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February 25, 2006

Heavy Stuff

Far be it for this blogger to toot his own blog's horn...constantly. Just once in a while. And such an occasion has arrived. It strikes said blogger that the Derrida post below, which attracted a grand total of zero comments, and the Religion as Emotion post, less far below, are, like, important. derrida - rotated2.JPGcupid -rotate2.JPG

On account of the fact that they each get at the places, very different places, where the seemingly parallel lines of faith and reason seem to meet. Derrida is arguing (and, okay, maybe I didn't make this very clear) that there is a kind of primordial, inescapable leap of faith behind any attempt to reason, to communicate. That other lofty post suggests that an emotional response to religion, to faith, may be as real, even unavoidable, as love (and it is the official position of this blog that love is damn real) -- even if you don't belief in squat, even if you're Mr. or Ms. Reason.

Whole philosophies, maybe, could rise or fall based on such arguments. (I haven't quite worked out how, but trust me on this.) At the very least, you'd think someone writing a book (eminently readable but still intellectually sound) on atheism ought to have thought them out. You're supposed to help me think out.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at February 25, 2006 1:33 PM


I'm going to lay myself open to laughter over my ignorance, but that's okay. I didn't comment on the Derrida post because I've never read Derrida or any of the other philosophers you mentioned. Call me a philistine, but I decided many years ago that most of philosophy was nothing but esoteric exercises for ivory tower intellectuals. On that basis, I have to ask how much value Derrida has for a history of atheism, unless that history is only intended for a tiny, self-declared intellectual elite. Which leads me to wonder if you've defined your target audience. If not, maybe now is the time to do so.

Posted by: Catana at February 25, 2006 2:19 PM

Whooh, a lot of anger seemed to emerge there, Professor, so may please I respond to this, albeit at the risk of posting way more (more often, more quickly) than you or anyone, including me, would want (and then, promise, I'll return to standard limits). Emotional responses to faith, and love are both "real, even unavoidable," just as you say. And perhaps in the modern era we can well afford to make Derrida's leap of faith. But I wouldn't call it a primordial leap of faith: my point was that, at the least, "primitive" humans couldn't afford ever to make leaps of faith. The littlest mistaken assumption was fatal. Every rustle in the wind had to be checked out, because if you assumed that the music you heard was your lover's song (or god) rather than the cry of a lion or a bear or some other animal that wanted you for dinner... then you were dinner. I guess there are many ways to argue evolutionary biology (and speaking for myself, I'm more inclined to think that we are far enough away from our prehistoric, necessarily-cautious, ancestors, that we don't need to resort to explanations of contemporary behavior that are rooted in the latter's survival mechanisms. Still, the question you seemed to be raising was whether faith is the default position. (Indeed, a reviewer of Haidt's book raised the question of whether happiness is the default setting of the brain. Are we "naturally" happy?? ) I'm merely suggesting, again, that while faith, love, and happiness are wonderful and real (well, this part, I'm simply accepting on the say-so of the eminent, if angry, Prof. Stephens), caution and atheism are how we are hard-wired.

Posted by: george at February 25, 2006 2:27 PM

First to Catana, not to worry: won't be much Derrida in the book. (Not a bad idea to remind me once in a while of that.) Ain't writing for a scholarly publisher, and I'm not interested in slowing things down or narrowing my audience down. But some of these philosophy cats -- Carneades (in Greece) and maybe Hume or Diderot or Nietzsche -- do move the atheist thing forward in interesting ways, while living interesting lives. (And it would be up to the author to make their contributions fun and clear; to embed the ideas in those lives.) Also, I do think that even a "narrative" history of atheism, which wants to talk about people and their struggles (the plan), has to have a thought-through philosophical infrastructure and a sense of what the "ideas" behind atheism are. Derrida, who ain't quite as obscure as reputed, is currently helping me work through some of that -- as are you folks. (For my attempt to explain him to a large, New York Times, audience see: here.)

And George, I thought I was sounding bemused, not angry (not the first time, as I recall, you've heard that in me) -- goofing here, mostly, on me and my pretensions. (But I may have to re-adjust the irony levels, cause I can see why you might have read it differently.) I agree that caution=survival back then. But, I fear that the hypersensitivity-to-the-presence-of-conscious-agents point -- erring on the side of seeing faces in the bushes -- means that a belief in a world populated by supernatural agents is more cautious an attitude than "Oh, come off it!" Better to imagine a face in the clouds than to miss a face in the bush. (I mentioned this in a post below, based on Scott Atran; it now seems the main point in Dennett's book.) Atheists too cool and calm to survive?

