Friday, November 06, 2015

Reflections on Chapter One of Philip Kitcher's Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism

I just read the first chapter of Philip Kitcher's Life After Faith. Here are my initial thoughts about it.

I'll probably read Ch. 2 and respond sometime in the future.

Kitcher quotes are inserted between inverted commas.

“In my early teens, my faith began to slip, underwent a few bouts of renewal, and then disappeared for good.” (K66)

I’m just the opposite – in my early 20s my deism/practical atheism began to slip, and I found faith.

“The atheist movement today often seems blind to the apparently irreplaceable roles religion and religious community play in millions, if not billions, of lives. The central purpose of this book is to show how a thoroughly secular perspective can fulfill many of the important functions religion, at its best, has discharged.” (K94)

“Mere denial leaves human needs unaddressed: the fully secular life cries out for orientation.” (1)
Note: “orientation.” Does not this assume there is some destination, some goal to be gained? On a theism such does not exist, correct?

Will Kitcher try to point us in a direction, as opposed to Nietzsche's directionless, orbitless planet? 

“Secular humanism begins with doubt.”
Kitcher demands a reply to one matter: “The core of secularist doubt is skepticism about anything transcendent.” (6)
My skepticism is about the idea that all is “immanent.” Which means: physical?

It seems so. Kitcher writes:
“Believers may retreat from committing themselves to all-powerful creators with long white beards or to gleaming figures with magnificent wings or to the living physical presence of someone who was previously fully medically dead, but so long as they interpret their doctrines as recording episodes that were connected with something beyond the physical, organic, human world, secular humanists doubt the truth of what is claimed.” (p. 6)

OK – Kitcher is (it seems) a physicalist. I have philosophical and scientific problems with that. For example, “consciousness.”

What evidence is there for this skepticism about the transcendent?
-      “We find an astounding variety in religious doctrines.” OK. Therefore…? NOTE: Alvin Plantinga has thoroughly and rigorously responded to the claim that varieties of religious experience form a defeater for one view (Christian theism. See Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief, Ch. 9.

“The religious convictions of many contemporary believers are formed in very much the same ways. Often the faithful are born into a religious tradition whose lore they absorb in early childhood and continue to accept throughout their lives; sometimes, when the surrounding society contains adherents of a different doctrine, acquaintance with a rival religion prompts conversion, and a shift of allegiance. In either case, however, religious believers rely on a tradition they take to have carefully preserved insights once vouchsafed to privileged witnesses in a remote past.” (pp. 7-8)

True. Therefore… reality does not contain transcendent entities or experiences?

And… watch out for the genetic fallacy here. For we can agree that there are a variety of religious experiences and convictions.

The common pattern is: “Religious believers rely on a tradition they take to have carefully preserved insights once vouchsafed to privileged witnesses in a remote past. Because that pattern is so prevalent in undergirding the religious beliefs of the present, it is very hard to declare that one of the traditions has a special status, or even that a manageable few have transmitted truth about the transcendent. The beliefs of each tradition stand on much the same footing: complete symmetry prevails.

How can a devout person, deeply convinced of some specific, substantive doctrine— the claim that the world is the creation of a single personal deity, say— come to terms with this predicament? To face it clearly is to recognize that if, by some accident of early childhood, he had been transported to some distant culture, brought up among aboriginal Australians, for example, he would now affirm a radically different set of doctrines, perhaps about the reverberations of the Dreamtime in the present, and would do so with the same deep conviction and as a result of the same types of processes that characterize his actual beliefs." (8)

          True…  but so what? Again – I smell the genetic fallacy.

Since Kitcher mentions the sensus divinitatis, and says an Aborigine might have this just as a Christian theist might, we would do well to recall Alvin Plantinga’s analysis and objections here. (Probably Kitcher is responding to Plantinga. if he is, he is failing to address Plantinga's detailed reasoning.)

Kitcher is saying – There is massive disagreement among the world’s religious. Therefore, he is skeptical of the transcendent.

“Science” – “Disagreement in doctrine is mirrored in disagreement about cogent modes of religious argument. Finally, a closer look at the motivating analogy shows it to be broken-backed. In the scientific case, the methods used to generate and defend the conclusions can be tested independently for their reliability, and the conclusions themselves can be put to work in a host of successful predictions and interventions. Molecular geneticists can do remarkable things on an impressive scale, producing organisms to order and using them to manufacture a host of medically valuable substances (for example, growth hormones, clotting factors, or insulin). Nothing like that is apparent in even the longest-surviving traditions of rational religion. Instead arguments about the transcendent, including those directed at establishing the existence of a deity, are presented, rebutted, refined, and questioned again, in a process that makes no progress, in which no question is ever settled, in which opinion never converges and disagreement never abates. No basis can be found for supposing that this process is well suited to lead to transcendent truth.” (10)

Note: “remarkable” and “impressive” are not within the realm of science. So Kitcher transcends science in his explanation.

Science, qua science, says nothing about value. If Kitcher is to be consistent he ought to remove all value judgments, and perhaps all reasoning (logic) since the laws of logic are not, precisely, physical things. (Kitcher is going to tackle "value" is Ch. 2. Presumably he will show how matter produces "value." Will he try the failing route of Sam Harris here?)

