A Review of John Haught's Book, "God and the New Atheism," Part 2

The following is a continuation of a review I started here about John F. Haught’s new book, God and the New Atheism. If you want to read something more about his views on religion Dr. Haught just recently wrote on the question, Is religion the root of all evil?, for the Secular Philosophy Blog, which, when it comes to his definition of religion I’ll get to that in a later post. [What I wrote in answer to that same question will be posted there next week].

In his “Introduction” Haught previously mentioned two "new" aspects to the new atheism: 1) “Faith in God is the cause of innumerable evils and should be rejected on moral grounds;” and 2) “Morality does not require belief in God, and people behave better without faith than with it.” (p. xiv) Whether these things are indeed "new" to atheists I very much doubt. Nonetheless in chapter one (pp. 1-14) he discusses the first "new" aspect of the new atheism.

Haught outlines the views of the new atheists with regard to faith. Their argument is based on “four evident truths.” The first one is that “many people in the world are living needlessly miserable lives.” The second is that “the cause of so much unnecessary distress is faith, particularly in the form of belief in God.” Faith for Harris, as but one example, is “belief without evidence” (The End of Faith, pp. 58-73, 85). Third, “the way to avoid unnecessary human suffering today is to abolish faith from the face of the earth.” And the fourth is that “the way to eliminate faith, and hence to get rid of suffering, is to follow the hallowed path of the scientific method.”

As a theologian and philosopher of science, Dr. Haught effectively dismantles what I consider to be a few na├»ve understandings of the new atheists regarding faith and the scientific method. It’s a common mistake that applied and theoretical scientists unaccustomed to understanding the philosophy of science make. Is faith a belief without evidence? No. Do scientists come to their conclusions based solely on the evidence? No.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the new atheists, since I truly appreciate the impact they have had in raising the level of awareness for skeptics, but Haught is correct here, if in fact that's what they think. Anyone who has seriously looked into the philosophy of science and read Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, Ian Barbour, Frederick Suppe, Paul Feyerabend, and even Karl Popper knows that science is not completely objective, that facts are theory laden, and that certainty as a goal is impossible to achieve, which leaves room for faith. Popper, for instance, talked of science progressing by “conjectures and guesses.” Feyerabend even argued that there is no such thing as the scientific method! Scientists themselves are people with passions, prior commitments, and/or control beliefs. In fact, there are many beliefs we have for which we have no evidence, as Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued--such things as I’m not dreaming right now, that I've existed for longer than 24 hours, that I am not merely a brain in a mad scientist's vat which is being caused to remember the events of today in the year 2030, or that we're not all living in something depicted by the movie the Matrix.

Haught argues that “there is no way, without circular thinking, to set up a scientific experiment to demonstrate that every true proposition must be based in empirical evidence rather than faith. The censuring of every instance of faith, in the narrow new atheist sense of the term (i.e. according to Haught as an "intellectual and propositional sense," rather than a "vulnerable heart"), would have to include the supposition of scientism also." Why? Because Haught argues, faith "is essential to ground the work of science itself.” (p. 11).

Here is where I think Haught is confused. Evidence stands in a dialectic tension with the faith of the scientist in that the scientist’s faith directs his conjectures and guesses, and in turn the evidence corrects these guesses by refuting ill informed ones. Faith and evidence stand in a dialectic tension with each other in this manner. So it would be completely non-scientific of Haught to say that the faith of a scientist should ever take precedence over the evidence itself. The faith of the scientist is one that should never be against the evidence, and THAT is surely what the new atheists are arguing for, irrespective of whether they have ever studied the philosophy of science or not! And the faith of a scientist (qua scientist) does not, and should not be, as Haught describes faith, "a commitment of one's whole being to God." (p. 5) Rather, it's a faith that believes a certain experiment will produce fruitful results prior to doing the experiment, or that spending a great deal of time trying to solve an equation will be worth the effort, or at a more fundamental level that his senses adequately reflect the world. The claim of the new atheists is that the evidence does not support the faith of a believer in God, and they are right. Haught disagrees, but how does he propose to show them they are wrong apart from the evidence?

