Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On Faithlessness

There's this YouTube guy, Philhellenes, he's made some sweet videos like a scientifically accurate rewrite of Genesis and an account of science saving his soul.  One of his other videos is on admitting error, and it's also really great:

Why does he need the contrast so high?  Is he in a library's
after hours?  He must be The Phantom of the Library!

It got me to thinking about walking in doubt, a phrase I use from time to time when I need to establish that the brand of atheism I practice is not in fact another kind of faith.  I have a lot of beliefs, but no faith, because I've spent a great many years doubting everything systematically, like René Descartes.  What I've ended up with is a bunch of things I endorse as facts with varying levels of confidence, and a whole bunch of inferences between them of varying strengths, which is rather difficult to keep track of.  It's not perfect, by any means, and I still screw up from time to time, which keeps me humble - but beneath it is an attitude of readiness to admit error.  I try not to think, "What do I know for certain," but instead, "How much doubt am I dealing with here?"  If I'm ever not dealing with an amount of doubt, then I've got certainty, and certainty is dangerous.

Certainty is how I make most of my mistakes, by weight if not by volume.  Certainty is how I maintained belief in God, and Heaven, and Hell; but certainty is also what made me cling to science just as foolishly when I left Christianity.  I didn't know any other way.  After enough arguments where I couldn't back myself up, I would find myself saying foolish things.  It was as if I were a child again.  I remember arguing on the playground about who's mother could write faster.  I had seen my mother dash off a note, and was amazed at the speed and ease with which she wrote - I was just learning to read and write, myself, and so to me it was a rather slow and difficult process.  I thought she was so fast, and I said so - but so had the others, and each of us had to express how crazy it was that our mothers could write with such speed, that it took on a life of its own.  I remember saying, "Well, my mom could write a hundred books in a second, just like whissshhh!" and spinning around to demonstrate the force and strength with which my mother seemed to write.  Adjusted, of course, to be suitably impressive next to the obvious exaggerations of my schoolmates.

This sort of "pissing contest" logic takes over in an alarming number of places - pretty much all of them, at some point or another.  Everybody does it, but everybody's not always doing it.  We're each points along a curve, and the Hell of it is, it's really hard to figure out where we are ourselves.

In some ways, it's just an outgrowth of the need to establish dominance.  The need to stake out territory takes on a life of its own, and soon you're patrolling around, and you need to be able to do whatever you need to do to establish that it's yours.  You do it in teams, and you need to communicate.  But so can the others, and there's quite a bit to be gained from learning to communicate with them as well.  But now that you can put not just your might and cunning but also your ideas against each other, you need a way to establish dominance here as well - whether you're right or not.

Rhetoric is the art of being persuasive, logic is the art of determining the kind and strength of inference you're dealing with, and epistemology is the art of figuring out just how your ideas are supposed to constitute knowledge.  Ideally, you want the best of all three - sound logic built upon a firm epistemological foundation with an outer coat of elegant rhetoric.  But all too often, things go wrong:  rhetoric can become a façade, logic can be riddled with faults, and we can mistake flimsy and shifting foundations for epistemological bedrock.  Nowhere is this more evident than in those particular religious minds who insist that their faith is a source of knowledge, that it is the bedrock of certainty on which the edifice of their knowledge may be built.  And what's more, they subvert the very concept of epistemology, painting science's perpetual process of correction and refinement as a series of screw-ups rather than a continuous improvement.

There is a bedrock of certainty, but it is not an appealing one:  I am having some kind of experience right now.  It's the only thing Descartes couldn't doubt:  no matter if he was mistaken about his memories, erring in his calculations, or being deceived by a malicious demon, he was having experiences.  For any of those things to be true, it must first be true that he, Descartes, existed in the first place - otherwise none of the other things would be possible.  And thus he wrote those famous words, cogito, ergo sum.  He then goes on to make a great many mistakes for a load of complicated reasons which are not the subject of this evening's symposium (though I do remember writing something on it last spring, so I might post that this weekend).

That's all we've got:  I am having experiences right now.  It entails that I, the Letter D, exist in some fashion or other - but any inference I make about the nature of that existence invites a degree of doubt.  I have my memories, for I experience their remembrance - but any inference I make with regard to them also invites a degree of doubt.  Even the moment-to-moment continuity of consciousness is subject to question - I have walked in that twilight realm between dream and waking, when the world intrudes upon my mind but just not enough to rouse me fully, only to realize at great length that my dream underwent a swift (if rickety) segue into the subject of whatever they were talking about on NPR that morning.  Everything seemed so vivid and real, but I slowly, ever so slowly, came to realize that I was in fact lying upon my bed and not doing whatever outlandish thing I thought I was doing.  No matter how certain I feel that I am awake and lucid, I could be wrong on that count.  The only thing of which I can ever be 100% certain is that I am having some sort of experience at the present moment.  That's it.

Everything else is simply dwindling into the depths of uncertainty.  There just is no way to get back to that 100% certainty with anything else, and the only way to convince yourself is to take a leap of faith.  Theist or atheist, you need faith to get that full certitude; and so it's not entirely unreasonable for theists to turn the Faith Card back around on atheists.  You probably do have faith, and not the legitimate kind like "faith in yourself" or "faith in humanity" or whatever, I mean the genuinely illegitimate kind that gives you the feeling of certainty when certainty is not warranted.  Think about it:  is there anything, anything at all, of which you feel 100% certain?  How about the Sun coming up tomorrow?  I've written before on how that's as sure as I get, but not even that is 100%.  So how certain do I get about anything?

