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Peter Boghossian Essays

We’re going to do something fun.

On the podcast recently we talked about the new book A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian – a book that makes the argument that “faith” is a “flawed epistemology” and should be rejected in favor of science and reason.

I pointed out on the podcast what I thought Boghossian got right, and what I thought he got wrong.  A fan of the book heard the podcast and challenged us to have Boghossian on the show to defend his ideas, so I reached out to him with an invitation for a phone interview.  Peter responded warmly, but said he doesn’t give phone interviews and offered to appear on the podcast in person the next time his travels bring him to Chicago.  Hopefully we can do that sometime this year.

In the meantime, though, I think his book raises some really good questions that deserve further conversation, so I’m going to cover some of them in more detail here in a series of blog posts. I’ve invited Peter to read these and offer a response, which I’ll post as well.

Why are we doing this?  Because just the act of having a conversation with someone who strongly disagrees with you is a valuable exercise.  It’s worth the time and trouble.

That in mind… here we go!

First topic – the premise of the book:

“Faith is a flawed epistemology.”  Epistemology is the study of “the nature and grounds of knowledge.”  Put more simply, an epistemology is a way of knowing.

“My dog can yodel.”

“How do you know your dog can yodel?”

“Because I’ve heard him yodeling with my own ears.”

You’ve just described an epistemology – you’re relying on your sensory experience as a way of “knowing.”  Your ears heard yodeling coming from your dog, and, as a result, you now believe the statement “my dog can yodel” is true.  You have acquired new “knowledge” through your senses.

That in mind, my first reaction reading Peter’s book was, “Wait – ‘faith’ isn’t a way of gaining knowledge.  This entire premise is wrong!”

I wasn’t sure exactly how Peter came to this conclusion until I read the three definitions of “faith” he offers in the book’s glossary:

Faith

  1. Pretending to know things one doesn’t know
  2. Belief without evidence
  3. An irrational leap over probabilities

Based on these definitions, I now had at least an idea of how Peter came to label faith an epistemology.  Pretending to know your dog can yodel when, in reality, you have no such knowledge, would clearly be “flawed epistemology.”  What confused me, though, was where on earth these definitions came from, as they match neither the biblical definition of faith nor common dictionary definitions of the word.  According to Webster…

Faith

  1. Strong belief or trust in someone or something
  2. Belief in the existence of God: strong religious feelings or beliefs
  3. Firm belief in something for which there is no proof
  4. A system of religious beliefs

Webster’s 4th usage of the word faith, “a system of religious beliefs,” is simply a synonym for “religion,” as in “the Christian faith” or “the Jewish faith.”  That usage isn’t relevant here.

Webster’s 2nd usage – “belief in the existence of God: strong religious feelings or beliefs” – appears to be a subset of Webster’s 3rd usage – “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”  Firm belief in the existence of God, a  belief for which there is no definitive proof, qualifies as Webster’s 3rd usage.

So we can disregard Webster’s 4th usage as an unrelated synonym for religion in general, and his 2nd usage as superfluous, being a subset of the 3rd usage.

This leaves us with two dictionary definitions – “Strong belief or trust in someone or something” and “Firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”  These two statements summarize the contemporary meaning of the word “faith.”  But do they line up with biblical faith?  We’ll get to that in a bit.

What about Peter’s three definitions listed above?  When I read the first definition (“Pretending to know things one doesn’t know”) to my friend Skye, his immediate response was, “That isn’t faith – it’s fraud.”  Obviously there are people who misrepresent facts of all sorts – religious and otherwise, but as far as I know, misrepresentation has never fallen under the definition of “faith.”  (Even though people who misrepresent have been among the “faithful,” and articles of religious belief have no doubt been misrepresented.)

