Monday, May 14, 2007

Faith unfit, in Fair weather

Having recently blogged about hope, to charity and faith. As I don’t yet know enough about theology to write much (or to keep my speculations nicely brief, unfortunately), I’ll post this under 'Science' and consider charity (e.g. donations, mercy etc.) and faith (e.g. traditions, loyalty etc.) as having evolved because social animals sharing the genes for such traits came to dominate our gene pool. If some such materialistic explanation is correct, then the sort of critical reasoning that we ought (I think) to favour over faith would presumably have evolved too, and would therefore seem to be, at heart, pragmatic, whence it might well be no more reliable, beyond our everyday uses of it, than our innate intuitions about, e.g., space-time. So I wonder about the limitations of materialistic justifications of our favouring of science over faith. Let us say that some materialistic Darwinian, D (not Dawkins, as the literalists ought to try to refute him), prefers science to faith, while some literalistic Christian, C (not me, as I’m a natural heretic), prefers faith to science. D thinks that C is wrong, but why?
...... Even D values authoritative testimony and teamwork within the sciences. Of course, C’s faith is getting in D’s way, and D does not like that. Nor does D like C’s sort of charity, which moves money that could be going to science towards religious interests. All that is quite coherent, but it might also seem a little selfish. Still, D is a scientist, pursuing collective truths, and so D does think that science is a good thing for everyone. But then, C thinks that faith is a good thing for everyone too. And C’s faith, like D’s science, is coherent on its own terms. So, is there anything more objective that D can say, against C’s faith? Paradoxically, what C and D prefer is (according to D) just a matter of how C and D evolved, so they are pretty much on a par at the base level of existence (according to D). If D fears that most people have so evolved that they are in danger of preferring faith to science, then what can D say about why they should prefer science?
...... Well, they probably already want useful truths (although they may well not want to get them for themselves), and so D could say that science is more likely to get them to useful truths. But of course C would disagree and although, for an example of the ensuing difficulties, D might mention in his defence that scientific sorts of evidence are what naturally sway juries, not protestations of faith, nonetheless whenever juries are swayed by faith D would say that they should not be, and so C could quite fairly say that in response to D’s defence. So, it begins to seem as if D is after all just grunting in disapproval at C. D can say that science is more useful than faith, that science is a better route to the objective truth than faith is, but not only can C say the same about faith, can D even explain why utility and truth are so important (let alone why a philosophically interesting truth is more important than a socially useful lie)?
...... The problem is that even if sciences are more useful than faiths, since when did a species have to do something useful when it did not want to? If humans end up being largely like C then they will value being that way; they may die out, but what species won’t. And if humans end up being largely like D then they will value being that way. And they might die out even more quickly, since the fruits of science do seem to present the immediate danger of extinction (while faith just involved millennia of tribal warfare). D could say that such things are irrelevant to whether or not materialism is true—(a species does not have to value its own long-term survival, according to D, it is just that it exists because it did survive, whence whatever it wants probably did have survival value)—but can she say any more than that about why truth is important?
...... D will probably, eventually, justify her interest in truth much as she explains it, i.e. on the grounds of its likely utility, so her problem (as I see it) is that, by the lights of her materialism, both C and D exist because their genes have competed successfully in the past. That is, D’s own theory puts D’s innate preferences on a par with those of C at the most basic level; and it even seems to imply that both of them are similarly intrinsically irrational. Since D cannot (without insincerity) appeal to anything more fundamental than shared preferences, arising through our common evolution, things look bleak for D because the evidence (that the culture war, naturally polarising between C and D, is not going her way) indicates their insufficiency.
...... Consider a lot of monkeys on typewriters, and let us suppose that one of them happens upon the printed truth. They ought to be out eating bananas of course, but there is a mechanism on each typewriter whereby they get bananas by tapping the keys. Now, each mechanism is switched off when its monkey types out a truth (of some specified sort). Consequently although our monkey has chanced upon a truth, it fails to produce viable offspring (through a too-early shortage of bananas). Many of the others will not so fail, but will rather become ancestors of the monkeys of the future. Of course, D does not say that our monkey should have produced viable offspring (or even that it should have wanted to), only that whatever it did want (i.e. bananas) would probably have been such as to lead to it having viable offspring. (Well, they did all want bananas, and eventually they all died.)

...... Now, both C and D want the truth, and both of them can justify wanting it on the grounds of expected rewards that are relatively big. They both think that they are approaching it, but what value do they put upon getting a truth, just insofar as it is a truth? They both prefer their method (faith or science) to the other, even in those cases when it is the other that chances (as they would see it) upon the truth. And they do both value the truth for its own sake, to some extent, more so than many people, e.g. those who prefer love, and faith motivated by love (and who would happily let a popularity contest decide the political issue between C and D). In particular, D values truth (since she evolved that way, in her opinion) but when she looks at things more objectively—say at that poor monkey—she can see little value in it having printed out a truth (or, indeed, in it getting bananas, or producing viable offspring).
...... D might point out that our search for the truth (via the scientific method) would bring us a high likelihood of rewards (that we are not like that poor monkey), but that is surely not quite so obvious when we are fighting and losing culture wars. While C could justify martyrdom for the cause of truth quite happily, D can only justify an extreme interest in truth on the relatively irrational grounds that that is just the way she is (a justification that would justify all other extremisms equally well, of course, for all that D could think of hers as being, since hers, special). Should D be a fair weather friend of truth? If so then perhaps she ought to be insincere about that, in order to protect her wider support.

...... Suppose (for the sake of argument) that D will not produce viable offspring, but will be killed, whereas C will produce viable offspring, since he is (let us say) going to win the culture war. Perhaps the human gene pool is just naturally moving in that direction, at this time. If D knew that, the wider public might ask her, would she still value objective truth, the way a scientist should? And if she did, could she see herself (in so doing) as objectively anything other than an evolutionary dead-end, with values that turned out to have little survival-value, in a world where life was all about survival?

1 comment:

The Barefoot Bum said...

To be perfectly honest, I don't really understand this post. You seem to be comparing apples to oranges: D's "search for truth" and C's traditions, loyalty, donations, mercy, etc.

It's important to note that undermining the justification for an ethical principle (i.e. We should do X because God wants us to) does not entail the contradiction of that ethical principle.

The argument between faith and science is always an epistemic argument, not an ethical argument: It's not that faith is "bad", it's that faith is not epistemic. If one could remove the epistemic claims from faith then the argument would dissolve, but there is good reason to believe that faith itself is nothing but epistemic claims.

Your evolutionary argument lacks force. The selection against monkey's typing truth must be by definition artificial selection, performed by some beings intelligent enough to assign truth values to symbolic statements, which presupposes a reliable epistemology.

Furthermore, your monkeys—were they to develop intelligence—might well have a weird epistemology, but they would still know true statements about the intentions of those performing the selection, which is, after all, the most relevant feature of their environment.