Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Way to see by Faith, is to shut the Eye of Reason

I’d like to challenge the widely subscribed notion that faith is a virtue. Faith, as I understand it, is belief without sufficient evidence (and often belief in the face of evidence). Used in a religious context it is the certainty in a god or gods for whom there is no tangible evidence. Faith is employed to fill the space that would otherwise have been filled with reason.

Faith is the central requirement of every religion and so it is hardly surprising that clerics of every denomination hold as a virtue. Yet in no other context is recourse to faith considered virtuous. No one relies on faith when buying a car, when deciding whom to vote for, where to live, or whose medical advice to rely on. No parent in their right mind would allow their child to stroke a strange dog? Who dives into murky water without first checking the depth? Even in completely trivial activities such as choosing a washing detergent or going to see a film, few people will simply make their choice arbitrarily without consulting reviews or comparisons. Yet on a subject that informs the decisions and actions taken by people on a day-to-day basis, many are prepared to go on faith alone.

So would you not consider faith in a friend a virtue? It is a common response in defence of faith, yet it is sophistry or - more charitably - playing with the language. These are simply two different senses of the word faith. I would say that there is no such thing as faith in a friend – if a person’s nature or capabilities are so unmeasured, or in opposition to what would be desirable, how then can the person in question be counted a friend? If I were, for example, to ask a stranger, or mere acquaintance, or indeed a known thief, to housesit for me – then I would be employing faith. A friend is a friend precisely because their nature and qualities are known to some reasonable degree and are considered favourable.

So when referring to friends I prefer to use the word trust, as distinct from faith. Trust in my friends is foundered on empirical evidence. My friends will, for the most part go out of their way to help me. A friend will not deliberately, sabotage my happiness or cause me undue discomfort if it can be prevented. If this were not the case they would simply not qualify as friends.

Of course everyone requires different attributes in their friends and many people count dishonest and untrustworthy people amongst this number. If these same people (provided they are aware of the nature of their friends) were to trust or rely on the honesty of their untrustworthy or dishonest friends, then they would indeed by relying on faith. Yet is this really all that likely to happen? So it is my contention that the term faith in the context of friends is nearly always misused, and does not correlate with the meaning of faith applied to belief in the unknowable.

A much better argument would be that I have faith in science. I am as ill equiped to verify that the Holocaust occurred as I am to demonstrate the role of micro organisms in causing disease, yet I do not doubt the truth of either. There are incalculable millions of assertions made, in every field of human endeavour, which I take to be true yet I will probably never have the time or the ability to verify for myself. This will doubtless always be the case.

However what I have verified for myself is the method by which all scientific assertions consistently undergo rigorous scrutiny by people who do understand the relevant field. A new theory is not simply accepted because all the proponents of it are unanimous in their agreement. A theory is accepted when the opponents agree. When the critics are compelled to change their minds due to overwhelming evidence then it is safe to say that this is the best theory we have.

For example, I am led to understand that Quantum theory, whilst far beyond my grasp, is one of the most highly corroborated models in theoretical physics. I know that at the time of its proposal it was highly contentious and seriously debated by many. So as little as I understand it, it is enough for me to know that every mathematician who was able was following the debate and checking the maths. Maths doesn’t lie and, in the end, the best theory won by shear weight of evidence. It should be noted that this does not mean that it is correct, but it is without a shadow of reasonable doubt the best model we have to fit the facts.

So is faith necessary for religion? Yes. Is faith a virtue? I think not.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear

Religion is... [audible groan from nearby]. “You’re not banging on about religion again, are you? You sound like a broken iPod shuffle.”

A few words to the objecting: if you are uncomfortable with criticism of religion, plug your ears, go elsewhere, or drown out the unpleasant noises with conversations about Kate Moss or David Beckham. By all means take me to task on the subject of my concerns – arguing is how we develop our opinions - but freedom of speech is not something that anyone should be willing to comprise so easily.

Of course, the same people who object to arguments about religion would never utter the phrase: “you’re not banging on about climate change again, are you?” or bat an eye-lid should the African AIDS crisis be mentioned twice, by the same person, within a week. That kind of behaviour is certainly never described as ‘militant’.

The shear audacity of a person, who argues despite the fact that others may disagree, is so unseemly that it seems to warrant its own word. And so the term ‘militant’ was coined… again. It is much beloved of those who would stifle criticism of religion. The beauty of reusing a word, of course, is that it automatically carries a backlog of connotations, but is this really fair? I have been so accused on numerous occasions, but does my attitude deserve to be compared to that of a soldier? Do I, without question, follow someone else’s pugnacious agenda? Am I forcing anything on anyone? I’m not even forcing anyone to hear my opinion, let alone agree with it.

