The greatest agnostics of all

Continuing to look at Chuck Colson’s reply to Russell Glasser, as we did yesterday, we find another contradiction in Colson’s article, this time about postmodernism and the existence of knowable truth.

You write that one of the main things motivating your atheism is the fact that you cannot see any compelling reason to believe in God, and you cannot regard faith as reliably as you can empirical evidence in discerning truth.  I suspect you’ve come under the influence of the fact-value distinction, which modernity introduced, largely influenced by the teachings of Immanuel Kant.  I would strongly recommend that you read Pope Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg…  In a relatively short speech, he summarized the great shift that has taken place in western thinking as a result of the Enlightenment and now postmodernism.  Benedict’s case is the same one I would make, and that is that reason always has to rest on faith.  That’s what gives it the objective standards to appeal to.  What happened in the Enlightenment and what we call modernity was the abandonment of the faith presuppositions, leaving reason naked, cold, and ultimately without a foundation.  It was this rejection of sterile reason that has led us to the postmodern era, which rejects both faith and reason.

But the fact-value distinction is false.  All thought begins with faith.  All intellectual inquiry begins with certain presuppositions.  These by necessity are made without evidence and have to be taken on faith.  The idea that evidence is superior to faith as a root to knowledge is one of those presuppositions: it is unproven and non-provable.  So it must be taken as a priori; that is, prior to experience, or in other words, on faith.

In his book, The Faith, Colson expands on this current evangelical fad of bashing postmodernism. Which is not, in itself, a bad thing. Postmodernism claims to have discovered the truth that there is no truth to discover. All that matters is what you believe about something. There is no right or wrong, there is only faith. But is Colson really saying that postmodernism is wrong, or is he advocating the postmodern idea that faith is all that matters?

Let’s take Colson’s claim that all thought begins with faith, and compare it to the principle that the truth is consistent with itself. Is it possible to know what the truth is? If all thought begins with faith, and if reason always has to rest on faith, then the answer is “No, we can never really know the truth.” A conclusion is only as reliable as its premises, and if our premises necessarily are things we believe just because we believe them—if there’s no objective means of determining whose faith corresponds to absolute, objective truth— then there is no such thing as knowledge of the truth. There’s not even partial or approximate knowledge of the truth. The most we can do is to build up a “worldview” in which our conclusions are reasonably consistent with some arbitrary set of premises, without any assurance that any of it has anything to do with real life.

Now, contrast that with the principle that truth is consistent with itself. Is this a principle we have to take on faith alone? No, because both experience and reason teach us that this must be the case: if the truth is not consistent with itself, if truth contradicts itself and has conclusions that have no predictable relationship to the premises, then reason itself is impossible. The fact that we can reason effectively, and that correct reasoning produces reliable results in real-world experience, confirms that we have a premise that is both valid and relevant to the real world.

From this premise of self-consistency, all other conclusions can be derived. We know that “evidence” (i.e. the truth that we discover in the real world) is superior to faith alone (i.e. things we believe even though we can’t find any real-world evidence to support them) because the evidence already is part of the real-world truth, whereas the faith is defined by its failure to show up in real life, or in other words, by its failure to be consistent with the truth. If we could find that real-world connection, the true evidence that was consistent with what we believe, we wouldn’t be calling it faith, we’d call it the conclusion that was most consistent with the evidence.

Colson is therefore quite wrong. Reliable knowledge does have real-world roots that are superior to just making arbitrary presuppositions. Christians, especially in recent times, have begun to outwardly reject the postmodern idea that the truth cannot be known. Like Colson, however, they are quick to embrace it whenever they need to explain why their beliefs fail to be consistent with the available evidence. Science has repeatedly demonstrated its superior accuracy and reliability as a means of knowledge, and only by rejecting the very possibility of reliable knowledge can Christians put faith and fact back on an allegedly equal footing. In so doing, Christians and other believers make themselves the greatest agnostics of all.

 
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Posted in Science, Society, Unapologetics. 33 Comments »

33 Responses to “The greatest agnostics of all”

  1. Ric Says:

    I am sick to death of this specious “reason rests on faith” argument. It does not. Reason rests on axioms, which are very different from faith. Also, these are axioms that both the religious and non-religious alike share. These axioms are as simple as “the external world exists” and “I am able to make some sort of sense of it.” No one disputes them, and that is all reason needs to then take off and show it’s superiority to faith.

