Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Atheism: The faith of intellectuals?

Atheism: The faith of intellectuals?

Some theists say that atheism is the faith of intellectuals. They are basically claiming that there is symmetry between the atheists and the theists in how they formed their beliefs. But this is a mistake, they are not symmetrical.

The key issue here is how a person came to his conclusion. Did he come to his conclusion by faith or by reason? Concluding by faith means believing an idea without critically questioning it, in other words, without considering criticism of the idea. Instead, it means seeking confirmation of the idea, which I explain below. In contrast, concluding by reason means believing an idea only because it has survived all known criticism.

So, when theists claim that atheism is a faith, they are effectively cheating. They are being dishonest about the method by which the conclusions were made. They are claiming that the methods are equivalent, when they aren’t. One of these methods values criticism and truth-seeking, while the other doesn’t. One of these methods declares at the start that we don't yet have the truth, and that for this reason, we need to seek the truth, and the other method declares we already have the truth, and for this reason, we need to prove what we already know to be true.

The people that conclude by faith are fooling themselves about their conclusions. And they are fooling themselves when they claim that the people that conclude by reason are also concluding by faith.


To illustrate the differences between these methods, and which method is best, let’s consider some things we know. We know that people are fallible. And that that means that any of our ideas could be wrong, and that we are commonly wrong. This is why it's important for people to keep all their ideas on the table, open to criticism, open to revision. The reason we should do this is that if a person keeps some of his ideas shielded from criticism, then for those ideas that are in fact wrong, it’s impossible for him to find that out. So believing an idea by faith means having no means of finding out that the idea is wrong. In contrast, believing an idea by reason does not have this problem. By an effort, a person can lookout for flaws in his ideas, and create solutions for them, thereby correcting those flaws. A person’s beliefs should be the ideas that have survived all known criticism. And those beliefs should be open to revision when new criticism is found. In this way, a person's beliefs are rational, instead of irrational, where rational means that the person is willing to change his beliefs when he learns of new criticism. [1]

How to choose between rival ideas

Another difference between these methods is related to how one chooses between rival ideas. If you have two rival ideas, that means that both of them are intended to solve the same problem. Now, deciding between the rivals by reason means looking for a criticism that could rule out one of the ideas but not the other. So, if a criticism is found that explains why one of the rival ideas fails to solve the intended problem, while not explaining anything about the other one, then the criticism can be used to rule out one of the rival ideas, necessarily leaving the other intact.

As an example, consider what happens when somebody gets mad at you for thinking that you intended to disrespect him. Now, lets say that you actually didn't intend to disrespect him. All you were doing was to try to help him learn something, to help him see what's wrong with his idea. So your intention was good, not bad. So you tell this person that you only meant to help by pointing out a flaw, and that you didn't mean to disrespect him. Now the person has two rival ideas. The first one was that you're trying to hurt him by disrespecting him, and the second one is that you're trying to help him by giving him an explanation of a flaw in his idea. Now lets say that both of these rival ideas fit all the existing evidence. This means that neither of the two rival ideas is better than the other. In order to figure out which one is correct, he would have to find a piece of evidence that rules one of them out while leaving the other intact. One type of criticism that could do this is the idea that you've always been helpful and never hurtful in the past. So why would you all of sudden start being hurtful now? It doesn't make sense. So the hurtful/disrespectful idea is refuted, and the only other idea left is that you were being helpful.

Now let’s consider what it means to decide between rival ideas by faith. Since believing by faith means seeking confirmation instead of criticism, the only means one could have of choosing between rivals is arbitrarily. To illustrate this, consider what it means for one of the ideas to be ‘confirmed.’ The confirmation of the first rival idea does not explain anything about the second rival. In other words, a confirmation of the first rival idea does not constitute a criticism of the second. So a confirmation doesn’t break the symmetry between the rival ideas.[2] So how is it that a person still uses confirmation as a means to decide between rival ideas? He’s doing it by feeling. He’s choosing the idea that feels best to him, and he’s seeking confirmation of that idea as a means to justify his choice. Often, the person chooses by feeling, and then seeks confirmation afterwards. Or, for some people, the feeling itself is treated as the confirmation.

Consider the same example as earlier. Lets say the person in the example considers his feeling of anger as his confirmation of his first idea that you're trying to hurt him by disrespecting him. This anger feeling doesn't criticize the rival idea that you're trying to help him. So the anger feeling doesn't break the symmetry between the rivals, meaning that neither of them is ruled out at this point. So if your friend acted on his hurtful/disrespectful interpretation, then he would be acting on a refuted idea. So confirmation doesn't work as a means to choose between rival ideas. In other words, choosing by faith means choosing arbitrarily.

The point here is that confirmation doesn’t work as a means of finding out the better idea between rivals. Confirming one of the ideas does nothing to criticize the other idea, so confirmation can’t break the symmetry between them. Only a criticism can break the symmetry. What kind of criticism? One that criticizes one of the rival ideas but not the other.

This affects all areas of a person’s life

This way of thinking, of choosing by faith, affects all areas of a person's life. Lots of people make huge life decisions based on the sensations they get surrounding those decisions. They get married to people because of their feelings while ignoring the glaring problems surrounding the relationships — and they use their feelings as confirmation that their decisions are right. They choose not to abort pregnancies for feelings of love of unborn children while ignoring things like whether or not the family situation is opportune for the unborn children and for the parents. They switch jobs based on feelings of excitement of a new job, often trading to a worse situation than compared to the previous job, usually in a type of scenario where the person could have found out the danger before quitting the previous job. These are all very dangerous situations that could have been avoided. Thinking in this way, of making decisions without trying to lookout for danger, can only be expected to lead to a long string of major disasters. What's needed is a way to think about things where dangerous results can be avoided instead of ignored. What’s needed is a way of thinking that doesn’t seek confirmation, and instead, seeks criticism.


