Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Special Way of Knowing

Announcement: I have been asked to appear on “Faith and Freethought” this Wednesday evening at 8:00 pm eastern time.

A Special Way of Knowing

Sorry, but today I feel like a bit of a rant.

This rant is brought to you by once again encountering the claim, made in criticism of Richard Dawkins, that there is another “special way of knowing” that theists have access to and atheists do not. This is “special way of knowing” that gives access to moral truths, apparently. After all, it is said, nobody can know the difference between right and wrong if they do find it in God.

It is awfully convenient, I think, to have a “special way of knowing” when one wants to do things that harm other people. When standing in the way of life-saving medical treatment, denying people the harmless fulfillment of the only life they will ever have, promoting ignorance in the schools and an anti-science attitude that could very well cause us to take real-world threats, it must be very nice to have a “special way of knowing” that says that all of this is okay.

Another question that I have often heard is, “why are atheists so concerned with God? Why does it matter to you whether I pray or not?”

Actually, it doesn’t matter. If the issue of religion were simply a matter refusing to work on Saturday (or Sunday), when to eat fish, whether to eat pork, fingering rosary beads, kissing a wall, or throwing pebbles at a wall, then it would not be worth the effort to complain too loudly.

Even when it comes to beating oneself bloody with a stick, refusing certain types of medical treatments (as adults, when choosing for himself or herself), or fasting for a month, it is very easy to adopt the attitude, “It’s your life. You do what you want. I have real-world problems to take care of and you’re not worth the distraction.”

However, there are people out there who are killing, maiming, and robbing the quality of life from the only life that other people are ever going to have. And when those others say, “Why are you doing this to me? What justifies the harm that you do?” the only answer that they give is that, “I have a special way of knowing that tells me to do this harm to you – a way of knowing that is beyond proof, beyond reason, but nonetheless is a perfectly good reason to have you killed, maimed, or robbed of quality of life.”

The whole reason for being upset about religious “special way of knowing” is that the people who use this claim are killing, maiming, and robbing the quality of life of other people.

And we (or, at least, I) want that to stop. The world would be a better place without this killing, maiming, and robbing of quality of life.

Benefits/Costs Accounting

Those who complain about Dawkins and Harris and those who complain about religion often cry, “But look at the good that religion has done!” However, the only way to get to the conclusion that religion has done good is by what people in the business world would call “creative accounting.”

For example, let’s say you own a movie company. I come to you with a movie. I say, “If you hire Tom Cruse and Julia Roberts to star in this movie, Peter Jackson to direct it, and load it up with special effects, you will sell $50 million in tickets. $50 million is a lot of money!

That’s creative accounting at work. That type of accounting ignores what it costs to have those people involved in the movie and to create the special effects. It also ignores any consideration of what one could have done if one was not using those resources in this movie, but invested them in another movie instead.

If there were another possibility for a movie, using the same resources, that would bring in $500 million, then making the movie that this author is pitching would cost the company $450 million. This is what it would have to give up producing the first movie with these resources, rather than the second.

This is how true accounting works.

The ‘Good’ that Religion Does

So, when it comes to selling religion for the good that it does, we need to ask what could have been done with the same resources and the same effort. We must not only at the good that people do in the name of God and call this “the good that religion does.” We must look at the good that the devotion of these resources to religion prevented from being done. This becomes the cost of religion.

So, what else could have been done with the resources that have gone into religion? What could have been done with the labor that went into building the churches and temples and paying the priests? What could have been done with the time spent studying the religious texts? What else could people have been doing on a Sunday morning, if they had not been going to church? What else could have been done with the time and the money and the man-hours of labor that went into religious pilgrimages, religious art, and all of the activities that are a part of religious ceremonies?

What if, instead, people over the past 2,000 years had built more schools and universities instead of churches? What if there had been teachers instead of priests? What if the time spent studying the bible had been spent studying the results of this research and turning it into ways to protect people from disease and natural disasters, understanding human behavior, figuring out how to prevent war, and creating societies where the governments were of, by, and for the people, rather than societies where people were the serfs and slaves to (those in) government.

What if the resources spent on religious studies had been added to the resources devoted to science? What if, instead of 400 years of science behind us, we were now sitting on 2,000 years of scientific advances? What if people actually understood physics, chemistry, medicine, earth sciences, ecology, climatology, psychology, engineering, and the like?

What would we have today if the time and energy that went into studying the Bible had, instead, gone into studying the laws of nature?