Posted by: mitch at February 25, 2006 4:24 PM

Firstly, there is an interesting article in this week's New Yorker called "pursuing happiness" which is very relevant to the discussion, and mentions several books relevant to this also. It takes a cursory look at the nature of happiness and emotion from an evolutionary persepctive, and discusses attempted ways to measure it, etc.

More to the point, I'm unsure as to what "leaps of faith" are necessary in order to communicate with someone else. The faith that the listener is listening? Maybe you mean on a more basic level, faith that my listener posesses a conciousness capable of volition and independent thought?
Or that he exists at all? Reason is not sufficient to explain all of these?

Posted by: Andrey at February 25, 2006 6:09 PM

Andrey, here's Derrida trying to explain this elementary, primordial faith at the bottom of all attempts to communicate, even those of partisans of reason, of the Enlightenment: "They are obliged to put into play an irreducible 'faith,' that of a 'social bond' or of a 'sworn faith,' of a testimony ('I promise to tell you the truth beyond all proof and all theoretical demonstration, believe me, etc.')." And he sees this "at work even in lying or perjury and without which no address to the other would be possible." ["Faith and Knowledge" in Acts of Religion, p. 80] This faith, according to Derrida, is implicit in the moment of communicating, of reasoning. Is he right? Certainly there is something here. How important is it? Dunno. Does it make a kind of sense? Does it allow "faith" to sneak in at the bottom of "reason"? Shouldn't that be upsetting, if true, for an atheist?

Posted by: mitch at February 25, 2006 8:19 PM

If I understand what you say about Derrida (whom I've never read) correctly, he is saying that by believing what someone tells us, we are making a "leap of faith." Which while true, is still unrelated to faith in the grand religion scheme of things. By choosing to trust someone, yes, we are putting our faith into what they say, but we do not do this arbitrarily (at least most people don't), but rather in a reasononed out, logical series of events, most of which are simply unconscious.

When someone (let us use for example a professor of journalism) preaches or prattles on about the nature of so and so as it relates to such and such, the listener (his students) are choosing to believe what he says. Is this a faith based choice? No. The professor has been studying his field for years, and has published books which the students can look up and read to confirm the professor's aledged knowledge. The college or university has already looked into the background of the professor, and atests to said knowledge. The students are not bindly putting faith into the professor, but choosing to believe him/her because the facts point to the professor knowing what he talks about.

But what about a random person (door-to-door salesman?) trying to convince you of something? The listener (buyer) will listen to the salesman's arguements, compare them to his/her own experiences, and make a rational choice. Maybe the listener has tried similar products and feels they are wastes of time, maybe the salesman's tone of voice and tactics are similar to a past experience that clues in the buyer to potential good deal. These "leaps of faith" are simply using past experiences to judge the current situation. Even in completely new and uncharted territories, the person uses past experience and trial and error. Even if completely new the situation could have pieces similar to this, or maybe past experiences make the person more or less willing to trial and error, guessing the outcome will be good.

Posted by: Danny S at February 26, 2006 2:38 AM

Danny S. put it very well and there's not much to add to his argument in that regard.

However Derrida, according to Mitch, goes further than mere communication, to say "faith" is at the bottom of "reason." I think reason is founded in mathematics. What faith is there in 2+2=4? Reason rests on certain axioms (something can't "be" and "not be" simultaneously, cause & effect exists, etc.) I've seen a theory somewhere that cause & effect are an illusion, and that the human mind takes two events which happen to occur one after another and assume one is the cause of the next. (Bullets tend to leave gun barrels just after triggers are pulled, but that the latter causes the former is an illusion.) But even the belief in cause & effect would not really be faith, it would then simply be another word for co-timed events.

Thus I still think Derrida is throwing in faith where it isn't really needed. And if we are to believe Occam's razor - the simplest explanation tends to be the right one - then faith beneath reason is wrong, because it's unnecessary.

Posted by: Andrey at February 26, 2006 3:37 AM

strong points. I wanted help thinking out. I'm getting it. thanks. However...

I believe Derrida would argue that there is a point -- before the "rational" (in Derrida-land you always have to put quotes around such) determination of whether to trust the professor or the salesman, even in the gathering of data upon which to make that determination, or before that -- where one must just give one's self -- leap, as it were (it's fun doing "one" talk) -- into the unknown of the communicative act. We trust our senses, we trust language, we trust (as Derrida would say) "iteracy" (that meaning -- always slippery -- will stay put long enough to be understood, repeated). These are, the argument goes, acts of faith -- yes confirmed in various ways over time, but never confirmed thoroughly enough to guarantee each new attempt to communicate, to reason.

