Friday, January 26, 2007

Faith: A Defect of Desire

Today, I wish to argue that faith is not so much a defect in belief, but a defect in desire.

My topic has a context. My most recent education project involves listening to all of the sessions from the recent conference, “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival”. They have been a joy to listen to. They brought back memories from graduate school, when I had an opportunity to listen to groups of extremely well educated people debate an issue. It is marvelous to behold – as wonderful as any scene of natural beauty – to watch great minds at work.

Over the course of the next indeterminate number of weekends, I would like to report on some of the speeches that were given and to make comments on some of the speakers’ key points.

Weinberg's Presentation on the Conflict between Religion and Science

This first essay in this series considers the first speech given at the conference. In it, Dr. Steven Weinberg, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin, discussed the conflict between religion and science. He argued that the conflict went deeper than simply a dispute over the literal truth of the Bible. Specifically, he suggested that there were four major areas of conflict.

(1) Religion places humans at the center of the universe – physically and in terms of cosmic importance. Science, on the other hand, has consistently questioned the cosmic significance of the human race. Instead of being actors in this cosmic struggle between good and evil at the very center of creation, humans occupy an little blue dot that orbits an average star in a galaxy of 400 billion stars that is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in, possibly, one of countless universes in a multiverse.

(2) Science has removed the need for religious explanations. It was once popular to see God in the mysteries of the universe. However, science has come in and given us alternative explanations that do not need God. Science is even getting a grip on explaining the finer qualities of humans – our capacity to love, for charity, and for kindness – all without a God.

(3) Science chains the hands of God. When we explain things in terms of natural law, we leave less room for God to act on the universe.

(4) Science conflicts with religion in terms of “ways of knowing”. Religion uses prophets and scripture – sources of allegedly unerring truth that we can go back to again and again. Science has heroes, but no prophets.

For my part, I want to focus on the first of these four areas of conflict and see if I can add something to it.

The Desire that God Exists

Statement 1 suggests that a state of affairs in which humans are the center of cosmic attention is important to a great many people. It is so important that they have an adverse reaction to any theory that suggests that we are not the center of cosmic attention. We are, instead, a group of animals who are trying to survive in a universe that is substantially indifferent as to our survival – that would not miss us at all if we were to disappear.

As a desire-utilitarian, I want to take a look at the nature of this desire to be the center of cosmic attention.

Desire utilitarianism is built on the idea that desires are propositional attitudes. A person with a desire that 'P' (for some proposition P - such as, "Humans are at center of cosmic attention") has a motivating interest in making or keeping 'P' true. He 'values' states of affairs in which 'P' is true and finds no value in states of affairs in which 'P' is false, and these values provide him with reasons for action.

Note: A person can find value in states of affairs where 'P' is false, but where 'Q' is true and the agent has a desire that 'Q'. However, for purposes of explaining the relationship of states of affairs and desires, we can ignore these unnecessary complications.

Anyway, in considering this desire to be the center of cosmic attention, the desire utilitarian comes up with a number of questions.

(1) What, exactly, are the propositions ‘P’ that are the objects of this desire to be at the center of cosmic attention? What do these people want, really? It seems that they want to see themselves as important to somebody else. However, they are not seeking to be special to just anybody – not to their spouses, parents, children, friends, neighbors, and countrymen. They want to be special in the eyes of some super being called God. If this God does not like them, then life is not worth living.

(2) Are the desires identified in (1) biologically fixed, or are they malleable (learned)? Did nature, through a process of natural selection, select for a “want to be seen as important to a super being gene”? Or is this desire to be seen as important to some super being something that people learn – because adults tell them as children “you are worthless unless the super being loves you”?

Malleable or Fixed?

On the question of whether this desire to be loved by a super being – or a desire to be the center of cosmic attention – I think it is reasonable to hold that this is not an innate desire, but one that is learned. There are simply too many people who do not have it – and whose not having it seems to be tied more strongly to social and environmental factors than to genetic factors – to suggest that it is a matter of biological necessity.