Haught merely claims there is no way without circular reasoning to establish that every true proposition must be based in empirical evidence. His argument is that if this is the case it leaves room for faith, since science cannot be proved based upon a scientific experiment. So what? What method does he propose to investigate our experience in this world other than science and the evidence? Mysticism? Intuition? What kind of methods are those? And how would someone go about establishing them as methods without reasoning in a circle? What is the exact content to these methods since those who adhere to them come away with different and mutually contradictory understandings of their experiences?

I have argued at length in my book on behalf of methodological naturalism, which was first suggested by the ancient Greek philosopher/scientist Thales. He proposed a natural answer to the question of "what is the source of all things?" Thales claimed the source of all things was water. The method he used in coming to this conclusion eschewed references to the gods and goddesses of his day and merely looked for a natural answer to the question. This method is the one that has been the most fruitful in history, bar none. That method is all we have. So it’s reasonable to think as Barbara Forrest has argued, that since this method has worked so well that philosophical (or ontological) naturalism is a reasonable conclusion to come to, even if we cannot prove such a conclusion by a scientific experiment itself!

So while Haught is right about a few things, he’s dead wrong about other more important things.

10 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

I think we eliminate a great deal of ambiguity if we talk about the difference between religious faith and scientific reasoning in specifically ontological terms.

Religious faith is characterized by taking statements making specific assertions about the world of reality (i.e. about existence; ontological statements) as true or false on a basis other than the least logical explanation to the evidence of our senses.

All scientific beliefs "without evidence" are methodological, not ontological. Even the belief that an objective reality exists is justified by appeal to the least explanation to the evidence.

The problem with religious faith, i.e. ontological faith, is that the methodology underlying those ontological faith statements is completely indeterminate: If you allow religious statements, then there is no methodology to distinguish between contradictory statements.

On the other hand, if you accept scientific methodology "on faith", then you find that the methodology does distinguish between contradictory statements, and it does so in a consistent way, without anyone having to take any specific ontological statement "on faith" -- not even the existence of objective reality.

Charlie said...

Very balanced review, John. I have to admit.

AIGBusted said...

Good post John! I'm looking forward to the further installments in this series.

-Ryan

oli said...

Interesting review and i think it skirts the bounds of Kantian philosophy.
Ideas such as "We're in the matrix", "I'm dreaming and everyone else is a figment of my imagination" and such like are indeed untestable and uanswerable by science.
However, they are also irrelevant. We do not have faith that this is the real world, we simply recognise that these arguements, being untestable and having no impact on the world we live in are not of importance.
If a matrix like virtual world exists and we are all its slaves then its been so well designed tha we've no evidence for its existence. Now if we did find something, that'd be a different matter.
I also disagree with Haughts idea of what makes a new atheist. And i certainly consider myself one.
The morality arguement is strong but to me its purely secondary. People living miserable lives is also important but again purely secondary. I personally believe that lopsided capitalism is more responsible than religion for much of the worlds misery.
My problem and from what i've read, i share my views with Dawkins, is that people are living their lives, and trying to make me live my life based on nonsense faerie tales.
I don't live my life by the scientific method, no one does, not even scientists. When it comes to what is real and what is not however, i go for the idea best supported by the evidence. And the best method we have to generating those ideas is the scientific method.
I think the great difference between the new and old atheists is not theory but confidence and enemies. Society is now sufficient open (at least in western nations) to allow such criticism and while the mainstream churches (here in Europe at least) have dwindled in power, the crazy fringe has become more public.
Atheists now thus have a much easier and more deserving target and a much more tolerant society in which to voice their objections.

Charlie said...

