Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ibrahim Lawson responds to last post

Here's Ibrahim's latest response to the immediately preceding post on religion and intellectual black holes.

I think your piece on the ‘madness’ of mystical beliefs is very apposite and highlights the difference between us very well. I would add that the contributor who cites Lois Theroux’s work raises a similar point. I saw the program on white racists and the two girls being brought up to be pop stars singing racist songs who seemed to be quite comfortable with the abhorrent ideology their parents were imposing on them. This raises the quite valid question as to how a committed ‘non-‘, ‘anti-‘, ‘ir-‘ or supra-rationalist such as I may be can justify their own particular brand of ‘mythos’ as the only ‘true’ one having apparently denied any grounds on which this might be done. You suggest that these ‘mythoi’ may be cultural memes that evolve according to some sociological principle until such time as ‘rationalism’ emerges and puts a stop to the process by providing clearly objective and universal grounds for critiquing belief systems that are based on a faulty understanding of how the world, and particularly the human mind, works. You also say that some people will claim that ‘rationalism’ is just another mythos, no more or less true than its rivals, though you do not believe this yourself for some reason.

Notwithstanding the interesting discussion on the social construction of madness, perhaps there is more I can contribute.

You begin your argument with a parody of religious belief in an all good god, intending to show that such a belief is as equally (un)warranted as the object of parody. Arguing from analogy, you conclude that belief in an all good god is as psychologically unsound as belief in an all evil god, from which it is, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable epistemologically. You suggest that arguments based on the mystical basis of belief in god as traditionally defined serve equally well in the defence of an all evil god, and, by extension, other paranoid or otherwise delusional beliefs.

Clearly you believe that all beliefs not based on empirical evidence are nothing more than fantasy; they are unjustifiable and therefore cannot constitute knowledge. I accept that this would be the case if religious beliefs and claims to knowledge fell into the same category as claims about the existence of material objects. What I feel unsure about is whether or not the same criteria of justification are applicable to non-material entities. I think that there are sufficient examples of claims to the existence of such things as moral and aesthetic qualities for example to challenge us to come up with other ways of acknowledging that belief in their existence is warranted.

In fact, when we look at what evidence and logical argument IS able to prove the existence of, we find that it is very little, if anything. Descartes is responsible for a lot of this confusion (and that is not a negative criticism) when he proposed his infamous ‘cogito’. It does indeed seem that all we can be really sure of, theoretically, is that we are thinking and that therefore we must at least exist even if we can be sure of nothing else.

I have to say that I hope this won’t be taken to mean that I think it is reasonable to doubt the existence of the world as object of experience. The point I am making is only that we don’t have an adequate theory to explain why we believe that such a world exists. In the absence of such an explanatorily adequate theory we should remain open-minded about knowledge claims, even when they are made on the basis of theories of knowledge that we find questionable, such as mysticism. (I say ‘we’ but I mean ‘you’, l since I am quite certain about my own knowledge claims).

In fact, Descartes famously missed out the major premise in his syllogism which should read: (1) thinking things are; (2) I think; thereore, (3) I am. Whether the first premise is true is unclear and the conclusion may not be true.

So where does this leave us? We are committed of the existence of all sorts of things for which there is no empirical evidence because they are not material objects perceivable by the senses. Is there really no other way to decide competing truth claims, whether about god, the wisdom of Lao Tsu, the superiority of the white ‘race’, the morality of sex outside marriage, the beauty of Mozart’s music, Shakespeare’s sonnets or Picasso’s paintings?

You will say that belief in god is in a different category from belief in moral and aesthetic qualities or the existence of gravity (which is unproveable too). I accept this. I say only that we need to have a way of speaking about god that enables us to have some kind of intelligible discourse, as we do about ethics and aesthetics. This discourse will have its own rules and they will not be like those governing discussions about empirical matters, for example.

It is a category mistake to suppose that claims about the existence and qualities of god are equivalent to claims about the existence of material objects and I think it is unwarranted to deny any reality to such beliefs or to categorise them all as a form of delusion or madness. It is necessary to recognise that religious beliefs perform a different function in life from empirical beliefs and that is why attempts to treat them as the same lead to nonsense. The problem is that any way of talking about distinguishing between, let us call them, non-empirical existence claims will seem as ludicrous as the claims themselves to someone who has already written the whole discourse off as ‘madness’ or ‘fantasy’ or whatever.

