Sunday, July 08, 2007

A Summary on Faith

I am curious how this is going to play out . . .

Carnival of the Godless #70 is out on Friendly Atheist.

In it is an article from Jacob at Winter’s Haven, that Friendly Atheist linked to under the phrase, “faith is not a virtue.” Friendly Atheist also said that this is a response to something I had written (which he also links to).

(So, it looks as if I have an article in this edition of Carnival of the Godless – indirectly.)

One of the things that I pay attention to as a writer is how people read.

My philosophy of writing (at least, for the type of writing that I engage in here) is that writing is theory driven. A concerned writer is always trying to predict what ideas will appear in the mind of the reader when encountering the combination of squiggles and lines that the writer has put on a page. A morally concerned writer wants to make sure that his squiggles (or sounds in the case of podcasts, or images and sounds in the case of video) generates true beliefs and good desires in the brains of those who encounter it.

This, by the way, informs my theory of lying or sophistry. A person lies, not by uttering a proposition that he knows is false, but by uttering a proposition that he knows the reader or listener will interpret in a way that is false. When President Clinton said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” this was a lie. Clinton seems to have sought to defend himself by saying, “By ‘sex’ I mean sexual intercourse, which does not include oral sex.” What makes this a lie is that Clinton certainly knew that the proposition would be interpreted to include a denial of oral sex in the minds of the listeners.

Sophistry or “engineering false beliefs” is the use of true propositions to generate false beliefs in the brains of the listener. In Sophistry: Engineering False Beliefs, I used examples from Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA, 48th District) to show how a sophist tries to get people to believe things that are false without directly lying. The intent is the same – the intent, in this case, is to get people to choose actions that are extremely harmful to themselves and their values my engineering false beliefs. The wrong done here ties directly into the writer’s or speaker’s obligation to judge his honesty by his ability to provide the reader or listener with true beliefs.

This is not to say that the listener or reader’s beliefs are entirely the speaker’s or writer’s responsibility. Readers and writers have some responsibilities as well. Communication is a team effort.

The relevance of these factors to this posting by Friendly Atheist is that I expect some readers will read this part of the posting and draw the following conclusions:

Jacob at Winter’s Haven has written an article saying that faith is not a virtue. He was responding to a post by Atheist Ethicist. Therefore, Atheist Ethicist must believe that faith is a virtue.

The problem is that Friendly Atheist normally has a much larger audience than I do, that the Carnival itself will draw a larger crowd, so there is a risk that the cultural assumption may well become the assumption that Atheist Ethicist believes that faith is a virtue.

Coincidentally, this subject ties directly into the topic that Jacob and I wrote on – which was the ethics of adopting a belief that is a part of the public culture – of assuming something simply because one grows up in a culture where nobody thinks to question it. I argued that it may be wrong, but it is not culpable, to fail to question something that nobody – or a very small segment of society – thinks to be questionable.

Friendly Atheist responsibly linked the reader directly to Jacob’s article, and to mine, giving readers an opportunity to view primary sources. Still, following the model of predicting what ideas will emerge in the minds of the readers, this will reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of people adopting the false belief that Atheist Ethicist (that’s me) argues that faith is a virtue.

So, I’m going to state my position, for the record.

On the concepts of virtue and vice in general, these are not jointly exhaustive categories. There are three moral categories – not two (a feature of morality that trips up many act-based consequentialist theories); the categories of ‘obligation’, ‘permission’ and ‘prohibition’. In the realm of character traits, this points to ‘virtue’ (good desires). ‘vice’ (bad desires), and ‘personal preference’ (desires that are neither good nor bad).

As a result, the proposition, “Faith is not a virtue” does not imply “Faith is a vice”. This proposition allows for the possibility that faith is a personal preference.

Faith is poor justification for a belief – a position that I recently defended in more detail in Faith, Evidence, and Convictions.

