Thursday, June 22, 2006

Ave, Charles!

Charles of Liminality writes a fascinating entry about Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, here.

In the latter part of Charles's essay, there's this cluster of paragraphs:

In distinguishing between belief in science and belief in religion, he notes that those who believe in science act on those beliefs—they build airplanes and other devices that rely on the principles of science to work, they in fact stake their very lives on the fact that these scientific principles are true. Those who profess belief in religion, though, usually don’t act on those beliefs: “People who give away all their belongings and climb to some mountaintop in anticipation of the imminent End of the World don’t just believe in belief in God, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, when it comes to religious convictions” (234).

I must admit that I resent this simplified and stereotyped depiction of acting on one’s belief, but there is truth in what Dennett says. I put my life in the hands of science every time I get into my car, but would I trust my life to what I believe about God. In short, do I act on what I say I believe? This is a sobering question, and one I am tempted to pass over, but I will not. The truth is that I do not live in perfect accordance with what I say I believe. I am a hypocrite. Jesus tells us to love, but there are people I have a very difficult time loving. If I were to write a list of all the ways my life conflicts with what I say I believe, I’d probably wear a dozen pencils down to nothing. Does this mean I only belief in belief in God? Is it possible that I don’t really believe that God exists?

My answer to this question would probably not satisfy Dennett, but it satisfies me, and that is ultimately the point here. I do believe in God, and I do believe that there is a right way to live, but I am weak and often fail to live up to my ideals. You don’t have to be a Christian to think this way, either. Just about every human being knows how difficult it is to live up to ideals, and even those who are thought by others to live ideal lives would be the first to tell you that they don’t. That is not false humility, it is true humility: recognizing that no matter how close to an ideal we may come, we will always fall a little short.

A few philosophy blogs have dealt with the question of hypocrisy, and have concluded that hypocrisy does not refer to the mere inconsistency between one's beliefs/ideals and one's actions. A hypocrite is, by contrast, a person who pays lip service to a set of beliefs/ideals, but makes no effort to live up to them. By that standard, I hope Charles will take heart that his failings (and mine, and everyone else's) do not a hypocrite make.

Aside: Strangely enough, what prompted the discussion of hypocrisy on those blogs was the case of Bill Bennett, the self-styled promoter of "virtue" in American society. The philosophers I'm referring to skew conservative in their political beliefs, and they were at pains to defend Bennett, a fellow conservative, when it was discovered that he had enormous gambling debt-- an obvious sign of vice, which is traditionally the opposite of virtue. Bennett suddenly found himself besieged by mostly liberal vituperation.

I found most philosophical defenses of Bennett rather hollow, but among those arguments was the one about what a true hypocrite is, and I do think that that argument is legitimate. Whether the argument actually applies successfully to Bennett is another matter.

End of digression.

In another section of his essay, Charles professes not to like Daniel Dennett's (be careful not to confuse Bennett and Dennett, here!) advocacy of the scientific investigation of religious claims. In particular, Charles sees little use in the investigation of the efficacity of intercessory prayer. Charles makes a point actually made by scientists themselves: it is impossible to verify or falsify (i.e., "to discover to be false," not "to fake") how effective prayer is. Charles puts it this way:

Unless the experiment is completely blind (that is, the prayer subjects are completely unaware that they are being prayed for), belief would still come into play. The prayer subjects themselves might not be praying, but, knowing that they are being prayed for, they would still believe. Let us say that we did somehow manage to conduct a blind experiment—let’s say we told a bunch of cancer patients that we were conducting an entirely different experiment, and then we had people pray for them without their knowledge. Even then, though, what would this prove? Any Christian will tell you that God always answers prayer—but that his answer is sometimes “no” or “wait.” Let’s say I pray for God to grant me a large house on a hill with crocodiles dressed in tuxedos to serve me drinks. If God does not grant my request, does this mean prayer does not work? In the same way (albeit less flippantly), if I pray for someone who is ill to recover and they do not, does this mean that intercessory prayer does not work?

