Sunday, June 03, 2007

Confidence and doubt

Peter Hitchens, criticizes his brother Christopher Hitchens' recent book, God is not Great. Although I'm enjoying it greatly, I'm not going to defend Christopher's book here. Indeed Peter[1] barely quotes his brother's book and does little to directly reply to it. Instead, much like Chris Hedges recent review, Peter simply uses the book to make speeches about his own beliefs. And Peter's review includes some blatant misconceptions about atheism.

Christopher Hitchens supported—and for all I know continues to support—the war in Iraq. I am vehemently opposed to this war. Hitchens is, in my opinion and judgment, wrong about the war. There are many atheists who, like myself, oppose this war on principle, not just on the incompetence with which the Cheney Bush administration has prosecuted the war (indeed, had Bush & Co. prosecuted the war (or their assault against American democracy) "competently", the results would have been vastly worse.) Atheism or non-religion[2] does not entail support for this war, nor does theism or religion entail opposition. Any reviewer who attempts to draw conclusions about atheism from Hitchens' support for the war is committing a pure ad hominem fallacy. Since atheists do not claim any sort of divine guidance, it should not come as any big surprise when we make mistakes, even big ones.

Peter conflates confidence and decision with certainty and arrogance.
Christopher is not tentative about his view on God. He describes himself as an "anti-theist", so certain of his, er, faith that he wars with bitter mockery against those who doubt his truth.
Peter speaks of Christopher's "certain knowledge of what is right and wrong." But Peter does nothing to substantiate his charge of certainty. A certain belief is a belief in principle absolutely incapable of change. It is not a belief confidently asserted. A belief substantiated on facts or personal experience cannot be in principle absolutely incapable of change: New facts, new experiences, even one's own subjective consciousness can always in principle change, and any dependent beliefs can change.

(Indeed, even the most "certain" of religious beliefs are mutable. People switch religions, deconvert, or reinterpret their religion all the time. The assertion of "certainty" of even the most fundamentalist, extremist religious believer has a hysterical, defensive ring to it, as if by repeatedly declaring their certainty the could somehow persuade themselves to become certain.)

There seems to be a common theme in critiques of atheism by soi disant "moderate" religious believers, that confidence, decision, definiteness (at least in atheists) are intellectual vices and indecision and skeptical nihilism intellectual virtues. Peter boasts about his own doubt, and religious doubt, as if doubt itself were the goal of thought:
But it is obvious to anyone that vast numbers of believers in every faith are filled with doubt, and open to reason. The Church of England’s greatest martyr, Thomas Cranmer, was burned at the stake for changing his mind once too often. ...

Did the Supper at Emmaus really take place? How I hope that it did, but I do not know that it did...

For all I know, Christopher is absolutely right – my prayers are pointless and a meaningless oblivion awaits.
But doubt is a tool, not a desired state. We doubt, and then we resolve our doubt—with reason and evidence—and then we doubt again.

Naturally such religious "moderates" are no less confident and definite when enumerating the moral and intellectual failings of atheists or their own ethical beliefs. What is missing in Peter's review is the connection between doubt and its resolution. To an atheist, reason provides this connection. Reason is never certain, but we can be confident about reason, because it is public. If I believe something according to reason, my reasons can be examined by anyone, criticized by anyone, and if my facts are false, if my reasoning is fallacious, if my theory is extravagant, these criticisms can be proven.

But where is the connection between doubt and its resolution for the moderate theist? They say remain "open to"—but not committed to—reason, but never so much that expose their doubts to reasonable resolution. Why does Peter hope that the Supper at Emmaus took place? Reason demands not just agnosticism, but that we we positively disbelieve this story as fact: People do not rise from the dead; the gospels are clearly fictional[3]; and the resurrection was tacked on long after Mark was written, making this part of the story doubly fictional.

To the theist, reason can establish doubt, but never resolve it. But people cannot live with nothing but doubt; to resolve doubt, the honest believer relies on bullshit hope; the dishonest believer relies on lies. Atheism goes the other way: We assume doubt on principle, we resolve doubt by reason. At least for today: If we are wrong, we can be proven wrong, and we'll change our minds then.

[1] To avoid confusion, I will refer to Peter and Christopher Hitchens by first name.
[2] In my usual sense of "religion" as "making shit up and calling it true."
[3] A. J. Ayer notwithstanding, there's nothing at all wrong with fiction per se. It is the belief—even the hope—that fiction is real which is an offense against reason.

1 comment:

  1. THE Matter of the physicality of thought -- coherent fields of electrons and all that -- and its endurance in Dr Hawking's light-cone' requires perhaps further attention.

    Suffice it that here a consequence is that fiction (sic) is in fact as real as, say, quartz or farts -- or Mr Dawkins and Sidi bin Ladin, Goddess preserve us!

    NO More so perhaps (and, from /my/ temperamental bias, alas!), but equally of course no less.

    THE Gauge, or scale, is wherein lies the difference.

    HOPE And bullshit and calming faith, be that trust in faith /or/ reason, all lie juxtaposed therein.

    WE Embodied social animals necessarily are trying to understand reality from within the molecular scale on which we have our bodily existence.

    HENCE, The salience of the ever-ongoing quest for an archimedian position should be clear.

    AS Nature becomes conscious (facon de parler!) in our persons, we perceive -- and therefore are perfectly entitled to take as real -- our interior states, emotions, thoughts, feelings. These moreover we perceive with equal force and salience as we do the external stimulae that called them forth (in orthodoxy) 'first'.

    (First in inverted commas because the other matter to which we must give further attention, in addition to the question of what is 'real', is the question of time.)

    THE Point is that reverie as such is on all-fours with ASBOs and Mr David Cameron -- more importantly, it is the interior states of the brain and its efflatus of 'mind' that conduct us toward an awareness of other levels of reality, other scales and ranges, on which levels in fact magic & miracles can -- and, in active phantasy, do -- happen.

    THIS Is of all the more importance in periods of the exhaustion of the old creative cultural impulse.

    IT Is from out of this generalised bubbling of 'impermissible' and, my goodness me, 'irrational' phantasy that the new culture will emerge, and its resulting ensemble of civilisations.

    ONE Small trick here should not be over-looked.

    TRY Substituting in this case 'non-rational' for irrational -- sometimes in reverie this very sort of word-play can release thought-patterns from the sorts of cramp we necessarily experience in the outward prestige-struggle with other chimps in this sort of discussion.

    ANYHOW, There is a lot ahead for, precisely, non-religious and therefore post-human being -- I expect that as /this/ whole dying contemporary system of binary ructions and two-valued megrims is, finally, exhausted, our descendants, inshAllah, shall look back and grin as derisively to themselves, as we do mutually now at terrorists and pornographers....

    EVEN Whilst then they are frying their own fish -- and, one another!

    THE Whole point here seems to be that at the end of the day -- and, of our cultural aeon -- that any archemdian 'stand' rather now-obviously must embody a lot more of /dancing/ than we have heretofore perhaps been able to realise.

    s/Wook 'abd al-'Abru


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