Sunday, October 10, 2004

Is Religion the Problem?

One often hears it said that militant Muslims do not represent Islam, but have ‘hijacked’ it for their evil purposes. On this way of thinking, the problem is not Islam as such, but its misuse by small bands of fanatics, a misuse that is in no way dictated by the nature of Islam. Others think the problem lies deeper, in the nature of Islam itself. A truly radical thesis, however, is maintained by Sam Harris in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (Norton, 2004). Harris argues that the problems we face are rooted in religion as such, specifically, in its core doctrines. As he puts it,

. . . while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are. This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths." (72)

Harris means this to apply not only to Muslims, but to Christians, Jews, and presumably adherents of every religion. Catholics, for example, believe irrationally that a man 2000 years dead, Jesus Christ, ". . . can now be eaten in the form of a cracker." (73)

An integral part of any religion is its doctrinal content. Religions involve both doctrine and practice, and to attempt to reduce a religion to either is wrongheaded. Thus I agree with Harris that religions via their core doctrines make claims about the world. I also agree with Harris that there is an important belief-action link at least in this sense: what we believe influences how we act, and how we act is a good indicator of what we believe. Do beliefs "dictate your behavior"? (12) That’s a bit strong. Ali’s belief that it is his duty to murder Salman Rushdie if the opportunity arises cannot be effective in the external world unless Ali freely acts upon it. Thus between the belief and the action comes a free decision, which is to say: the belief is necessary but not sufficient for the action, and so cannot be said to "dictate" the latter. But Harris is on the right track. There are beliefs that can be said to be dangerous in that they make possible dangerous actions. Human action is not blind, but guided by belief. What are seemingly private (beliefs) typically manifest themselves publicly.

Now consider this assertion: "Given the link between belief and action, it is clear than we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene." (46)

I agree that we ought not tolerate a diversity of beliefs about basic scientific and mathematical facts. This is not because we ought not tolerate any beliefs about these matters, but because we ought to tolerate only those beliefs that have been verified. Harris’ point about religious beliefs, however, is that, since none of them are verifiable (16), we ought not tolerate ANY of them. Consider the following three positions:

R1 Since there are competing religious beliefs that cannot all be true, and since we do not know which are truth and which false, we ought to tolerate them all equally. Call this the liberal position.

R2 Since there are competing religious beliefs that cannot ANY of them be true, we ought not tolerate any of them. Call this the radical position.

R3 Since there are competing religious beliefs that cannot all be true, and since we know which are true and which false, we ought not tolerate the false ones. Call this the conservative position.

On the basis of this schema, Harris is a radical. To appreciate how radical he is, consider this: "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." (52-53) Note what he is saying: for some propositions p, the mere belief that p, ethically justifies killing the believer, whether or not he acts on the belief.

I wonder if Harris’ position entails that the proposition God exists is one of those propositions whose being believed by a person would justify the person’s being killed. Be this as it may, he does consider God exists to be a core religious belief, (21) and he does maintain that the core beliefs of religious people are absolutely mad. (72, See first quotation from Harris above.) But why does he hold this? We need to uncover his reasoning.

Since Harris is no professional philosopher, it is not surprising that his reasoning is murky and confused. But I’ll do my best with it. His view seems to be very close to that of W. K. Clifford. Like Clifford, Harris stresses the belief-action link and the fact that beliefs, though seemingly private, often have all-too-public consequences. And like Clifford, his view seems to be that ". . . it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence." This is known as evidentialism. Note that it is a normative claim belonging to what is sometimes called the ‘ethics of belief’: it is wrong to believe on insufficient evidence. As Harris puts it,

Our "freedom of belief," if it exists at all, is minimal. Is a person really free to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence? No. Evidence (whether sensory or logical) is the only thing that suggests that a given belief is really about the world in the first place. (71-72)

By "freedom of belief," Harris is presumably referring to the right, not the ability, to believe whatever one wants. We CAN believe all sorts of things – I once met a woman who thought that the moon glowed by its own light – but we MAY believe only some things, namely, those propositions for which we have sufficient evidence. But why should we accept this normative claim? Because evidence is what makes a belief about the world in the first place.
One of things that makes this argument suspect is that Harris appears to be inferring a normative conclusion from a nonnormative premise. Thus, he appears to be moving from

1. Evidence is what makes a belief a belief about the world
2. We may hold only those beliefs for which we have evidence.

Now even if (1) is unproblematic, how does one validily infer the normative (2) from it? But there is a second way to read the above passage, and that is to take Harris to be reasoning from (1) to the nonnormative

2*. We can (are able to) hold only those beliefs for which we have evidence.

On this reading we avoid the Is/Ought fallacy, but trade it in for something just as bad: a false conclusion. Surely, (2*) is false. People are able to hold all sorts of beliefs for which they have no evidence.

But there is worse to come: (1) is highly problematic. There is an ambiguity in it. Is Harris talking about aboutness, or about truth? Is he saying

E1 Belief B is about the world only if there is evidence for B
E2 Belief B is true only if there is evidence for B?

E1 is obviously false. Beliefs have the property philosophers call ‘intentionality’: they are necessarily object-directed. Beliefs, like many other mental states, intend an intentum: they possess aboutness. Thus one cannot believe without believing something. But it doesn’t follow that the proposition one believes is true. Thus the belief that God exists is about God’s existence whether or not God exists, and thus whether or not there is any evidence for God’s existence. Aboutness is not the same as truth. A belief can have the first without the second. Harris may be confusing them.

Charitably construed, Harris is asserting E2. He is saying that a necessary condition for a belief’s being true is that there be evidence for it, whether sensory or logical. But why should we accept this? What is Harris’ evidence for it, whether sensory or logical? Clearly, one cannot have sensory evidence for E2. If you think otherwise, tell me which sense provides the evidence. I know by sight that there is a computer in front of me, but I do not know by sight (or by any other external or internal sense) that a belief is true only if there is evidence for it.

Nor can one have logical evidence for E2. The proposition in question is not logically true (true in virtue of its logical form), nor is it analytically true (true in virtue of the meanings of its constituent terms). Of course, ‘logical evidence’ could mean inferential evidence: a proposition has this sort of evidence if it is a logical consequence of a another proposition. But then which proposition is E2 supposed to inherit its evidence from? And what about the evidence of that proposition? Where does it come from?

One can see that E2 applies to itself. But we have just seen that there is no sensory or logical evidence for it. It follows that if E2 is true, then it is false. And if it is false, then of course it is false. Therefore, E2 is necessarily false.

So far, then, I see no coherent argument for the thesis that one may (can?) believe only propositions for which there is logical or sensory evidence. How then will Harris get to his thesis that the core beliefs of religious people are "absolutely mad"? Isn’t his claim that only beliefs for which there is sensory or logical evidence are true equally "mad"?

I’ll explore other aspects of Harris’ overall argument later.