Monday, October 01, 2007

Religion and the Possibility of Change

In an article that I read today, Should Science Speak to Faith in Scientific American, Richard Dawkins and Laurence Kraus discussed how scientists should approach the issue of faith. Kraus wrote about the value of reaching out to people of faith to get them interested in science, while Dawkins saw faith and science to be substantially incompatible and contradictory.

One view that Kraus defended was that religious belief is inevitable, so that we must learn to live with it.

Rejecting the Inevitable

I want to get rid of the notion that simply because something is an inevitable part of our society does not mean that we need to put it in the category of ‘morally permissible’. I sincerely doubt that we are going to get rid of rape or racism. Barring any type of extremely intrusive intervention that currently exists only in the realm of science fiction, there will be people who will rape others; and there will be people who will denigrate others on account of race.

However, nobody would take seriously the claim that since rape and racial bigotry will always be a part of our society that, therefore, we must learn to tolerate rape and racial bigotry. No argument that it is ‘within our nature’ to rape and to judge others on the basis of race will make it morally permissible to do so.

By the way, desire utilitarianism takes account of this. The purpose of morality is to use the tools of praise and condemnation to create or promote good desires and to weaken and eliminate bad desires. The question to be asked in desire utilitarian terms is not whether rape or bigotry is a part of our nature. The question to ask is whether we can, and whether we have reason to, weaken this part of our nature or cover it up through social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. It appears quite reasonable to believe that the desires that lead to rape and bigotry will be stronger and more widely spread in a culture that tolerates these attitudes, compared to a society that condemns them.

In short, some 'false belief' may be inevitable, but that does not mean that we lack the ability to influence its degree, even if we cannot eliminate it entirely.

Possible Objection

I suspect that somebody might object to the section above by claiming, “How dare you compare religion to rape and bigotry!”

As a matter of fact, I did compare religion to rape and bigotry. What I did was reduce the argument, “X is something that we can never be rid of; therefore, we should learn to live with X and tolerate those who engage in X,” to an absurdity. I introduced the two obvious cases of X that meet the criterion of being something that we cannot be rid of in order to show that it does not follow that we should accept and learn to live with those who do X.

The question still remains as to whether religious belief falls into the same category as these other items. That is the issue that I turn to next.

Intellectual Integrity and Responsibility

Before addressing Kraus’ specific claim, I want to look at the more general moral obligation to intellectual integrity and responsibility.

There is a duty that is particularly strong where the well-being of others is at stake for a person to accept a certain measure of responsibility for his beliefs. Particularly when his beliefs drive him to do actions that are harmful to others, a moral appreciation for the fact that one is considering doing harm means that a person of good moral character will take that harm seriously and avoid it unless the facts leave him no other choice. He will not hold beliefs that would drive him to do harm to others recklessly.

The whole branch of morality known as ‘due process’ is built on this foundation. The obligation to do no harm unless the need for harm has been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt, for the accused to have the opportunity to argue in his own defense and to present witnesses that he is not, in fact, deserving of this harm. Those who do not accept these principles are people who are too casual about the harms they inflict for civil society. Those who accept an argument for doing harm to others too casually are, by this fact, showing that they are evil. They lack qualities that we have reason to promote in others.

This obligation is built upon a premise that good people would be averse to causing harm to others. This aversion will cause a good person to stop, to think twice, and to say at times, “I do not know, and the benefit of the doubt rests with those that I would have otherwise harmed.”

One unquestionable fact is that we will always have to deal with false beliefs. As long as humans are alive, at least one will believe that a proposition is true. False beliefs would fit Kraus’s category of something that will always exist.

However, in spite of this fact, we have reason to reduce the overall incidence of false belief. People seek to create states of affairs that fulfill their desires. However, they act so as to create states of affairs given their beliefs. If all of their beliefs were true and complete, all of their actions would be successful. However, ignorance gets in the way of success, preventing people from realizing states that they desire to realize, and often hurting others in the process.

So, rational people have reason to set up institutions that promote morally responsible behavior when it comes to examining beliefs and that encourage people to reject beliefs that lead to harm to others unless the evidence in favor is overwhelming. Those who refuse to do so remain a threat to others, promoting false belief and intellectual irresponsibility that leads to harm.

So, we can accept this modified version of Kraus’s statement – false beliefs will always be among us, with accepting his conclusion that we must accept false beliefs and deny that there is any moral transgression involved in forming false beliefs.

The Criteria of Harm and Efficiency

At this point, it is important to note that I have built this argument on a concept of harm. Moral responsibility requires that agents review those beliefs that would make the agent a threat to the well-being of others if they were to be adopted. It is extremely difficult to make a similar argument when the false beliefs are relatively harmless. If a belief is a belief that poses no threat to others, then what reason to others have for being concerned with whether or not the agent adopts that belief?

