Back Off Science

Articles of faith

Posted in atheism, narrative by backoffscience on November 10, 2009

The New Atheists or scientists, as I like to call them, don’t just have a problem with organised religion. They have a problem with the very concept of faith.

In science’s language, the definition of faith is this – living your life as though human-created stories are real things in the world.

Making concepts real is what faith does, and all concepts, by definition, are human-created. Faith is simply a belief that a belief is real.

I, for example, have faith in the existence of love. I know it cannot be explained as the causal link between two brains or organisms. I know love only exists because I believe it’s existence is real. But I also know that my faith in love, along with everyone elses, is all that keeps love in existence. I could inspect as many brains as I like, and I will not find love, only the brain parts which make the concept possible.

So how can I have faith in something’s being real, at the same time as knowing that it only exists as a concept? Doesn’t this make it an illusion?

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_QwksVGcxMqk/Sfy6Mu5Wm1I/AAAAAAAAAuA/bW6xSmnKOwI/S660/tinkerbell-free-coloring-pages-printable-1.gifThis all depends how you want to define reality. There is no absolute rule stating that you have to restrict the concept of reality to exclude concepts. You may choose to believe that there is such a rule, and you can make your arguments around assuming that rule is true, just as many atheists do. That just isn’t a good way to argue (to assume your answer).

Personally, I wouldn’t want my concept of reality itself not be real – for me that would be confusing. If you think it works, let me know how.

So if you allow conceptual as well as material reality in, what then?

Well you have to accept that things like love, happiness, joy, freedom, responsibility and community are real, but only in so much as we believe in them.

Actually, the relationship is much more complex than that, we’re not talking about twinkerbell here. Faith, defined as a belief that a belief is real, is a necessary condition for the existence of our conceptual reality. But the articles of faith still have to acted upon to make them real. It’s no good believing love is real when no-one is actually in love.

Now here’s the crunch. Communal conceptual realities (or you could call them faith communities I guess, or folks that share the same story) that do not include the discoveries of science don’t personally suit me. I’m an atheist, and always have been.

And there is no doubt that literalist religious conceptual systems can cause harm in some cases – the intelligent design lab biologist for example, or the Al Qu’aida bomber. However, most people who believe in concepts that massively contradict material reality – that the world is young, the people go to a special place after death and so on – lead pretty normal lives, considering.

The point is that there is so much more besides, which fits in just perfectly with the material reality, but which still make use of our ability to live our lives within complex and beautiful narratives. Here are just a few examples:

Awe and wonder. Richard Dawkins prefered conceptual reality, built on our emotional (concept) reaction to beautiful(concept) natural (concept) scenes.

Golden Rule. Love thy neighbour. Perfect consequentialist rule of thumb.

Humanism. Ain’t life great. Couldn’t it be great for everyone.

Humanitarianism. Ain’t life shit. Couldn’t it be great for everyone?

Progress. I believe there will be a situation in the future, which could be better or worse depending what I do now.

History. What I am now is because of great-great-great-great-great grandpa’s awesomeness.

Evolution. How brilliant is it that complex life, or life itself, even exists. How great that the ancestors survived and changed.

Freedom. I can do anything.

Community. We can do anything.

Creativity. I can improve the world by making interesting and beautiful things.

and last of all Depth. There are such things as shallow and deep experiences, and the deeper ones are often better.

There are tons more, let me know your favourite.

10 Responses

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  1. Alan Slipp said, on November 14, 2009 at 5:46 am

    “The New Atheists or scientists, as I like to call them, don’t just have a problem with organised religion. They have a problem with the very concept of faith.

    In science’s language, the definition of faith is this – living your life as though human-created stories are real things in the world.”

    If you read anything written by any of the so-called “New Atheists”, you will discover that their definition of faith is “belief without evidence”. Sam Harris might use “belief without good reasons”. If this is what you object to, I’m not sure how this post addresses it.

    I’m also not sure why you would prefer to call someone like Christopher Hitchens a scientist. A writer, a journalist, and a rhetorician certainly, but as far as I know, he doesn’t do any science.

