Friday, April 27, 2012

The Ethics of Belief

In his 1877 essay The Ethics of Belief, William Clifford argues that humans have a responsibility to inquire about the truth of their beliefs, not believe anything without sufficient proof, and consider the importance of their beliefs in possibly harming others.  He says "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence."

He gives the example of a ship owner who did not properly inspect a ship for safety, and believed the ship was seaworthy on insufficient evidence.  The ship ends up sinking and harming many.

One aim of Clifford's essay is the superstitious beliefs held by many with no evidence, and usually with evidence to the contrary.  He would include in this belief in God.

We can consider two parts of Clifford's essay.  One is the responsibility of humans to have evidence or justification for their beliefs.  The other is the particular kind of evidence that Clifford was thinking is sufficient.

Responsibility includes the community and the individual.  A person who does not take care in forming beliefs harms the self and is a potential harm to others (as in the example of the ship).  Clifford analyzes beliefs in terms of the potential for harm.  I'd like to suggest there is another dimension he did not consider, which is the role of the belief within a person's worldview.  Those beliefs that are assumed as basic by the rest of the worldview have the important role of holding the worldview together.  Since their truth is assumed, if in fact they are not true then this has implications throughout the system.

Since the basic beliefs of a worldview involve questions about the highest authority, what is real, and what is of highest value, mistakes about these will impact how the individual interprets his experiences, and create divisions between persons as their interpretations clash.

Clifford's idea of evidence needs to be analyzed.  It is one thing to give evidence about the safety of a ship.  How does one give evidence to answer the question "what is the highest authority?"?  The word "evidence" seems to indicate some kind of physical and empirical proof, such as "there are holes in the ship."  Many have taken this kind of evidence as needed to prove religious claims, and appeal to miracles, or an empty tomb, to support their beliefs.  The problem with this kind of evidence is that it must be interpreted, in each case we can ask "what does that mean?"

Giving evidence for basic beliefs is different than giving evidence that a ship is seaworthy.  Persons have already limited the kinds of evidence they consider when they answers the question "what is the highest authority."  At this level, what we're looking for is the meaning of a belief.  Some common examples of "highest authorities" are: the senses, an inner religious experience, tradition, scripture/testimony of others.  In each case a final appeal to such a source leaves questions unanswered.  Why that tradition, why that testimony, how do we interpret that inner experience?

And so while Clifford seems to make some important insights, we are left without any answers as to how we get sufficient evidence for our most basic and important beliefs.  In my earlier post on Externalism I suggested that questioning stops with reason because reason makes questioning possible.  What we can do is apply reason, for instance the law of non-contradiction, to Clifford's own basic beliefs, such as "only the material world exists, and the material world is eternal."  It is this kind of self-examination that Clifford should have done if he took seriously his own charge to inquire about the sufficiency of our beliefs.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Islamic Philosophy

One of my graduate professors was Mark Woodward, a leading scholar of Islam.  He is co-author of a World Religion text from Pearson that I regularly use, and co-author of a book "Defenders of Reason in Islam" which partly informs this post.

I'd like to consider three of the main thinkers in Medieval Islamic Philosophy, how the most influential of the three embraced mysticism, and parallels between this and the Medieval Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas.

The Persian philosopher, Avicenna, lived from c980-1037.  Having a remarkable intellect, he studied various subjects such as medicine, logic, and philosophy.  Having memorized the Quran, he also worked to memorize Aristotle's Metaphysics, but struggled to understand its meaning.  Happening upon a copy of Al-Farabi's commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, Avicenna said this work illuminated the subject for him.

Although he is considered the first great Islamic philosopher, it is important to note that his philosophy contrasts with Islamic teaching.  Beginning with the assumption that Aristotle represents "the height of human rationality," Avicenna sought to reconcile Aristotle and Islamic theology.  This led to emanation theology sometimes compared to Neo-Platonism.  This view denies creation ex nihilo and instead argues that all being has existed from eternity, and distinctions in being are due to their proximity to the first cause.

By way of contrast, Al-Ghazali (1055-1111) began as a philosopher and ended by rejecting philosophy and embracing mysticism.  He has been called the second most important person in Islamic history (the first is Muhammad).  His book, "The Incoherence of the Philosophers," argues against the possibility of knowledge of the world through reason, and instead affirms the viewpoint of Occassionalism, or Nominalism, which argues that only particulars exist, causation only appears to exist, and each moment is created and upheld by God.