So much as I would like to say that Islam is not a wacky cult because, for example, we do not believe that Muhammad was the incarnation of god, as Rastafarians believe about Haile Selassie, or that black people are superior to white, as in the Nation of Islam, or that the world is inherently evil (Gnosticism) or the battle ground between two equally matched and opposing divinities (Zoroastrianism) etc etc I will not, as that will inevitably invite from some people the crass question ‘Where’s your evidence?’ to the tune of ‘nah nah na boo boo, you haven’t got any’ (for the benefit in turning to face Mecca when you die, or example).

The ‘reasoning’ I would use might resemble appeal to evidence and argument but would not be functioning as such, having been uprooted from its empiricist context, so to speak. It would resemble more a rhetorical form of argument or sophistry, which has got itself a bad name in the western tradition. But let’s not forget, the purpose of having an argument is to win; it’s only you rationalists who insist on the use of reason exclusively, and, like good catholics, have declared all other forms of argument heretical.

So I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere while the criticism of religious belief is that there is no evidence to justify it and that it is therefore indistinguishable from any arbitrary belief you can invent or indeed, schizophrenia..

15 comments:

anticant said...

"The purpose of having an argument is to win." Is it? One could hope that it is in order to gain greater mutual understanding.

Kosh3 said...

1) It would be an extremely odd thing if evidentiary standards applied only to empirical claims. I do not see how the composition of an object somehow removes beliefs regarding it from having to be justified.

Although evidence tends to have a highly empirical or worldly connotation, when people request the evidence that supports the claims we make they most appropriately and most often mean by this the more general 'reasons' we have to think so, which include non-empirical reasons, such as argument.

2) Contrary to Descartes and your use of him, I tend to think of myself as possessing good reason for my belief in an external world. My belief is not certain, for I could be wrong, but certainty is not a limiting condition on knowledge. As above, empirical evidence is not the same thing as evidence period.

You say:

"It is a category mistake to suppose that claims about the existence and qualities of god are equivalent to claims about the existence of material objects and I think it is unwarranted to deny any reality to such beliefs or to categorise them all as a form of delusion or madness. It is necessary to recognise that religious beliefs perform a different function in life from empirical beliefs and that is why attempts to treat them as the same lead to nonsense."

This comes close to offering a nonrealist theory of religion. That is something like that 'religious claims are not really claims about the way things are as such, but more emotive, internal claims that are disconnected with reality'. One problem for this is that the greatest number of believers in religion are certainly not nonrealists about their religion. The greatest number of religious adherents believe genuinely in, for instance, the historicity of Jesus or Mohammed, and the future that awaits them after life has passed.

Another is that it seems little more than a defensive mechanism designed to diffuse criticism. "Oh, don't worry; we don't *actually* believe these things in the sense you mean". I doubt though that if I could see into your mind in an omniscient fashion, and see there the reality of the beliefs, that that would in fact be true.

Ibrahim Lawson said...

I am posting the following as an example of a text from within the Islamic mystical tradition. The author is Muhammad ibn al-Habib, a Moroccan shaykh who died in 1972 (see Wikipedia). It offers a view onto a non-rationalist tradition, which is either nothing but fantasy and imagination (or simple insanity), or an internally coherent and viable worldview shared and practised by millions of adherents past and present – or both. Note the stanza which appears towards the end: “Strip yourselves of all knowledge and understanding”. This is a technique which is referred to in other mystical traditions: “Except that ye be as little children…” and “In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired; in pursuit of the Tao, every day something is taken away…” are two that spring to mind. Intellectual black holes?