And, yes, this trust, this "faith," by this way of thinking, is at the bottom of reason, too. Even at the bottom of math. Way down there where the axioms of any mathematical system (as noted by Godel) escape proof by the system (if I have this right). Faith in adding (consistently confirmed, to be sure), in counting, but also faith in understanding of the meaning of twos and fours, of our strange ability to separate a twoness from apples, fingers and the number of book chapters we've drafted, of a kind of consensus upon meaning that a poet, or a shaman, might challenge. (Am I stretching here?)

I could see three ways to understand this (assuming there is, at least, a kernel of truth in it -- the "while true" in Danny's first paragraph):

1. Catana's "nothing but esoteric exercises for ivory tower intellectuals."

2. Yeah, maybe way deep at the bottom of communication and reason we have to trust something, but what does this have to do with religious faith?

3. Does kind of put faith somewhere you really wouldn't expect it to be -- at the heart of reason. Can reason ever really (or "really") shake that taint off?

Posted by: mitch at February 26, 2006 12:03 PM

Mr. and Mrs. Reasonless would be pretty pissed about this.

Without a god, there is no fundamental morality, and therefore, no base reason for doing anything. A true athiest chooses to act as he does because he can't think of a good reason to act the other way.

While the God issue's pretty up in the air, I think two issues are clearly settled: 1) neither atheists nor Christians exist and 2) it is reasonable to either believe or not believe in some form of generalized God. Anyone who thinks the first fact is more interesting than the second one is an empiricist, and therefore boring.

Posted by: Noah SD at February 26, 2006 12:59 PM

"Faith in adding (consistently confirmed, to be sure), in counting,"
Is it faith or assumption. Early in life, while we are being taught that 1+1=2, our teachers give us apples, blocks, or some other object. They show us that we have one of x. Then they give us another, and show us that by adding one to the first, we now have two. While there is faith in the rest of math, faith that whomever came up with this or that theory, it is till all based on this first experiment, where we prove that 1+1 does equal 2.

And that is not faith, at least not in the smaller picture. I'm sure we could sit and argue the reality of reality, and the arguement that we have faith in reality, but when faced with one set of variables for all of our lives, I think we assume reality, not believe based on faith, all of our lives we find that reality is real, at least to us, from when we crawl around and find out objects are solid to when we start to walk and figure out gravity. Is it faith that people will understand and talk back? Or assumption based on the rest of our conversations all the way back to the first person we talked to in complete thoughts (mommy or daddy).

"but also faith in understanding of the meaning of twos and fours, of our strange ability to separate a twoness from apples, fingers and the number of book chapters we've drafted,"

Again, is it faith or assumption. Faith is a leap, a belief in something we should not, that is for some reason unbeleivable and unproven. In our first communications with a new person we tend to say hello. They say hello back. (or some variatio). This leads to the assumption that they speak the same language, and language carries with it the vairous ideas of the language, the concept that an apple is an apple. It is not faith, but assumption that if they speak it, they are speaking of the same thing. And if it isn't true we find out during the converstation. So it is a subconscious assumption followed by subconscious trial and error.

"Yeah, maybe way deep at the bottom of communication and reason we have to trust something, but what does this have to do with religious faith?"

Even if I am wrong about the subconscious assumptions and that entire process can indeed be viewed as faith, it still is unreleated to religion. Religious faith is the belief in a God above (or below as the case may be). What you are talking about now is belief in reality. It naturally comes first. No matter who you are, to be viewed as sane in society you must at least pretend to believe in reality. This is not faith, but a rational assumption in and of itself, based on your lifetime of gathered information.

As Andrey says, Derrida is putting the word faith on a process that doesn't really count. Even if from the outside it qualifies as faith, it is in fact a different process to the same purpose.

Posted by: Danny S at February 26, 2006 1:41 PM

General comment:

Is it just me, or is this project going to make a believer outta you?

Posted by: Noah SD at February 26, 2006 3:13 PM

Faith is not Kryptonite to atheism, for small values of faith.

I find casual discussions of philosophers usually wind up thoroughly
twisted in words or terms which depends on each other in paradoxical
ways. Starting a discussion quoting "believing one knows and knowing
one believes" goes nowhere fast.

1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. See synonyms at belief, trust.
3. Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance: keeping faith with one's supporters.
4. often Faith Christianity. The theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God's will.
5. The body of dogma of a religion: the Muslim faith.
6. A set of principles or beliefs.

