Archives for category: epistemology

If you are going to weigh in on a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of a certain institution, and you are an employee or executive of that same institution, then you should first declare your interest. That is, should must disclose, to the people you are trying to persuade, that you have a personal stake in the outcome of the conversation. Unless you provide such notice, you risk distorting the argument with your biases, of which the rest of us (and you yourself) may be unaware.

More specifically, if you are a professional cleric, and the discussion has to do with the pros and cons of religion, you should say something like, “Of course I might be biased, since my livelihood depends on a favorable public perception of religion.”

In November of 2009, a group called Intelligence Squared held a debate on the proposition, “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” On the affirming team was John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja (Nigeria) for the Catholic Church. Mr. Onaiyekan never once mentioned that the institution whose essential goodness he had come to proclaim supplies his entire livelihood. He should have either recused himself from the debate, or alerted the public to his personal stake in its outcome. He did neither.

Peter Jensen, archbishop of Sydney for the Anglican Church, spoke at a more recent Intelligence Squared debate, on the proposition, “Atheists Are Wrong.” Like Mr. Onaiyekan, Mr. Jensen is a regional-level executive of a multi-national corporation. Each man is paid to represent his organization positively to the public and to attract more customers. Neither made any mention of his interests. Neither should be trusted until he comes clean.

It is astonishing how rarely conflict of interest is mentioned in books and articles on religion. You could read a thousand of them and never encounter it, even if five hundred were by atheists. Yet, the simple truth is that you cannot trust the officers of a corporation to tell the truth about the rationale behind their compensation or the mechanism of its delivery. In millions of conversations over thousands of years, religious spokesmen have demanded, “Why would I tell you these things, if they’re not true?” The obvious answer is, “Because that’s your job.”

Looking over my book, I see a connection between two lines of reasoning that had been separate. They both have to do with situations where someone is professing both ignorance and knowledge about the same proposition. They want us to believe that they know, even though they confessedly don’t know.

The first line of reasoning has to do with the goodness of God. We are told, on the one hand, that no mere mortal knows the reason behind any act of God (he “works in mysterious ways”). On the other hand, we are told that God is perfectly good. But if you don’t know why God does things, then you don’t know that he does them for good reasons. You can’t be ignorant of his motivations, yet knowledgeable about his intentions. If you can’t explain why God does anything, how do you know he’s not perfectly evil, and trying to make us all miserable?

The second line of reasoning is about miracles. No one will claim to know how God performs the miracles he performs – yet many people claim to be certain that it was God who performed them. But if you don’t know how God did a certain thing, you don’t know that he did that thing.

Imagine that Alice goes to the police and accuses Bob of murdering Carol. They ask Alice, “How did he do it?” She replies, “I have no idea how he did it, but I’m certain that he did do it.” This would not (I hope) be regarded this as a promising lead.

(Note that to make this example more like a “miracle” story, we would have to stipulate that no one knows for sure that the putative victim, Carol, was even a real person.)

This unwarranted hop from “there’s no way to know” to “we know” is a special feature of religious “arguments.” It is unwarranted because “we don’t know P” does not imply “we know Q” for any P or Q. If you don’t know, then you don’t know.

People vary in their beliefs about God, Heaven, and so on. Why is this? Surely not because they have had different experiences with respect to God, Heaven, and so on.

Usually, different beliefs imply different experiences. Ava lives in Trenton and works in Manhattan; she believes that commuting to work is the worst lifestyle ever invented. Ben lives in Hilo, and bikes a couple miles to work; he believes that commuting to work is kind of fun. So these are beliefs based on experience. But if Ava tells us that God is the personification of kindness, while Ben describes him as terrifyingly judgmental, this cannot be because they have had differing experiences of God. Neither person has ever talked to God or seen God doing anything. So, what can be the reason for their different opinions? Only that they have been told different things about God. Their beliefs are based not on experience but only on rote learning. And this learning is of course not about God (since there’s no such thing), but only about what you’re supposed to say about God.

A belief about what you’re supposed to say about God is not the same thing as a belief about God. So the truth is that, although Ava and Ben offer us different verbal descriptions of God, they do not have different beliefs about God. They don’t have any beliefs about God; they’ve just learned to recite different slogans.

