Thursday, November 15, 2007

Against "Belief" (in God), Part 2

Kyle's right. There are a couple of issues in the air here. But they do not come from some sort of overarching mechanistic view of social behavior. What a crass way to put that. What an invective. My heart skipped a beat when I first read that and I thought "et tu Kyle, Leigh" (and then I spent the day in bed crying). And I am not claiming that individuals are not capable of rational determination. It is just that what this rational determination is seems dubious. For example, it seems that certain ethical principles have more meaning and weight than supposed rational principles. Yet frequently the former are called rational principles. It is just that I do not know what a rational principle is. I understand the reasons why certain thinkers think as they do, and others do not, but I am not sure that I would call their reasoning rational. Really, it follows from the primacy of a certain principle which determines the way in which other claims or notions relate to it. If that is rational, then so be it.

But I am claiming that a special status is given to "belief," such that, because it supposedly reflects the individual and some sort of process of deliberation or soul searching, it is given a sort of autonomy and dignity, when I think that is the last thing one can say of it. Example: on Nova the other night they had a show devoted to the effort of the Dover PA school board, back a few years ago, to make intelligent design part of the 9th grade science curriculum. One scene in particular, I recall, where a local journalist finds that this issue becomes divisive in conversation with her father. He asks her if she believes in evolution.

So perhaps I want to limit the disdain that I have for the concept of belief to this particular expression and those kindred thereto. But this seems to me the most absurd of possible questions. Why is evolution supposedly a matter of belief? It is not, unless we are going to weaken the distinction between knowing and belief, such that all knowing becomes a matter of belief. Granted, on a strictly Humean line, it is. But it seems to me that we reserve the category of belief for something less than knowing.

For example, I know that I am sitting at this table writing on this computer. I know that the electricity that illuminates this room and makes this blog possible has travelled miles and miles of wire from a station and farther from a generator somewhere, and that equally the html coding that I am slowly, inadvertently constructing, will be sent as a message to another computer somewhere thousands of miles away where it will be read by someone else (because my readership is so large!!!). On similar grounds, although I have not witnessed the evolution of species, I have seen fossils and reconstructed skeletons, I know an adequate amount about biology and genetic theory and I know that we have evolved from other creatures. I don't "believe" in the theory of evolution, I think it is one of the only reasonable ways to make sense of all of the information we have culled from nature.

Now granted, the notion of belief in God is not attested to in the same way as the supposed "belief" in evolution. And yet, in a certain way, it is. There are these churches everywhere. Everyone uses this word "God" in a certain way that is intelligible such that others can understand what we mean. God is written about in books and discussed on television and on the radio and even on the Internet! Moreover, billions of people, over millenia, have acted and thought in terms of this idea of God. Not all of those thoughts have been the same, clearly, but then neither have all of the thoughts about "nature," although no one would doubt the existence of "nature." For all of these reasons, it would seem to me that God is inarguably real. I don't have to "believe" in God in this sense, but I know that God exists.

Similarly, it seems to me, although lots of Christians would not recognize this evidence of God, for these same reason all of them are "believers." But what that really means is that they have seen the practical, concrete effects of God in their life. They call this "belief" and give it a special status, but this seems to me inadequate. And what of those who don't "believe," are they all the sudden simply idiots ignoring the manifest "reality" of God. I don't know. I guess I would be more inclined to say that they perceive the contradictions in the concept of God and have preferred to express these contradiction in the terms of the lack of "belief."

Okay, maybe I'm finally ready to consider Leigh's claims about normativity. So by normativity we mean, as I understand it, the constellation of values and common notions that constitute the way a community represents itself. According to this concept, there would be vastly normative differences between places like Dover PA and South Philadelphia, or between places like Memphis TN and Sofia Bulgaria ... and even between South Philadelphia and Chicago. These normative values are not necessarily defined geographically or economically or ethnically (or politically or sexually or religiously), but each to some degree and in negotiation with other normative values. And out of this dramatic weaving of stratifications we find individuals situating themselves vis-à-vis these lines of normativity. So, as I understand it, and I admit I probably don't understand it, Leigh's point is that these claims about belief are important because they indicate the way an individual situates themselves in relation to what they understand to be the normative values.

