Again: We all live by Faith

Bernard, in the post on Nagel I know several issues came up regarding questions you had as to the assertion I make that all of us, whether atheist, theist, or agnostic come to our final conclusions by faith.  And again, I must reiterate that by faith, I do not mean without reasons or evidence or in spite of such.  Again, I use the word in the sense of a comprehensive world-view, philosophy, deep-down core beliefs about the nature of what is real or true.  Our faith is best expressed in the narratives we hold to, in the sense that we believe them to be true (not made up) stories that holistically sum up and articulate what all the evidence and facts (existence) ultimately mean (or don’t mean, which is to still to hold to a narrative that tells one such—I can only say that something has no meaning if I have some idea of what should be meaningful).
Not only do I think this is true, that this is how we all live, but I think its leveling effect is also a positive and humbling aspect.  It is not that I have THE TRUTH on my side based upon the facts and the evidence.  In fact, none of us do.  It is, rather, this is how I can best articulate my interpretation of what all the facts and evidence (existence) means and since I know it’s an interpretation (a narrative), I know I could be wrong.  However, knowing that, I still stand and tell you it is what I believe very strongly and deeply.  It is possible to believe something very deeply, and at the same time recognize we are personally flawed and can interpret (see) things incorrectly.  That is why such things are a journey.  We change our minds over time.  Did the facts change?  Usually not.  Our perspective did.
As I began to think about your questions, I faintly remembered that this was ground already plowed.  So I searched Eric’s blog and came across this.  If we read through the chain of responses in the comment section and just focus on the exchanges between you and me, it seems, to me anyway, that you had come around to finally seeing my point and agreeing.  So before we hash this out again, I would suggest that you re-read the comment section.  Have you changed your mind?
As an aside, something to keep in mind:  The matter of all faiths (comprehensive world-views/philosophies) being ultimately unfounded by appeals to evidence and facts alone, is not the same issue as to then how do we know which one is correct (and such an issue and question assumes so much by the way!).  That is another question and matter.  The first assertion no doubt can lead to the next, but everyone wants to jump there before they sit for a moment and take in the fact that their own faith, their own world-view, sits on an equal plane with other narratives in the sense that it is an interpretation of the facts and evidence—it is not a one-to-one direct correlation between our gaze of the universe and TRUTH.  Of course that is what we want, that one-to-one correlation so we can say, “Look at me—I’m right and everyone else is wrong—because I have all the facts and evidence on my side (or the “right” reading of the Bible—“it clearly says…”). It is the fundamentalist temptation, for both the secular and religious, whether it is a “reading” of nature or the Bible or other text.
Finally, because all narratives sit on this equal plane, it should not necessarily lead one to conclude that one cannot then ever know which one is true or truer than another.  Because to conclude such could only mean that one had a-priori set up a bar (had in mind) for truth that no narrative can reach.  Any such bar could only be constructed or arrived at by some other faith, some other world-view or philosophy.
Anyhow, look over the past exchange and we can always try and pick it up again—if you wish.      
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9 Responses to Again: We all live by Faith

  1. Hi Darrell

    Generous of you to give me this opportunity to clarify. Thank you.

    We agree on far more than we disagree on, on this issue. Things I claim, that I suspect you would endorse, include these:

    No statement about the world can occur without some set of foundational beliefs. Nobody escapes some degree of faith, in this regard. For example, I have faith your mind exists, that the world exhibits sufficient regularity that modeling aspects of it makes sense, etc.

    There exists, at any point in history, a set of claims about the world to which no serious alternative can be found, to the extent we call them facts. (The second law of thermodynamics, the roundness of the earth, modification by descent etc).

    These facts, taken alone, are sterile things. Until we interpret them, place them within a personal and cultural context, they are largely meaningless. The way we make meaning of them depends upon our individual frame of reference.

    Where we depart, I suspect, is when I claim that agnosticism, with regard to God (there are very many things I am not agnostic about) does not itself involve a leap of faith (beyond those leaps of faith we have all taken to establish the current facts of the world).

    I am crucially interested in what happens if we choose not to make leaps where other, fully informed and rational people could legitimately offer alternative explanations. This is analogous to the situation in science where two theories equally well explain the available data. We can, at this point, simply withhold belief.

    I am speaking here only of fundamental religious propositions. For example, that existence is in some sense purposeful (the sort that yields the telos underpinning your view of ethics) or that creation is fundamentally benign. On these issues, I claim smart, well informed people can disagree as to which is the more fitting belief. My response to this irresolvable difference is to choose neither side.

    I don't make any claim regarding the appropriateness of my stance. Some agnostics claim a sort of moral pragmatism in its favour. I don't. For me it's just a preference.

    It seems to me that one way to test my claim that this type of agnosticism is not itself founded on beliefs is to open up invitations for counter examples. What are some of the things that people think I believe, with regard to the foundational religious questions?

    Bernard

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  2. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    Thank you for this response. Very interesting. And yes, I think there is much we agree upon here.

