Religion But Not As We Know It

25 Feb

Last week I published an article for the Times Literary Supplement outlining three alternative approach to religion, one of which was religious fictionalism. A religious fictionalist is (roughly) someone who finds value in practicing a religion despite holding that the contentious claims of the religion (e.g. God exists, Jesus rose from the dead) are false. Publishing this article felt a little bit like coming out for me. Every time someone asks me the dreaded question ‘Are you religious?’, I panic and go all Vicky Pollard (“yeah but no but…”). Now the next time someone asks me I can just direct them to this article.

No sooner had the ink dried than Jerry Coyne has published a response on his blog. I’m grateful to Jerry for taking the time to do this, as he’s made me realise that some things were not quite clear enough and I’d like to take the opportunity here to articulate more clearly the views I was discussing.

In his reply to me, Jerry cut and pasted a lot of stats indicating how literal the religious views of many Americans are, and seemed to take this to refute the claims of my article. In fact, these stats are completely irrelevant to the positions I was outlining. I was not claiming that fictionalism captures the view of the majority of those involved in religion. Although I do think the fictionalist approach is more prevalent than many are aware of (e.g. in my experience, it is extremely prevalent in the Church of England) my article was focused more on what religion could be not what it currently is.

To be fair, I did begin with Karen Armstrong’s view that before the scientific revolution and the protestant reformation, faith was understood in terms of engagement or commitment rather than belief. Even so, stats about the present are completely irrelevant to how people understood religion five hundred years ago. So what is going on here? After giving these stats and declaring they ‘are enough to put paid to Goff’s claim’, Jerry does go on to say:

“As for the history of religion, just read Aquinas and Augustine and see if you think they didn’t really have a literal belief in the truth claims of Christianity.”

If Jerry has read Aquinas, I’m surprised he doesn’t know that Aquinas’s view of God is pretty close to the semi-fictionalist view I describe towards the end of my article. Aquinas didn’t think that predicates like ‘wise’ and ‘all-powerful’ literally and straightforwardly apply to God; rather they reveal to us something about the nature of God by analogy. This was a middle way between the view that God literally has personal characteristics and the view that God’s nature is completely unknowable. The latter view, which is effectively a form of fictionalism vis a vis a personal God, was very common in the history of Christianity. I gave numerous examples of church fathers and influential, mainstream Christians from history who adopted this view, none of which Jerry disputed.

Having said that, I don’t believe that fictionalism extended much further than that in the history of Christianity. I wouldn’t want to claim, for example, that fictionalism about the resurrection or the afterlife have been common among Christians in history. Probably most Christians historically have believed in these things. How does this fit with the Armstrong’s distinction between belief and faith? Actually, there is no inconsistency here. Armstrong’s claim, as I interpret it, is that faith, and therefore religious identity, was not (from 30,000 BC to 1,500 CE) defined in terms of belief. Faith and belief, on this view, are two different things that can come apart. You can have belief but not faith (if you think a certain religion is true but you wish it weren’t) and you can have faith but not belief (if you are rooting for truth of some religion but are not convinced enough to believe it). But just because faith and belief are different things, it doesn’t mean they don’t very often go together. Faith and belief are different, but historically they have often overlapped.

If in general faith and belief overlap, it may seem pedantic to insist on distinguishing them. But, in fact, it is very important. Belief is not something that is dependent on the will; it is, or at least it ought to be, an involuntary responsiveness to evidence. It’s irrational and harmful to make involvement in a religious community dependent on what is believed, to make people fear that they’re failing because of doubts they can’t help. If Armstrong is right, this irrational and harmful obsession is a modern aberration. I reproduced a fair bit of Armstrong’s argument for this claim in my article, and I referred to Daniel Howard-Snyder’s detailed defence of the thesis that what the Jesus of the new testament is praising when he talks of ‘faith’ is not belief (in the modern sense) but resilient engagement. Jerry responded to none of this.

