The latest carnival of the godless includes a post I made, and that seems to have gotten some responses. I continue to stand by my original position. In essence, of course, my argument was that evolution has served to undermine natural theology. Now, this might seem to be old news, since natural theology pretty much died out in the academic world in the 19th century, but surely the reasoning of the various creationism and intelligent design advocates is very similar to what natural theologians used to do; the only difference is that the modern descendants of the natural theologians have to work much harder at ignoring evidence in order to hold on to their theories.
It also continues to seem to me that the fact that God is no longer part of a scientific approach to understanding the world has consequences. When the evidence piled up that phlogiston chemistry failed to adequately account for the phenomena it was intended to address, and that alternative approaches worked better, people did not decide that phlogiston must instead have some special place outside science. Instead, of course, they simply concluded phlogiston did not exist. I continue to maintain that this is the appropriate way to treat the God hypothesis.
Of course, there are differences between God and phlogiston. For one thing, nobody ever tried to draw moral consequences from the existence of phlogiston. However, the theory that God is needed as a foundation for ethics is in much worse shape even than natural theology; it was decisively refuted by Plato, more than two millenia before natural theology really began to run into trouble.
So, if God is not a scientific hypothesis, and not an ethical hypothesis, what remaining standing is there for God theory? Well, as I alluded to in my previous post, people often try to invent a new realm for it, and say that there are matters of faith which are just special. One of my problems with this is that it is normally used as a fallback tactic; people who really think God explains something about the universe, or has something to do with morality, will nonetheless often retreat to the faith line when they run out of arguments. But that it is used in this sleazy way does not automatically entail that there's nothing to this faith line.
Thus, it is time to finally get to our main topic for today. One of the most eloquent critics of faith was William Kingdon Clifford, whose work The Ethics of Belief famously argued that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." Very often, beliefs which are not based upon evidence are dangerous, and if a particular case seems harmless, the status of your evidence of harmlessness surely is itself in need of questioning. Clifford has much that is of interest in his essay, and I highly recommend that anyone who hasn't read it should do so (and anyone who's read only the first part should read the other two; it seems to turn up in anthologies cut down to only the first part in many cases).
Now, there may be problems for Clifford's formulation. What counts as sufficiency in evidence? I do not know how seriously to take that question, as, first, Clifford does give us some help on that topic if we bother to read his full essay, and second, it seems we do make judgments about the sufficiency of evidence all the time, so it must be possible to do so. However, Clifford would likely be far less famous than he is had his essay not generated an incredibly influential reply, The Will to Believe, by William James. James obviously has some sympathy with Clifford's highly scientific worldview, but he thinks there is still room to carve out a little place for faith.
One of the virtues of also reading James on this topic is that the great psychologist and pragmatist is considerably more insightful than most on the topic of belief. It may seem to be a problem for Clifford's thesis that, contrary to what Descartes might have thought, many of our beliefs do not appear to be chosen. I cannot choose to believe that 2+2=5; I cannot choose to believe that there is no monitor in front of me as I'm typing. These beliefs seem to be forced upon me, and while an enterprising skeptic can lead me to be puzzled as to why I'm so confident in them, it is beyond the power of skeptical arguments to make me really doubt such things.
However, while many beliefs are, in this way, forced upon us, James noted that this is not true for all of our beliefs. There is some sense in which some actions can count as voluntary; sometimes people choose to do things. Whether libertarian theories of freedom are true or not (I, of course, think not), there is some kind of phenomenon of choice. It also seems clear that some cases of belief fall into the realm of choice. We can deliberately seek out confirming evidence, avoid possible sources of doubt, be selective in our company so that our beliefs are reinforced, and so forth. The exact psychology is unimportant; it is clear that such things can often produce genuine belief in the long run.
This leads to what I consider to be a very elegant interpretation of Clifford's thesis, one which perhaps avoids the problems of detail of his original thesis. As interpreted by James, the Clifford thesis amounts to saying that we should never choose what to believe. Whenever it ends up being up to us to decide what to believe, we shouldn't do it. Only beliefs forced upon us by the evidence are to be tolerated.
Again, James had an ambivalent attitude toward this thesis, in either its original form or his reformulation. He thought it quite useful in some circumstances, but he thought that religious faith was a special case; that it was all right to make decisions about what religion to follow.
I cannot see any reason for making such an exception for religion. Indeed, given all of the harm that has been done over the centuries in the name of religion, I would have to come down strongly on the side of Mill, who suggested in the second chapter of On Liberty that history should have taught us religious claims need more scrutiny than most others. His examples were the execution of Socrates by an Athenian court confident they were doing the will of the gods, the execution of Jesus with the complicity of factors no doubt equally confident they knew what the divine wanted of them, and finally the persecution of Christians by Marcus Aurelius, again based on confidently held religious beliefs. One could quibble with Mill's cases, but of course it is not difficult to extend the list; I for one will go out on a limb and say that people who think God wants them to fly airliners into office buildings could really stand to have their beliefs come under more, rather than less, examination.
There are also far less extreme cases. It seems to me that theism of the currently prevalent varieties has got to have a distorting effect on moral thinking. The dominant varieties of theism all maintain that there is an omnipotent, all good being. The ways in which such a being could reduce suffering in the world are virtually limitless, and so anyone who would maintain that there's an all-powerful, all-good being must insist that all that suffering is necessary for some reason. I cannot see how making excuses for such large scale evil could fail, in most people, to trickle down to making excuses for smaller scale evil, and so give people less inclination to fight evil in cases where they clearly should be doing so.
Thus, I cannot agree with James that religious faith is a harmless affectation. Indeed, I can find no particular cause to dissent from Clifford's position at all. Faith is, quite simply, immoral.