Hmmm...no listing for primordial faith.

faith (2) has two sub-parts: logical proof such as (1+1=2) and
material evidence (I talk to you and you talk back). Science fits
here, for example. "Reality that which does not go away when you stop
believing in it". (Unlike limbo, for example).

faith (3) has not been touched on in this thread, so I'll skip it.

faith (4) and (5) are the belief in things without any hope of logical
proof and without any hope of material evidence. This is the type of
faith that atheists do not share.

faith (6) is just the non-religious version of (5), perhaps some
philosophical systems fit here.

Being confident in something such as faith (1) may be about something
that could be disproved. Confidence might be shaken. Your confidence
that the Iraq war will result in a good outcome may not be convincing
to others.

I work in experimental physics. Everything can be seen as an
experiment (though not often a controlled one). We build models such
as cause and effect (and Andrey noted) or oneness and twoness and
threeness (as mitch noted) without effort. We build models because
they fit "Reality": if you have two hand and two gloves then you can
put all the gloves on all the hands. Some models have better evidence
supporting them than others, but they are pragmatic and connected to
"Reality". Working with imperfect information and evidence is what we
must do as finite beings -- provisional faith (1,2) in our models is
part of life and has little to do with faith (4,5,6).

(Goedel's theorem does not quite mean a system's axioms cannot be
proved by that system -- it means complicated systems allow strange
statements to be written down that can be shown to be neither
true/provable or false/disprovable from the axioms -- one is free to
extend the system into "system version 2" by assuming such a strange
statement is true or by assuming it is false as an additional axiom.
Nothing breaks, nothing supernatural happens, faith does not come into
play. Though if you assume it is both true and false then you get an
inconsistent new system, which is possible to discuss, but silly.)

Posted by: NoOneOfConsequence at February 26, 2006 6:48 PM

This is all very useful. But doesn't it come down to where and whether we can draw lines, build walls. If we accept the above acknowledgement that "provisional faith" infects even science (and Derrida would question the notion that such "faith" -- no matter how good the experiment, no matter how well tested the assumption -- can be, in some ultimate sense, made no-longer-provisional; there always being some extrapolation, some element of trust), why couldn't that provide room for a "provisional faith," pending experimental verification, in a God? (What a word hath joined together no list in a dictionary, I fear, can easily rend asunder.)

Look, we're all pretty convinced that a line can be drawn between reason/experimentation/science/knowledge and faith/religion/belief. Derrida is the great eraser of lines. This one, I fear, is not that easy to redraw. Shouldn't that at least be kept in mind as we do our calculations, engage in our conversations and debunk intelligent design.

Posted by: mitch at February 26, 2006 11:56 PM

"There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line." -- Oscar Levant

"no matter how good the experiment, no matter how well tested the assumption -- can be, in some ultimate sense, made no-longer-provisional; there always being some extrapolation, some element of trust" -- mitch

The different is not confusing. If I have any evidence at all then "provisional faith" in my model may be rational. If I have no evidence whatsoever then "faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen".
Those two types of faith are distinct and cannot be confused. If Derrida did not distinguish them, then I would be (a) surprised and (b) assume he was just kidding.

Faith with zero evidence is qualitatively different. When zero evidence is required then I can say "I have faith there is an invisible dragon in my garage" or "I have faith in an invisible Pink Unicorn" or "I have faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster". When evidence is required, then I can't say I have faith in those things.

So zero vs non-zero evidence is very important, this is faith (4,5,6) versus faith (1,2). Is 100% evidence vs 99.999999% evidence an important distinction?

That the sun could fail to rise in the east at down tomorrow is a point that, while philosophically true, does not motivate any change in a model of "day and night". Arguing that it takes a smidgen of faith to be believe in the next sunrise and comparing that faith to religion is, to be very frank, something I find disingenuous and insulting. Which brings me to respond to this:

"why couldn't that provide room for a "provisional faith," pending experimental verification, in a God?" -- mitch

You defined "provisional faith" with the 100% vs 99% evidence analogy that affects science and then carried that meaning to the zero vs non-zero evidence regime. Your defense of this rhetorical maneuver seems to have been:

"What a word hath joined together no list in a dictionary, I fear, can easily rend asunder" -- mitch

ter·rif·ic adj.

1. Very good or fine; splendid: a terrific tennis player.

2. Awesome; astounding: drove at a terrific rate of speed.

3. Causing terror or great fear; terrifying: a terrific wail.

4. Very bad or unpleasant; frightful: a terrific headache.

This means both "Very good" and "Very bad". And yet I can still tell the difference between them. To have a philosophical discussion one has to do the work of defining what one is talking about. That we agree on what words mean is one of those matters of small faith that is required to communicate at all.