Oli,

"Ideas such as "We're in the matrix", "I'm dreaming and everyone else is a figment of my imagination" and such like are indeed untestable and uanswerable by science.
However, they are also irrelevant."


Epistemology 101: Hello? They are crucially relevant to our understanding of human rationality, belief, and knowledge.

oli said...

Charlie said (hehehe)
"Epistemology 101: Hello? They are crucially relevant to our understanding of human rationality, belief, and knowledge."

Really? You aren't thinking this through. How can they be crucially relevant if they can't be answered? They are interesting the theorise about but ultimately meaningless since they can't be answered. At the end of the day you have to go with what can be observed, even indirectly. Death might send you to heaven, paradise, out of the matrix, or whatever, but since there is no way to test any of these ideas, its better to avoid stepping in front of buses in the spirit of inquiry.
Religion all too frequently retreats to epistemology where it can say whatever the hell it likes with no concrete way to be disproved.

Here is a question for you charlie. Is heaven real? Is hell real? These are simple questions with yes or no answers. You can't give me an answer. You don't know. You can't prove or put forward any evidence for either place. Their existence is totally unprovable and i have no more reason to believe in them than i do in Valhalla or the Egyptian land of the dead.
The existence of heaven or hell are mere distractions, in the absence of any good evidence for them, it is more practical and sensible to carry on life as if they aren't real. I can perceive this world with my senses and with a battery of new senses afforded to me by modern science. I'm much better off trying to live life in this world than spend my time and energy naval gazing about other possible worlds.

Charlie said...

Oli,

After reading your last post, it's clear that you don't have much familiarity with contemporary theories of rationality and knowledge. Good luck in your future endevours.

Also:

Is hell real?

Yes. Look around you.

Shygetz said...

John, allow me to critique your critique. First, you say Is faith a belief without evidence? No." But then you neglect to say what your definition of faith is. The only widespread use of the word "faith" in an epistemological sense is to indicate "firm belief in something for which there is no proof" (unless you are willing to concede that there is proof for God or religious doctrines, which are the other uses--Merriam-Webster), so if you wish to claim this definition is wrong, well, I hope you have a very large lever with which to move the English language.

One of the cruxes of your critique is: Do scientists come to their conclusions based solely on the evidence? No...Anyone who has seriously looked into the philosophy of science and read Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, Ian Barbour, Frederick Suppe, Paul Feyerabend, and even Karl Popper knows that science is not completely objective, that facts are theory laden, and that certainty as a goal is impossible to achieve, which leaves room for faith. Barefoot Bum addressed this critique beautifully, but I'd like to pile on. Science does use conjecture in the formation of hypotheses and theory. However, the acceptance of these theories as true ALWAYS relies solely on one objective fact...do the theories provide accurate predictions of the future? The certainty of scientific belief in a theory is directly correlated to the observed predictive ability of the theory. You observe that scientists are never certain of truth, but somehow therefore conclude that this leaves room for faith, as if uncertainty is somehow an unnatural void that must be filled with something. This conclusion is directly opposed to reality; faith would be required for scientists to express certainty in their conclusions, given that they know that their observations are not foolproof, but they refrain from doing so. In sceince, all belief is justified by objective fact and the certainty in the belief is directly proportional to the strength of the justification, and is therefore NOT faith.

Rather, it's a faith that believes a certain experiment will produce fruitful results prior to doing the experiment, or that spending a great deal of time trying to solve an equation will be worth the effort, or at a more fundamental level that his senses adequately reflect the world.

The first two opinions you mention are not science, they are how a scientist feels about his science, which is neither here nor there (and, again, such "faith" may not be unjustified belief, and therefore not really faith at all--a scientist may have very sufficient empirical reasons for justifiably believing that a particular experiment will work). It is, of course, true that a scientist may have faith, just as it is true that a lawyer may break the law, but such faith is not a part of the discipline of science, anymore than snorting meth off of a hooker's posterior is a part of the discipline of the clergy. It is almost a truism in science that the best results are the ones that you didn't expect, so the idea that science requires you to have faith in predetermined results of an experiment is not only wrong, but is diametrically opposed to how science is performed today.