If we are to know anything, it must be revealed to us by God.  It was through a particularly strong mystical experience that Al-Ghazali turned from his "rationalist philosophy" and became a Sufi mystic and joined the Ash'arite school of theology.  Of particular concern to Al-Ghazali is the claim by philosophers that the material world is eternal, and the denial of creation ex nihilo.  This doctrine must be accepted on authority of the prophets, and Al-Ghazali supports this claim by arguing that human reason cannot come to know this truth.

Averroes (1126-1198), born in Cordova, Spain, lived after Al-Ghazali and therefore during the decline of Islamic Philosophy.  His book, "The Incoherence of the Incoherence," is an argument is support of the Aristotelian/Islamic synthesis of earlier philosophers.  One of the ways he supports philosophical inquiry is by pointing out the diversity of opinion about how to understand verses from the Quran.

He accepted the eternality of the material world, and even argued in support of this from Quranic verses that seem to indicate pre-creation material objects.  His philosophical argument relies on Aristotelean ideas of causation, and refuting Al-Ghazali's Ash'arite theology of occasionalism.

The history of these three philosophers demonstrates an important pattern that occurred in other theistic religions.  The background assumption is that Greek philosophers like Plato, but especially Aristotle, represent the height of human rationality.  There is then an attempt to combine this with theology both for apologetic purpose and for systematic unity in human thought.  When Aristotle is seen to conflict with theism, as Al-Ghazali saw with respect to the doctrine of creation, then either Aristotle (representing human reason) is embraced or human reason is rejected in favor of mysticism.

Something very simliar happened in the life of the Christian philosopher/theology Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  Known as the great systematizer of Medieval Christian thought, Aquinas sought to reconcile Roman Catholic theology with Aristotle.  He relied on Islamic thinkers like Avicenna and Averroes.  However, toward the end of his life he reported a mystical vision through which he concluded that all his previous work was insufficient.

By way of conclusion I'd like to suggest two lines of thought.  One has to do with the identification of Aristotle with "human rationality."  Aristotle, and various kinds of Aristotelianism, is one worldview (let's call it a kind of Greek Dualism).  It doesn't get a privileged place nor can it be said to be "the height of human reason" unless it can prove the basic beliefs on which it rests.  Specifically, that the material world has existed from eternity.

Finally, each of these thinkers (Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, Averroes, Aquinas) said that knowing God is the good.  Nevertheless, each of them defines "God" differently, and claim that this knowledge is attained through direct perception/contemplation of God.  These different definitions have been quickly skimmed over in the philosophy of religion, and attempts are made by theists to say that Plato or Aristotle basically "got it right."  For instance, when a contemporary skeptic, Anthony Flew, converted to Aristotelianism, theists hailed this as a move to belief in God.  I'd like to suggest that dualistic beliefs about the nature of God are logically contrary to the beliefs about God held by theists so that both cannot be correct.  If human reason cannot help us decide between theism and Greek dualism, then it also cannot help us decide between competing mystical visions or competing revelations from prophets, and we are left to skepticism.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Faith and Meaning

Anselm said "I believe so that I may understand," and "faith seeking understanding."  This was an idea borrowed from Augustine who said "believe so that you may understand." 

Can we believe a judgment that we do not understand?  For instance, could I believe that "bliks are grue" if I don't know what these words mean?  And is this what "mysteries of the faith" require of persons?  If so, which logical contradiction or absurdity should we believe?

In contrast to this, I argue that we can only believe a judgment to the extent that we understand it.  Knowing what a judgment means is a prerequisite to knowing if it is true.  In this sense, we cannot believe to understand, nor can faith be seeking understanding.  Rather, we have faith to the extent that we understand, and any challenge to a person's faith is a challenge to that person's understanding.

This means that blind faith, sometimes heralded as a virtue, is the acceptance of a judgment without understanding meaning.  This should be labeled fideism, and not confused with faith, which can be understood as the evidence of things not seen.  In that sense faith is not in contrast to reason, it is in contrast to sight.

A mystery is an unfolding story where greater information is given as the story progresses.  A mystery is not a logical contradiction or a judgment empty of meaning.  Imagine coming to the end of a mystery novel and finding out that the riddles are solved by the introduction of a square-circle.  One would consider the story a waste of time.  The "mysteries of the faith" are not paradoxes, where these are self-contradictory judgments.  Rather, they are growth in understanding as more revelation is given.

Keeping these distinctions in mind can keep us from confusing fideism with faith, or contrasting reason and faith, or heralding self-referential absurdity and contradiction as virtuous.