This, then, argues in favor of a sort of belief-triage. Reason (rationality, ‘the wise thing to do’) suggests looking at the range of false beliefs that people have and tackling those that (1) do a great deal of harm, and (2) can be efficiently battled. Focusing on these beliefs means preventing the most harm with the least amount of input (saving input to be applied against other evils. This means ignoring those false beliefs that are too strongly seated to be removed, and ignoring those false beliefs that are trivial in that those who hold them are in no way a threat to others. It means dealing with these beliefs as a side effect of dealing with the easily changed roots of the most harmful actions.

Ultimately, this was the position Kraus was arguing for - focusing on the worst of religion the most effective way possible, and dealing with the rest of it later to the degree necessary to secure our future safety and happiness.

Disagreement in Detail

Of course, people will disagree about which patients can be saved (which false beliefs can be easily eliminated) and how much effort it will take to save them (by eliminating those false beliefs). There will be instances where one triage expert will count a patient as ‘beyond savoing’ that another will think can be easily saved.

Yet, this argument does give us a set of criteria for looking at those disputes, and a checklist for looking at which arguments and which data are relevant. What we are looking for in these cases is evidence for and against the propositions, (1) belief X causes people to behave in ways that make them a threat to others, and (2) belief X can be relatively easily changed at least to the point of making measurable progress against this harm.

Please note that these are empirical claims. People may have to rely on their feelings to determine if these propositions are true or false in a particular case, as long as nothing else comes along, but there are data to be sought after for people involved in such a dispute.

It would be quite interesting, I think, if the scientific-minded people in this dispute were to actually call forth their expertise to look for the evidence for and against their various positions and examine that evidence critically, just as they would do so for a paper written in their chosen professions.


Anonymous said...

"It would be quite interesting, I think, if the scientific-minded people in this dispute were to actually call forth their expertise to look for the evidence for and against their various positions and examine that evidence critically, just as they would do so for a paper written in their chosen professions."

Amen! it's high time anti-god scientists stopped preaching like baptist ministers and started proving their points like any scientist should.

Anonymous said...

on another, more substantial note: i can't say that i agree that faith is all wrong and that science needs to do as much damage control as possible. I think another good way for scientists to approach faith is ... to study it! Find out what faith does, how it works, etc. Perhaps we will figure out how to recalibrate faith and make it something useful; perhaps we will find out that it is not faith after all that had been causing all these problems but some other co-occurring "feature". But for that, we'd have to _know_ what we were talking about.

Anonymous said...

Eenauk - I smell bullshit. I doubt you actually care about research at all, and simply want the doubters to shut-up. If you cared at all about actually finding out what faith is you wouldn't even have to ask (since the answer is simple and widely available), and wouldn't ask such bizarre questions like "How does it work?" as if faith was a physical object or force.

Anonymous said...

I find the statement “The purpose of morality is to use the tools of praise and condemnation to create or promote good desires and to weaken and eliminate bad desires” to be as peculiar as “The purpose of the police is to use guns and clubs to subdue criminals.”
I would propose that the purpose of morality is to help society identify and live by concepts, relationships, behaviors, and, yes, states of affairs and desires that are mutually beneficial to the individuals concerned. Morality more often than not has nothing to do with praising and condemning. Usually it has to do with understanding the consequences of one’s actions and choosing those that not only benefit the self, but directly or indirectly benefit others without bringing harm.
I would class all the actions of being truthful, honest, seeking knowledge, showing kindness and tolerance, and helping the unfortunate as moral, yet none of them involve praise or condemnation of any kind. In fact they’re not directed at changing desires at all, but at expressing the moral values of the individual in his or her life.
If we define morality as what we do to manipulate people, I think we’ve missed the essence of morality entirely.
Praise, condemnation, rewards, and punishments have a necessary role in human life, but if one wishes to make the world a better place, I believe setting the example of living up to one’s own values and working to educate and help others have the positive lives they already desire will make a bigger difference.

Sheldon said...

Atheist observer,
Very nice comment. I agree with much of what you say. I especially like this:

"Usually it has to do with understanding the consequences of one’s actions and choosing those that not only benefit the self, but directly or indirectly benefit others without bringing harm."

In repsonse to so many believers who say, "without God, why be moral". I have always thought, simple to avoid negative consequences to myself and others, and promote postive consequences.

Anonymous said...

Eneasz - that was no BS. and i do care quite a bit about research. I don't think it is clear at all what faith is or how it works: we at least need some evolutionary explanation for how it arose (something like the work on altruism in SOBER and WILSON's _Unto Others_) and we also need some research on how it interacts with other "brain functions" such as knowledge.

As to the "simple and widely available" explanation of what faith is, i don't know what you are referring to. We _think_ we know, but i haven't yet found much actual scientific research on the matter.