What we do not have now because of resources that went to the church instead of the science is a part of “the good that religion does.” What our great grand children will not have 100 years from now because of resources that will go into religion instead of science will be a part of the future cost of religion.

We can ask this question in the opposite direction. What will your great grand children have in 100 years from now if we took all of the money that goes into these fields - physics, chemistry, medicine, earth sciences, ecology, climatology, psychology, engineering, and the like – and spent them on religion instead?

Do you want to save your great granddaughter the pain of diabetes, leukemia, cancer, Alzheimer’s?

Do you want to spare her the pain of having a child that suffers from any of countless possible birth defects?

Do you care if she ends up suffering from the effects of breathing poisoned air or drinking poisoned water?

Do you want to help protect her from a future hurricane, tornado, earthquake, volcano, flash flood, mud slide, drought, famine, or any of a long list of natural disasters?

Do you want to prevent the wholesale destruction of the society in which she lives from the effects of a global epidemic or a planet-wide natural disaster such as an asteroid strike?

Do you want to protect her from an accident at sea, keep her airplanes in the air, or design her car to improve her chance of surviving a collision?

Do you want to protect her from future murderers and rapists – because this, too, can be done through an investment in science? It can be done by improving our understanding of how the human mind works, at what makes murderers and rapists, how to find them, and how to better protect us from the threats they pose.

And remember, every future criminal locked up in prison or executed will be somebody’s grandson or granddaughter. We can protect people from that as well.

If you care about your great grand daughter, you can pray for a miracle, or you can help to discover the theories that best predict and explain events in the real world related to each of these sets of events.

Science is the instrument for explaining and predicting how things actually behave. If we know how these things behave, then we can learn how to protect your great granddaughter from these harms. And we may be able to provide her with benefits that she cannot even imagine.

The washing machine, the air conditioner, the refrigerator, electricity and the light bulb, telephones that keep parents and children together half way around the world, music and video on demand, a whole internet full of information at the fingertips of those who know how to sort the wheat from the chaff, a variety of food, the opportunity to visit any place on the planet and, soon, for more and more people, the opportunity to visit places not on this Earth.

I suggest that if you care about these things, one of the things you do not need is to surround your great granddaughter with people who think that the harms they do to others can be justified by a “special way of knowing” that requires no evidence, no proof, only the faith that these people have that the harms they cause to your great granddaughter serves God.

“Special ways of knowing . . .” They can be so darned convenient in a pinch, can’t they?


On a cold wilderness lake in northern Canada there are 100 children riding in a large boat. A sudden accident – a navigation error that runs the boat over a rock and rips the bottom out of it – causes the boat to sink. One hundred children are dumped into the icey mountain water. Nearby, a man with a small boat of his own rows up, grabs the nearest little girl, pulls her into his boat, and heads for shore. His boat could probably hold a dozen children, but he rescues one.

Once on dry land, he lets the girl get out, and he gets out with her. He talks with the girl and comforts her – she has had a terrible fright.

Meanwhile, out on the lake, ninety-nine children are drowning or freezing to death.

A short while later, a couple of hikers rush out of the woods to help. They see the man and his boat. The man points to the little girl and says, “See, I am a hero. I rescued her. She would have died if not for me.”

Meanwhile, out on the lake, ninety-nine children continue to die.

For some reason, the hikers are not pleased with this man’s heroics. They insist on taking the boat out and rescuing some of the other children before it is too late.

“No,” said the man. “I have rules. Nobody rides in my boat but me. I also have another rule – no more than two people in my boat at the same time. That’s why I could only rescue one girl. Finally, I have a rule that states that those not rescued on the first attempt are in God’s hands. We must not interfere. If we interfere, then we will be playing God. We will be making decisions that are God’s decisions to make, and we can’t do that. It’s wrong.”

When they ask him why, he answers, “I have special ways of knowing that are not subject to reason or evidence. These are things that just are. My special ways of knowing tell me that it is wrong to save those children. I know this, and no amount of evidence can ever come between me and my faith.”

The two hikers are furious. They insist on taking the boat out. The man insists that if they do then they are not respecting his beliefs.

So, ninety-nine children die.

When the press hears about the accident, when they are told of the children who could have been saved but were not, he puffs out his chest and boasts, “I am a hero. I saved this little girl. She would have died if not for me. Look at all of the good that I do. Those who criticize me . . . those who condemn me . . . they all seem to forget all of the good that I have done. They forget about this one girl who would have died if not for me.”

