Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Peter Boghossian: Socrates or Sophist?

Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Pitchstone Publishing, 2013)

Let me begin this review (also on Amazon) with one of those enlightening conversations Portland State University philosophy professor Peter Boghossian is fond of. A Christian Scholar (CS; Boghossian is also fond of initials) who has studied Christian thought on the concept of "faith," watches a lecture by an atheist philosophy professor (PB) on the same topic. He sends him a polite e-mail, describing his relevant credentials (recently, author of "Faith Seeking Understanding," with leading Christian scholars contributing, blurbs from Yale, Penn State, etc), and suggesting a debate.

The following exchange ensues:

"Good morning!

"Yesterday I noticed on the website for John Loftus, that you had endorsed his new book on the "Outsider Test for Faith." I haven't seen the book yet, but I'm pretty sure he responds to my critique of the OTF in True Reason, somewhere in that book.

"I think I've also seen you make comments about "faith," with which I strongly disagree.

"Since we're both in the Northwest -- my home is east of Seattle -- I was wondering if you would consider a civil public debate on the topic of faith?" (Names titles of books, well-known scholars who have endorsed it, academic background.)

"Thanks much, (CS).

PB: "Answer this question: What would it take for you to lose your faith?"

CS is taken aback by the social minimalism -- no greetings, no explanation, no hint of civility. But he gulps, and responds guardedly yet still politely, aware of the need to define terms and ask questions before getting into details:

"Do we agree on what the word 'faith' means? Do you know what my 'faith' is, yet?"

"If the reasons I believe in God, and in Jesus Christ (or, say, that Io has active volcanoes), proved mistaken, and none better were forthcoming, then I think I would have little intellectual right to hold those beliefs any longer. But it is the very nature and grounds of faith, that I propose to debate."

PB: "This does not answer the question. Please answer the question or this will be our last communication. What reasons would have to be mistaken? Give me an example of a reason and how you know it would be mistaken. What would this look like?"

Now irritated at the undisguised rudeness, and the demand that arguments developed over hundreds of pages be reduced to a quick sound bite, CS checks PB's CV, finds a name there that may explain the fondness for questions, but not the discourtesy, and replies:

"Sorry, Peter, Socrates is a friend of mine. You're no Socrates.

"I'm duly warned off. I'll look forward to reading, then debunking, your book."

PB: "You're a fraud. Don't contact me again."

According to Peter Boghossian's A Manual For Creating Atheists, a dialogue should pass through four stages: (1) Wonder; (2) Hypothesis; (3) Q & A; (4) Accept or Revise Hypothesis.

In this case, the Q and A came first, but itself prompted wonder on the part of CS, and then a series of hypotheses. Why was PB so prickly? Is this his normal style of conversation? Is he unfamiliar with the social niceties, or does he habitually scorn them? Is PB, as they say in the professional literature, a jerk? Or just having a bad day?

And what did PB mean by diagnosing CS (PB is fond of medical lingo, too) as a "fraud?" Did he mean CS had not, in fact, written the books he claimed, and was not knowledgeable about what Christians mean by faith? If so, on what grounds did the "street epistemologist" deduce this? Mental telepathy, perhaps? Or did he mean that, without knowing what CS believed, or why he believed it, those beliefs must be wrong, and he must actually be aware of the fact that he is peddling falsehoods?

In any case, not considering himself a fraud, as promised, CS purchased the book, which was by this time among the top 500 in America.

Manuel for Creating Atheists proved more interesting than that short conversation might have led CS to believe. Perhaps PB had been having a bad day. The book proved punchy, passionate, original, and respectful of the ancients (never mentioning, however, that Plato or Epictetus were infected by the epistemic pathology of theistic faith.) PB even offers a biting critique of multiculturalism and what he calls "academic leftism" that almost inspired CS to break out in a one-man football season, Seahawks-are-on-Monday-night-football-tonight wave.

This is, indeed, a manual for a new generation of skeptics. It has been field-tested by the philosopher himself in, it seems, every conceivable setting: in classrooms, with parents who complain about his attacks on religion in classrooms, on the phone, in prisons, by email (the first line of his response to CS's query turns out to be a set challenge that is part of a field-tested stratagem). PB even looks for empty seats on Southwest Airlines (center aisle!) next to people reading religious texts, to enlighten them. (Wonder again: is this man simply a pest? Worse than CS, even?)

PB's mission strategy devolves around asking a set of Socratic questions designed to relentlessly deconstruct what he takes to be the false epistemology of faith.

But what is faith? Here is the question, again, which elicited CS's original desire for a dialogue.

For it turns out that PB's book, and apparently his whole career as an atheist evangelist, are based on a remarkably bold, but quite hollow, bluff. This bluff involves defining "faith" as "pretending to know things you don't know."

And that is precisely what PB is doing.