And "How does it work?" is not a bizarre question: it's _the_ fundamental scientific question! Think of Einstein and his compass.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I do not understand your response. It seems quite clear that 'faith' exists. It may be, like malaria, something that we should want to exterminate, but it still exists. And, like malaria, discovering the best ways to eradicate it or innoculate people against it would be to understand what we are innoculating them against.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

atheist observer

I would argue that your account of 'morality' is far too broad. For example, it would include such things as grammar and spelling, or even the choice of language, which are clearly rules that provide a mutual benefit. It would include fashion and design, and even physical appearance, since these affect others who might encounter the individual. It would make the manufacture of a poor movie (a 'waste of time' not only a practical blunder but a moral crime.

Morality applies only to a subset of things that serve the purposes that you mention. The distinguishing characteristic of this subset is its concept of (morally) good and evil. What distinguishes the (morally) good/evil distinction from the more generic good/bad distinction is, among other things, its necessary connection to the concepts of 'praiseworthy' and 'blameworthy'.

The items that you mention - being truthful, honest, seeking knowledge, showing kindness, tolerance, helping the unfortunate - are all things that we have reason to praise, in order to make these traits more common. Rape, theft, assault, sophistry, deception, abuse, negligence, are all things we have reason to condemn, even to punish, in order to promote an overall aversion to these types of actions.

Determining which desires to promote or inhibit is exactly concerned with determining which desires are for states that benefit self and others (desires we have reason to promote) from desires that bring harm to others (desires we have reason to inhibit).

Anonymous said...

Alonzo - I didn't mean faith doesn't exist, although I should have worded my response better. I just meant it's not mysterious.

Eenauk - Faith is believing something simply because it feels good (or, conversly, because not believing it would be very painful). I suppose you could do all sorts of research into this, as you point out. However, the way I read your second post, it seemed to suggest that faith is a physical force of some kind, which is mysterious and elusive.

Anonymous said...


My problem is with your view that the rules exist for the purpose of enforcement. I find that exactly backward. We don’t have rules for baseball for the purpose of ejecting players who break the rules. Nor do we have rules for baseball for the purpose of praising those who follow the rules and condemning those who break them. We have rules for baseball so we can have games that players and fans enjoy. Sometimes players get ejected, but that isn’t the purpose of the rules, nor is it relevant to most players most of the time. Most players want to follow the rules, and do so to the best of their knowledge and abilities.
Perhaps my concept of morality is rather broad, but the assertion that morality is about nothing more than praising and blaming is incredibly narrow.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I do not know why you think that I view that the purpose of morality is to punish or reward people.

Let us take your baseball analogy for example.

We can take all of the rules of baseball and effectively put them into two groups.

Group (1) rules are regulations that describe the game. It describes the distance between the plates, what counts as a strike, what counts as a ball, how to score, and the like.

Group (2) rules are rules that carry a penalty. "Any player who does X will be subject to penalty Y."

Both sets of rules exist for the same purpose - to create an entertaining game. However, they are still two different types of rules.

Let us say that I want to talk only about Group (2) rules. I give them a name. Let's say, I call them 'Group (2) rules' and, by this, I am talking about rules that carry a penalty.

It does not follow from this that I am saying that 'Group (2) rules exist for the purpose of inflicting penalties on people. I am saying that "Group (2) rules are those rules that exist for the purpose of making a good game that carry a penalty."

This is the same distinction that I hold with respect to morality.

We have a number of rules that exist for making life better for self and others. A subset of those rules involve promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires. The tools that are available for this are praise and condemnation.

The purpose of promoting good desires rests in the fact that good desires tend to fulfill other desires. The fulfillment of other desires is the purpose. The use of praise and condemnation to manipulate maleable desires is the means.

People can dispute whether they want the term 'morality' to refer to more than this. People can dispute whether they want the term 'planet' to include Pluto. These types of disputes really are not substantive.

Whether we use a broad or narrow definition of 'planet' does not affect what is true or false about nature. Whether we use a broad or narrow definition of 'morality' does not affect what is true about fulfilling desires by promoting maleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting maleable desires that tend to thwart other desires, through praise and condemation.

It's just a dispute over what we are going to name things, and nothing of substance hinges on such disputes.

Anonymous said...

I got my idea that you view that the purpose of morality is to punish or reward people because you said “The purpose of morality is to use the tools of praise and condemnation to create or promote good desires and to weaken and eliminate bad desires.” That can be restated as, “the purpose is to use these means to attain this end.” I find that a post hoc focus on changing desires through reward and punishment.
I would propose that purpose of morality is much broader than this. Even if we accept your view that it is concerned with good and evil rather than good and bad, I think the first task of morality is to develop a common reference or outlook by which we can generate a consensus definition of what is good and evil. Once we do that, we need a way to apply those definitions to desires and actions, and develop a common understanding of what falls into which categories and why. Third, we create agreements, institutions, and social understandings that facilitate good behavior and impede evil behavior. These don’t modify desires, they just make it easy to fulfill the good ones. Thus the main purpose of morality is to help people who want to have good desires understand what desires are truly good, and to be able to act on them effectively. Using praise and condemnation to modify desires, rather than the purpose of morality, is only minor factor primarily involved in early child rearing and in treatment of those who fail to act in acceptable ways.