Kitcher is, foundationally, a physicalist. So one should expect nothing less than an attempt at physicalist reasoning.

See this – “Why should anyone, including the religious believer, suppose himself to have an ability to undergo processes that yield specific doctrines about the transcendent? With respect to faculties like perception and memory, physics, physiology, and psychology have begun to provide the rudiments of accounts of our capacities to discern particular types of facts: we now have glimmerings of understanding as to how people have causal access to specific features of the world. For the putative source of transcendent truth there is nothing similar…” (pp. 10-11)

Isn’t this circular? “Our ancestors have been able to base their trust on common-sense discoveries. They could check that, for the most part, the deliverances of the senses cohere, that the properties discerned by vision are reconfirmed by touch, that the judgments of different people agree and that a mass of perceptual judgments and memories fit together in a harmonious whole.” (p. 11)

But see Wm P Alston, and belief that our senses give us accurate information about the external world as properly basic; therefore, non-scientific (non-evidentialist).

We trust in our senses.
We have no evidential argument for this.

This is because to verify the veridicality of our 5 senses we would have to assume the veridicality of our 5 senses.

Kitcher has a highly exalted in excelsis view of science when he writes: “Although the appeal to basic religious knowledge avoids the outright rebuke of definite refutation— for, unlike nature, the transcendent never delivers a resounding “No” to our assertions— it is undermined by the vast extent of radical disagreement, and by inability to explain in any noncircular way how the supposedly benighted might deploy their supposed faculties better than they actually manage.”

          I'm just not sure the transcendent (God) fails to deliver a resounding "No" to our assertions.

I am also not sure that nature is able to deliver a resounding “Yes” to our assertions (the history of science is the history of error). BTW – “nature” doesn’t give either a resounding “Yes” or a resounding “No” to anything. All facts are theory-laden (all “facts” are already interpreted things).

“Religious experiences occur in all cultures…” Might this be an argument for the transcendent, even if such experiences are described differently? (See Rom. 1 and 2)

“The [religious] conclusions often taken to be grounded in religious experience are thoroughly soaked in the brew of doctrines prevalent in the surrounding society and typically passed on in early enculturation— an important fact neglected by individualistically oriented religious (usually Christian) epistemologists in their attempts to validate “basic religious knowledge.”

Might not this also be said of scientific conclusions? On a diachronic analysis?

‘I have argued that not all of the full array of specific doctrines about the transcendent can be accepted as true— indeed, the overwhelming majority of them must be regarded as thoroughly false. Nevertheless, the processes through which those doctrines have come to be adopted are all of the same general type, providing no basis for distinguishing the wheat from the chaff. Under these circumstances, we should be skeptical about all of them.” (p. 13)

Wow – Kitcher writes – “The available evidence amply supports the hypothesis that religious experiences are more likely to happen to people who are psychologically disturbed or who are under the influence of substances usually viewed as interfering with clear and reliable perception.”
This is amazing. (Is he following Wayne Proudfoot here, whom he mentions in the Preface?)
If we are going to use a psychology of religious experience as a premise leading to skepticism of the transcendent, then I think we can use NYU psychologist Paul Vitz’s psychology of atheism to explain Kitcher’s physicalism (absence of the transcendent). And just what would we conclude from all of this?

Kitcher argues (p. 15):
1.   Most specific religious doctrines must be false.
2.   They all emerge from the same generic style of historical development.
3.   It follows that generating belief in that way is not reliable.
Is P1 true? I think so. But note overlap between religious teachings; e.g., the “golden rule.” And the idea of transcendent reality.
Is P2 true? Kitcher has not, for me, done enough to support this claim. In fact, from my studies of the history of religions, it strikes me as too simplistic. Kitcher is not a history of religions scholar. So i am skeptical of his claim.

Kitcher declares: “Thoughtful religious people should have been ready to concede… [and] should have insisted that religious doctrines are held on the basis of faith, and, if it is apt to see them also as knowledge, then the knowledge is of a distinctive sort.”
-      See Plantinga’s excellent chapter on faith as knowledge in Knowledge and Christian Belief.
-      See the physicalist’s non-evidential warranted belief in:
o   The veridicality of our senses
o   The laws of logic
-      See the physicalist’s blind faith in nonscientific value-laden language.

Kitcher writes: “Faith is belief that outruns the evidence available to the believer. According to some religious people, even if religious doctrines are held without compelling evidence, such belief is legitimate.” (p. 16)
          “Without compelling evidence.”
Amazingly (to me), Kitcher is going to quote W.K. Clifford in a few pages.
I think evidentialism is false (see again Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.)
These are Kitcher’s true colors, which I reject foundationally. Therefore a lot of what Kitcher says built upon his physicalist evidentialism I find unpersuasive.

Kitcher quotes W.K. Clifford (thank you):
“It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on the basis of insufficient evidence.”
But surely Clifford is “wrong” about this.
1.   One cannot evidentially arrive at the truth of Clifford’s statement.
2.   Warranted beliefs are non-evidential and not “arrived at.” (E.g., trust that our 5 senses give us accurate information about the external world.)

3.   No amount of physical evidence can establish something (like a belief) as “wrong.” Because “wrong” is not like “tree” or “particle.”