    Let me try and unpack some of this and show where I think there are problems. I think the phrase “leap of faith” to be unhelpful. In common usage, it normally means the opposite of what I’m talking about. When I speak of faith, I’m talking about comprehensive world-views that, again, include the use of reason and weigh the evidence and facts. Because a narrative is unfounded, ultimately, by an appeal to some fact or piece of evidence, doesn’t mean it is a “leap.” In fact, use of the phrase again reveals much about your underlying “faith” in empirical and evidential epistemologies.

    What I hear you saying is something like this: We can all agree that the earth is flat; therefore, we can say that such is “objective” and “true.” But, because we cannot all agree whether or not God is real or which narrative is true, we must say they are “subjective” and “relatively” true at best. Thus, these narratives can only be “preferences” that suit each one’s “taste.”

    Further, based upon this, if we cannot know whether or not God exists in an empirical way, a way like we can all agree the earth is flat, then we should withhold judgment and remain agnostic.

    And to this, I would make three points. First, I don’t think it follows to say that because we do not agree upon some question, it precludes something from being objectively true. Such would only follow if we were speaking of some physical material phenomenon. Part of the reason for my post on philosophical category errors was to point this out.

    Second, the very reasoning I pointed out above when speaking of what I hear you saying, is entirely faith-based in the sense of already being a world-view or narrative. You are simply re-saying what any empiricist or logical-positivist said well before you. And frankly, neither one of those schools of thought sit very comfortably today. The logical-positivists went the way of the Do-Do bird.

    Third, since your agnosticism flows from these, what I think are narratives, I would still assert that you come to your position by faith. You are saying we can’t know, therefore let us withhold judgment. But in claiming how it is we can “know” what is true and objective, you are already relying upon a narrative that says we can only know what is true empirically. That belief is faith based.

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  3. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    One more point, I think a further confusion in our thinking about faith is the meaning of words. When I use the word, I am speaking of that which comprises one’s deepest held beliefs. Those things we hold to be true in the sense that they change our lives, make us live differently, and become bigger than ourselves. Those things we might consider dying for. Clearly, in common usage and even in their dictionary meaning, the words “preference” and “taste” do even come close to the same thing. We don’t jail people or put them to death over differences of taste or preference. Nations do not go to war over such differences—because no one cares. Those words exist to convey the very opposite of what most people mean when they use the word faith. Faith describes our deepest held beliefs about what is real and true.

    So, I would challenge you to use some words that convey for you what it is that describes your deepest held beliefs. That is what would compare and track with “faith” as it is being used in this conversation.

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  4. Hi Darrell

    I think there is a slight misunderstanding here. I don't think I hold any of the positions you are critiquing, and if I did, then I think your critiques would be quite valid.

    I don't, for example, make any claim regarding the objective truth, or otherwise, of metaphysical claims. Indeed, I would go further and state that there is every chance either the atheist or theist position is indeed objectively true (I wouldn't rule out reality being much weirder than this, however).

    In this sense, I'm not making an empiricist, or logical-positivist case, and would challenge each for exactly the reasons you do.

    My agnosticism flows from the claim that in metaphysical matters, we are unable to reach a consensus of the reasonable and fully informed, which to say only that I know of no slam dunk arguments that, once heard, are convincing. This is simply an observational statement, and one which is open to refutation through counter example.

    To reiterate my challenge, can you think of one thing I believe to be true regarding God's existence which is narrative sensitive (which is to say, another person, by dint of their narrative, might believe something different)?

    There may well be such beliefs, and my case would collapse under them. But can you think of any?

    Regarding language, if you wish to amp up the implication, then perhaps substituting desire for preference would do the trick, without compromising what I mean. My most passionate preferences are indeed my deepest desires. Yearning might convey a similar aspect of the flavour of my thinking.

    Bernard

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  5. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    Perhaps my reading comprehension skills are sorely in need of help. I’ve read many, many of your responses on Eric’s blog and now here. Again, just so I understand—you are not making the following argument:

    What I hear you saying is something like this: “We can all agree that the earth is flat; therefore, we can say that such is 'objective' and 'true.' But, because we cannot all agree whether or not God is real or which narrative is true, we must say they are 'subjective' and 'relatively' true at best. Thus, these narratives can only be 'preferences' that suit each one’s 'taste'.”

    “Further, based upon this, if we cannot know whether or not God exists in an empirical way, a way like we can all agree the earth is flat, then we should withhold judgment and remain agnostic.”

    I don’t think you believe there to be anything true about God’s existence (or non-existence), because of what I’ve been hearing you say (the above) for some time now. In other words, to your challenge, that is my answer. What I hear you saying above is absolutely narrative based. Are you telling us now you have not asserted the above line of thought as why you are agnostic? If so, I don’t know how to read!

    Clearly, I’m confused.

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  6. Hi Darrell

    Yes, an interesting state of affairs isn't it? The intersection between your description of my stance, and the stance I'm attempting to articulate, is close to zero. I don't blame your reading skills, the thrust and parry of a comments section is a poor medium for developing complex lines of argument, and I'm sure that at times I've fallen short of the task.