What might be confusing Jerry is that I discuss in the article three incompatible views:

  1. Non-doxasticism – On this view, faith, and hence religious identity, is defined in terms of hopeful commitment rather than belief. (It doesn’t follow that religious people don’t believe, just that they need not).
  2. Fictionalism – Fictionalism is a much stronger view. Religious fictionalists positively disbelieve the contentious propositions of religion, even though they engage in religious practice. (This is incompatible not only with belief but also with non-doxastic faith, as you can’t hope for something you believe to be false).
  3. Semi-fictionalism – There are various forms of semi-fictionalism, according to which some but not all of the contentious propositions of religion are false, e.g. one might believe/have faith in God but be a fictionalist about the resurrection, or one might believe/have faith in a transcendent spiritual reality but be a fictionalist about its personal characteristics.

Let me completely clear on my view on how these categories map onto the history of Christianity. I think semi-fictionalism about God has been pretty mainstream (although not universal) in the history of Christianity right back to the early church fathers. And I tentatively agree with Armstrong that the non-doxastic conception of faith was the norm pre-16th century. I’m perfectly happy to accept that pure fictionalism, or semi-fictionalism that involves fictionalism about the resurrection and the afterlife, has not been, and is not, the norm (although it’s more common than you might think). So what? As I say, I’m talking not about what is but what could be.

The final move in the post is to decisively reject the idea that fictionalism would or could be a good thing. Jerry says:

“Goff’s whole argument hinges on the fact that worshiping God and professing belief gives you a sense of community that is inaccessible by any other route.”

In fact, I didn’t say this and I don’t think it. The humanist Philip Kitcher, in his excellent book Life After Faith (which I reviewed for TLS, accessible here), agrees with me that there are many crucial social roles religion has played historically, such as binding the community together and promoting positive social action. However, after a careful discussion of what he calls ‘refined religion’ (something like what I call ‘semi-fictionalism) he ends up arguing that humanists should work to develop alternative structures and institutions that could play the same role. I think that’s a great idea and I honestly wish him well. But it’s not an either/or. The fact remains that secular humanism has not managed to produce institutions that bring ordinary people from all socioeconomic backgrounds together for weekly meetings, celebrating rites of passages, and marking the changes of the year. And the advantage of reinterpreting religion rather than starting again is that you get to keep the traditions, the beautiful buildings, and the structures and resources of a way of life stretching back thousands of years. I understand the objections to the beliefs of religion, but I find it hard to understand the concern if some people (such as myself) want to maintain the traditions whilst dispensing with some or all the beliefs.

This brings me to the final question I would like here to consider: Why did my article irritate Jerry so much? Why would you want to shut down so hastily the possibility of something that has the potential to bind communities together and direct their energies to a common ethical goal? The only sense I can make of this is that he likes the great Science V Religion war to be black and white and is irked by the introduction of shades of grey. Ideologies, whether communism or scientism or religious fundamentalism, bring a comforting certainty that allows us to avoid the messy complexities of the real world. If only life were so simple.

Is Panpsychism Inconsistent with Physics?

8 Jan

I’ve been commenting on this piece that tries to argue in a not particularly sophisticated way that panpsychism is inconsistent with physics. For some reason, my comments have come up under the name “Art Uncut,” which was a now defunct campaigning group I was involved in 8 years ago. Here is my final comment:

I’ll try to explain the view one more time. Physics gives us behavioural structure; panpsychism is a proposal about what underlies that behavioural structure. Think about a mathematical model in economics that’s just a bunch of equations that abstracts away from the concrete realities of labour, prices, etc. The reality of labour doesn’t add to the reality specified by that model; to the contrary, labour is the very thing one of those symbols refers to! Similarly, according to panpsychism, physics gives us mathematical models that abstract away from the concrete reality of a universe filled with consciousness. The term ‘mass’ refers to something that physics characterises in terms of its behaviour but which in its intrinsic nature is a form of consciousness. If that view makes sense, then there’s no conflict with physics. There are all sorts of ways you could (and people do) challenge it, but you haven’t given us one.