Peter’s 3rd definition is interesting.  “An irrational leap over probabilities.”  In other words, something is highly improbable, but you “take the leap” and chose to believe it anyway.  This definition implies that there are also rational leaps over probabilities.  What constitutes a rational vs irrational disregard for probabilities is difficult to discern – one might assume whatever information would make an improbable belief rational might also make it less than improbable.  In other words, trusting that I can wrap myself in bacon and lie in front of a hungry tiger without being eaten is an irrational leap over probabilities, unless I know this particular tiger is toothless, a vegetarian, or dead.  At which point the improbable (my survival) has become probable, and a leap over improbability is no longer needed.  So this definition seems, well, weird.  Or at least highly subjective.  (“We find YOUR improbable belief irrational, while OUR improbable belief is the model of rationality.”)

The definition I really want to focus on is Peter’s 2nd definition – belief without evidence.  This definition is immensely popular in atheist circles these days.  Richard Dawkins throws out this definition frequently – most recently in an interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in late 2013.  And people tend to nod along, as if this is what they would read if they popped open any common dictionary.  But as we see from Webster, faith isn’t “belief without evidence,” it’s “belief without proof.”  It’s only one word, but the difference is huge.

What is faith, in a nutshell?  Faith is putting confidence in the representations or claims of someone or something.

Here’s a very simple example:

A chair.

A chair makes a representation.  Makes a claim.  By the nature of it’s form, we know when something is presenting itself as a chair, and, therefore, we know what it is claiming.

What is a chair claiming?

“I will support your weight in a seated position.”

There you go.  The claim of every chair.  “I will not let you fall.  You can count on me.”  (This is why very modern, avant-garde furniture can be disconcerting.  “Wait – is that a chair?  Or a sculpture?  Am I supposed to sit on that, or just admire it from a distance?”  The claims of avant-garde furniture can be frightfully ambiguous.)

A chair is asking us to put confidence in its claims.  “Sit on me.  No really.  I mean it.  I’ll hold you up.”  And we have to make a decision.

“Do I trust the claims of this chair?”

If I trust the chair, I sit.  If I don’t trust the chair, I stand.  I vote with my hindquarters.  It’s just that simple.  And that is faith.  Do I have faith in this chair?  Will it do what it is claiming it will do?

This is what many contemporary atheists get wrong, and for the life of me I can’t figure out if they’re doing it on purpose or by accident.  In other words, are they CONFUSED about faith?  Or are they intentionally trying to create a new, false definition?  Something easy to argue against?

Here’s what the confusion looks like in practice:

Peter Boghossian gives lectures on these topics, and in one lecture a young audience member commented in the Q&A that he believed Boghossian himself demonstrates faith whenever he gets on an airplane.  Peter responded that no faith was required to fly, because we understand the science involved.  And this is where I believe Peter is wrong.  Why?  Because flying on a commercial airliner is about much more than science.  Sure, we can understand the science of aerodynamics.  We know Boeing and Airbus practice good science and make good planes.

But there is more to the claims being made by an airline than “You can trust in the principle of the airfoil.”  Planes rarely crash because of bad science.  They crash because of human error.  Pilot error.  Or poor maintenance.  The science of flying tells me a plane is perfectly capable of delivering me to Los Angeles from Chicago without crashing in the Rockies.  But science cannot guarantee I won’t die in the Rockies.  The science behind flight is EVIDENCE of the potential safety of my next flight, but it isn’t PROOF of the actual safety of my next flight.  Every time I set foot in an airplane (or a car, train or even a monorail at Disney World), it may be the last thing I do on earth.  That is reality.  Every time I cross a street.  Lie down on an operating table.  Get in a taxi cab.  It may be checkout time.  The cab careens into the Chicago River.  The anesthesiologist makes a tragic miscalculation.  I’m struck by a bus.  And then flung into the Chicago River, where I sink to the bottom with the aforementioned taxi cab.

For obvious financial reasons, Southwest Airlines wants me on their planes.  Wants me to trust them.  So they make representations – their planes are safe.  Well maintained.  Their pilots and crews are well trained and responsible.  No one is drunk while overhauling an engine or piloting an aircraft.  These are claims made not just by Southwest, but by every commercial airline.  But do I know – with CERTAINTY – that these claims are all true?