Oh, about 95% or so.  I try to round it to 5% increments, since a difference of +/-5% is really just meaningless quibbling when we're talking about informal measures of personal certainty.  Sometimes I stop and think to myself, "Wait, if I were to roll a d20 on the chance I'm wrong, would I really expect to be wrong every time it comes up 1?"  If not, then I say, "More than 95% certain."  I'm more than 95% certain that the Sun will rise tomorrow - but not quite 100% certain.

"Poppycock," you may say, "You can't just walk around doubting yourself all the time!"  Oh, but I can.  I've just gotten used to acting on less than 100% certainty all the time.  It's a little weird at first, but if you're ready to admit error (which is tremendously easier once you start thinking of certainty in terms of how much doubt you're dealing with), then you'll find that you notice lots of things you maybe didn't notice before.  Maybe little mistakes you make, maybe little things that didn't make a difference, maybe little things that could have spiraled out of control if you didn't catch them.  In the Bujinkan dojo, we open every session with a phrase:  shikin haramitsu daikomyo.  If you don't speak Japanese, that means "Every action holds the opportunity to learn."  When you walk in doubt, there may be some clumsiness at first - but so long as you check your ego and embrace that clumsiness, you'll soon find yourself learning things in all kinds of surprising places.

I was talking with some friends during a night of drinking, and we somehow (gosh, I don't know how...) got on the subject of religion.  One of those friends went off on a tangent with me about the irritating certainty that faith brings, and how it makes theists so close-minded, but they turn around and say atheists are the close-minded ones.  And sure, there are some close-minded atheists (try asking an atheist with a penis about misogyny in the atheist community, if you feel like opening a can of bees) - but we were both fairly open-minded individuals who actually considered the ideas of others and tried to wrap our minds around them and were willing to believe in something if we just had the kind of evidence we get when we try to establish the existence of, say, X-rays.

At this point, another friend chimed in and said, "I don't think you're as open-minded as you think you are, D."

"What?"  I put on my best confused face, but I've found in the intervening years that my confused face looks a lot like other people's shocked-and-disgusted face, so that may explain why these sorts of conversations have always seemed to escalate...

"Well, if you were so open-minded, you'd be getting convinced by other people left and right."

"Wait, hold on.  Just how open-minded do you think I think I am, E?"

"You've been going on and on about how you'll take anyone's ideas seriously, and if you did, I think you'd get your mind changed all the time."

"But I do," I replied.  "In fact, just a couple months ago, A & M convinced me that Objectivism has serious flaws, and I've since abandoned it.  They changed my mind.  C here also teamed up with A to convince me that morality has to have some kind of consequentialist component to be worth a damn.  I get my mind changed all the time, so long as a certain standard is met.  And I keep that standard in mind so that when it's met, I don't dig my heels in and act a fool.  And that's as open-minded as I think I am."

Pause.

"Very well, then.  I didn't think you kept such close tabs on your beliefs, D."

When you walk in doubt, argumentative judo becomes child's play - you see things not in terms of pissing contest logic, where you have to establish dominance, but more like the ebb and flow of the tide.  In the pissing contest, everything swells and crashes and swirls around, and it's tremendously difficult to tell who's making ground against whom because both parties are trying to establish little rocky outcroppings of certainty.  But when you look instead at the structure of the argument, and work your rhetoric at that level, you find that a remarkably different thing happens.  You let your partners be the shore, you ask where those little spits of rock are, you get a feel for the certainty you're dealing with, you actually look at the coastline of their beliefs.  Let them establish all the ground they want.  It doesn't matter.  When you are the ocean, you can lap at those rocky outcroppings and wear them down into sand.  You can pick at the edges, fraying the tapestry of belief, unraveling is warp and weft, for as long as they're willing to carry on the conversation.

Now, none of this can guarantee that your argumentative partners will listen.  But as long as you are listening, you'll find that your arguments are well-received because you're tailoring them specifically to the beliefs your partners actually have - you're not talking past each other, but instead delving into the heart of the issue.  At worst, you'll have had no impact whatsoever - but you won't have made a fool of yourself.  At best, you'll have sounded like Socrates, and sown seeds of doubt that will take root and churn the fertile soil.

The endgame, if it gets that far, is that the ocean swallows the land whole, and you both are left adrift in doubt.  This is as it should be, for we are all adrift in doubt if we only take the time to be honest with ourselves.  We seek certainty, we crave it, but it eludes us always; if we can stop searching for solid ground, and instead content ourselves with exploring the open sea, then a whole new world opens up to us.  It becomes less about finding firm ground on which to stand and establishing a belief structure to endure for all time, and more about chasing the horizons and learning to ride the waves.  Exploring.  Wandering.  Walking in doubt.

So that's what I mean when I say I have no faith - not that I have no beliefs, but that I simply eschew certainty.  I do not walk in faith, I walk in doubt.

EDIT:  So of course then I go and watch this video, which also discusses the virtue of doubt.  So there.

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