Your last objection does touch upon the central assumption in science, but it falls slightly short. No one scientist assumes (or, at least, should assume) that his/her senses adequately reflect the nature of the universe. We assume that the shared observations of many people reflect an objective underlying reality. And no, we don't assume that they adequately reflect that reality, which is why even theories that have been heavily and repeatedly confirmed are still held as tentative--we realize that our senses may be inadequately reflecting reality, so we hold back any final judgement on the topic.

The need for validation through shared experience is why reproducibility is a cornerstone of modern science--one scientist may be easily fooled by their senses, but it is less likely that two scientists will be fooled in exactly the same way, and the more people start to rely upon a result, the more scientists will reproduce the experiments that led to the result.

This is the one area in which I will agree that scientists must expend faith; however, this central assumption is behind all mechanisms of truth-seeking that could possibly be available to humans, so it is a lamentable but unavoidable assumption. Knowing this, scientists seek to limit reliance on faith to as few propositions as possible, which according to Godel is at least one. If Haught, or anyone else, can successfully demonstrate that faith in God is necessary for all approaches to truth-seeking, then science would be forced to accept that as a necessary assumption...but I won't hold my breath.

John W. Loftus said...

Shygetz, I think there are things we believe for which there is no evidence for them. To say this another way, it is by faith we believe some things since there is no evidence for them. Faith is believing something for which the evidence doesn’t conclusively lead us to. Faith in the sense I think you mean is that which provides some kind of certainty to the conclusions one arrives at. No. That might describe some kinds of “religious faith” which seems to require some kind of certainty for the believer, But faith itself can and is tentative.

Is it faith to believe what historians tell you even though you have no background to properly assess their claims? Historians disagree, you know. Which ones will you believe? As a non-historian how to you choose? Is it faith to believe your mother, who tells you stories about you long dead grandfather? Is it faith to believe there is no God at all? Is it faith to believe there are other people? Is it faith to believe there is a material world at all?

I think so, in every case above.

The only question is whether or not such faith is justifiable by sound arguments and good evidence. But the evidence needs buttressed by sound arguments, and arguments are not considered evidence (qua evidence).

Shygetz, you are typtical of the “applied scientists” I wrote about. I know you have a Ph.D. and are a scientist, but may I humbly ask you how much of the literature you’ve read in the philosophy of science? You write as if you haven’t read much of it (please pardon me if I’m wrong here).

You said…In science, all belief is justified by objective fact…

Faith must be grounded in objective fact as much as possible, but there are beliefs we have which we cannot personally test, and there are beliefs we have that have no evidence for them either way.

You continued …and the certainty in the belief is directly proportional to the strength of the justification...

This is true of faith whether it’s a scientific conclusion or one supported by argument or simply a conclusion one must adopt if he wants to live a normal life (i.e. no one should act as if he is indeed inside a matrix). I think you need to realize that if we cannot conclusively and decisively rule out a belief, then such a possibility might be the case. Is the whole world maya or an illusion, as pantheists argue? Are you not dreaming right now? What, please tell me, is the evidence you have to show these beliefs are not the case? Here we depend upon arguments, not evidence, and we must realize the arguments themselves don't conclusively rule out they could be wrong since we also know from psychologists that we all have this uncanny ability to defend beliefs we have adopted prior to examining them based upon the "accidents of birth."

You said…It is almost a truism in science that the best results are the ones that you didn't expect, so the idea that science requires you to have faith in predetermined results of an experiment is not only wrong, but is diametrically opposed to how science is performed today.

You do realize that scientists have a vested interest in gaining grants and in gaining prestige such that they will resist conclusions to the contrary many times. Sometimes a generation of scientists must die out for the conclusions of others to be accepted. yes, the evidence prevails in the long run, but what are we to think before time marches onward?