Of course not.

Through sheer happenstance, my pilot might be hungover for the first time in his entire life.  The maintenance guy might have overhauled the left engine right after being dumped by his girlfriend.  He might have missed those two bolts showing signs of metal fatigue.  Those two really, really important bolts – that almost snapped in half on the leg of the flight right before mine.  And now are definitely going to snap during my flight.

Any of these things might be true.  But Southwest claims they are not.  Southwest claims their planes are well-maintained and well-piloted.  They claim I am no fool for trusting them, quite literally, with my life.  They ask me to put confidence in their claims.

And if I do, that is faith.  That is exactly what faith is, and what faith has always been.

In 1st century Israel, a guy from Nazareth named Jesus made claims about his place and role in Jewish history, and asked 1st century Jews to put confidence in those claims.  Just like Southwest Airlines.  (Except about Judaism – not aviation.  Though a flying Jesus would be fun, too.)  Quite a few 1st century Jews put confidence in his claims, and even more didn’t.  Some disliked his claims so much they wanted him dead.  But those that did put confidence in Jesus didn’t do so in the absence of evidence.  They did so BECAUSE of evidence.

When Paul of Tarsus traveled throughout the Greek-speaking world, he asked people everywhere to put confidence in the claims of Jesus.  He explained why he thought this confidence was warranted – he defended the claims.  This is faith.  Could Paul “prove” with certainty that Jesus was who he said he was, and could do what he said he could do?  No, he couldn’t.  But Paul had personally seen enough evidence to warrant his own confidence in Jesus’ claims, and he sought to help others do the same.

And for some two-thousand years, people around the world have considered the evidence and decided whether or not the claims of Jesus deserve confidence.  Whether to put their “faith” in Jesus.

Biblical faith has nothing to do with “belief without evidence.”  It has everything to do with “confidence in claims.”  And that confidence is never requested without, first, arguing for the validity of the claims.  Presenting the evidence.

Now, to be fair, the evidence presented in the New Testament typically isn’t the kind of evidence modern scientists favor – meaning, it isn’t evidence that can be repeated in laboratory experiments, published in papers and peer-reviewed.  It tends to be evidence of a historical and/or testimonial nature.  Some folks are so scientifically wired they carry strong biases against historical or testimonial evidence.  And that’s fine.  Rejecting the evidence for the claims of Jesus is perfectly reasonable.  Claiming there is no evidence is much less reasonable.

Then there’s Hebrews 11:1, a verse often quoted as a sign of the “weirdness” of biblical faith.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  (ESV)

Due to the poetic wording, some atheist critics have dubbed this verse a “deepity,” slang for fancy-sounding statements that don’t actually mean anything.  (Deepak Chopra is hailed as the “king of deepities,” and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.)

Does Hebrews 11:1 align with the meaning of faith we’ve been promoting, or is it a semi-mystical “just believe and it is true” deepity?  Back up and look at the context.  The author of Hebrews is listing characters from Old Testament accounts who displayed great faith.  Specifically, people to whom God had made promises (such as Abraham), who then relied on those promises even though they hadn’t yet come to pass.  In other words, they put confidence in the representations made by God.  This is EXACTLY how we’ve been defining faith – just swap out “chair” or “Southwest Airlines” for “God.”

In some manner (we aren’t told exactly how), God communicated to Abraham that IF he left Ur and followed God, God would bless him in certain specific ways.  In whatever form it was that God showed up, it was enough to convince Abraham that A) this was a supernatural entity talking to him, and that B) this supernatural entity had the ability and the intent to bless him if he left Ur.  So Abraham put confidence in the claims of God.  He put his FAITH in God.  And he left Ur.

And this is exactly what Hebrews 11:1 is referring to – NOT believing in things we will NEVER see, but rather, believing in things we haven’t seen YET.  Specifically, promises of God that haven’t yet come to pass.  The “representations” of God.