The following is a particularly weak form of argument, and I want it to be known that I recognize it as such. However, I will offer it for the feeble merit it does have. I, for one, have no trouble with the idea that humanity is not at the center of cosmic attention, or that I am not special in the eyes of some super-being. I have no trouble accepting the fact that we humans live on a speck of dust orbiting an average star that is one of trillions of average stars in the galaxy. Humanity does not have to be special to some super ghost to be special to me. It is sufficient that they are my neighbors, that they are people that I share my life with. That alone makes them special to me.

However, beyond personal testimony, one can browse the internet to read hundreds of stories of people who became or are atheists. Many come from highly religious parents, and they explain their conversion by referring to things that they noticed in the world around them. Though these explanations may be some sort of confabulation, it is not an unreasonable first guess to think that these environmental factors actually had the power that the speakers attribute to them – the power to cause people to become comfortable with the scientific facts of human existence.

All of this suggests that the person who has come to desire that he be loved by a super-ghost learned that desire.

The 'Ought' of Desire

Desire utilitarianism states that if a particular desire is malleable – if the strength or even existence of a desire can be molded through social custom – we then have reason to ask if we should promote or inhibit that desire. Desires themselves are the only reasons for action that exist – so they are the only ‘reasons for action’ that are relevant in answering this question. Does a desire to be the centers of cosmic attention or the desire to be loved by a super-ghost constitute a good desire that we have many and strong reasons to promote, or a bad desire that we have many and strong reasons to inhibit?

One major problem with promoting such a desire is that it is a desire that can never be fulfilled. A “desire that ‘P’” is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which ‘P’ is true. A desire to be loved by a super-ghost can only be fulfilled in a state where the proposition, “I am loved by a super-ghost” is true. Whether a proposition is or can be true does not depend on how badly people may want it to be true. In this case, the proposition, “I am loved by a super-ghost” can never be true, because no such super-ghost exists.

Okay, it is true that I cannot prove that this super-ghost exists. However, I can prove that a super-ghost who hates an individual is just as likely as a super-ghost who likes an individual. And a super-ghost who loves an individual who is particularly cruel and clever is just as likely as a super-ghost with a fondness for people who are kind and charitable. There are an infinite number of super-ghost possibilities, which means that the odds of any person being right about the nature of any super-ghost is (1/infinity) – or (for all practical purposes), zero.

Since the desire to be loved by a super-ghost can never be fulfilled, the only thing that an agent can hope for is that the desire will be satisfied.

I have not talked about satisfaction much in the context of desire utilitarianism, but it does have an important role to play. Recall that a “desire that ‘P’” is fulfilled in any state of affairs where P is made or kept true. On the other hand, a person experiences satisfaction in any state of affairs where he or she believes that P is true. Satisfaction is a psychological state – like pleasure or happiness – that is felt.

A person with a “desire that ‘P’” where P can never be true cannot have his desire fulfilled. However, he can still obtain satisfaction – obtain a jolt of pleasure – from believing that P is true, as long as he can be convinced. However, satisfaction in these cases requires a false belief. They require that the agent live a lie – live in a fantasy – where he thinks that something is true when it is not true in fact.

Living a lie means suppressing any love of discovery or love of truth. Any love of discovery or of truth will reveal the lie and destroy the satisfaction that results.

However, this love of discovery and love of truth have important values themselves. We aim to fulfill our desires, and seek satisfaction instead of fulfillment only when (we believe) that fulfillment is not possible. To fulfill our desires we need true beliefs – and the more true beliefs we have, the more desires we can fulfill. We have reason to want to be surrounded by truth. One way to get this is to promote a love of truth and intellectual responsibility in oneself and others. A love of truth, however, will threaten the satisfaction we achieve by believing we are loved by a super-ghost.