  2. Paul Murray Says:

    “All thought begins with faith.”

    Naah. All thought begins with sense perception. I think it’s enormously unlikely that “pure mind” would come up with mathematics. You need to start by counting fingers, then go abstract, and finally look back on the finger counting with a deeper understanding of what you were doing.

    Why do we trust sense perception? Because we are animals. Once you get the basics (mother, tree, water) then you can construct a philosophy and look back on the process of constructing it from your sense perceptions with a better understanding of what you were doing.

    But reality always comes first. Perception precedes apperception.

  3. jim Says:

    This argument is so bogus; Vox Day uses the same one to bring all reasoning down to the lowest common denominator, thus lowering scientific knowledge to the level of religion. Reason does NOT rest on faith. In fact, it’s the other way around, because all faith is derived from an object arrived at through reasoning, fallacious or no. Ask a Christian what his faith rests on, and why his is better than any other, and he will immediately resort to the supposed ‘evidence’ for his particular belief system, immediately rendering the faith issue moot.

    What faith REALLY means is this- “Let’s compare evidence and reasoning…OOPS! Mine isn’t as good as yours. Oh well, none of that matters, because faith makes our positions equally plausible or implausible”(which in Christianspeak means “mine is actually MORE plausible than yours”). Then they’ll forget the whole thing, and go back to arguing bad evidence and reasoning again. It’s sorta like a gopher darting back and forth between two holes as it attempts to avoid the blade of the shovel.

  4. Brad Says:

    The whole idea of “faith” he is offering is quite different than the “faith” we normally speak of. Colson seems blind to this fact.

    And the ideas of modernism, fact-value distinction, etc. are wholly unrelated to the explanation offered for why to reject belief in God. “Discerning truth” is not any function of faith; the only outcome of faith is belief.

  5. Challenger Grim Says:

    Wow, can’t believe no one here got even the most basic point.

    This:

    We know that “evidence” … is superior to faith alone

    Is based ultimately on faith. You cannot “reason” that Reason is preferable. You cannot use logic to prove logic, because both sides must accept (or “have faith in”) logic and reason in the first place. How do you know the information you receive is true? How do you know what your senses perceive is correct?

    If you keep digging the questions, you’ll eventually end up with nothing. That’s the whole point. Reason and logic are based upon a faith IN reason in logic.

  6. John Morales Says:

    Challenger Grim, you don’t get it, do you?

    Belief in the utility of reason is empirically based, not faith-based. Faith is reserved for beliefs without evidence or despite the evidence.

  7. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Grim, I think you should read my post again. I specifically addressed the point you said nobody got: the reason evidence is superior to faith alone is because truth is consistent with itself. This foundational principle is both logically verifiable (since a self-contradictory truth would be absurd, by definition) and empirically verifiable (since we consistently observe the self-consistency of truth in real life). Indeed, every attempt to discern the difference between what’s true and what’s false ultimately depends on the principle that the truth is consistent with itself. Thus, this principle is not something we arbitrarily choose to believe just for the sake of having faith in something, it’s a fundamental property of reality itself (objective reality, anyway). And given that truth is consistent with itself, conclusions based on evidence are more reliable than conclusions based on faith alone, because consistency with the evidence is consistency with the truth.

  8. Challenger Grim Says:

    Belief in the utility of reason is empirically based, not faith-based.

    This foundational principle is both logically verifiable

    Really? Prove it. Logically prove logic.

  9. jim Says:

    Grim:

    “Reason and logic are based upon a faith IN reason and logic.”

    Reason and logic are the way our minds interface with the world. With our minds, we construct models of reality, take them apart, see how they works, and act upon our conclusions. Our ultimate success will depend on the quality of our reasoning. Through trial and error, our ‘mapping’ becomes better, more sophisticated and precise, as we learn to depend on what seems to work consistently. We gain ‘faith’ in our worldview, if you will, to the extent that our reasoning seems to line up with what we perceive to be reality. Thus faith is not the antecedent of reason, but emerges from reason itself.