Indeed, the very reason philosophers like David Chalmers, Sam Coleman and myself are interested in this form of panpsychism is that, in contrast to dualism, it avoids a conflict with physics. There’s been a significant number of peer reviewed articles published in academic journals on this view in the past 10 years or so. Do you really think that if there were such a basic conflict with physics, it would not have been picked up on before? Philosophers working on this stuff may be profoundly misguided, but we’re not idiots.

I’ll leave it there.

Tough on Brexit, Tough on the Causes of Brexit

10 Dec

You might have noticed things are going a bit wrong of late. Far right parties have gained ground in Sweden, Denmark, Germany and France; they have cabinet seats in Norway, Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, and one is in coalition government in Italy. And then there’s Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil. The popular appeal of fascism arises out of desperation, and there’s plenty of that around at the moment. Workers in UK have experienced a decade-long squeeze on wages, predicted to be the longest slump since Napoleon marched across Europe. Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has just published a damning indictment of poverty in UK. A fifth of the population are in poverty, with 1.5 million destitute. Austerity has gutted local councils and the legal aid system. It is surprising given all this that the rise of the far right across mainland Europe has not, to the same extent, been replicated in the UK. A plausible explanation of this is that many of the desperate are pinning their hopes for the future on Brexit. I am terrified that if Brexit doesn’t happen, or if it doesn’t happen in the way those who voted for it expect, we are going to see fascists in parliament.

On the other hand, I’m also terrified of Brexit, especially the Brexit envisaged by its most ardent supporters. The economic damage that will inevitably result is itself likely to strengthen the appeal of unsavory forms of populism. Our only hope is to find a common political project which might unite large numbers both of those who voted leave and of those who voted remain, a project with the potential actually to address the underlying causes of our problems. Our current economic woes were not caused by EU or by immigration, but by the poisonous financial products of casino banking that brought the global economy to its knees in 2008, and by the fact that a Tory-led government chose to make ordinary people pay the price for the failure of the financial elite. We do need to take back control, not from Brussels but from the multinationals and the big four accountancy firms that conspire to limit the fiscal and regulatory choices of democratic governments, with the result that a huge proportion of the wealth we all create is sucked up to the top or squirreled away into tax havens. Leavers and remainers could find a common goal in ending the Wild West of unregulated capitalism that has plagued us for the last forty years.

The problem is that the nation is taken up with Brexit that there is little focus on any other political issue. In terms of political engagement, I find most of my peer group completely consumed by the project of reversing Brexit, often with little interest in reflecting on the reasons people all over the developed world are turning to extreme political parties. The sentiment seems to be: So long as we can reverse the folly of those ignorant leave voters, everything will be back to normal. But Brexit is just a symptom of a disease, and if we can’t treat the disease itself then we’re not going to get back to anything approaching normal for a long time. If you think Brexit’s bad, wait till you see the EDL marching in their thousands, or a revived UKIP entering into a coalition government. I’d love to see Brexit not happen. But it’s even more important to deal with the reasons that so many voted for Brexit in the first place.

Consciousness, Free Will & God

3 Oct

I’ve been interviewed for a lot of podcasts recently. This episode of the CBC (Canadian public broadcaster) show Ideas focused on my work on consciousness and panpsychism. Founding publisher of Skepic magazine Michael Shermer and I solved the mysteries of consciousness, free will and God all in a one hour episode of The Psychology Podcast. The ‘Secrets of Consciousness’ debate I participated in at the How the Light Gets In music and philosophy festival at Hay on Wye, with Nicholas Humphrey and Susan Blackmore, has just come out as a podcast. And finally, I had a nice chat with philosopher Patrick O’Connor on his podcast Thales’ Web.