Side Effects

As it turns out, the set of beliefs that are associated with the claim, "Humans are the center of cosmic attention," come with a number of other false beliefs and desires that are harmful to others. Those who deceive themselves into believing that they are the center of cosmic attention also deceive themselves into thinking that they may act in ways harmful to homosexuals, those who can benefit from stem-cell research, and those who do not deceive themselves.

These relationships between the belief, “I am loved by a super-ghost” and these other beliefs are contingent. Nothing in nature requires that they be connected. As such, it is possible (however unlikely) that a person can have a desire to be loved by a super ghost and a willingness to help the homeless, to tell the truth, and to seek new discoveries. It just happens to be the case that those who desire that they be loved by God do not value these things. Instead, they value things that make them a threat to the well-being of others.

Contingent facts are still facts. Unnecessary and unjustified harms are still harms.

The Evolution Example

I would like to illustrate some of my points with a discussion of religion.

People are upset over the idea that humans are ‘mere animals’. They have a “desire that ‘P’” for some proposition P that humans be something more than pure animals who came about without conscious intent or design. This is clearly one of their desires, but it is a desire that cannot be fulfilled. As a matter of fact, humans are a product of evolution, and a desire that this not be the case does not prevent it from being true. At best, those who have this desire can obtain the psychological jolt of satisfaction that comes from believing we did not evolve, if they can deceive themselves or allow others to deceive them into believing such a thing.

We have good reason to believe that this desire that humans are manufactured entities is learned – because a lot of us do not have this desire. There are a lot of us who have no aversion to a state of affairs in which humans are the products of evolution – which means that many of us can have no aversion to a state where humans are the product of evolution. There is no better evidence that something can be the case than to discover that it is the case.

So this aversion to being products of evolution is not innate, it is learned. Those who have this aversion were taught to have this aversion. It is not natural. It is not innate.

One of the effects of teaching a child to have an aversion to being an evolved being is to create a child that cannot obtain satisfaction in the real world. It creates a child who can only obtain satisfaction in a fictional world – in a state where she had been made to believe a fiction.

A worse effect is that those who are taught to believe this fiction tend to follow it with other fictions – fictions that make the individual a threat to the lives and well-being of others. These are fictions that make them a threat to homosexuals seeking to live a fulfilling life, and to those who can benefit from stem-cell research, just to name two common examples. Those who are harmed by these people have good reason to protest those who raise their children to be a threat to the well-being of others.

Additional Implications

If somebody acquires a bad belief, all else being equal, they can typically be reasoned out of it. The most serious exception to this comes when the agent is also given a particular affection for that belief, or a desire for states of affairs in which that belief is true. Once that desire is attached to a belief, then agents have an annoying tendency to hold onto such belief in the absence of all evidence to the contrary. Giving up the belief is just too painful, once it has a sufficiently strong desire attached to it.

All of the reason in the world will not cause a desire to go away.

You can take a smoker and explain to him how bad smoking is. He can even agree that smoking will put at risk many of the things he desires, and from these he may acquire sufficient reasons for action to quit smoking. But the desire to smoke is still there, tearing at him, driving him to another cigarette.

You can take a person with an aversion to being an evolved creature and give them all sorts of reasons to believe that we are an evolved creature. He may even be able to see the reasons and accept them as sound. However, no amount of reason can touch his aversion at being an evolved creature. The pain and frustration of recognizing that one is in a state that one has been taught to hate being in is real. It is a powerful force driving the person to give up those beliefs, and to at least obtain the satisfaction that comes from believing a lie.

This is why reason seems to have so little effect on such people. Theirs is not a defect of belief, which is subject to the power of reason. Theirs is a defect of desire, which reason cannot touch. It is a defect of desire that was given to them. Allegedly, the culprits in this case were people who thought they were doing the right thing. In fact, the child was victimized by somebody who made him into a person who cannot be happy in the real world – whose happiness will depend on believing a lie. Worse, it requires believing a lie that comes with other beliefs that make the child a threat to others.

This is not a situation that people with good desires – desires consistent with the real world and with the fulfillment of other desires – have any reason to perpetuate and protect.

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