    Even religion works this way. The originators looked at the world, examined it as well as was within their means to do so. They drew conclusions, and eventually came to have faith in those conclusions. The only problem is that their reasoning was very misinformed, very primitive. Of course, some folks kept refining their reasoning, and that’s an ongoing process which will probably go on forever. Others, however, become stuck for a variety of reasons, most having to do with upholding primitive dogma for one reason or another. Christianity doesn’t exist on faith; at least, in the way I think you’re defining ‘faith’. Christianity simply exists in the backwaters of reason; it’s created what amounts to an evolutionary dead-end (I’m using ‘evolution’ metaphorically here). That’s what dogmatic thinking does- unlike what you’re arguing, faith’s origins are in reasoning, only…well, there’s sound reasoning, and there’s fallacious reasoning. And primitive religions are stuck in these whirlpools of primitive thinking, often reinforced by appeals to emotions like hope and fear.

    Here’s how it works: An apologist tells me he ‘lives by faith’. I ask “faith in what?” He then goes on to describe what he believes, and the EVIDENCE FOR WHY HE BELIEVES THAT WAY. In other words, his faith emerges from what he has determined to be good reasoning (whether or not it’s actually GOOD reasoning is beside the point here). Nobody would EVER say they have faith in such-and-such a proposition “just because…”; their faith will ALWAYS be based in some kind of analysis, or personal experience from which they’ve extrapolated certain conclusions.

    “If you keep digging the questions, you’ll eventually end up with nothing.”

    Only if you’re looking for faith unsupported by reasoning.

  10. jim Says:

    Grim:

    “Really? Prove it. Logically prove logic.”

    Logic can’t prove logic PRECISELY because logic is the baseline- the starting point from which faith is later derived. Put in terms you might relate to, logic is ‘the unmoved mover’…at least, as far as positing logical premises is concerned.

  11. Challenger Grim Says:

    With our minds, we construct models of reality, take them apart, see how they works, and act upon our conclusions.

    Why?

  12. Challenger Grim Says:

    Logic can’t prove logic PRECISELY because logic is the baseline

    Why?

  13. jim Says:

    Grim: The answer is rooted in your question. In asking ‘why’…a question rooted in logical dialectic, you’ve already bought into my premise.

    Now, let’s see if you can ask that question in purely faith terms, absolutely avoiding the logical baseline I’ve posited. Be quick…I’m off to bed soon.

  14. Challenger Grim Says:

    You haven’t answered my question Jim. Why use the logical baseline?

  15. jim Says:

    You can repeat the word ‘why’ from now until Jesus comes back…but every time you do so, you simply support the fact that logic is the fundamental baseline of this, or any, conversation. Again, in terms you might understand better, it’s sort of like asking “why does God exist?” The answer, of course, is no answer…He simply exists. However, unlike the evidence for God, the evidence for reason is ubiquitously manifest.

    Now, if I were to ask you “why do you have FAITH?”, I’m sure you could come up with some answers; answers arrived at through your own brand of reasoning, of course. Thus reason precedes faith, which is my answer to your original challenge.

    Work comes early, and bedtime calls. Thanks for the opportunity for me to think through this issue a bit. G’nite, brother Grim.

  16. Challenger Grim Says:

    Jim… you really think too highly of yourself.

    Let me put it this way. My answer to you is:
    Applesause red utility

    Now prove I’m wrong.

  17. jim Says:

    LOLOL! Of course, you’ve said nothing, so there’s nothing to be proven wrong or right. But I’m somewhat gratified that you’re now asserting that faith means nothing. At least, the kind of faith you seem to be talking about.

    I think I’ll let your answer, as well as your accusation, stand for themselves, and say…

    goodnight.

  18. Challenger Grim Says:

    No, because both experience and reason teach us that this must be the case: if the truth is not consistent with itself, if truth contradicts itself and has conclusions that have no predictable relationship to the premises, then reason itself is impossible.

    Oh, and BTW: Physicists have disproved this.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfPeprQ7oGc
    Officially Called:
    The Copenhagen Interpretation
    =D

  19. Challenger Grim Says:

    At least, the kind of faith you seem to be talking about.

    Oh and there’s your problem.

    You’ve been assuming the wrong kind of faith.

  20. Challenger Grim Says:

    Still working my way through the whole series, but there are some scientists explaining the whole “reason/faith” foundational principles in the first half of this part.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ut4JNzWgjaA

  21. John Morales Says:

    Grim, you’re losing the plot. Appealing to scientism to defend your claim that faith is required for knowledge is inane.