I am serious.

You cannot mean a statement that you do not understand. Religious statements cannot be understood. Therefore, people who make religious statements do not mean them.

Take the sentence, “God is perfect goodness.” No one really understands this. Which means that when they say it, they don’t mean it. Which is the same as saying that they don’t believe it.

Imagine saying it to yourself, and then asking yourself, “Do you agree?” If you don’t know what it means, you can’t honestly agree with it. And if you can’t honestly agree with it, then you don’t believe it.

Someone might say, “Well, I don’t understand it, but greater minds than mine do understand it, and I trust those people to tell me the truth.” Putting aside the question of why you trust these authorities, let me remind you that very few priests or theologians claim to understand the nature of God. In fact, such people are practically unanimous that such understanding is not accessible to mere mortals, including themselves. It has always been so. But this means that, when they say “God is perfect goodness,” they do not understand it, and therefore they do not believe it. Like everyone else in the business, they are merely repeating a string of words that neither they nor anyone else has ever truly believed.

People frequently profess beliefs about what God wants them to do or not to do. But then they don’t always follow God’s recommendations – which is pretty strange. Wouldn’t you figure that if a person really believes in God, and really believes that God wants them to do something, that they would absolutely do it (or die trying)?

Conceptually, let’s divide all the beliefs that people can have into two types. Type A beliefs have an observable effect on the believer’s behavior. Type B beliefs do not.

Now that type B is identified, if can immediately be ignored. If it doesn’t affect what you do, it’s not sociologically interesting. Type B beliefs might include, for example, the Catholic notion of the Trinity. Whether you believe that God is “One” or “Three” or “pi” is not going to make a detectable difference in anything you do (except for trivial cases such as what you’re likely to say when asked about the number of God). The vast majority of propositions about God fall into this category. What you believe about the nature of the deity will make little or no difference to the rest of us. In fact, this may be a misuse of the word “belief.” We don’t see you believing stuff so much as just saying stuff.

Type A beliefs are more interesting. They make a difference. For example, if you believe that God does not want you to eat pork, you probably won’t eat pork.

But it’s not as simple as that.

First, many of the beliefs that supposedly constitute religious participation are not followed. Catholics, by definition, “believe” that contraception is wrong. But most of them use it anyway; therefore, they don’t actually believe that it’s wrong. So this would be a type B belief – that is, not a belief at all.

Still, many people really don’t eat pork, for “religious reasons.” But what does this mean? If we ask that person why he doesn’t eat pork, he says (approximately) “Because I believe that God doesn’t want me to.” But it is well established that people can be wrong – sometimes very, very wrong – about their own reasons for doing things. So, let’s take a look at this person’s environment. He is surrounded by people who are telling him that God does not want him to eat pork. That is, eating pork is frowned on by his community. The people around him are telling him that it’s not OK to eat pork, and if he eats pork he is going to have to answer to them.

Which is more likely: that I don’t eat pork because I believe that it is deprecated by God, or that I don’t eat pork because I know full well that it is deprecated by my friends, neighbors, family, and local law enforcement? Which is more likely: that I worry about God punishing me in some unimaginable way, or that I worry about people punishing me, in ways I can imagine all too well?

So, the real reason that some people don’t eat pork is obvious: social pressure.

The idea that people have religious beliefs that dictate their behavior falls apart in at least three ways. First, some beliefs are too abstract to affect any practical decision anyone makes. Second, some rules do not affect people’s behavior because they are not followed. And my point today is that the behavior is probably caused by something other than the belief.

Even if some people say that they believe that God doesn’t want them to eat pork, and if those same people indeed do not eat pork, it still could be—in fact, it’s very likely—that this belief is not the reason that they don’t eat pork. Therefore, it’s a type B belief: the kind that doesn’t affect behavior. The kind that’s not really a belief at all.

In almost any social situation, if anyone dares to question the existence of God someone else will speak up with “first-hand evidence” that God is not only real but has all the qualities described in the local scripture. The witnesser will speak of the “direct perceptions” that they have had of God, for example that he is caring, or eternal, or aware, or (in the minimal case) present (or “manifest”). It is usually thought (or at least claimed) that such reports constitute weighty evidence for the believer’s position, and that if the non-believer wants to be taken seriously, he or she must provide an alternative and more compelling explanation of these experiences. That is, the non-believer has the responsibility of showing how a person can have an experience of God without there being any God for the experience to be about.