Anyone who has read much in the Christian tradition -- and PB evidently has not, his bibliography is replete with first and second string New Atheists, he seems to assume Tertullian did say "I believe because it is absurd" and meant exactly that, and that Pascal wrote a "Wager" and said nothing more to support Christian faith intellectually -- will of course reject this definition with a groan and a sigh. But PB calls for an army of "street epistemologists," not new Socrates who will seek out the most famous thinkers in modern Athens and sincerely try to find out what they know. He is after low-hanging fruit, injured caribou at the back of the herd. People who do know the tradition, and its reasons, who contact him rather than the other way around, may be dismissed peremptorily and magisterially. And so PB sends his disciples into the highways and biways, to pester people into the Kingdom of Reason, (wonder again: will this make Southwest stock go up or down?), to teach what has already long been the defining delusion of the Gnu Age, what CS calls the "Blind Faith Meme." (Don't read Justin, Augustine, Aquinas, Ricci, Locke, Sherburne, McGrew, read Plantinga and Craig alone but take care not to buy their books and thus support their causes -- yes, PB can be that petty.)

Confronted with the Christian tradition, unlike Socrates, PB simply has not yet bothered to really listen. (Shouldn't that come before "Wonder?") This is evident in small things, such as PB's repeated mention of the Young Earth Creationist belief that the world is only 4,000 years old. That would be 6,000 years old: of course it's a silly notion, but get the numbers right, just so we know you're paying attention! PB cites few serious Christians, but works in Ray Comfort, Benny Hinn, Ted Haggard, and Deepak Chopra. So where does he get his information about religion? There are some interesting studies cited, and respectable skeptics like Pascal Boyer and Phil Zuckerman, but he also seems to rely heavily on such party-trick fanatics as Hector Avalos, Greta Christina, John Loftus, and Victor Stenger. He also recommends a "refutation" of theistic arguments by John Allen Paulos that CS found to be as embarrassing, groan-worthy a cavalcade of caricatures, tattered straw men, and ignorance, as one might fear between the covers of a single volume. (Even worse than The God Delusion.)

Which suggests that when it comes to Christianity, this bit of false humility would mark needed progress for PB:

"I only know that I know nothing."

In conclusion, let CS briefly explain what faith really means for Christians, since skeptics have been so badly mislead on this subject. (As Tom Gilson points out in another review here, several of us CSs have a book coming out later this year called True Reason, where this is demonstrated in some detail.)

Faith should be defined as "holding firmly and acting on what you have good reason to believe is true, in the face of existential difficulties."

Note that on this definition, which fits both New Testament usage and most Christian usage for 2000 years, and which is also affirmed (in CS' experience, which is wider than PB's) by most experienced Christians (not talking about lame caribou, here), faith is not a distinct epistemology, but along with reason, it's twin, one basis for all possible epistemologies.

There are, in short, four "levels of rational faith," and all sane people participate (critically, one hopes) at least in the first three: (1) one's own mind; (2) one's senses; (3) other people (PB is very confused on this head, not recognizing that most appeals to science as well as any old text like Acts of the Apostles or the Koran are in essence at least appeals to the authority of people, which can be warranted or not -- see Cold Case Christianity for an interesting discussion); (4) God or other super-human beings. All of these can and should be tested rationally, and perhaps in some cases rejected. (One may know that one is not thinking straight after too many beers.) All can at least potentially also be reasonably cited as sources of true knowledge.

But PB does not understand this, which makes this book an often interesting, sometimes rather crazed and epic, Hunting of the Snark. In short, until he begins to ask questions with the goal of truly understanding and not caricaturing so as to put notches on his belt and destroy that mythical monster, "Faith," PB will not be Socrates. He will remain a clever, but irritable, and often irritating, and intellectually irrelevant, sophist.


Chavoux said...

Hi CS,
As a fellow Christian can I disagree with your definition of faith? My understanding (from the Hebrew and possibly the Greek) is that faith is rather the trust in a person who from past ifrom past evidence can be seen as trustworthy/faithful. The reason I would define it thus, is that I agree with Kierkegaard (and James and Paul) that faith which is not personal, having an effect on your actions, is not Biblical faith. For me the incident in Numbers (to which Hebrews refer when saying that it is by unbelief that they could not enter God's rest) makes this clear, since that generation of Israelites clearly knew (believed?) that the Lord existed (having seen His wonders in Egypt), but did not trust Him to be able (or willing) to do what He promised. Am I totally off-base? By my definition 3 and 4 of your levels would be made explicit, although 1 and 2 would probably not qualify as biblical faith (except maybe as trust in yourself), but should it?

Chavoux said...

Sorry for the typos. Posting from my cellphone (and thick fingers). C

David B Marshall said...

Your definition is a bit narrower, but what is common to both is that faith depends on evidence. So whether or not your definition includes comments like "I have faith in what my eyes tell me," both our definitions exclude PB's notion that faith is unrelated to evidence.

Don't worry about typos -- I am often guilty, even without those excuses.