All good fun, but I’ve decided I need to speak a bit more slowly on these things…

Labour and the Definition of Anti-Semitism

4 Sep

I think there is a problem with anti-semitism in Labour, and the leadership was too slow to deal with it. However, I’m not convinced that they’re wrong on what has become the central issue: the IHRA definition of anti-semitism. Some people think that a state should not be defined on ethnic lines, and these people have a problem with Israel being defined as a state primarily for people of Jewish ethnicity. Here’s Joe Levine arguing for this. I’m not sure I agree with this view, but it’s clearly within the boundaries of acceptable political disagreement and not something we should dismiss as racist as the IHRA definition arguably does.

Many commentators are saying that it should be up to Jewish people to define what is or is not anti-semitic. Labour did concede that they should have consulted Jewish groups more. However, there are two ethnic groups relevant to this question. Some Palestinian citizens of Israel share Levine’s view that defining Israel as a Jewish state is racist towards them. Again, I’m not sure I agree, but I don’t think they should be dismissed as racist simply for stating this view.

I’ve been astonished by the lack of neutrality in media discussion of this. The BBC are always so concerned about balance. Why have there been no debates on the BBC about this question, with one side expressing something like the above view? Why have there been no Guardian articles defending the Levine-type position?

Having said all this, you have to pick your battles in politics, and I’m not sure this fight has been worth the cost…

Transwomen and Adoptive Parents: An Analogy

11 Jul

The following is a guest post by Sophie Grace Chappell, who is a Professor of Philosophy at the Open University

Maybe we should think of it like this: Transwomen are to women as adoptive parents are to parents. There are disanalogies of course, and the morality of adoption is a large issue in itself which I can’t do full justice to here. Still, the analogies are, I think, important and instructive.

An adoptive parent is someone who desperately wants to be a parent but can’t be one in the normal biological sense. (At any rate usually–there are families with a mix of biological and adopted children. But here I’ll focus on the commoner and simpler case.) So society has found a way for her to live the role of a parent, and to be recognised socially and legally as a parent, which kind of gets round the biological obstacle.

“Kind of”: plenty of adoptive parents report an abiding regret that they aren’t biological parents, and there can be problems on either side of the adoptive relationship. It is clear that the existence of adoptive relationships creates psychological difficulties, both for the parents and for the children, that would not otherwise exist. But these problems are not big enough to make adoption a net bad thing.

One reason why not is that adoptive parents are, in the nature of the case, deeply committed to parenting. Unlike some biological parents, they aren’t parents by accident. And by and large–though unfortunately adoptive parents do suffer *some* sorts of discrimination–society recognises and values their commitment, and accepts them for many purposes as parents like any others, though of course there are contexts (blood transfusion, organ donation, testing for inherited illness) where the fact that they’re adoptive parents makes a difference.

Nobody sensible thinks that it’s all right, when you find out that someone is an adoptive parent, to get in her face and shout “Biology! Science! You’re running away from the facts! You’re delusional! You’re not a real parent!” That would be incredibly rude and insensitive. It would upset her family. It would be importantly false: there is a perfectly good sense in which an adoptive parent most certainly is a real parent. Yet since this aggressive accusation is also, alas, only too intelligible to the parent who is subjected to it, it would also be stamping up and down in the crassest and cruellest way on what anyone can see at once is very very likely to be a sore point for her. (Here I speak, I’m sorry to say, from personal experience of analogous shoutings.)

Nobody sensible thinks that it’s an infraction of Jordan Peterson’s human rights to impose on him a social, ethical, and sometimes even legal requirement that he call adoptive parents parents.

Nobody sensible thinks that, if you refer to an adoptive parent as a non-parent, then you don’t owe it to that parent, as a matter of basic courtesy, to retract, correct, and apologise.

Nobody sensible thinks that the existence of adoptive parents undermines our understanding of what it is to be a parent. On the contrary, it *extends* it.

Nobody sensible thinks that adoptive parents are, typically and as such, a threat to other parents. Or that they only went in for adoptive parenting as a way to get their hands on vulnerable children or vulnerable parents. Of course it’s not impossible that someone who is an adoptive parent might be bad or dangerous in either or both of these ways, and of course it would then be right to protect ourselves and other potential victims from that person. But if that happened, it wouldn’t throw any shade on adoptive parenthood itself, as such.