The Robe of Nearness
The invocation of the Beloved has clothed us
in beauty, radiance, exaltation and delight.
In drawing near we cast aside every restraint
and openly proclaimed the One we love to glorify
The Beloved gave us a draught of pure love to drink
which forced all but the Beloved to disappear.
We saw the whole creation as mere floating specks of dust:
and witnessed the lights appear openly and clearly.
After having been effaced and annihilated
in a light-giving wine, we returned to creation.
By a pure gift from Allah we were given going-on
and then, with patience, we concealed the One we love.
How often have we looked on a wayfarer who has then risen
to the stations of those who have plunged into the seas!
We have healed the hearts of what had gripped and possessed them
through sciences whose taste is subtle; and then they soared.
We focused on something secretly and then it came about,
and so the One we have chosen to love has come to us.
We heard a secret call from the presence of the Unseen:
"In Our sight you are beloved so be filled with gratitude."
We have authority to quench the thirst of whoever comes longing
for the encounter and not seeking mere information.
Even if presents are plentiful and generous gifts abound,
pay no attention to them, but cling to poverty.
Humble yourselves to its people – they will satisfy your thirst.
You should draw near to them and have no fear of disgrace.
Strip yourselves of all knowledge and understanding
so that you may obtain what the great have obtained.
Freely offer up your self, you who desire union,
and follow the Shaykh in whatever he indicates.
Witness the truth in him, in both your essence and your heart,
annihilate yourself in him: by him you will win through.
He is the light of the Messenger from every point of view,
and the medicine of hearts, both openly and secretly.
So pay attention to him and show him great esteem.
Go into his presence in a completely broken state.
Blessings be upon the Prophet and all his family
and Companions and all who direct other people to him,
And peace, fragrant with musk and every sweet perfume,
and consummate beauty and unrivalled sublimity.

Ibrahim Lawson said...

Kosh3

I do not see how the composition of an object somehow removes beliefs regarding it from having to be justified.

The point I was making is that the ‘justification’ process will be different.

certainty is not a limiting condition on knowledge

it is if knowledge can only apply to true propositions and truth depends on evidence. (I am not defending this position by the way.) The point is that we do tend to think we have good reason to believe that the world exists, but why?

'religious claims are not really claims about the way things are as such, but more emotive, internal claims that are disconnected with reality'

this is the only way my argument can be construed by a ‘rationalist’ – I’m saying you have to let go of this idea about ‘the real world’ if by that you mean the world of matter and energy as described by scientists (let alone the ‘ordinary everyday common sense reality’ beloved by gruff no-nonsense Yorkshiremen and other down-to-earth types).

One problem for this is that the greatest number of believers in religion are certainly not nonrealists about their religion. The greatest number of religious adherents believe genuinely in, for instance, the historicity of Jesus or Mohammed, and the future that awaits them after life has passed.

again you reveal your epistemological prejudices. You can ‘genuinely believe’ something without being committed to a rationalist interpretation of belief and knowledge. The real problem is that since the rationalist paradigm became dominant, religionists have felt obliged to account for themselves within the terms of that paradigm; this wasn’t an issue before except for people troubled by Greek philosophy. The standard moves were worked out in the middle ages (Aquinas, Maimonides, Ibn Rushd), but they don’t work now. Until we all understand that religion and science really are speaking two different languages, mutual incomprehension will continue.

Stephen Law said...

Ibrahim. Thanks for poem. See my latest post for response.

Kosh3 said...

"The point I was making is that the ‘justification’ process will be different."

... such as? flesh out an example for me, if you could.

"it is if knowledge can only apply to true propositions and truth depends on evidence. (I am not defending this position by the way.) The point is that we do tend to think we have good reason to believe that the world exists, but why?"

I can support my belief in the existence of an external world by way of its role in constituting a best explanation for the unity of my experiences. As Philip Kitcher has said, and I tend to agree with him (there, at least) - belief in an external world has quite mundane origins in reasoning.

Kosh3 said...

woops, left off a part of my post:

Explain why you think certainty of belief is a prerequisite for our possessing knowledge? It wasn't clear to me from your reply.

Stephen Law said...

"But let’s not forget, the purpose of having an argument is to win; it’s only you rationalists who insist on the use of reason exclusively, and, like good catholics, have declared all other forms of argument heretical."

Yes I agree with anticant - this is a quite extraordinary thing to say. The main point of an argument is to get closer to the truth. Mere rhetorical ploys aim to convince *irrespective of truth*. That is why they are rightly viewed with suspicion.

Once you've said all that matters is winning, hey, why not just go straight for indoctrination, brainwashing, hypnotism - indeed, anything that convinces!

Oh, I forgot - you do.

(ok sorry, that was a bit cruel, Ibrahim, but still, can you understand my horror at your remark?)

I think we might here have got to the nub of something.