You said...We assume that the shared observations of many people reflect an objective underlying reality.

Okay then, what is this assumption based upon? What hard scientific experiment can you offer in support of it? Immanuel Kant anyone? This is what I mean by faith. I don’t see a problem with this at all, and something I am willing to grant believers, for no other reason than that it’s true.

You said…If Haught, or anyone else, can successfully demonstrate that faith in God is necessary for all approaches to truth-seeking, then science would be forced to accept that as a necessary assumption...but I won't hold my breath.

I won’t hold my breath either.

-----------
I wonder if what we're discussing here is mere nomenclature such that if we precisely defined our terms there wouldn't be a disagreement. I'm trying to define mine. I hope I did a good enough job.

Shygetz said...

Faith is believing something for which the evidence doesn’t conclusively lead us to...faith itself can and is tentative.

Faith as a tentative belief is nowhere in the common usage...regardless, I think we agree that faith is a certainty of belief beyond rational justification, do we not?

Is it faith to believe what historians tell you even though you have no background to properly assess their claims...(etc.)

You are equating all belief together, without leaving in differences in certainty. No, it is not faith to tentatively agree with the consensus of historians (or any other experts) on facts upon which I am unqualified to delve personally, with certainty in direct proportion to the strength of the consensus and the history of the group of experts to be correct in the past. Trustworthiness of any authority is a facet that can be measured empirically...I don't treat history as incontrovertible fact, but I do give it credence in proportion to the strength of consensus, and in the absence of consensus, I withhold judgment if possible. Same with my mother's stories...I know that her memory of past events is likely to be skewed, so I leave fudge room accordingly, and decrease my certainty in proportion.

The only question is whether or not such faith is justifiable by sound arguments and good evidence. But the evidence needs buttressed by sound arguments, and arguments are not considered evidence (qua evidence).

"Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding."--Martin Luther

Faith does NOT have to be justified by evidence...if a certainty of belief is justified by evidence, it is NOT faith, it is a justified belief. You are using "faith" as being directly interchangeable with "belief", which it has never been. You can claim otherwise all day long, but you are leaving the common parlance and engaging in semantic games, a big no-no in philosophy. Do you ever hear people in the common parlance distinguishing justified faith and unjustified faith? No...faith as an epistemological term is set against reason, and has been for centuries, back since before Martin Luther, and it remains so today.

Also, evidence exists by itself; arguments may be used to give evidence predictive or explanatory power, but evidence requires no argument for "buttressing"...the yardstick is three feet long, regardless of if I explain that it was produced for that purpose, or if I claim it occurred by chance.

Shygetz, you are typtical of the “applied scientists” I wrote about. I know you have a Ph.D. and are a scientist, but may I humbly ask you how much of the literature you’ve read in the philosophy of science? You write as if you haven’t read much of it (please pardon me if I’m wrong here).

The philosophy of science is discussed among scientists but not necessarily the names of the philosophers to whom the ideas are contributed, although I do know a couple. Kant's ideas are discussed a bit by graduate students in discussing the limits of science, although Kant's follies regarding the subjective nature of space-time are also discussed as an example of what happens when you try to do science using just words. I am also somewhat familiar with Popper's work as it relates to memetics, although I have little use for the rest of it; he seemed more interested in truth with a capital "T", while science has always been a pragmatic endeavor that is resigned to the fact that Truth is unknowable with certainty. Other than that, if there is a topic of the philosophy of science that you would like to discuss, I suggest you name the idea rather than the philosopher and we can discuss it. But assuming I've never studied or discussed it is as silly an assumption as me asking if you've read Thomas Morgan, and then assuming that you've never heard of chromosomes when you answer in the negative.

And all natural scientists are "applied scientists". Even the theoretical physicists are differentiated from the mathematicians by the fact that they intend their models to be applied to the natural world.