Let me clear a few things up - I’m not mounting a counter-crusade nor am I attempting to induce mass apostasy. I am not being crude or vulgar. Neither am I criticising the infirm, or taking pot-shots at the imagined shortcomings of a particular race, gender or sexual preference. I offer criticism of certain aspects of a sets of beliefs voluntarily held by people from all walks of life and I won’t be quiet simply because people don’t like what I’m saying.

If I can be said to have an agenda it is that religious belief should be treated to the same degree of robust critique that every single other aspect of our society is treated. Let us level the playing field. Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, compares the damning language commonly used to criticise restaurants to his, by comparison, tame assessment of religion. Yet food critics – no matter how trenchant their comments – are not reprimanded for speaking their mind. Restaurants have owners, they have feelings to hurt and livelihoods to ruin – how is it that they are deemed solid enough to withstand scathing reviews, and yet God is not? Dawkins further notes that if a politician addressed a policy issue, across the floor of the debating chamber, in the same tone and intensity, he would win plaudits for his robust and clear-thinking arguments.

So I would go so far as to say that argument may well be a necessary condition for an effective democracy. However, each aspect of society must be subject to the same rules. Indeed every other aspect is. Academia is a battleground of competing theories. Scientists accumulate data and propose new theories. Their research is submitted to peer review, by which process, competitors and colleagues in the same field assess the methods used, and appraise the reasoning steps that took the proponent from the data collected to the conclusion drawn. Bad methods, jumps in logic and spurious conclusions are seized upon. A scientist whose research is repeatedly found to lack integrity and intellectual honesty loses credibility within the scientific community.

Similarly, historians debate each other’s research, and each proposed theory sinks or swims depending on its ability to withstand scrutiny. Novelists aren’t automatically inducted into the pantheon of great writers - their works are debated thoroughly in magazines, in the backs of newspapers, by the adjudicators who decide whom to award the prestigious prizes and by the literate public.

Religion, however, is exempt. A taboo exists about criticising religion that is ingrained in our society. Apparently, freedom to practise any religion comes with a protection from criticism. Do people really need to be reminded of the issues that the Christian church has supported in the past and has since been forced, by society, to recant? Who would welcome slavery back? Who now would not cringe to hear the line: suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence [1 Tim 2:12]?

Christianity has compromised on many issues over the last few centuries and it is, as I’m sure all would agree, a better institution for it. However, do not anyone think that this was the result of the church checking itself. Far from it. Society changed first – new issues were encountered in literature (and films in later decades), argued in the law courts, and championed by our policy makers. We have seen it happen at various times in the past. First the zeitgeist changed – be it on slavery, feminism or divorce – then the church followed. It’s happening today with issues such as gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research and contraception. But the debates progress in such an awkward manner, due to the notion, held by many, that it is somehow perverse to criticise religion.

The politicians who condemn abortion on the grounds of their religion should be challenged to present humanitarian arguments – in a society that includes a wide variety of religions as well as secularists, policies influenced exclusively by one or other religion should not be employed. A humanitarian reason for making a policy decision, for example, can be understood and appraised by any human regardless of religion or lack thereof. Conversely, if an objection to a decision can only be made on the grounds of a piece of religious dogma then it cannot fairly be applied to an issue that affects all society.

Many of the religions practised in this country have existed for millennia, and they have all adapted, to some degree, to accommodate society - the huge number of divisions and subdivisions testify to this. There is no need to tiptoe around the subject – the immortal multitudes are thick skinned and will survive our criticism.

Freedom of speech is critical. And that means freedom of speech for everyone, on every subject. Even if it’s only at the level of conversation, censorship should not be tolerated. Freedom of speech wasn’t designed to allow people to discuss pop music or share their views on Manchester United. To grant that some topics should be immune from criticism is to embark on a slippery slope that I, for one, do not want to start on.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

“Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist”

There is a charge with which I have been lumbered so many times since my early secondary school days, that I have lost count many times over. It has dogged my step through university and will doubtless continue indefinitely. The charge is cynicism, and whilst I would never dream of denying it, I would question whether this much-maligned vice is not unfairly dismissed by society in general. I write this, partly for my own interest (writing the words as they occur to me serves to anchor them to a page and helps me to pull the remaining thoughts out of my jumbled and disorganised mind) and partly for certain individuals of my immediate group of close friends who view cynicism as simply the dismal perspective of life taken by those who like nothing better than putting out bonfires with bodily fluids.

The connotations, of course, are of a pessimistic and dull individual with a less-than-generous view of humanity. Here is perhaps not the place to argue for the respective merits or pessimism and optimism, but I would like to combat the view that cynicism is a miserly and unwarranted position to view the world from, which should not be welcome in public discourse.