    • backoffscience said, on November 15, 2009 at 12:48 am

      You’re right, they don’t define faith like I do, they define it as an insult. But that’s a new word, it doesn’t help us understand what religious people are doing. So much of our belief system exists without evidence, without good reasons. I call them scientists, because they, probably like you, believe the reality that science investigates is all reality – completely missing the reality of ideas, concepts, consciousness and language. If you accept that these phenomena should be included into what is real, you realize it is much harder to formulate a strict barrier between beliefs with good reasons and those without.

  2. Alan Slipp said, on November 16, 2009 at 7:11 am

    Be that as it may, if your intent in this post was to address a position actually articulated by Dawkins, Harris et al., I’m not sure that you’ve done so successfully. Not once have I read anything in any book or article by any of the aforementioned that would indicate they deny that ideas and concepts are real (to the extent one can say they are). I’m not convinced that *anyone* actually holds the position you object to. Logical positivists might come close, if there are still any of them left. Now maybe you’ve read other material that created a different impression – if so, I’d be very interested to look at it myself.

    Ideas and concepts are not the same as, say, rocks. Rocks exist, and will continue to exist even when the minds that bring to life ideas are long gone. If ideas and concepts are real, they are real in a different kind of way – in the same way that the truth value of statements of belief are different from the truth value of statements of matters of fact. If somebody says that concepts aren’t “real”, what I would assume they mean is that they aren’t *things* like rocks.

    • backoffscience said, on November 16, 2009 at 3:02 pm

      You are totally right. No-one holds the view holds the position. It is un-holdable. And you are right too, there is a different sense of truth to concepts than to matters of material fact.

      But my point is that a certain kind of rationalist does not and cannot put the concepts in their rightful place. I don’t think Dawkins and the rest would argue as they do if they accepted the existence of concepts and the rules which govern them. I am saying they do hold this position, but don’t recognise it.

      Talking about concepts isn’t the same as talking about matter. Concepts have their meaning from the concepts they are connected to, how they fit into big interlinked stings and matrices of concepts that surround them. Explain to me your best friend, or a famous historical figure. Just atoms and biology? Of course not. You’d need to describe the times you’d met them, the stories about them, the facts of their history, the larger historical picture. There is no stopping point, there is no final truth. But the person is still real, and their characteristics exist.

      What I’m saying is that there is a completly different kind of investigation which you need to undertake to understand concepts and their basis. One which accepts that they are resting upon nothing except for our continuing to do certain things.

      And when you see that, you realize that many things are just as real as rocks but which only exist if we carry on doing certain things, believing certain things, talking in certain ways and so on. If we completely stop doing abstract art and loose all record of it, and someone finds a Jackson Pollock, would know everything that is true about is by studying its chemical make-up? Of course not.

      The same goes for free will, responsibility, love, kindness, beauty, solice, grief, happiness, friendship and community, narrative, story, film, drama, music etc etc.

      The only way to talk about these things is to talk about life – our shared, conceptual life in which rocks also exist. But when you do talk about them, the rules for the investigation are turned on their head. Everything is ambiguous in various ways, everything is shared (for how could it be a concept when it is not), everything conceptually connected.

      Saying God Doesn’t Exist as a fact about the material world, arguing for heaven’s non-existence using a telescope, looking for free will in the pulp of a brain. To talk about these things is to talk about a world in which these things only exist if we use the concept in a certain way. If we don’t hold certain beliefs, don’t do things in a certain way, don’t talk about things as we do, the concept changes, or ceases to exist. God doesn’t exist in the sky, it exists in buildings and books and in congrigations of people. But it still exists, and we should engage with it within the rules that allow its survival.

      • Alan Slipp said, on November 16, 2009 at 9:13 pm

        Fair enough. I think I agree with you for the most part. The distinction between a concept of thing X and object X itself is one that I still think is highly important. It’s trivial to say that God is a concept, but saying that God is a concrete object is highly problematic. Countering a rejection of God as object with an assertion that God is a concept seems to me to be talking at cross-purposes.

  3. backoffscience said, on November 17, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    You’re completely right. What I am saying is that the dichotomy of concept and object is completely confusing when applied to the world we actually live in. Concepts and objects are intertwined in such an overlapping and inter-connected way, that talking about the object X by itself is impossible. Once you relax the dichotomy of subjective and objective into extreme positions on a spectrum of continuous examples, you see that God is neither object or concept but both. God exists in the heads of believers and their religious objects and events, but to have a religious person accept those facts is to stop those beliefs and objects from being religious, to destroy the thing you’re trying to explain. In order to overcome this standoff, we’ve just got to let religious people have their made-up facts, and approach what they do from a different angle – one which allows a conversation.