So I just looked up normativity and now I'm less confident that my definition fits it, seeing as how it leaves out the imperativity of normativity--but let's just pretend that this is implicit within my notion of values, which charitably I would say is true.

Are these beliefs then important? Sure, they are very important. And by no means immaterial, they are in fact quite material. So maybe I'm flipflopping. But I think what I'm trying to say is consistent, although the scope may be more limited. I suppose my concern is this: that a special status is accorded to certain statements of belief, such that belief can ignore realities when they do not suit their needs. Perhaps I'm only concerned about notions of belief when it comes to political, religious matters. But seems to me that these are the matters in which the subterfuge of belief is most dangerous. In matters where we might be better suited by accepting certain realities, we choose to cling to belief: global warming, evolution, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, the distinctions between incipient and actual life, etc. This is the ultimate telos of my critique.

And a couple of last words: Kyle's concern that I want to abrogate philosophizing. A really serious concern that became, as all arguments do between myself and Kyle, very contentious while he was here. More on that in another post. This one is too damned long.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Against Belief

As many of you know, like some of my esteemed colleagues, I am a PK (preacher's kid). To me this doesn't ultimately mean a whole lot, other than providing an explanation for why I went to church camps for so many summers and why I have been drawn towards this seemingly eggheaded vocation. It is not something that I think about a lot. But I do occasionallly wonder about the influence of Christianity in my life. I tend to think, since reading the Bible was never an activity forced upon me or one that I voluntarily pursued, that the influence would have been less explicit and more the result of habits of thinking, apothegms repeated, principles practiced. In other words, the results of a surrounding Christian culture rather than an actual intellectual encounter.

To put this another way, Christianity for me is not a matter of belief, but a question of a practice. The distinction here being that belief requires a conscious encounter with the concepts and principles, whereas practice would play out on a non-explicit level, but be captured by the things that I do and the decisions that I make (the latter not necessarily the result of "deliberation" and "rational determination"). I'm drawn to this description, in part, because I strongly distrust accounts of human behaviour in terms of deliberation and rational decision-making. Instead, I am convinced that individuals are shaped by experiences and institutions, stretching from the language that they use to the occupations they take up to the civic groups they populate.

To some degree, this prejudice has informed my comments on the dangers of certain literary experiences.

In the past few years, these ideas have percolated into a specific position on belief, that I must say I am rather proud of. It seems to me like an original idea that I can call my own. So now I'd like to share it with you. To begin with, I am uncomfortable with the question, "do you believe in God?" It mortally offends my sense of good taste.

The reason is that I believe questions about belief are immaterial, and erroneously attribute autonomy to individuals which is fact the effect of institutions (here my sense of institution is extended to the something as amorphous as language, which I take to be encoded with values and prejudices that give it intelligibility and that are the condition for any kind of meaningful communication). In a certain sense, I find the question insulting. As though an omnipotent being would need the affirmation or negation of a particular finite individual. It is a question that does not make sense to me. It is not as though we ask people if they believe in black holes or in quarks, although arguably none of us have ever seen them.

And it seems to me that God is not something we have to believe in. God clearly has effects in our experience everyday. I don't mean by this, God let Musshareff(sp?) put Bhutto under house arrest or God killed all of those Iraqi civilians. That is, if we are asking about the cause of these events being some omnipotent being, intervening in the course of worldly events. But that the concept of God has effects regardless of what I think. For example, "God" has been expressed through the convictions of millions of fundamentalists in their political engagements with infidels. These people act because of their "belief."

But their "beliefs" are also the effect, inarguably, of long traditions of ideas and practices and are not separable from them. Their "beliefs" require numerous conditions for their possibility. But it seems that this idea of belief is important, especially in a world in which we feel alienated in so many ways. Yet precisely for this reason it is deceptive. Because we place so much confidence in belief, opinion polls matter to us. And we allow ourselves to seriously consider a debate between a scientific theory (evolution) and a hodgepodge notion (creationism, intelligible design). We pursue a war in another country on the basis of confidence and belief, rather than evidence.

Belief, it seems to me, has been incredibly damaging, especially insofar as encroaches on "reality." But the latter is not a matter of "belief." This is one of the first illusions I try to disabuse my students of--that philosophy is a series of "beliefs" about the world and reality. It makes my blood boil for them to use the word.

I'm curious what others think about this.