Friday, August 01, 2008

Ways of Knowing and Justified Harm

In an opinion piece in Salon, Karl Giberson wrote about What's Wrong with Science as Religion.. He spoke about ways of knowing that are outside of science.

When Salon interviewed me about my new book, "Saving Darwin," I suggested that science doesn't know everything, that there might be a reality beyond science, and that religion might be about God and not merely about the human quest for a nonexistent God.

Whenever I read a claim that there are special ways of knowing, I have a question that always comes crashing into the front of my consciousness.

A special way of knowing what?

Just take a look at the things that people claim to have a special way of knowing.

That it would be wrong for us to harvest the medical advances that could come from embryonic stem cell research.

That women must be covered from head to toe if they should ever go outside, can never travel without an escort (so they spend most of their life imprisoned in their home or under guard), are to be denied an education, and are to be subjected to rules that make decent medical care impossible.

That magical monkeys built a land bridge from India to Ceylon and, as a result, cutting a channel through this thin strip of land (to make trade more efficient) is prohibited.

That apostates should be put to death.

That homosexuals should be put to death.

That people who name a teddy bear Mohammed should be put to death.

That people who criticize religious beliefs should be put to death.

That atheists cannot be moral (or can be moral only insofar as they live under Christian domination) and that they are unfit for public office or positions of public trust.

That the last person you would want your child to marry was an atheist.

That we don’t have to worry about anything catastrophic happening to the whole Earth, because God would not allow it.

That we do not need to worry about the long-term consequences of our actions (such as a huge national debt, global warming, or overpopulation) because God is going to end the world in a few years anyway.

That you may kill or rape or otherwise do whatever harm pleases you, as long as you accept Jesus as your savior before death – while the atheist ho spent his life in service to others is doomed to everlasting damnation.

That children with simple diseases such as juvenile diabetes are to be prayed over rather than given medical treatment because what they are really suffering from is alienation from God.

That it is better to die than to have a blood transfusion.

That it is better that your child dies than that your child has a blood transfusion.

That intelligent design is a science.

That atheists and others not ‘under God’ are to be thought of as belonging to the same un-American, anti-patriotic family as those who do not support an indivisible nation, or those who do not support liberty and justice for all.

That it is permissible to put a sign on the money and in public buildings that tell the people of a nation, “If you do not trust in God, then you are not one of us.”

That the course of hurricanes and the success of terrorist attacks can be influenced by the number of times school children are compelled to pray in public schools.

That billions of dollars donated to a televangelist counts as charity.

That God gave the land of Israel to the Jews and it is perfectly within their rights – that it is indeed their duty – to restore their country to their biblical boundaries by whatever means necessary, including war.

That stealing a cracker is the same as kidnapping.

That it is necessary to discourage the use of condoms or other forms of birth control which, in turn, aids in the spread of disease, poverty, and death.

Giberson says that, "I worry about dogmatism and the kind of zealotry that motivates the faithful to blow themselves up, shoot abortion doctors and persecute homosexuals." However, if there is this special way of knowing out there, then on what grounds does he question others claims to have a special way of knowing that these are permissible - even obligatory - actions?

In making this list, I focused on the false beliefs that are still in play today, and which are currently causing people to act in ways that are harmful to their own interests or the interests of others.

I have ignored past religious beliefs such as the appropriateness of slavery, the divine right of kings, the economic backwardness of not charging interest, the subjugation of women, the need to free the holy lands from infidels, and the need to have only one religion in Europe and to do violence to all heretics.

I have also ignored absurd beliefs that people hold today that do not inspire people to behave in ways harmful to others. Even if we accept the premise that religion does some good and inspires people to act in ways that benefit others – it is still far better to have a religion that inspires people to produce these benefits without the harms than it is to have a religion that inspires benefits with harms.

I am also not going to deny that some atheists have absurd beliefs as well. In some cases, they are beliefs that also inspire them to act in ways harmful to the interests of others. However, it is not the case that the faults of some atheist imply that theists have the moral right to hold beliefs that inspire them to harm others. Instead, morality and reason tell us to hold the atheist with beliefs that render them a threat to others the same way that we should regard theists who have beliefs that make them a threat to others.

When it comes to beliefs that make a person a threat to the interests of others, those ‘others’ have the right to demand that people who would do them harm defend their reasons for doing so. The claim that the attacker has a “special way of knowing” that the harm he does is good and right and proper simply is not good enough.

Somebody comes at you and says that he is going to beat you to a bloody pulp with his club. When you demand that he justify his actions – that he explain why he is going to do this to you, he answers, “I have no reason that I can explain to you. I was out in nature and it just struck me, with a certainty that I cannot explain, that you are to be beaten to a bloody pulp. Do not ask me to explain it. This comes from a special way of knowing that transcends all reason.”

If the things that a person believes as a result of this ‘special way of knowing’ are harmless, then there is reason to leave the poor deluded individual alone. There are more important things to spend our time on. In fact, if the choice were to spend time in opposition to the harmless falsehoods of some theist, or the harmful falsehoods that have come to grip some group of atheists, then dealing with the atheists is far more important than dealing with the harmless theists.

There is no rule in nature that says, “Hey, by a wonderful coincidence, the things that we can know by a special way of knowing are things that do not make us a threat to others. While, things that would make us a threat to others are things that can be known by reason – things where we can meet the moral demand of those we would harm that we provide reasons.”

It is morality that says that we can afford the luxury of letting people hold beliefs without reason when those beliefs are harmless (or, perhaps, beneficial) to others. But it is also morality that demands, when one person wishes to engage in behavior that is harmful to the interests of others, that he provide us with a reason. “I have a special way of knowing that others should e harmed” is not good enough.

In the realm of epistemology (the study of knowledge) we have no reason to believe that the support for claims that put one at risk of acting in ways harmful to others are subject to a different set of rules as harmless or beneficial beliefs. We have good reason to expect people to provide reasons for those types of beliefs as well. We just have less of a reason to push the issue in those cases.

1 comment:

anticant said...

Impressive post, Alonzo. Very refreshing, after increasingly futile logic-chopping with a closed-circuit minded fundie called Sye over on Stephen Law's blog. His stock response to demands for proof that the universe and everything in it emanates from the mind of God is "the impossibility of the contrary"!!