The explanation is simple. An object does not have to exist for me to have thoughts or feelings about it. I can have thoughts and feelings about an imaginary object. Such thoughts and feelings do not prove that the object exists. As a refinement, we should mention that it is not always correct to describe these thoughts and feelings as of or about the object, if it does not exist.

It is uncontroversial that people’s reports of thoughts and feelings about God do not necessarily bring us any information about God. If I suspect that no gods exist, someone telling me that they have perceived God’s qualities through their feelings or their imagination is no evidence to the contrary. If God does not exist, then these reports of divine attributes are just wrong. Actually, they are not even wrong. Rather than inaccurate statements about God, they are not about God at all.

Now someone might say, “Why make a special point of saying that my feelings about God are ‘not about’ God? Of course they are ‘about’ God—even if there is no God! If I say I’ve had a thought about the mighty wings of Pegasus, would you say, ‘No, that thought is not about Pegasus, because Pegasus is imaginary’? Surely you can take my word for it, so to speak, that Pegasus is precisely what I was thinking about. Maybe it seems ontologically extravagant, but this is how the word is used.”

Well, let’s acknowledge that there is a huge and intimidating literature on what philosophers call reference (and related terms like ostention, intension, and designation)—and that I am not an expert in this field. I have read a little Quine but it is very hard. So I agree with your proposal that we avoid the intricacies of philosophy and stick to (relatively) practical matters.

Unfortunately, we started with a topic which was already a bit subtle. We are talking about the difference between what people take themselves to be saying, and what they are actually saying, when they talk about God.

Contrary to your Pegasus example, people routinely claim that the thoughts and feelings they have about God show that God is there.

Let’s put the argument more formally.

PREMISS 1. I have thoughts and feelings about God.

PREMISS 2. People can’t have thoughts and feelings about a thing that does not exist.

CONCLUSION. God exists.

Your mention of Pegasus casts doubt on Premiss 2. Of course I can think about things that are not there. We can put even more pressure on this premiss if we think about dreams. Say that on waking up one morning I remember having a dream in which I was trying to solve an intricate geometrical puzzle. I’m still having thoughts about that puzzle—or that’s what my thoughts seem to be about—yet the puzzle does not exist in any useful sense. What is more interesting, my memories of it as being “intricate” (for example) do not even have a truth-value. It is neither true nor false that the puzzle I was trying to solve was intricate. In the dream, I described the puzzle as intricate—to myself. But that description was a feature of the dream. It was imaginary. The intricacy of the puzzle had no more reality than the puzzle itself.

But look. Now Premiss 1 begins to crumble. Because, now that I have awakened, if I say to myself, “That puzzle was intricate,” I am not making a statement about the puzzle in the dream. I don’t know anything about the puzzle in the dream. I don’t know that it was intricate. I only know that it seemed so, in the dream. There is no fact of the matter about whether the puzzle was really intricate. It seemed so in the dream, and that’s the end of the ontology. All I have is the seeming. So my thoughts on waking up are not about how the puzzle was. There is no such thing as how the puzzle was. I am not thinking about how the puzzle was, but about how it seemed. My thoughts are about the seeming, not about the puzzle.

And this is how we can legitimately treat claims about people’s thoughts and feelings “about God.” We can say: That’s an awfully big assumption you’re starting off with—that you can have thoughts and feelings about God. How do you justify such a claim? Here we are trying to have a discussion about whether God exists, and then you say, “Well, I have these feelings about him, so that proves he exists.” It doesn’t, for two reasons.

First, it’s possible to have thoughts and feelings that are about a seeming rather than about something real. So you need to convince us that your thoughts and feelings are about an existent God rather than a seeming God. And second, as my friend here pointed out, it’s perfectly possible to have thoughts and feelings about objects that just plain don’t exist, like Pegasus—or Santa Claus.

In the syllogism above, many people would suspect Premiss 2 of being false. But we have come to a perhaps more interesting result. The seemingly uncontroversial Premiss 1 is false as well. When people say, “I have thoughts and feelings about God,” it is possible for this “about” to be mistaken. Their thoughts and feelings and beliefs could easily be about something other than God. They could be merely about how things seem to the believer.

