Faith & Reason

Timothy Sandefur has a fantastic post up on faith, reason, epistemology and political liberty.

The opponents of evolution education are not disputing the facts of any particular scientific conclusion—that’s why they don’t do experiments, or publish research. What they are want is “equal time”: equal time between religious dogma and science—between faith and reason—between provable theory and unprovable assertion. The basic principle they are seeking to establish is the equivalence between the approach of reason and science on one hand, and the approach of tradition and mystical revelation on the other—and that means, between the careful, precise process of science on one hand, and the emotive utterances of religious authorities on the other. They want to snatch the mantles of respectability that science has earned, and wrap it around the pronouncements of their prophets.

What would this equivalence mean in practice, if it were followed consistently? For one thing, it would mean the end of political freedom in America. Political freedom demands a skeptical populace, open to dissent and reasoned discussion; it is incompatible with the intellectual attitude of authoritarianism, dogma, and enforced tradition.

It is deeply unfortunate that even otherwise outstanding defenders of science—even many scientists themselves—are willing to accept that compromise. Unable or unwilling to defend the reliability of reason, they hang it up with their lab coats when they leave for the day. They understand that one cannot operate a particle accelerator on faith; that one cannot interpret a fossil by asking some prelate to pronounce on the issue in Latin; that one cannot predict how a medicine will work by consulting a 5,000 year old scripture. Yet when it comes to the nature of reality, let alone morality, they are willing to defer to just these things. As Coyne writes, “Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.” While these scientists apply the tools of reason to everything from the atoms to psychological reactions, they are willing to accept the baseless claims of religious authorities on equal terms. They turn off the skepticism just when it matters most. And that is all that religious authorities demand of them.

If science is ever destroyed, this will be why. It will be because the defenders of science opened the city gates from within to the forces of unreason, admitting them on the terms of this false equality.

Sandefur articulates the conflict between reason and faith and deftly illustrates why the conflict matters. It’s an absolutely excellent piece.

The following, in particular, illustrates the fundamental incompatibility between faith and reason,

Then there is Miller himself, who insists once more on his right to have his reason and eat it too. “What science does require is methodological naturalism,” he writes. But why does it require that? That commitment is not an arbitrary postulate—it is an epistemological position, imposed on us by the nature of knowledge and of reality. Miller recognizes this when he acknowledges that “[w]e live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the way nature works.” But of course he then flies to a higher strain—by assuming, without any evidence, that there is some other kind of world in which we also live (a world which, if it is immaterial, by definition has no interaction with our own and would therefore be inaccessible to our knowledge). He, arbitrarily and without foundation, asserts that there is some other world, which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts can be known by some other method—a method which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts is religious knowledge. These are three separate assertions about reality which he is willing to endorse not only without reasons, but without even acknowledging the need for reasons. And this he amazingly calls “honest and open empiricism”!

If there is one point in which I disagree with Sandefur, it is only in a matter of emphasis. He says, “It’s the fact that these two ways of knowing are and always have been, incompatible by their nature, and that those who pledge allegiance to both are either dishonest or simply wrong.” I think “simply wrong” is by far the more common cause. Sandefur’s point is deeply philosophical and very few scientists are deeply philosophical. Those scientists who do explore philosophical issues, who attempt to reconcile faith and reason… well, they’re guilty of some pretty deep evasion.

Faith as an epistemological tool is indisputably useless, but the common conception of faith is so inextricably tied up with the particular social structures that we (in the West) call religion, that it’s easy to forget that faith has any political or epistemic content at all. There is a large part of the Western public–into which I think many scientists fall–that reserves its faith for what they consider to be decidedly un-epistemic pursuits: communal confirmation of moral intuitions, ritual ceremony, and personal reflection/meditation.

I don’t think any of those actually are un-epsitemic, but I can understand a perspective (even if I don’t agree with it) that considers science and resaon to govern a kind of exteroceptive knowledge and faith to rule in a proprioceptic (or maybe kinesthetic) world. “Reason is for the external world, but my faith is personal,” is a common sentiment. And of course, to the extent that faith is a private avocation, then I follow Jefferson’s dictum, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

But to the extent that issues of faith are public, then as a polity we must choose how to resolve conflicting claims. The standard on which we should rest, the ultimate arbiter, should resolve to reason.

Mitt Romney’s Crisis of Conviction

So Mitt Romney gave his “Faith in America” religion speech. It was a good speech as speeches go. It was serious and fine and he said all the things he thought he needed to say. There were a few disappointments though. I was really hoping we’d get to see his special underwear, but alas, he promised not to air his religious laundry in public.

There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.

His message, essentially, is: Don’t ask him about his religion, and he won’t bore us with the details. That’s all fine and dandy. He can believe that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, that Jesus appeared to a bunch of Native Americans, and that Israelites crossed the Atlantic in 600 BCE. They’re all absurd beliefs, but no more absurd than the articles of faith in any other religion. And faith is faith is faith — I don’t want to debate the merits of faith vs. reason in this post.


Romney’s speech is a lie.

He says,

There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers – I will be true to them and to my beliefs.

and later,

Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin. … I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.

(emphasis added)

Some have commented that there’s a natural tension between those two sentiments, but that’s being disingenuous. Those two statements are in direct conflict. We do not live in a caliphate. The laws of man and the laws of God diverge, and they do so with great regularity. In cases where those differences are significant and subject to national debate, where will Romney stand?

Will Romney recognize current US law and uphold a woman’s right to abortion? Or will he work to undermine current law in service of his church and his conscience?

Will Romney work to clarify current law and ensure that, “no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States?” Or will he work to ensure that those who share his private moral convictions concerning the nature of marriage are granted privileges that others–whose lifestyle and beliefs differ from his–are denied?

Romney wants us to believe that he is a man of strong religious conviction and that he will subordinate that conviction to the sovereign authority of law. But that’s a lie. A servant cannot serve two masters. Either he is a man of great religious conviction who will be guided and informed buy that conviction, or he is not.

If he is a man of conviction, then he should show the courage of his convictions and promise to let his conscience be his guide.

If he is not, then he should not be trusted.

The sad fact is that Mitt Romney believes that he can subordinate his convictions while in office. If we are to believe his current rhetoric, he must have substantially subordinated his beliefs while governor of Massachusetts.

That speaks to a shallow sort of conviction. There may be much to gain form pandering to potential voters, but there is little personal virtue in such plastic principles. Romney seems to have replaced his moral compass with a weather vane. And a man who blows with the wind will find himself lost and broken in a storm.

A candidate’s personal beliefs–his inner convictions about what is good and right and true–are of supreme importance in a presidential election. We are a nation divided on policy and politics. We are a nation at war. We can ill afford a candidate who will be guided only by polls and political expedience. The idea that a candidate’s beliefs are fungible and irrelevant is pernicious. But far worse is the candidate who promises to subordinate his beliefs to the whims of whatever special interest brings him the most votes.

Mitt Romney is a man of faith, but it is not his adherence to his Mormon faith that should doom his candidacy. It is his elevation of expedience over conviction.