To conclude, I admit that evidence is a sliding scale which never reaches a philosophically pure 100%. But the scale does reach down to 0% and that situation is simply different. Having faith or believing in things with 0% evidence is a choice that transcends sanity. It may be a smart thing to do provisionally if one goes and looks for evidence, so long as failure to then find evidence leads to rejecting faith in those things. ( Arguments from this lead to the idea of falsification ).

Posted by: NoOneOfConsequence at February 27, 2006 10:04 AM

"we're all pretty convinced that a line can be drawn between reason/experimentation/science/knowledge and faith/religion/belief." - mitch

To a certain extent, you could say that belief in reality is a religion. Because we cannot be 100% sure that reality is real, and that we are not in fact all figments of Joe Somebody's imagination. And if you consider reality as a religion, one to which all but a small fraction of the world believes in (the small fraction being some people labeled insane and a cult or two), then you could say that religions simply put a different spin on that main religion of reality than atheists do.

But then we come right back to where we started, where they (religion) have a different set of explinations than we (atheists) do. And arguing if reality is real, if it takes faith to believe in the world, and everything in it, is a moot and entirely different arguement. Sure the mere act of talking to each other, of believing what other people say to us, requires the faith that reality is real, that I am I, you are you, and what you say applies to the world I live in. But 'Everyone' must believe that, atheists and religious people alike.

I might be missing something, but it seems to me that Derrida's arguement you've talked about doesn't apply to atheism because atheism is an arguement about how reality works, and why, not about the fact that reality is.

Posted by: Danny S at February 28, 2006 1:34 AM

-- but I'm not sure the religionists would admit to having zero evidence. would they not point to thousands of years of reports, accounts, testaments, or to the fact that all human societies seem to believe, or to the miracle of the human eye?
-- and if you admit we are on a sliding scale, 'tween faith and knowledge -- and there's .0001% faith embodied in the belief that the sun will rise tomorrow and 8.3% faith in string theory, and 99.99% faith in the belief in God -- seems to me you've conceded some version of the point. Ya gotta have some (however much) faith. (But I also think we've wandered from the orig Derrida point: which found that faith in the communicative act.)
-- Seems to me you're putting much too much faith in dictionaries. Note how the definitions in the example you give, "terrific," blend into each other in fascinating ways. (Some of the, probably original, def 3, the terror, still lurks in def 2, the awe, and def 2 is clearly in def 1, so def 3 is haunting def 1 to some extent, too. The various faiths, too, are entangled with each other, haunt each other.) Much 20th century philosophy -- Wittgenstein not just Derrida -- was about following the tangles and contradictions of language as spoken, not trying, through the pretense of clarity made by dictionaries, to snip them off. "Terrific" is a wonderfully complicated word. "Faith," too. Mistake, me thinks, to iron out all the wrinkles.
-- And with Danny's point I fear we're vulnerable to a more traditional skepticism: If we can't know what is real with complete confidence, how can we know that God is unreal with complete confidence.

Posted by: mitch at February 28, 2006 4:36 AM

"If we can't know what is real with complete confidence, how can we know that God is unreal with complete confidence."

Ah but we can't. That is the crux of the issue, while scientists have all their fancy theories and evidence towards their version of history, how do we know that they are right. What if their "evidence" was made along with the rest of the world during the "creation" by God? If there was proof 100% in either direction, there would be no arguement. Our faith that science is right is how any arguement that science is a religion can have merit.

Posted by: Danny S at February 28, 2006 7:36 AM

My last post on the thread will be:

"how can we know that God is unreal with complete confidence."

"how can we know that the Flying Spagetti Monster is unreal with complete confidence."

"how can we know that the Hindu Pantheon is unreal with complete confidence."

"how can we know that Cthulhu is unreal with complete confidence."

"how can we know that Lephrechans and Fairies are unreal with complete confidence."

I am willing to only by 99.9999% sure that these are unreal. The question is : do I *act* differently if there is 0.0001% doubt instead of zero doubt ? The answer is : no, I act the same way.

I am willing to only be 99.9999% sure that the sun will rise tomorrow. Do I *act* differently if there is 0.0001% doubt instead of zero doubt ? No, I act the same way.

Miniscule amounts of doubt that only philosophers can detect only matter if you enjoy the word games that arise from them.

Posted by: NoOneOfConsequence at February 28, 2006 6:13 PM

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