Deciding things by faith is a way to deal with uncertainty. Since people are fallible, that means that we can’t be absolutely certain about any of our ideas. And choosing by faith is a way to deal with the uncertainty, in the sense that it’s a way to stop thinking about it, to stop thinking about being uncertain. But this is a mistake. Not thinking about it doesn’t actually help. All that does is temporarily suspend one’s feelings about the uncertainty. If the decision was wrong, then whatever harm it was causing is going to come up again in the future. And burying your thoughts about it isn’t going to help you when the problem comes up again.

Conventional advise about uncertainty

There is a lot of conventional advise that is consistent with the idea of believing by faith. The advise says that second-guessing a decision is something that should be avoided. It says that one shouldn't think critically about a decision after having made the decision, as a means of feeling better about the possibility of the decision being wrong. But this is a misguided way of dealing with uncertainty. It's like saying: Since I can't be certain about my idea, I need a way to act that accounts for the bad feeling I get when I'm uncertain about a decision I made. This is a bad approach because it's not giving any method for dealing with the uncertainty, and instead it's only giving advice on how to feel in spite of the uncertainty. The problem I see with this is that following this advice means ignoring criticism of one's ideas. It means blocking out of your mind that your decision could be wrong. It means blocking out of your mind that the case might be that you should change your mind.

To clarify the issue, let's consider what it means to stop second-guessing in the context of a murder case. The first guess is the detective's first suspect. Second-guessing means looking for other possible suspects that could have committed the murder instead. It means looking for other types of theories like maybe it was a suicide, or maybe it was an accident caused by one or more mistakes made by the accused person and/or other people. If the detective doesn't second-guess his first guesses, then he can't possibly find the truth, unless he just happened to get lucky on his first guess. So avoiding second-guessing means having faith in a past decision. Do you want to be a suspect in a case where the detective follows this conventional advice that second-guessing is something to be avoided? If you were wrongly convicted of a murder, would you want our judicial system to avoid second-guessing the case (in the form of an appeal)? 

Consider the equivalent situation in the context of the medical profession. Recently a women died the night of being released from the hospital. The physician had decided that it was ok for her to be released from the hospital, and immediately after making the decision he second-guessed himself. But instead of acting on this, he looked to the nurse for confirmation of his decision, to which she confirmed that it was the right decision. But it was the wrong decision. Not only was it the wrong decision, the physician was also wrong to seek confirmation as a means of burying his thoughts of uncertainty. Instead, he should have sought criticism. He should have thought it good to second-guess himself, instead of thinking that it was bad to do so.

How to deal with uncertainty

My description might not be giving the conventional advice a fair analysis. I think the conventional advise says that you should second-guess a little bit, and then at some point to stop second-guessing and decide on your best knowledge. But the problem with this conventional approach is that it's not clear about how to arrive at an idea that can be considered 'the best knowledge.' It doesn't explain that the best idea as a proposal solution for a particular problem is one that refutes all of it's existing rivals. It doesn't explain how to go about criticizing one's ideas. And it doesn't explain how to update one's ideas in the future as new ideas and criticisms are created.

Consider the context of a murder case again. The court system is designed so that the person who is accused get’s a defense. This is a way to ensure that there is somebody trying to look for criticisms of the idea that the accused person committed a murder. The court system is also setup so that any conviction can be appealed. This is because we know that we could have been wrong about the conviction. Our best knowledge to date, at the time of the conviction, was good enough to convict, but we know that it's possible that a new piece of evidence, or a new analysis, could change the dynamics of the case such that the previous theory is now refuted, in favor for a new theory. This shows that our judicial system is designed to account for uncertainty. And this is a way of thinking, an attitude, that individuals can have to.

So the conventional advice is telling us how to feel better about possibly being wrong (aka uncertain), but it doesn't address the underlying issue, that it's ok to be wrong since that's part of the human condition. Being wrong is normal. It's common. The important thing isn't that you're wrong, or that you could be wrong, but rather it's how you deal with the fact that you could be wrong, and how you deal with situations where you have criticism of your ideas. Do you seek confirmation for your ideas or do you seek criticism? Do you block out things from your mind or do you change your mind about your ideas when you do find out that you're wrong?

More importantly, finding out that you're wrong shouldn't be seen as a bad thing because it’s actually good -- you went from being wrong, to being right, about that one thing. If you get a bad feeling when second-guessing your ideas, that's an indication that you have the wrong attitude, the wrong philosophy towards mistakes. What's needed is an attitude that matches the human condition, an attitude of enjoying criticism, an attitude of enjoying finding out that you're wrong. Why? Because finding out that you're wrong is the first step towards correcting your mistake. It's an opportunity to improve. It's an opportunity to evolve.

So belief by faith is the wrong way to treat ideas because it doesn’t account for a fundamental feature of the human condition, which is that we are fallible. It ignores the problem of uncertainty. It ignores danger. And belief by reason does not have this problem. It does account for fallibility — it does account for the problem of uncertainty — it does lookout for danger.

So, NO. Atheism is not the faith of intellectuals. Reason and faith are antithetical to each other. They cannot co-exist. For any given problem, if you approach it with reason, you are rejecting faith, and instead, if you approach it with faith, then you are rejecting reason.


[2] _Symmetry_, by Elliot Temple.

No comments:

Post a Comment