Ibrahim Lawson said...

kosh3
i'll think about your 'best explanation' idea - i'm not sure how we should explain 'best'.

the certainty comment - what i meant was that if we understand knowledge as being justified true belief then unless we can determine that what we think we know is true, i.e. we are certain it is, then the criteria of knowlwdge are not met. that we can never know that the world we appear to perceive exists independently of our perception of it is the 'problem of knowledge' - meaning the problem od explaining what we call knowledge.

different forms of justification - that's partly what i'm trying to figure out in this discussion; but it's not like i'm the only one who is (or should be at least) confused about what i think i know and why.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Ibrahim

Most philosophers who say justification is a condition of knowledge do not require "certainty". In fact you can be justified and still be mistaken.

Incidentally, aren't you just "going nuclear" again?

Ibrahim Lawson said...

The main point of argument is to get closer to the truth not to win irrespective of the truth.

I was being deliberately provocative, excuse me. Please would anyone else at least have a look at Wikipedia on ‘sophistry’ (which I believe I mentioned just prior to the decontextualised citation above) before condemning me out of hand.

I want to get at the idea that we have swallowed whole Socrates ‘we must follow the argument wherever, like a wind, it may lead us’ and have lost sight of any other view of ‘argument’. If we are going to re-contextualise argument in the real world, which includes all kinds of motives we should perhaps not despise, including the need to act in conditions that fall short of certainty, for some of us, we should acknowledge this and try to agree some rules. I didn’t say that winning was all that matters, but practical outcomes are important. Arguing with people who have made a requirement of the crystalline purity of logic while pretending it is a discovery, a ‘given’, in other words, is as frustrating for me as it is for them as I have different ‘givens’. The only reason we haven’t given up is because maybe there is still an opening there somewhere. Is the idea of sophistry, in its original sense, any help?

Anonymous said...

Ibrahim said "It is a category mistake to suppose that claims about the existence and qualities of god are equivalent to claims about the existence of material objects".

Perhaps we should consider such claims in the same way as some mathematical claims.
Mathematics shows that it is possible to conduct meaningful non-trivial investigations of the properties and existence (in the mathematical sense) of non-physical objects and their properties. Although many of the discoveries of mathematics are weird indeed they are supported by reason.

Ron Murphy said...

Ibrahim,

"Clearly you believe that all beliefs not based on empirical evidence are nothing more than fantasy; they are unjustifiable and therefore cannot constitute knowledge." - Can't speak for anyone else, but I wouldn't go so far as to say I 'believe' such beliefs are fantasy.

What I would say is that given a lack of any indication that they are meaningful, we might as well act as if they are fantasy - at least in our daily lives.

Conversely, it's reasonable to say that reason and science have provided such a consistently good representation of reality - I good working model if you will - that we may as well act as if reality is as reason and science expose it.

"What I feel unsure about is whether or not the same criteria of justification are applicable to non-material entities." - Fair point, as long as we're talking metaphysics.

"I think that there are sufficient examples of claims to the existence of such things as moral and aesthetic qualities for example..." - Which can be explained as human concepts and human constructs. People do in fact make moral and aesthetic judgements, even about the truth contained within the Quran (there is no universally accepted interpretation of the Quran for all Muslims) - they are subject to personal, human constructed, understanding.

"...challenge us to come up with other ways of acknowledging that belief in their existence is warranted" - Belief in their (moral and aesthetic qualities) existence as concepts an human constructs is acknowledged. But that doesn't mean other 'qualities', 'entities' forms of 'knowledge' are.

"In fact, when we look at what evidence and logical argument IS able to prove the existence of, we find that it is very little, if anything." - Yes, couldn't agree more. I may have existential doubt about my physical self, or an oncoming bus, but I wouldn't want to put that doubt to too much of a test by seeing how they react in collision. My tentative working model of reality is good enough for me to live my life as if the outcome might be fatal.

"we don’t have an adequate theory to explain why we believe that such a world exists" - Correct. We just have a good working model.

"we should remain open-minded about knowledge claims, even when they are made on the basis of theories of knowledge that we find questionable, such as mysticism" - Whoa! Hold on. Metaphysical introspection about mysticism is fine, but I'd hardly call mysticism a good working model. Where's its track record?

"I am quite certain about my own knowledge claims" - Why? Or is that too rational a question?

"[Decartes 1,2,3]... Whether the first premise is true is unclear and the conclusion may not be true." - I agree, but experience says it's a good working model, and there's a consensus of opinion on that (I assume you think that you exist). - But now apply that doubt to God. Where's the experience (outside the human mind) that God means anything in reality.

