labeled, he may be surprised that there is a growing population of people of faith that don’t want to be tied to labels either. This may be a futile goal, but it seems to me that it’s required if we are going to have real conversation about our claims.
  • Based on the conditions of delusion: 1) Certainty 2) Incorrgibility and 3) Implausibility.  This 3rd category appears to be completely subjective.  By looking at the behavior or truth claim of another, if it appears “implausible”, isn’t that only based on the knowledge and experience of the individual posting judgment?  This appears to be a kind of cultural or educational nepotism, if it’s seemingly ‘weird’ or outside your experience, does that make it truly ‘implausible’?  Do we expect 4.3 billion people on earth to share a common view of all experiences so that there is an agreed upon plausibility?  If we close ourselves off of possible learnings, could we be keeping ourselves from new discoveries of evidential truths based on new evidence?  I’m sure I’m being too simplistic here, he didn’t have a chance to unpack this but it’s one of the concepts that didn’t connect with me.
  • Peter admitted to not being able to fully explain the origins of the universe and it possibly being something you can’t know or would never know.  I would suspect behind closed doors he would have at least a semi-formed opinion on it but it wasn’t anything that could fit the narrow processes of reasoned reliability based on evidence.  One cannot re-invent the universe to measure how or why it happened.  To build our only construct of knowing anything or making truth claims based on the limited chapters of the larger story is hard for me to swallow.  It’s like trying to expalin a story while completely leaving out chapters 1-3 and expecting the middle chapters to be enough to fill in the blind spots. 

Mathematically, the universe is infinite.  Humans are not, our minds, our portions of reason are severely limited.  I’m comfortable, would even say it’s reasonable to look outside of only our faculties of rational thinking in search for truth.  But I would strongly consider all truth claims base on good reason and processes of reliable evidences.  Dr. Boghossian’s teaching is a helpful trip across the fence for me to continue to challenge my own truth seeking.