This is precisely why scientists suspect that claims about prayer are generally false: their unprovability. As Sagan put it in his famous discussion of "the dragon in my garage" (wherein a person claims to have a dragon in his garage, but it turns out that the claim is impossible to verify because, as the person explains, the dragon is incorporeal, floats, and breathes heatless fire, thereby leaving no trace of itself):

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative -- merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved." (italics added)

Personally, I'm a big fan of scientifically verifying any physical claims made by religion. Religion strays onto science's turf every time it makes any pronouncement about the physical world. "Prayer heals" is just such a claim, and the claim has little value if it cannot be seen to be consistently true.

On the philosophical level, the problem for the believer is this: if we grant that God sometimes says "No" or "Wait" to prayer requests, we still have little reason to believe in the efficacy of prayer because we cannot know the mind of God. And yet believers will often do what they can to justify their religious worldview, which for theists usually includes a notion of God's omnibenevolence. Thus it is that the claim "prayer heals" will be supplemented by "but sometimes God says 'No' or 'Wait,'" and is further supplemented by the (not exactly comforting) justification that "God moves according to his own ways, and we trust that those ways are good"-- itself a problematic claim that leads to questions about divine command theory.

[NB: Wikipedia has a good survey article on prayer here. The section titled "Experimental Evaluation of Prayer" offers commentary and linked references to recent experiments performed to test claims about prayer's effectiveness.]

While Charles and I probably stand on opposite sides of the stanchion when it comes to the question of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria, the idea that science and religion are, at bottom, not in conflict; read Stephen Asma's fascinating essay on why Gould is likely wrong to advocate NOMA; my own book will include an essay on this subject as well), I do stand with Charles when he writes the following:

In other cases, though, I think Dennett hits the nail right on the head, in particular with his call for moderates to deal with fanatics and radicals within their traditions. He is right when he says that moderates are being used if they remain silent about the actions of fanatics. Even though few may read this, I would thus like to take this opportunity to clarify where I stand. I believe that love is the single most important concept in the teachings of the Bible. Paul says that of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). He puts love before even faith! Likewise, there is nothing that should come between us and our love for God and our fellow man (and the Bible says that if we do not love our fellow man, we cannot claim to love God—see 1 John 4:20). Bombing abortion clinics? This is not love, this is hatred. But Jesus raised a ruckus in the Temple, casting out the money changers, did he not? Yes, but that was God’s house. The money changers were there because the religious leaders allowed them to be there. Jesus was just doing a little house cleaning. You’ll notice in the Bible that Jesus never pulled his punches when dealing with the religious leaders, who claimed to know better, but he was infinitely compassionate when dealing with everyone else. So I say to the fanatics, where is your love? If love is not your motivation, you are not doing God’s work. End of story.

How easily, how easily, how easily we forget this.

Give Charles's essay a read. Charles notes that his post weighs in at around 6000 words, so it's a hefty bit of reading, but the man is, fortunately, a fantastically clear and unpretentious writer in the Mark Salzman tradition. As Yoda might say about those 6000 words: "Size has no meaning. It matters not. Judge me by my size, do you? And well you should not!" While I've quoted large sections of Charles's piece, the most profound part of it lies near the end, and it really would be worth your while to take in the wisdom Charles expresses there.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm impressed that you managed to read that and write such a thoughtful response so quickly.

The only reason I'm still up is because I'm watching the US get beaten by Ghana (that penalty kick was total crap!), but that's another story.

I do tend to be a bit hard on myself, so I suppose it's comforting to hear that definition of hypocrisy. So what does that make us if we try but fail to live up to our ideals? Human, I guess.

I did consider your points on the whole prayer thing--that is, if God can say no or wait, and if God only acts in accordance with his plan, why bother praying at all? I didn't address it because the entry was getting rather long and also because it would require more thought on my part. This is definitely an issue, but it's something I will have to come back to.

I'm still not convinced of the need for scientific verification of religious claims, but I have a feeling that this would best be saved for a future email exchange. We'll have to do that when I get back.

Thanks for the comments. Hopefully the US will manage a comeback here so I can go to bed happy for my three and a half hours of sleep, but the US has never won a game where they have trailed, so that's not looking too good.