That is faith, as described in the Bible.  It is also faith as described in Webster’s dictionary.

So here’s a big question then:

If the Bible and Webster agree on the definition of faith, why are folks like Richard Dawkins and Peter Boghossian promoting a completely different definition?

My hunch is this:  They have interacted with Christians who, when pushed on a question they are unequipped to answer, resort to playing the “faith card” as an intellectual defense.  In other words…

“How can you believe the Bible is true when it’s filled with contradictions?”

“Um… contradictions?  What contradictions?”

“Here – look!”  (Any of a myriad examples of apparent contradictions from The Skeptics Bible or other sources.)

(Befuddled Christian, facing new information.)  “Um… well… gee…”

(Long, intellectually awkward pause.)

“I take it on FAITH!!”

In cases like these, “faith” is actually being used as a way of “knowing” – as an epistemology.  So in these cases, Boghossian is correct.

My point is that these are instances of the word “faith” being misapplied as a sort of intellectual spackle to cover holes in one’s knowledge.  “I don’t have an answer for that question, and I don’t like how that feels.  I’m going to appeal to ‘faith’ and spackle my way out of this scary situation.”  Lob the word “faith” like a hand grenade and run for the car.

This is not biblical faith.  Faith is not an appeal to blind belief in order to avoid facing tough questions.  This usage of “faith” is not intellectually honest.

The honest answer would be to say, “You know, I don’t have a good answer for that question.  You raise a good point.  Let me do more reading on that subject and then I promise I’ll get back to you!”

The problem is, most of us don’t WANT to do more reading on a new subject.  We’d rather watch TV and play fantasy football.  Intellectual reading is HARD – it reminds us of school – and most people are glad they’ve graduated and don’t have to do that sort of thing anymore.

Atheists often criticize Christians for being incurious.  And there is definite truth to this accusation.  But rather than saying most Christians are incurious, I would zoom out to say most PEOPLE are incurious.

It is probably true to say the average atheist is a more curious person than the average Christian, at least in America.  But this is true at least partly, I believe, because “Christian” is the default state most Americans are born into.  Basic Christian beliefs are inherited by most Americans, like exceptionalism or a taste for fatty foods.  In other words, it takes no curiosity at all to grow up Christian in much of America.  It’s like growing up capitalist.  It’s in the water.  Rejecting capitalism – or Christianity – takes more effort than not.  Truly rethinking Christianity in big parts of America is partly a result of possessing enough curiosity to examine the claims of the culture around you.  Of all the people who do that, some will remain Christian, and some will not.  The people lacking that curiosity will generally stay right where they were born, which, in big parts of America, means they will remain incuriously Christian for life.

One day, probably not too far out, areas of America will be so thoroughly atheist that we will start bumping into a new creature – the incurious atheist.  The “nominal” atheist.  The “cultural” atheist.  And that new creature can then be startled by unexpected questions for which they have no easy answers, and will either reconsider their non-beliefs, or fall back into a defensive posture and play the “faith” card.

“I just don’t believe, that’s all.  It’s the way I was raised.”

What an interesting day that will be.

To summarize:

Faith is the act of putting confidence in the claims of someone or something.  Faith is not belief without evidence, it is belief without proof.

In this light, it appears, to me at least, that the premise of Peter Boghossian’s book is false.  Faith is not a flawed epistemology, because it isn’t an epistemology at all.  It is simply the act of placing confidence in a claim or representation, based on some varying degree of evidential support.  It isn’t a way to “know,” it is a way to ACT in the absence of certainty.

Finally, though I believe Dawkins, Boghossian and others are misdefining faith, I believe some Christians may be guilty of the same mistake, playing the “faith card” to avoid the discomfort of difficult questions and the hard work of thoughtful responses.

Playing the “faith card” is a lazy man’s defense.  We should always do the hard work.  Face tough questions.  Admit what we don’t know.  Then do the work of finding satisfactory answers, or, if there are no satisfactory answers to be found, honestly admit the need to rethink our beliefs.  One thoughtfully curious Christian is more beneficial to the church – and the world – than 10 glibly incurious ones.