    PS The Copenhagen interpretation is an attempt to explain evidence; it has nothing to do with faith.
    And how exactly is the wave function collapse supposed to indicate truth is not consistent with itself?

    <headshake>

  22. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Grim:

      This foundational principle is both logically verifiable

    Really? Prove it. Logically prove logic.

    The sentence fragment you quoted above is the beginning of my discussion of how we can verify the principle that truth is consistent with itself. It’s kind of bad form to snip the explanation and then demand the explanation. If you have a problem with the explanation, you ought to state what the problem is. If you don’t, then you should at least acknowledge that I have provided what I have provided.

  23. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Yes, I’m familiar with Copenhagen, but it doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means. What Copenhagen means is that there are some aspects of the real world which are poorly understood and counter-intuitive, and the only way we can ever hope to understand those things is by examination of the real world. This has nothing to do with the Christian/postmodern notion that there’s no such thing as truth and that everybody believes whatever they want to just by faith. Quite the contrary in fact, since faith alone is less likely to produce the true explanation of why the evidence behaves the way we observe it to behave.

  24. Deacon Duncan Says:

    By the way, if you truly wish to dispute the principle that truth is consistent with itself, start from the premise that the truth contradicts itself and see where it gets you. How do you know that Satan is not God? If the Bible is true and the Bible says Satan is not God, then it would contradict the truth to say that Satan was God. But if the truth contradicts itself, then it could very well be true that Satan is God even if this does contradict the truth. In fact, even if the Bible were true, if the truth contradicts itself, then there’s nothing that contradicts the Bible that cannot also be true nonetheless. What’s more, there’s nothing God can reveal that cannot be truthfully contradicted.

    You can pursue this notion that truth contradicts itself if you like, but it makes Christianity utterly futile and devoid of any meaning. And yet you really have no choice: in order to reconcile the Christian faith with what we see in the real world, you must abandon logic, deny that truth is consistent with itself, and embrace universal agnosticism (the impossibility of knowing whether anything is true). What does that tell you about the relationship between the Christian faith and the truth?

  25. Challenger Grim Says:

    I didn’t say anything about any particular faith EXCEPT faith IN logic and reason.

    You can’t argue with a madman, someone who utterly rejects logic and reason, can you?

    It’s like the question: “How do we know numbers exist?” If you keep asking why/how, at some point the answer will be “just because”. (which Jim pointed out, is an article of faith) You mention evidence but the whole issue with philosophers etc is: How do we know our senses are gathering information correctly? How do we know our brain is interpreting that information correctly? How do we know our logic and reasoning is even correct?

    At some point, the answer is “just because”.

    And how exactly is the wave function collapse supposed to indicate truth is not consistent with itself?

    Ummm…. because a part of matter (electron) itself performed inconsistently. (or to try and put it in terms DD can understand: if LOOKING at an electron causes it to behave differently, would LOOKING at God cause It to behave differently?)

  26. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Grim: the answer to your question is that truth is consistent with itself. We know that numbers exist because their existence is consistent with what we observe in the real world. Also, our observation of reality is what enables us to develop meaningful concepts, such as the concept of existence. Every concept is derived directly or indirectly from our experience of objective reality. Our perceptions, reasonings, conclusions, and so on, are only meaningful in the context of the objective reality which is the basis of the concepts which make up our thoughts and perceptions. Thus, the same objective reality which makes it possible for us to even have a meaningful concept of “existence” is also the standard by which we can determine whether or not numbers exist (and what it means for a number to exist).

    Also, waveform collapse does not mean that truth contradicts itself, it merely means that there are conditions under which our current, finite, fallible understanding of physics leads us to expect things we don’t actually see. This is not a problem for the self-consistency of the truth, it’s an inaccuracy/imprecision in our current understanding of physics.

    By the way, if there were an omniscient God, every waveform would be immediately observed, and thus there could never be an uncollapsed waveform. How would a theologian reconcile Copenhagen with physics?

  27. Challenger Grim Says:

    Also, waveform collapse does not mean that truth contradicts itself, it merely means that there are conditions under which our current, finite, fallible understanding of physics leads us to expect things we don’t actually see.

    Now there’s an article of faith if I’ve ever heard one. I’ll have to remember this next time you critique any religious person for making the same statement about God.

