Monday, 18 May 2009

Yet More on Faith - Fish Fingered

From Stanley Fish's article in the New York Times:
The theological formulation of this insight [reasoning without assumptions is impossible] is well known: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11). Once the act of simply reporting or simply observing is exposed as a fiction — as something that just can’t be done — the facile opposition between faith-thinking and thinking grounded in independent evidence cannot be maintained. Pking gets it right. “To torpedo faith is to destroy the roots of . . . any system of knowledge . . . I challenge anyone to construct an argument proving reason’s legitimacy without presupposing it . . . Faith is the base, completely unavoidable. Get used to it. It’s the human condition.” (All of us, not just believers, see through a glass darkly.) Religious thought may be vulnerable on any number of fronts, but it is not vulnerable to the criticism that in contrast to scientific or empirical thought, it rests on mere faith.
This is classic pomo style defence of religious thought, and whilst the argument is trivially true (in the sense that at bottom we all have to make assumptions a priori) it *isn't* the point of the reason/faith divide. The point is that the religious *do* use reason themselves, so they *do* adopt the same assumptions as the non-theist. But here's the rub; *except* when it comes to their privileged god belief. So the theist takes on board the assumption of reason, not unreasonably, and then discards it for one *particular* belief. This strikes me as inconsistent at best and dishonest at worst. What has Stanley Fish used to formulate his anti-reason attack if not reason itself? Any other tool than *reason* and it would have been a series of wildly unconnected thoughts of no relevance to the point in question (no jokes, please, tempting though it is). To attack *reason*, therefore, is self-defeating. All that non-theists ask is that theists apply the same critical thinking to their religious belief as they would to all their other beliefs.

It's also wrong historically, since most people in the past would have felt, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that everything around them was testament to the truth of the god concept. Homo sapiens had good *reason* to believe there were greater movers at work. It was the way his mind constructed a believable narrative about his situation.

More dangerously, to take a realisation about our epistemology (that we have no reason to assume reason!) and extend it to allow belief without reason is simply a recipe for conflict. Without allowing reason its supremacy, we simply have no conflict resolution mechanism. Well, other than violence, I guess.

And once again we have a theist defending the notion of faith without evidence, contradicting Catholic doctrine, and other theists, like Polkinghorne. Is it any wonder the non-believer has to spread his attacks wide, only to be accused of attacking the wrong target? There are so many different versions of superstitious belief, it is a Sisyphean task.

It really is about time the theists got together and sorted their story out. Do they believe for good reason, or not?

Fish continues:
So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.
It is more reasonable to believe that religion is an inferior way of knowing because:  
  • It hasn't *demonstrated* any advantage over reason when it comes to taking advantage of reality; quite the opposite.  
  • The religious way of knowing has led to numerous unsubstantiated and conflicting claims about the world. Logic compels us to say that they cannot *all* be right, so we must exclude at least all but one. Which are we to choose?

Why would a god make believing in him such an unreasonable proposal?


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