It is not a moral failing to adopt a view that is widely accepted in the society in which one lives. In fact, it is reasonable to assume (as a rule of thumb) that a widespread belief is true. In other words, adopting a false belief because it is widely accepted is an example of a non-culpable error.

The above proposition is supported by the fact that we simply do not have the resources – time, ability – to hold each and every one of our beliefs up to the light of reason. We must use quicker, though more fallible, rules of thumb if we are going to have any beliefs at all.

This same lack of resources for holding all of our beliefs up to the light of reason, and the fact that we cannot stop time until we have resolved our differences, argue for a type of ‘belief triage’. Our ‘rules of thumb’ need to be held up to a harm principle, where some extreme cases are categorized as “too much effort required for too little gain”, and others are categorized as “can wait until more urgent issues are taken care of”. The middle category, “urgent matters where immediate action can do the most good” is the category that warrants the greatest focus of attention.

In these areas – global warming, rejection of homosexuals (with its corresponding effect on suicides), opposition to embryonic stem-cell research, opposition to the use of condoms and family planning, opposition to early-term abortions, ‘rapture’ theology’s impact on neglecting policies geared toward long-term human survival, ‘revelations’ theology’s impact on promoting mid-east violence. I have not even mentioned examples where people kill directly, just because (they believe) God wants them to.

Of all of the weapons that a person of faith can use to kill or otherwise harm others, biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons are insignificant in their impotence compared the power the weapon of law. This particular weapon is one which religious zealots even in this country use with reckless abandon, doing countless harm to millions of people every year.

There are naturally going to be some disagreement over what those categories are. For example, I argue that eliminating “under God” and “In God We Trust” is extremely important because they promote in-group favoritism and out-group hostility that prejudices people against those in the best position to offer real-world solutions to real-world problems.

The level of culpability goes up to the degree that an individual professes to be an expert on the subject. Indeed, experts are assumed to have gone outside the fallible ‘rules of thumb’ that people are commonly forced to use because of a lack of time and resources, and grounded their conclusions on something more solid. This allows the common person to say, ‘I do not know or understand the foundation for this commonly accepted belief, but I trust that the experts who speak on this subject have worked those things out.”

It is an abuse of the public trust for people to identify themselves as ‘experts’ when their work is morally and intellectually negligent. They can be – and should be – publicly condemned and shamed not only on intellectual grounds, but on the moral culpability of identifying themselves as experts when they clearly do such a poor job.

So, this is my actual view on the matter.

Where, per chance, somebody seems to have gotten the idea that I argue faith is a virtue, I would not mind it if you would take the opportunity to express the fact that this interpretation is not entirely accurate.


Mpromptu said...

Hmm... I never even thought about the implication you speak of. I just wanted to provide the links!

I added a slight correction (it's not overt) next to your link in the carnival.

I hope there's no confusion!

Anonymous said...

When I read Friendly Atheist's post, I did not get the impression from it that you argued faith as a virtue. The snippets were so short, all I knew for sure was that virtue and faith were being discussed. The implication that what Friendly Atheist wrote was immoral, well.... that's a bit too much of a strech for me.

For what it's worth, of all the blogs he linked, yours is the only one I book marked.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Well, it was not my intention to make any accusations. (See how easy it is to have unintended implications in one's writing?)

Rather, as is the nature of this blog, I sought to exploit this case as an opportunity to present, explain, and apply certain general moral principles. It gave me an opportunity to explain how I view the concepts of 'lying' and 'sophistry'.

It also gave me an opportunity to put my scattered conclusions on the issue of faith in one convenient location for easy access.

Friendly Atheist gave readers easy access to the primary sources, and it would take a careless reading for a reader to draw the conclusions that I was concerned about. I did say that the reader bears SOME responsibility for interpretation.

I do have to say, however, that the modification Friendly Atheist added does make me feel a little better. I appreciate the effort.

Anonymous said...

That's Revelation, not "Revelations" but I wouldn't expect an atheiest to know that.