    It may well be that repeating myself won't help much, but just to highlight the differences:

    When all informed participants agree the earth isn't flat, we are at the very least noting a process of convergence. Humans may be massively mistaken about reality, but we find a congruence between expectation and experience both convincing and compelling. On some issues, our understanding converges, and we can by some limited criteria speak of a best current guess.

    In areas where the process of knowing is not convergent, I do not make the inference you suggest. I do not think this implies statements are relatively true at best. Many non-convergent statements may indeed be true. What's more, non-empirical methods of arriving at them might be reliable. I do not claim otherwise. I simply note that the process is non-convergent.

    I then consider the implications of assigning truth values to personal conclusions reached by non-convergent processes. This leads me to choose to be agnostic. However, I do not say, as you suggest, that we should withhold judgement and be agnostic. There is no should about it. My stance is entirely one of preference, but this does not imply I think this is true for others.

    So, on the last point, contrary to your observation, I do think that insomuch as anything is true, there will be some truth about God's existence or non-existence.

    So no, I've not asserted the line you outline, and furthermore, I've barely asserted any of the points contained within it. It's maybe a little like what happens when an atheist attacks your views by equating them to fundamentalism.

    Apologies for the part I've clearly played in this misunderstanding. Outside observers may have some idea as to how we've so thoroughly failed to communicate on this. Happy, as always, to keep trying.

    Bernard

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  7. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    I sincerely do not wish to make a caricature of your position and I apologize if you feel I have. I really thought that such was what you were saying. If I may though, I will still try and see if I can sort of unpack things from my side as to what I “hear” in all this.

    “I then consider the implications of assigning truth values to personal conclusions reached by non-convergent processes. This leads me to choose to be agnostic.”

    Here you actually point out what leads you to agnosticism. I am still having a hard time seeing how this is significantly different from what I critiqued. It seems you are using the word “convergent” to point out the difference between those views that “converged” based upon objective criteria like noting the flatness of the earth, and those views that do not converged because there is no such empirical basis for noting how one might be truer than the other. This leads you to the question of how do we then “assign” truth values to “personal” conclusions. Do I have that right? If so, again, I don’t see how that is different from what I was pointing out I “hear” you saying before.

    I would still conclude that such reasons for choosing agnosticism are narrative based because you automatically assume that without empirical convergent agreement, that all other choices and conclusions one might make are subjective “personal” choices. One can only “assign” truth value by already having in mind some bar or criteria for what can be true. All such bars and criteria are part of an over-all narrative. I see no way around this.

    Again, maybe I am completely misreading and not hearing you at all. If so, I apologize. I want to hear you. I want to understand your position. If there is anyone out there reading any of this that can shed some light and show either one of us where we are not hearing the other, I would appreciate your input as long as it is positive and helpful.

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  8. Hi Darrell

    I think the line you're attributing to me is understandable, in that it is a line that is often proposed. To move from, 'this statement can not be verified,' to say, 'well therefore this statement is either meaningless' (logical positivist stance) or 'has no truth value' (empiricist stance, sort of) is common. I don't buy either of these moves, and I think I have this in common with you.

    So, for example, what if reality is such that creation is benign and purposeful, and aspects of this purpose will be revealed, via some mechanism of personal awareness, to those who seek? Should this be the actual case (and the agnostic does not dismiss the possibility) then non-convergent processes for arriving at knowledge would be valid and truth yielding. We can not therefore dismiss the possibility by first assuming that such processes have no truth-value, as this is circular. We show the process for arriving at knowledge of God is invalid by first assuming there is no God. I don't buy that.

    The subtle difference here is between believing something is untrue/meaningless/relatively true, and withholding belief altogether. It is upon this distinction that the agnostic approach usually rests, and as in politics, subtlety is a difficult sell.

    The reasons I withhold belief at this point is because I have no taste for some of the logical implications of committing to one or other belief (theism or atheism). I don't think it's wrong to believe, there's no should involved, but when I examine the implications, which I claim as logical necessities, I find myself thinking 'I'd rather not.'

    Because one of my claimed implications is the need to privilege one's own beliefs, the challenge you make, that my own stance depends upon contested beliefs, is tremendously important, and I readily concede that if you can show this, my amateur attempt at philosophy falls apart (at which point perhaps I'd become an agnostic simply because I couldn't decide!)

    Bernard

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  9. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    “The subtle difference here is…”

    “The reasons I withhold belief at this point is because I have no taste for some of the logical implications of committing to one or other belief (theism or atheism). I don't think it's wrong to believe, there's no should involved, but when I examine the implications, which I claim as logical necessities, I find myself thinking 'I'd rather not… Because one of my claimed implications is the need to privilege one's own beliefs”

    Perhaps the difference is so subtle as to elude me. But, putting that aside, I think we will just have to agree to disagree here. I do think I understand your position better now. And I think it and honest and honorable one. I will post further however on why I still see problems with your position.

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