First of all, what is cynicism? Using google, the first definition I find is on TheFreeDictionary site, and is as follows:
  1. A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.
  2. A person whose outlook is scornfully and often habitually negative.
  3. A member of a sect of ancient Greek philosophers who believed virtue to be the only good and self-control to be the only means of achieving virtue.
Other dictionary definitions follow in a similar vein.
I would have to agree that there are three aspects to the definition of a cynic - but would define them slightly differently:
  1. Scepticism of human motives and professed virtues. Unwillingness to simply take everyone at their word without critical appraisal.
  2. A person who wilfully behaves immorally, motivated by self-interest. Often exploiting the credulity of the victim(s).
  3. Follower of the philosophical school of thought of the ancient Greek Cynics.

I think for the purpose of this blog I can dismiss the third aspect of the definition. Unless I have vastly misunderstood my co-interlocutors, I have never been accused of belonging to an ancient Greek sect.

I would like to explore the meaning of the other two aspects, as I see them. The first is Scepticism of human motives and professed virtues: Here I am not referring to the pessimistic, surly, contemptuous connotations of the word but the cynicism employed by Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain and Voltaire. Cynicism has steadily increased as society has developed. As we explore in literature and what it means to be human, so we have developed our understanding of the less than flattering aspects of humanity.

Scepticism is a fundamental building block of scientific inquiry. If every bit of research and every paper written were to be simply accepted without critical analysis, I feel that it's safe to say we would not have got far in many fields of science or indeed many fields of academia; such as history, philosophy, law, politics.

Cynicism - in the context that I often find directed at myself - is the very same concept. It should not imply the automatic assumption by the cynic that the subject of the cynicism is being dishonest. It is merely that the possibility will almost always be entertained, for at least long enough for the notion to be dismissed.

The following is an example of cynicism that everyone can be comfortable with, because everyone is (or should be) cynical of the objective honesty of a door-to-door salesman who insists that his product is the finest example of it's kind. In this case the motives are completely transparent. The salesman may deploy artful turns-of-phrase, a certain tone of voice and any number of devices to distract from the potential customer's certain knowledge that all the salesman wants to achieve is to make a sale. Very few people, when confronted in such a way, will dismiss without consideration that the salesman may be prepared to lie in order to sell his product.

How about a climate scientist sponsored by a large oil company? Surely judicial application of cynicism is apt in such a case.

Of course, in many cases - if not most - the motives may not be so transparent. A cynic will analyse a statement, taking into context many possible motives and weighing them up against the professed one. The cynic is then free to conclude which motive(s) is most plausible. Needless to say, this is a speculative exercise. In many cases the speculator will not have sufficient evidence to support the theory, and in these cases it should be perfectly acceptable to reserve judgement, with the qualifier that unprofessed, secondary motives cannot be ruled out.

It is in these latter cases that cynicism is usually picked up as such and reviled. The cynic might entertain out-loud the possibility that the subject of conversation is infact disingenuous. However, if the motives are not sufficiently transparent, the very suggestion is denounced as needless and pessimistic defamation.

I argue that cynicism is necessary. Clearly not everyone is capable of cynicism, and others may be happier to live behind rose-tinted glasses and leave the upsetting details, such as truth, to others. In many walks of life, however, cynicism is required. Journalists, for example, keep the public figures in line by noting their discrepancies and contradictions and make a career out of not taking people simply by their word. Cynicism - as a industry-wide attribute in the press - can be dated back to the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration in the United States. Before this the overarching tendency was to take politicians at their word.

Cynicism is useful in other professions, to varying degree; lawyers are trained to look at cases from every conceivable angle, and invariably from perspectives not professed by the subject of the investigation. The same goes for police detectives. Many among the medical profession are also required to apply cynicism in their job in order to understand what ails the patient. Historians use cynicism when researching past events - was the author completely subjective? What motives were involved? Could the authors personal history affect the subjectivity of the account? How might the political climate of the time have affected what was written?

So to conclude, I would deny that there is anything necessarily misanthropic about this form of cynicism. A misanthrope may well apply cynicism to everyone without remorse or justification - but a cynic need not be a misanthrope. I fully recognise that much of human behaviour is motivated by self-interest. Yet I don't dislike humanity for it - infact, I would say that without it we wouldn't have got so far as a species.

There is another kind of cynic and it is mentioned in some, although not all, dictionaries. This is the second aspect of my definition, above: a person who deliberately behaves immorally, motivated by self-interest. Often exploiting the credulity of the victim(s). The person in question is fully aware of the moral transgressions he is making, and often occupies a position in society/government/a company/church, etc. for which a certain moral rectitude is assumed. Often the perpetrator has deliberately led people to believe he holds and adheres to a set of principles that he secretly, and wilfully breaks. For example, the Watergate scandal could have been described as a cynical abuse of the responsibilities of many in the administration. It is assumed that the same virtues and laws defended by the administration would be observed by all in the government, where infact many were secretly flaunted.

A cynical abuse of the legal system could be one where a claimant, consciously in the wrong, takes someone to court, despite privately knowing his own guilt.

This is what I understand by the words cynic and cynical and thoroughly defend where I stand as a type-1 cynic.