"We are committed of the existence of all sorts of things for which there is no empirical evidence because they are not material objects perceivable by the senses." - Such as? I'd dispute that. Qualities are not things. Constructs and concepts of the mind are not things - or at least we've no evidence they are.

"Is there really no other way to decide competing truth claims, whether about..."


God - As a concept, fine.
The wisdom of Lao Tsu - personal interpretation.
The superiority of the white ‘race’ - a testable proposition (given we define superiority)
The morality of sex outside marriage - One social construct (morality) applied to another social construct (marriage) - not related (I appreciate 'God' makes them related, but since we're disputing God this doesn't necessarily follow).
The beauty of Mozart’s music, Shakespeare’s sonnets or Picasso’s paintings? - A matter of taste, with some possible physiological reasons for the resonance they invoke and appreciation we have for them.

What more can you say about these things? What have they to do with your mysticism?

Gravity: I jump off a tall building unaided, I die. Good working model.
God: Whether I pray, I curse or I blaspheme - nothing! Not a good model. Discard it.

"I say only that we need to have a way of speaking about god that enables us to have some kind of intelligible discourse" - As a human constructed metaphysical concept - fine, let's talk. As a source of morality, a reason to condemn homosexuality, a justification for stoning adulterers and killing apostates; forget it.

"It is a category mistake to suppose that claims about the existence and qualities of god are equivalent to claims about the existence of material objects and I think it is unwarranted to deny any reality to such beliefs or to categorise them all as a form of delusion or madness." - Then it is also a category mistake to use reason in interpreting an ancient book to the extent that you use it to justify Islamic laws on the basis that your other-category beliefs.

"It is necessary to recognise that religious beliefs perform a different function in life from empirical beliefs and that is why attempts to treat them as the same lead to nonsense." - Whoa! There you go again. How did you make the leap from mystical metaphysics to the 'religious'? You've slipped that in as if it follows naturally from your metaphysics. If Islam and Christianity ditched their moralising from their religious texts and stuck to metaphysics you might meet less resistance - if only because less people could give a damn. It's the religious crap that's the real problem. It only becomes a metaphysical debate because you use your metaphysics to justify your religious stuff - and this is where the main debate lies, because such a leap has not yet been justified.

"So much as I would like to say that Islam is not a wacky cult because..." - So Islam is non-whacky because it omits some whacky stuff? What about the other whacky stuff it does include? On that basis Pol Pot was okay because, unlike Hitler, he didn't kill millions of Jews.

The charge that your belief is "...indistinguishable from any arbitrary belief you can invent or indeed, schizophrenia.", I agree is week, as a positive argument for the falsity of your belief. But as a question it stands up: How do you distinguish your belief from any arbitrary belief you can invent or indeed, schizophrenia?

Kosh3 said...

"i'll think about your 'best explanation' idea - i'm not sure how we should explain 'best'."

We can specify certain standards by which to measure the quality of candidate explanations (or theories). For example, simplicity, consistency, scope. I.e. the simpler an explanation is, the better it is. The more coherent a theory is, logically, and with what else is known, the better it is, and so on.

"the certainty comment - what i meant was that if we understand knowledge as being justified true belief then unless we can determine that what we think we know is true, i.e. we are certain it is, then the criteria of knowlwdge are not met. that we can never know that the world we appear to perceive exists independently of our perception of it is the 'problem of knowledge' - meaning the problem od explaining what we call knowledge."

Probably just a re-hash of what Stephen said, but certainty really isn't a prerequisite for knowledge. I don't know anyone who thinks that the only things they know are the only things they have certainty of. If this were so, we simply wouldn't have any knowledge.

On the true justified belief account, all that is required is that what we believe is the case (true), and that we are justified in believing, and that what we believe *is in fact* the case (true in fact). As mentioned, this can mean that we can be justified in believing certain things, and yet they are false (for all that we knew). In such a case, we thought we had knowledge, but we did not. The intellectual history of mankind attests to such realisations.

Anonymous said...

Theological arguments are almost universal in their lack of relevance, the comments about Zoroastrianism,Gnosticism, Rastafarianism are completely revealing. Relativistic rantings about the merits or demerits of one faith system over another are pointless. Martin Amis was quite correct when he said that the opposite of religion is not an -ism, it is not Atheism or Secularism, it is independence of mind.

That is what headteacher Lawson should be doing as an educator of young minds, providing the tools of learning in order to understand the universal methodology of critical reasoning, accompanied by an unbiased religious knowledge program.