Democracy and Conviction

Sam Harris has started another great debate over religion, this time with conservative author Andrew Sullivan. They’ve been fairly civil with each other, and what little upset there has been has arisen from the justifiable claims they both make about the intellectual honesty of theism. In other debates, Harris has been too civil with his theistic opponents, because they usually start into the inflammatory rhetoric at the moment they’ve been defeated, and he fails to press the point of his initial arguments, instead responding in measured tones to their attacks. This almost happened with Sullivan, when Sullivan got hung up on the issue of self-deception: “Are thoughtful religious moderates lying to themselves and others about the reasonableness of their claims?” (The answer, by the way, is, “Yes.”) I think Sullivan’s own sense of intellectual honesty kept him from taking the easy way out.

The debate isn’t over yet, and Sullivan’s most recent post raises the fundamental issue: can there be a unique form of truth specific to theology? If reasonable people disagree about the truths of this particular discipline, the knowledge of the deity, does it make sense to exclude certain factions in that debate from the public sphere? This is the meat of it:

We both accept that there may well be a higher truth beyond empirical inquiry or proof. I respect your opinions in this matter, and feel informed by them. You regard my opinions as inadmissible in public debate, ludicrous, a form of lying, and irrational. Yes, you are being intolerant. More, actually. The entire point of your book is intolerance. Where I respect your position, you refuse to respect mine.

What are these higher truths that Sullivan is talking about?

You rely in your books on a lot of historical facts to buttress your empirical case. But these facts are not true – and could never be proven true – by the scientific method that is your benchmark. Similarly, mathematics can achieve a proof that has no interaction with the physical world. It may even be the closest to divine truth that human beings can achieve. But it is still logically separate from empirically verified truth, from historical truth, and even from the realm of human consciousness that includes aesthetic truth, the truths we find in contemplation of art or of nature.

He’s talking about the difference in scientific and historical rules of evidence, and he’s right: mathematics, science, and history have different ‘normative assumptions.’ The normative assumptions of scientific discourse are simply the propositions one must assume in order to engage in that sort of research: not, “The sky is blue,” but rather, “True propositions require empirical evidence or logical coherence.” The latter claims can of course be reduced to former semantically, but claims like the latter definitely occupy a different position in our discourse. They are claims about how to make claims true, and while there is some philosophical debate over whether these meta-claims are actually propositional, or instead practical, they’re certainly not all equal. How do you ‘prove’ the rules of evidence? How do we ‘prove’ that “1 + 1 = 2” is truer than, say, “1 + 1 = velveteen giggles in a lugubrious snood”? The answer is, we don’t. Instead, we merely require all entrants into rational debate to sign on to the rules of evidence; and if they don’t, we make fun of them as crackpots.

You can see Sullivan thinking: “Ah, now I’ve got him!” By the normative assumptions of historical research, Poland did not invade Germany in 1933, and by the normative assumptions of theological research, sacred texts and natural law are viable guides to theological knowledge. Yet mathematics and science and history all submit their claims to each other for approval: it’s possible to discredit historians who do bad math in calculating, say, ancient Egyptian populations or the death tolls in the Spanish-American war. The same should go for theological truths, which is constantly submitted to formal logicians and found to be wanting. From that perspective, every doctrinal proposition (Mohammed is Allah’s prophet, Mary was a virgin, Abraham had a covenant with the creator, etc.) fails to satisfy the standards of truth for those sorts of claims. Often, they’re not even consistent with themselves, let alone each other!

The key here, of course, is that theological truths are simply logical truths, and their claim to ontology (having to do with Being or the status of existence) is provably false. Perhaps Harris will point out the mistake of confusing Being with a being… perhaps not. I’d love to see them debate Heidegger’s accusation that Catholic theology fails to account for the ontological difference. He argued that the very best defenses of theology (the ones that give up on doctrine, mostly) start by assuming that God is a thing, an entity that exists. However, they proceed by ascribing to God the status of Being-itself: they assume that all beings ‘refer’ to him as beings. The scholastics always want to say that God is both all that exists in the way that it exists, and also the creator of all that is, but not that God is his own creator. This is self-contradictory in a manner that religious people like to claim is profound, but there’s an easy out that some theologians take: God isn’t an entity, he’s only a verb. That’s fine, as is the conclusion that the only divine thing is existence-in-its-entirety (the universe.) But that’s pantheism, and most of the world’s religions couldn’t survive as pantheisms. Once you’ve begun playing with the basic presuppositions of the Big Three Monotheisms, you’re going to get yourself excommunicated… or called a crackpot.

I don’t blame the pope for excommunicating Galileo. I mean, the best arguments of theologians make me want to shout: “Poppycock!” which is sort of like torturing someone to force them to recant. That’s the very best of them, though: the phenomenologists and metaphysicians toiling away at their dual commitment to faith and reason. Andrew Sullivan doesn’t stand a chance.

Still, it’s exciting to watch these debates happen publicly; they make me feel like the public sphere is still running smoothly. It makes me wish for more smart, thoughtful, wrong people like Andrew Sullivan, just so we could all have the opportunity that Harris is currently enjoying….

UPDATE: It’s come to my attention that Sam Harris may be a bit of a crackpot, himself. Nothing in those links denigrates the good arguments he’s made so far, but it’s a disappointment. Madmen and sociopaths who proclaim that the sky is blue have not thereby disproven that fact, and in the same way, the fact that a pro-torture, pro-xenoglossia guy doesn’t believe in God doesn’t make God suddenly appear. Still, it’s a bit disappointing to have an (apparent) loon in your corner. I’d much rather have the company of a smart conservative deist than a wacko spiritualist “atheist.”

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