Last Thursday, MSNBC “news” posted a really terrible piece. There is no byline.

“What was the star of Bethlehem?” says the interactive graphic (credited to Clay Frost). “Scholars argue whether the Star of Bethlehem was a legend created after the fact or a miracle created by God especially for the occasion of Christ’s birth.”

The article leans heavily on a book from 1987 in which a certain John Mosley of Griffith Observatory finds that on 17 June in 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus were in almost exactly the same place in the sky. That would have been a remarkable thing to see. However, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the question of whether the “star” mentioned in the Bible was a miracle created by God.

You can only care about this question if you assume first, that Matthew’s account of the “wise men from the East” is factual; and second, that God does create miracles on certain occasions. But there is literally no reason to take either of these propositions seriously.

I need not bother addressing the question of the New Testament’s historical accuracy here. As for the idea of miracles, I explained in an earlier post that the idea of miracles is incoherent. If you say “It was a miracle,” the only thing that you can possibly mean that makes any sense is, “I don’t know how it happened.” And this of course is not a positive claim about how it happened. It is not even a positive claim about your opinion about how it happened. All it says is that you don’t have an opinion about how it happened. So it’s almost perfectly meaningless.

To claim, in a mainstream news source, that scholars wonder whether Matthew’s star was “a miracle created by God” is grotesque, misleading, and offensive.

I do not always agree with Russell Blackford but his new opinion piece on the site of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is spot-on. It begins like this:

Religious teachings promise us a deeper understanding of reality, more meaningful lives, morally superior conduct, and such benefits as rightness with a Supreme Being or liberation from earthly attachments. One way or another, the world’s religions offer spiritual salvation, or something very like it. If any of their teachings are rationally warranted, it would be good to know which ones.

At the same time, however, religious teachings can be onerous in their demands; if they can’t deliver on what they promise, it would be just as well to know that. I take it, then, that there’s a strong case for rational scrutiny of religious teachings. Even if reason can take us only so far, it would be good to explore just how far.

And it ends like this:

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising and totally justifiable that atheists and sceptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be heeded, let alone translated into laws enforced by the state’s coercive power?

These questions are being asked more often, and so they should be. When they’re asked publicly, even with a touch of aggression, that’s an entirely healthy thing.

Read the whole thing.

A friend once told me, “Jesus is absolutely real to me.”

I can’t meet this half-way. It’s wrong. It is a misuse of words. Jesus is not real to you. That is simply not true.

Once a woman was getting onto an elevator with me and she said, “It’s so hot out there I was literally melting.” She misused the word ‘literally’. To say “Jesus is real to me” is to misuse the word ‘real’. Jesus is not real. He is a thought, an image, a feeling. He is not a person. This is so obvious that I feel goofy pointing it out. You could get away with saying, “It’s as if I can touch him,” but not with “I can touch him.” That is simply not true. You can’t see him, touch him, hear him, or smell him. He’s not there.

Jesus is not a person. That’s why you can’t have a personal relationship with him. Even if he exists as some sort of immortal spirit, that’s not the same thing as being a person. Jesus the person died 2,000 years ago (if he ever existed). And you can’t have a personal relationship with an old pile of bones.

“Jesus seems real to me” could be taken seriously (as a report of a feeling) – but “Jesus is absolutely real to me” is absolutely wrong. To combine the relative expression ‘to me’ with the absolute word ‘real’ – plus the word ‘absolute’! – is perfectly incoherent. This is a sentence that cannot possibly mean anything.

Maybe what you are trying to convey is that Jesus is a topic that, for you, is charged with emotion. You feel something when you read or think or talk about Jesus. But feelings don’t prove anything. If feelings made things true, then everyone on Earth would have a steady romantic partner (except for those few people who don’t want one). Your having strong feelings about Jesus doesn’t prove that Jesus exists. It’s that simple.

As we showed earlier, your strong feelings don’t even prove that you believe that Jesus exists. Feelings are not beliefs.

To sum up: I do not accept your statement that Jesus is “absolutely real” to you. I don’t believe that it can be true.

