Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Humanity's Naïve Self-Loves"

I recently came across the following quote from Freud:

"Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self‑love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe…The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world…But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present‑day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the 'ego' of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind…This is the kernel of the universal revolt against our science." (A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Eighteenth Lecture)

(Freud's conception of the psychoanalytic unconscious is not the one accepted by cognitive scientists today, and I don't know whether or not the above was truly at the root of criticism he faced. But, Freud was perhaps more right than he could have known about the third "outrage" to humanity's naive worldviews. Modern research on the cognitive unconscious in psychology and cognitive neuroscience has presented a wealth of evidence that picks away at the notion of a unified, directly-known, causal, conscious self.)

In any case, sort of sums things up, huh?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Arbitrariness of Gosse

It occurred to me recently that I don't get the logical structure of the Gosse approach to evidence for the age of the Earth, evolution, etc--i.e., God planted mounds of evidence to test our faith. Let's say, for the moment, that we're ok with the bizarre theological implications of a trickster God. I still don't get it.

For the believer, theoretically, God created both nature and the Bible. The accounts in each clearly contradict each other (for a Biblical literalist, at least). So, what reason is there to claim that nature is the deceptive side, and the Bible true? Isn't it just as likely that the account contained in nature is true, and God is deceiving us in the Bible? From a logical standpoint, I don't see a reason to pick one over the other.

Obviously, the rest of the religion is built around the Bible, so that provides psychological motivation to protect that side. But I don't think I ever realized how arbitrary their choice seems on logical grounds, even putting aside the other problems with the idea (verifiability, Last Thursdayism, etc).

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"You Assume Other People Exist, I Assume God Exists"

For some reason, I keep coming across this argument for faith now. I'd like to explain here why it's a bad argument.

The argument generally goes something like this, as articulated by a couple commenters on XGH's blog:

"We all proceed under assumptions that cannot be properly scientifically tested. You assume other people exist. I assume God exist. Neither of us is bothered by the fact that absolute truthiness of either of those propositions can ever really be known. We simply proceed with our lives, you and me both."


"The simple point is that there are some certainties in life that come prior to reason [such as the existence of the external world/other people]. Faith is one of them. Just because you can't prove it doesn't mean that it's not so."

The problem with the argument is that it's just a bad analogy. The real comparison would be, "You assume your direct empirical experience with other people is what it seems to be, rather than an elaborate hoax or dream. I assume God exists."

In other words, we have a great reason to assume the external world or other people exist--namely, our sensory experience. It's just that we can doubt these things with an extreme form of doubt, and we assume they are what they seem anyway. We're not making up an external world from a blank. Similarly we can have good reason to accept the results of a scientific experiment if it works--it's just that we can always doubt it based on the induction problem. In contrast, there's no empirical experience that provides a basis for faith in God.

To make this point clear: for the analogy to work, the believer would need to have direct empirical experience with or evidence for God, and then say, "Well, I could doubt this experience/evidence as the work of an evil demon, but I will assume it is real just like I assume the external world is real." This is not the case, unfortunately, which means that there is just no connection between the faith case and the other cases.

Without this connection, one would need some reason to put faith in the category of "things accepted even though they can be doubted." Otherwise, the argument basically goes, "You have what I am calling an unprovable belief [because it could theoretically be doubted], so I can believe anything." Literally. There's no discrimination between one belief and another--faith is automatically approved because something else can't be saved from Cartesian doubt, with no justification for putting faith in the same category. (Notice how they always say, "And faith is the same," without explaining why.) If that's true, rational discussion has been thrown out the window since all beliefs are fair game without justification, and it's pointless even to bother thinking about it or trying to justify faith (or anything else).