I think you need to realize that if we cannot conclusively and decisively rule out a belief, then such a possibility might be the case.

Again, you are committing the error of ignoring certainty. It is an abject impossibility to conclusively rule out any belief; all things are possible (including the possibility that not all things are possible). Try reading the primary literature sometime...you'll see that scientists use weasel words like "highly improbable" instead of "impossible" and "suggests" instead of "prove" constantly, because if they do otherwise, some astute reviewer will probably catch them and rake them over the coals for it. And for conclusions less certain, they use words like "perhaps" or "it may be indicated". Yet you persist in stating that, to hold any belief, no matter how tentatively such a belief is held, requires faith in the absence of impossible-to-get conclusive evidence. I say again, such usage of the word "faith" is not in the common parlance.

Is the whole world maya or an illusion, as pantheists argue? Are you not dreaming right now?

I will quote from my original comment, which addresses exactly this concern:

"We assume that the shared observations of many people reflect an objective underlying reality. And no, we don't assume that they adequately reflect that reality, which is why even theories that have been heavily and repeatedly confirmed are still held as tentative--we realize that our senses may be inadequately reflecting reality, so we hold back any final judgement on the topic...This is the one area in which I will agree that scientists must expend faith; however, this central assumption is behind all mechanisms of truth-seeking that could possibly be available to humans, so it is a lamentable but unavoidable assumption. Knowing this, scientists seek to limit reliance on faith to as few propositions as possible, which according to Godel is at least one."

You do realize that scientists have a vested interest in gaining grants and in gaining prestige such that they will resist conclusions to the contrary many times.

I daresay I know more about grants and scientific publishing than you. And I assure you--the least interesting and least useful result is the one that confirms what you thought in the first place, and the most interesting and useful result is one that was wholly unexpected. However, I won't just ask you to take my word for it as an active scientist and reviewer for scientific publications and grant applications...I'll give you and example. Warren and Marshall found in 1979 that the stomach lining, rather than being the sterile environment it was thought to be, had populations of bacteria. Now, an ideologue would have ignored such a result, as it is contrary to the accepted idea that the stomach was too acidic for bacterial life. However, Warren and Marshall followed up on the unexpected result, and in 2005 won a Nobel Prize for discovering that almost all ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection--a discovery that would never have happened if your notion of science rewarding the status quo was true. Warren and Marshall gathered evidence, and once the evidence was sufficient, the scientific community was convinced and they were given great prestige and funding. On the other hand, if they had persisted in saying that the stomach was sterile, they would have continued to toil in obscurity

It is true that some ideologues exist in science, which is why reproducibility and consensus is relied upon in gauging the certainty with which to afford a belief--no one person's ego has sufficient influence to sway bulk opinion in the face of conflicting evidence or insufficient predictive power.

Sometimes a generation of scientists must die out for the conclusions of others to be accepted. yes, the evidence prevails in the long run, but what are we to think before time marches onward?

You are to believe in theories with certainty directly proportional to the extent to which they have been tested. If you are not in a position to do so, you should believe in theories with certainty directly proportional to the consensus of the experts in the associated field(s), with a little extra doubt thrown in to compensate for the added degree of separation between you and the research.

Okay then, what is this assumption based upon? What hard scientific experiment can you offer in support of it?

As I conceded before in this thread and others, this is the central unsupported assumption of all human ways of knowing, and is unescapable. It is the one area in which I will say that faith is required for science.

I wonder if what we're discussing here is mere nomenclature such that if we precisely defined our terms there wouldn't be a disagreement. I'm trying to define mine. I hope I did a good enough job.

You defined your terms perfectly clearly, and insofar as it goes, we have no important disagreements. However, if you define "faith" in a manner outside of the common usage, then any arguments based upon this definition are only useful among groups that share this definition. And, that does not include the general public, which is the consumer of your words. If you continue to use the word "faith" in this manner, it will breed confusion, as such usage is not in the common parlance.