    Heck, what about your circular reasoning?
    “Why is it true? Because it’s consistent.”
    “Why is it consistent? Because it’s true.”
    You still have your own articles of faith. And no matter what, no person will ever be rid of faith in their lives.

  28. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I’ve explained the reasoning and evidence which leads me to my conclusions. If you prefer to ignore this and take refuge in mantras about faith, that’s your prerogative, but it does not change the fact that I can and do back up my claims with verifiable reasoning and evidence.

    By the way, the “circular argument” you cite above is not mine. It is not true that whatever is consistent is necessarily true. A novel can be consistent with itself and still not be true (i.e. consistent with objective reality). The self-consistency of the truth is how we know/discover what the truth is. It does allow us to verify the truth of the proposition itself, but that’s just a necessary consequence of truth being consistent with itself. It’s not a circular argument, because the premise that truth is consistent with itself is derived both from reasoning and from observation, and does not depend on the (fallacious) conclusion that whatever is consistent is necessarily true.

    Mind you, I’m not trying to get rid of faith. I’m simply pointing out that evidence-based faith, based on the principle that truth is consistent with itself, beats the empty kind of faith that is based solely on the fantasies, intuitions, superstitions and hearsay of men. Evidence-based faith doesn’t need to retreat into universal agnosticism, because it doesn’t have to run away from any conflicts between what it believes and what the evidence actually supports. By starting with the verifiable truth, and letting that define your faith, this whole “war” between faith and fact can be avoided.

  29. Deacon Duncan Says:

    One more thing: if you ever find a Christian making Copenhagen-esque arguments about God, based on finding objective evidence of God that is as objectively measurable and verifiable as the evidence which led to quantum physics, you are more than welcome to remember how I approached the latter. ;)

  30. Challenger Grim Says:

    You just cannot see the very point can you DD?

    I’ve explained the reasoning and evidence which leads me to my conclusions. If you prefer to ignore this and take refuge in mantras about faith, that’s your prerogative, but it does not change the fact that I can and do back up my claims with verifiable reasoning and evidence.

    The very point they were making (and I was trying to clarify, but it seems quite beyond you) is that reasoning itself is based on a faith in the reasoning. You can’t use reason to prove to anyone that you should use reason because you have to first be using reason. You can’t prove reason itself because reason gives proofs in the first place.

  31. Deacon Duncan Says:

    The point you seem to be missing is that the “faith” we have in reasoning is evidence-based faith. It’s not just blind faith, or a leap of faith, or “believing in what you know ain’t so,” it’s tried and true. We use it all the time, and it works, and there’s no trustworthy, equally-valid alternative. That’s why you yourself cannot help but appeal to reason in trying to argue against reason. Reason not only works, and works well, it’s how we think. And it’s a property that we possess as members of objective reality, which is characterized by the self-consistency of the truth.

    Reason is not based on someone arbitrarily choosing to believe in reason, the way someone else might choose to believe in God, or in Santa Claus, or in ancestral spirits. Reason is based on our consistent experience of reasoning and of the self-consistency of the truth. Experience of reality is the foundational source of both the concepts we use to reason with and the consistent, unbreakable patterns that define the rules of reason and logic. Reason itself is not the source of reason; reality is. We don’t prove reason by reason, we discover reason, via real life.

    I have no problem with the idea of having evidence-based faith in reason itself; after all, it has repeatedly demonstrated its superiority over superstition, intuition, wishful thinking, denial, and other irrational and unreasonable approaches. But using the label “faith” to refer to this is misleading, if by that label one tries to imply that evidence-free faith is just as valid and reasonable as evidence-based faith. There are two kinds of faith: faith based on the principle that truth is consistent with itself (evidence-based), and faith based on what people say and think and feel in the absence of real-world verification for their belief. Evidence-free faith is universal agnosticism, a denial of the possibility of knowing the truth about anything. Evidence-based faith is both rational and an affirmation of the principle that truth is consistent with itself, which is the only reasonable and rational position anyone can take.

  32. » Evidence-based faith vs. evidence-free faith Evangelical Realism Says:

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  33. John Morales Says:

    Well said D; I particularly like the point about omniscience!

    Grim is of course relying on the polysemy of the word “faith” to claim universal presuppositionalism, not realising this is a category error.