    My point in this post is that atheists like me need some made-up facts of our own, about our purpose in life and the values therein. As awkward as it is for us to reconcile made-up facts with proper facts, it is what we need to do to make the most of our lives. As long as we treat atheist faith – in free will, for example, or progress, or humanism, or cosmological wonder – as what it really is (ie beliefs in things that only exist if we believe in them) – they will never satisfy our need for a life-narrative. We have to treat them as fully real and existing, that free will does exist, that the universe is awe inspiring, that humans can be good, and life can be better for everyone in the future. That means, in a certain sense, forgetting about the scientific facts in certain areas. It also means letting go of the idea that science offers a complete picture of our lives.

    • Alan Slipp said, on November 17, 2009 at 7:34 pm

      This one of the great existentialist quandaries: we know nothing comes into being with any intrinsic meaning, but that doesn’t stop us from finding meaning all over the place. I think what you are talking about is simply finding the right attitude – we can choose to despair over the meaninglessness of existence, or we can create meaning for ourselves. I don’t really think we need to blur the line between fantasy and reality in order to do so.

      I recognize that debunking religious claims can sometimes be hurtful, particularly to those who have a great desire for them to be true, but I think we run the risk of making some phenomenally bad choices when we allow our lives to be dominated by fantasy. Just look, for example, at the number of children who die in the U.S. because certain parents would rather pray than seek medical care for them. Or children (again) being stoned to death in African villages because the villagers are convinced they are possessed by demons. These things won’t stop happening if we simply ignore them.

      • backoffscience said, on November 17, 2009 at 9:09 pm

        I’m not sure that’s quite right. When you say it is all a matter of attitude, you’re spot on, but that attitude cuts much deeper than you want it to. The attitude you take towards the world defines it, makes its meaning real in a sense where it makes no sense to call it eg projecting meaning on a meaningless world. We have no direct access to this meaningless world you talk about (unless you count Sartre’s staring at trees or repeating words), so it’s existence is a fully abstract matter. The meaningful world is much more real.

        There is no conceptual split between fantasy and reality – the line just is blured, whether you like it or not. An important aspect to all reality is human-created, there are just more and less imaginitive stories, more and less consistent with science’s reality.

        And sorry, but that argument about the bad religions is really shit. I’m not, of course, saying those things are ok. I’m saying value actually exists and those things are bad. I’m just saying that telling them their god doesn’t exist isn’t going to make things better. The only reason they do those things is because their religion is bad and fully defended from science. If you think someone’s religion is bad, you’ve got to try and convert them to a better one, give them a new belief system which takes the functional place of the old, and that’s not something many atheists want to get dirty doing.

  4. Marco Otero said, on November 27, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    It looks as though a lot of your arguments are not really based on a careful thought process or careful revision but rather what you want/hope is true.

    “The New Atheists or scientists, as I like to call them, don’t just have a problem with organised religion. They have a problem with the very concept of faith”

    I am pretty sure people like Francis Collins would have a problem with the way in which you correlate atheism with science. I am not a scientist, but I am still an atheist, and Collins is not an atheist but he is still a very prominent scientist. Apparently you seem to have an irrational disdain towards science, and I will not go into why I think this is but it is pretty evident.

    The reason why people like me and other atheists out there have a problem with the concept of faith is very simple: It is unreliable and unscientific. Why wouldnt anybody have a problem with accepting things without good evidence (or sometimes with evidence to the contrary?).

    “In science’s language, the definition of faith is this – living your life as though human-created stories are real things in the world”

    You are clearly pulling that out of your ass….

    “Making concepts real is what faith does, and all concepts, by definition, are human-created. Faith is simply a belief that a belief is real”

    No, faith might give the impression that a certain concept is real, but it doesnt actually do shit. Faith is as useful as staring at the grass trying to make it grow faster. You may look at the grass and say “hey! It grew three inches in a week after I stared at it!” and think that your perseverance and determination actually had anything to do with the growth of grass. Fortunately for us however, faith has absolutely no bearing on reality.