Nobody sensible thinks that there’s *automatically* a problem about having adoptive parents in parents-only spaces. There might be some special spaces that should indeed be reserved for biological parents only–pre- and post-natal groups, for instance, or a group like this that helped us when we had a still-born child in 1995 We should be prepared to listen carefully and sympathetically to the case that might be made sometimes for biological-parents-only spaces. But in general, adoptive parents have similar enough concerns and interests to biological parents for it to be, in most cases, both natural and useful to include them in such spaces.

Nobody sensible thinks that adoptive parents are necessarily buying into an oppressive ideological agenda of parenthood, and, by their choice to be parents, imposing that agenda on other parents. There are oppressive ideological agendas about parenthood; of course there are. But to be an adoptive parent is not necessarily to buy into them. It might even be a way of subverting them.

Nobody sensible thinks that there’s just one right way to be a good adoptive parent, any more than there is a unique right way to be a good parent in general. Though there are some things that have to be in common between all good parents, there are lots of different ways of being a good parent. The broad schema of what parenthood is, adoptive or not, is set by biology and sociology. But sociology can certainly be challenged and often should be (fighting back is called politics), and even biology is not always just to be accepted (fighting back is called medicine). Within the general role of “a good parent”, there is all sorts of room and scope for creativity, self-expression, and imaginative invention and re-invention.

We don’t always know, on meeting some parent, whether she is an adoptive parent or a biological parent. Often there are visible clues and give-aways, or at least we can see things that make us strongly suspect an adoptive relationship. But in most contexts it would be rude and intrusive to ask. The implicit social convention is loud and clear: you don’t ask, you wait to be told. But when we know all the facts about any parent, we know which they are without any difficulty.

In our society the role of adoptive parent is almost completely uncontested. (Almost, though there can be some resistance, and it can be unreasonably hard to get into the role in the first place.) If you’re an adoptive parent, you’re a parent–for most purposes–and no one sensible scratches their head over that, or decrees that you can’t sit on school parents’ councils, or sees it as somehow dangerous or threatening or undermining of “real parents” or dishonest or deceptive or delusional or a symptom of mental illness or a piece of embarrassing and pathetic public make-believe. On the contrary, people just accept you as a parent, and value your commitment to parenthood as an important contribution to the well-being of our society that you could not have made if you didn’t have the psychological set-up that you do.

Philosophical Technicalities

“Transwomen are to women as adoptive parents are to parents”, I said. So is that a “subsetting relationship”, to use the philosophical jargon? Do I mean that transwomen are a subset of women, that being a transwoman is one way of being a woman? Or do I mean a relationship between two different categories–transwomen aren’t literally *women*, but they are something closely related, maybe analogically related as Aquinas would say (Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars, Q13)?

Well, it depends what you want to talk about. For some purposes, sure transwomen are “really women”, just as adoptive parents are “really parents”. For other purposes the relation is indeed analogical rather than literal inclusion.

But maybe we could follow the philosopher Derek Parfit (Reasons & Persons circa p.262) and say that “once we know all the facts”, the further question “Are they really women?” is an “empty question”.

Or maybe we can say what I would want to say, which is related to Parfit’s move, but different: that the question is not empty at all, but it has different substantive answers for different substantive purposes. And provided we keep the score carefully in our language-game(s), there’s no reason at all why anyone should be confused about any of the semantic-logical ins and outs of “transwoman”. Any more than they are with “adoptive parent”.


“Secrets of Consciousness” Debate

26 Jun

Here is footage of a debate I did at the ‘How the Light Gets In’ Festival at Hay on Wye last month. It got pretty intense (in a nice way…) and was lots of fun. I was defending panpsychism against the illusionism of Nicholas Humphrey and the illusionist/panpsychist position of Susan Blackmore.