Paul Wright (pw201) wrote,
Paul Wright
pw201

Belief in cats

A while back Andrew Brown over at the Grauniad posted a list of the 6 Points of New Atheism. There was a bit of a bun-fight among the atheists about this, because, though Brown's an atheist, he was criticising Dawkins Our Leader. It got even more fun when Dawkins turned up in the comments. (My own contribution was to treat the 6 Points as one of those internet quiz memes: I score 2.5/6 for New Atheism, which makes me slightly more Old Skool than New, I suppose). It's a bit like that Southpark episode where the Unified Atheist League fights the Allied Atheist Allegiance. What's the fuss about? Here's part of it.

Most Christians say God is omniscient and omnipresent. Yet the Christian woman whom Yellow blogged about, the one who wrote to a Christian problem page with her self-pleasuring problem, clearly doesn't really believe God is present and watching her all the time. But she at least believes that believing those things is virtuous for a Christian. The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this latter sort of faith belief in belief.

This doesn't just apply to religion. palmer1984 posted a poll which suggest similar things apply to moral beliefs. It is virtuous to say that we should care for people in other countries as much as we do for those in our own, but most people don't really believe it.

Some people, especially those with a scientific education (or a certain sort of evangelical Christian background), think of belief as affirmation of a set of propositions. To those people, it's obvious that these propositions should not be internally contradictory or conflict with reality. But, as Saunt Yudkowsky observes "it is a physical fact that you can write "The sky is green!" next to a picture of a blue sky without the paper bursting into flames". The same applies inside our heads. Dr Vilayanur Ramachandan's fascinating experiments on anosognosia patients seem to show that explaining why a belief is valid and changing your beliefs are separate systems in the brain.

I take Yudkowsky's point that speaking of belief doesn't capture the psychology here precisely because "beliefs" are often taken to be propositional sentences, but our brains don't deal in those much. Instead of talking about what someone "really believes", I suppose he'd prefer to say that the woman speaks-as-if she believes God is omnipotent and omnipresent, but, at least in some instances, behaves-as-if God is not.

Brown says he's annoyed with neo-atheist rationalist fundamentalist sceptics because neo-atheists think that all brains work like theirs or can be convinced to do so, but that thinking is wildly optimistic. This is the point of Brown's Freud vs God post, which you should all go and read. See you in 5 minutes.

Back? Brown's getting this stuff from Dennett and from anthropologists who study religion, such as Pascal Boyer. Boyer details his views over at a sceptics' website, where he tells sceptics off for their narrow understanding of religion. Another anthropologist, Scott Atran, does a similar thing on edge.org, responding to Sam Harris and others in the wake of the Beyond Belief conference back in 2006.

The anthropologists say that religious beliefs should not be understood as propositional statements about the world, however much they resemble them. What of God's omnipresence and omniscience? One thing religious people do with this belief is check whether an action is morally right by imagining what their model of God would think of it. This might be done retrospectively, if a religious context provokes thoughts of God. They certainly don't anticipate-as-if God is in the room and watching.

Brown has linked the ideas of the anthropologists with the observation that most people don't try to formulate coherent propositions on anything, including religion. I don't know whether the anthropologists would agree with this, I'd need to read more of their stuff to tell. It's clear that most religious people do try to draw a map of the real world. As Yudkowsky illustrates with his dragon-believer example, most believers already know what excuses to make for the apparent absence of dragons or gods, even as they claim belief in them, so they're keeping a map of the real world somewhere. The believers without the map are the ones other believers regard either as shiny-eyed lunatics, like the folk who don't go to doctors because God will heal them; or as heroes of the faith for showing such belief, like the monks and martyrs. I'd paraphrase Brown's argument as "most people don't see the virtue of having one map for all occasions, or of being able to articulate it".

Of course, if you're a religious believer, you might find the anthropologists' approach a little patronising. Some of you seem to have beliefs which are propositions about how the world is. As I said over on robhu's journal a while back, Dawkins at least does believers the courtesy of taking them at their word. What do you think?
Tags: andrew brown, atheism, best of, blog, christianity, daniel dennett, eliezer yudkowsky, religion, richard dawkins
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