Furthermore, he announces, as if proud of the fact, “Hey, if it was not for my devotion to these rules – the rules that told me to rescue one young girl, I would not have rescued anybody! You must love me and my rules because if not for those rules I would have even let this one girl drown with the rest of them.”

Forgive me if I find the claim that this man with his “special ways of knowing” is some kind of hero and that I am ignoring the good that he is done to be somewhat hollow.

Why care that some people have these “special ways of knowing?”

Because they use this "special way of knowing" that is not subject to evidence or proof, that the agent simply 'sees', to do real-world harm to real-world people. Because real-world children, in this generation or the next, will be suffer an otherwise preventable death, maiming, or loss of quality of life because of it.


D xxxx said...

Excellent post!!

ellis said...

Lovely post. I riffed a bit about it on my blog, if you're interested...

Anonymous said...

Even when you threaten a rant, you make lots of sense.

As always, well done!

BlackSun said...

Great discussion of "other ways of knowing" and "opportunity cost."

Couldn't agree more.

mtraven said...

None of this matters in the least. It doesn't matter whether something "could have done" better than religion, the fact is is that in real life, human society, culture, and cognition evolved with religiosity as a key component. That's why religion is a "special way of knowing", and it doesn't s on this, so matter a damn whether that knowledge is valid by the criteria of science or common sense. Religion is by definition not reasonable and you won't reason people out of their beliefs.

I'm all for reducing religion's pernicious influences but it won't be possible without some understanding of what religion is for.

The New York Times is starting to cover sociology and evolution of religion -- you could start there and then read Atran, Boyer, and Wilson.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You seem to be writing under the assumption that an author who does not address your specific interests - who has interests other than what interests you - is for some reason 'at fault'.

I write an ethics blog. My interest is in assessing the soundness of moral arguments. Premises in a moral argument that are backed up by appeal to "a special way of knowing" make for very poor moral arguments.

Furthermore, if the conclusion of that argument is something that is harmful to others, we can say that the appeal to "a special way of knowing" is not only logically objectionable, but morally objectionable. A person who claims that others may be harmed has a moral obligation to provide reasons for harm that are grounded on something more solid than this "special way of knowing."

I will leave it to you and others to determine "what religion is for". That is not my topic. I am not a sociologist by training. I am a moral philosopher by training.

It is one thing to ask whether or not the man in the convenience store with the gun does what is right if he shoots the clerk. It is quite another thing for the clerk to ask about the best strategy to prevent him from doing so.

It may well be the case that moral reasoning will have no effect on the man with the gun. Then again, I have repeatedly argued, that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to argue whether it is legitimate or illegitimate to take those actions that will have an effect.

It is not a fault in my posting that I did not cover subjects that I had no intention of covering.

mtraven said...

Yes, it's your blog and you can write about what you like, and please forgive me my somewhat irritable comment.

However (and now maybe I'm being rude some more) I don't see much value in abstract moral philosophy that is not very well informed by sociology, biology, ans psychology about actual human nature.

To me, your argument about the opportunity cost of religion is somewhat like a person who notices that eating plants, while it gets us some energy, is vastly inefficient -- wouldn't it be better if we just directly performed photosynthesis ourselves? Well, yes, maybe it would, but that's not how we are put together.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Here, again, you are interpreting my post as if I have a conclusion of the form, "Why don't we X" where X = (something analogous to photosynthesis).

Perhaps it would help if you identified this 'X' that I am saying we should do that you assert is analogous to photosynthesis. That would help to determine what it is that I wrote that your objection applies to.

Of course, moral theory must be informed by sociology, biology, and psychology. These fields, in turn, must be informed by such things as physics and chemistry, which are informed by math and logic, which . . . ultimately . . . are informed by "abstract philosophy."

My post is concerned with valid and invalid reasoning - with whether the premises (evidence, observations) that people draw on actually support the conclusions they claim to draw from that evidence. I suggest that it would be difficult to do sociology, biology, or psychology without a proper understanding of the "abstract philosophy" of assessing the types of conclusions that can be drawn from available evidence.

It would be a mistake if I were to assert that a proposition to be true that any of these fields has demonstrated to be false (or vica versa). However, once again, if I have made such a mistake, please point it out to me. Please identify the proposition - implicit or explicit - in this posting that has been proved false.

Or, again, identify the 'X' (the assertion of what we should do - like photosynthesis) that I asserted that we should do that we are incapable of doing.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree. Any worldview that does not strive to be objective necessarily warps the person who holds it. One who chooses to deny (or remain ignorant of) reality, regardless of their reasoning, carries with them the potential to do horrific damage to society as a whole.