    I could have faith that all women are Scarlett Johansson and they want to have sex with me, but having faith that this is true does not make it so. If what you propose was even remotely true, we should expect to live in a world of peace, STD free etc etc. If all that reality needed was faith this would be a chaotic place.

    And, faith is a belief that a belief is real? Sounds a little circular to me, but hey, wtf do I know. In any case, just because you believe that something is true doesnt mean it is. Are you really expecting people to be respectful of things like these? I am sorry man, but I will look for people that believe in things like that and I WILL make fun of them.

    Is that useful? Is that helpful? Probably not as much as other approaches, but I dont care because I actually enjoy doing things like that.

    “I, for example, have faith in the existence of love”

    Well, you need to define exactly what you mean with existence. Love does not exist in the same way that a tennis ball exists. Those two different things exist in different ways. Love does not exist, it cannot be observed, it cannot be measured, quantified etc. It does not exist, its a freaking emotion. It doesnt mean it is not important, and it doesnt mean it is not a powerful thing in the world. A lot of things are done in the name of love, but this doesnt mean it actually exists.

    Pick any concept… Make one up… They dont exists. If that bothers you.. Too bad, grow a pair and move on. Their existence is similar to the existence of of the things people on acid see. They are products of the mind, chemical cocktails. The feelings that those things produce are real to the individual, but that is about it. Many people out there may share the experience but the concepts do not exist.

    Why does this bother you? Do you really need to have faith in love to experience it?

    “But I also know that my faith in love, along with everyone elses, is all that keeps love in existence”

    What a crock of shit brother… Make sure you send that to hallmark, I am sure they will be more than happy to make really cute and pretty postcards for you.

    Once again, you seem to make the assumption that having collective faith in something makes it real. This is no different than the argument by theists “well most people out there believe it, it must be true”.

    So you are saying that if everyone out there decided to stop having “faith” in love they would automatically stop feeling it? Would their brains stop producing endorphins just because they decided they were not going to believe in it anymore? So… if everyone around me stops accepting that I exist I just vanish? lol What about the opposite? If everyone out there started to have faith that the earth was flat would that make it so?

    This is what I meant in the beginning. Some of your beliefs seem to be informed by your desires, not by reality. I sure hope I misunderstood your point, because so far you seem to be making the case that reality is dependent on our willingness to believe in it, which is clearly not the case.

    Let me go a little more in depth so you get what I am saying. Lets look at a painting by your favorite painter. The image exists, the materials, the oil, the canvas, those things exist as well. The collective result of these things that DO exist. The idea that these things represent does not exist, its a manifestation of something that IS real.

    Love is the same thing, the brain, the chemicals, the experiences etc. those are real, but the emotion itself is only a manifestation of the things that exist.

    “Communal conceptual realities that do not include the discoveries of science don’t personally suit me”

    Now thats odd as hell lol

    So you reject the science that tells you that faith is unreliable and a waste of time… but you still seem to have some respect for the “discoveries of science”? Where do you draw the line dude? What criterion do you use to determine which scientific discovery has merit and which doesnt?

    I could be wrong, but it looks like you reject that which contradicts your beliefs, and you accept whatever supports them. This is also known as confirmation bias.

  5. backoffscience said, on November 28, 2009 at 11:56 am

    I don’t reject science, you idiot. I think science is great. I just think it is a partial explaination. The full explaination of reality includes concepts, includes language phemomena. You can’t explain how we use language, just describe it.

    It looks like you reject every part of my argument that isn’t easy and instead stick to stereotypes … this is known “confirmation bias” (you patronising shit).

    No, I reject the idea that we can make sense of our lives without the use of words. Words are real but are irreducible to matterial facts. Words are shared, otherwise we could not speak, and so are neither subjective or objective, but are nevertheless real.

    All scientific discoveries have merit depending on how we use them. A purpose does not come locked in to a fact. So while knowledge of the neuroscience of love could be used to help us be more loving, to find more love etc. But that doesn’t seem to happen. Instead, the neurobiology seems to suggest that love doesn’t actually exist. But then if it doesn’t, what were you looking for in the first place?


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