To review. The verb ‘to believe’ refers to something one does with an intelligible proposition.

Compare with the verb ‘to read’. Reading is something you do with a text. If you say, “Let me read you something,” and you talk to us, but you’re not referring to a text, then you used the wrong word. Whatever you’re doing, it isn’t reading.

Similarly, if you say “I believe that Jesus loves me,” you used the wrong word. “Jesus loves me” is not a proposition, only a pseudo-proposition – so your relationship to it is one of pseudo-belief.

To this thesis, some people reply along these lines. “I used to be a Christian, so I know what it’s like. I really believed all that stuff. It is presumptuous and absurd for you to tell me otherwise. I really believed that Jesus loved me. I felt it in my heart. It was a good feeling! And I really believed that if I did the wrong thing I would burn in Hell – which genuinely terrified me, especially when I was little. How can you possibly say I didn’t believe? Are you claiming to know more about the inner workings of my brain than I do?”

Notice that the emphasis in this report is on how the propositions you “believed” made you feel. You’re remembering emotions you had, and offering those emotions as evidence for the idea that you “really believed.” I see a few problems here.

To my claim that you didn’t have a belief about Jesus, you reply that you had a feeling. But I did not say there were no feelings. I said there was no belief.

Are you saying that the intensity of your feelings is a kind of proof that you really believed? That would be false, because an image in your mind can have profound effects on your feelings without it being a belief.

When someone tells me about the horrors of Hell, I am horrified. This is an emotional reaction. The same thing happens when I watch a scary movie. My thoughts, feelings, breathing, heartbeat and skin conductance may all be affected; but none of these responses is properly called belief. I don’t believe the images in the movie. They are not propositions.

Religious teachings put images and slogans and feelings in your mind. And those things are routinely called beliefs, but this is a misuse of the term. An image is not a belief; a slogan is not a belief; nor is a feeling. Belief is something else.

This is not to say that no one can have beliefs! One can have beliefs. There are, for example, comforting notions like “There is someone who loves me,” and “I’m not alone,” and “Some day soon, I’ll be happy.” Such ideas are not incoherent – but neither are they religious. The Credo does not say, “Everything will be OK.” That is not a specifically Christian idea. Christianity says incoherent things like “Jesus loves you” – that is: a living person, who is not living, and not a person, has feelings for you, which are not feelings, and not for you. That’s the kind of thing that the church says you should believe. But no one can do that. It’s impossible. People do have ideas about something they call Jesus, but they don’t have that idea, because it’s not even an idea!

And everyone’s idea is different. Your image of Jesus can’t be canonical, so it’s personal. The comforting picture in your mind is different from everyone else’s comforting picture. One person’s Jesus looks kind of like her dad. Another’s looks like a soft blue cloud. But no one’s picture can be said to be more accurate than anyone else’s, because there is nothing “out there” to compare them with. The ideas we think of as being about Jesus are not about anything at all.

So when people say, “Christians believe X,” it’s not true. There is nothing that fits that description. What the church says you should believe, no one does. There is no Christian belief, only Christian slogans; and myriads of personal, individual beliefs. And all these have in common is the special words used to describe them – a Christian vocabulary of meaningless terms. Everyone uses the word ‘Jesus’, the word ‘God’, the word ‘salvation’; which fosters the appearance that everyone agrees about certain things. But no one knows what the words mean! So they haven’t agreed on anything.

You might be wondering: Why do people say such things, if they don’t believe them? Well, that’s how it all ends up making sense.

Look at it socially instead of semantically. To pronounce a phrase such as “I believe that Jesus loves me” is a social gesture. It’s almost completely independent of what the words mean. “Jesus loves me” is empty of sense, and therefore, “I believe that Jesus loves me” is strictly false. But the saying of those words is meaningful on different level, as a gesture between people – like a wink, or a badge, or a special handshake. People don’t generally go around making theological claims. What they do is to exchange tokens of affiliation, sorting out who belongs to which crowd. The words don’t mean anything as words. That’s not what they’re for. They are a prop to use in public performances.

Someone drops his shopping list in the street. A bird picks it up. The bird does not notice the words on the paper. The bird does not know what writing is, or what paper is. It just seems like useful stuff. It becomes part of her nest. The next day, it is dissolved by rain.