I assume I’ve made at least a few errors in my thinking here, so I’m hoping Peter Boghossian has time to respond and help me out.

Next we’ll take a look at some of the sample “interventions” – actual conversations Peter has had with religious folk – and see if there are legitimate, thoughtful responses to the valid questions he raises.

Related

Peter Boghossian argues that we should spotlight and build upon the efforts of philosophers who are doing work that matters.

 

"If it's not worth doing, it's not worth doing well."
--- Daniel Dennett

The most interesting thing about philosophy today is how uninteresting and largely irrelevant it has become. The overwhelming majority of professional philosophers deal with issues no one outside of their sub-disciplines care about, and use language few outside of their specialties understand. Contemporary philosophy is whittling away at what Daniel Dennett calls “issues of no abiding significance”. The discipline of philosophy has, in short, become esoteric and obscure – and largely irrelevant.

This is a heartbreaking turn for a discipline of study that engages life’s most fundamental questions: What is the best type of life to lead? How do we come to knowledge? What is justice? These questions and our responses should be informing our discourse about topics such as global climate change, terrorism, and the current immigration crisis. They’re not. Instead, we relentlessly pursue topics about which almost nobody cares, and professionally reward obfuscation and insularity.

In both philosophy journals and at philosophy conferences one can clearly see the celebration of obscurity and even irrelevance. Obfuscation through “grad speak”, niche topics of no significance to those not immersed in one’s sub-specialty (the overwhelming majority of philosophy papers are never cited outside their sub-discipline), a focus on speculative esoterica untethered to the real world (e.g., speculations about God’s attributes), un-evidenced arguments about the nature of reality (e.g., cosmological metaphysics), and, in a mix of irony and tragedy, the perception of these byzantine pursuits as intellectual virtues. The majority of philosophers with whom I’ve interacted view pedantry not as problem to be overcome, but as a virtue to which less seasoned philosophers should aspire.

But philosophy still matters. Philosophy affords us an opportunity to think clearly and critically. It helps us to think through problems, lead better lives, and make better communities. It does so by teaching us how to use reason to ask the right questions, and how to make better, more discerning judgements about our conclusions. The practice of philosophy can teach us what we can and cannot know. It can teach us how to be epistemically humble, and how to be honest with ourselves.

We need to spotlight and build upon the efforts of philosophers who are doing work that matters, and bring our moral and epistemological analyses to bear on substantive contemporary issues. Some philosophers have modelled this behaviour for us. For instance, in the 1970s John Rawls and Robert Nozick’s work paved the way for us to rethink the role our institutions play in dispensing social and economic justice. In the 1980s Peter Singer caused us to re-evaluate how we treat animals and Susan Haack emboldened us with reasons to defend science, rationality, and scepticism. Ten years later, Tim van Gelder’s work on applied reasoning and argument mapping made critical thinking practical, clear, relevant, and accessible. Most recently, Sam Harris has argued that moral questions have objectively right or wrong answers and that we can determine human values scientifically, and, Ricardo Rozzi’s work in applied environmental philosophy has helped us understand the importance of biodiversity and ecological conservation. These philosophers are at the vanguard of publicly engaging issues that matter.

For philosophy to exert influence and recapture relevance, we must focus philosophy on questions of abiding significance and public relevance. Philosophy matters. But philosophy only matters if we stop mistaking the obscure for the profound. We need to start asking the right questions and upholding the right intellectual values (free expression, reason, rationality, honesty), and do so in a way that places clarity front and centre. Philosophy, perhaps uniquely among the disciplines, offers us hope – the opportunity to use reason so that we may flourish.

This essay is one of 50 new ideas in philosophy that appear in a Special Edition of The Philosophers' Magazine. 

Peter Boghossian is an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University. He was thrown out of a philosophy PhD program at the University of New Mexico. His book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, is available from Amazon.

 

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