Monday, October 10, 2005

The End of Faith?

Well, Sam Harris has made a minor splash by, I will have to presume on the evidence of this article, repreating the arguments of the 19th century against religious faith. If you want to read about that, I would recommend God's Funeral, by A.N. Wilson, which I have read. I shouldn't bring up Mr. Harris' work, since I won't be reading it, but it caught my attention because of this article by Susan Smalley, which she opens by noting one part of Mr. Harris' argument:

Sam Harris argues in “There is No God (and you know it)” that the 260 million Americans (eighty-seven percent of the population) who claim to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence”. In his argument is the view that we must ‘let go’ of the existence of God because the religious ideology surrounding this belief has been and continues to be a primary source of most pain and suffering in the world, historically and today (e.g. wars, terrorism, etc.).
The argument against religion from theodicy is an old one (and, frankly, a tired one; it was beaten to death in Wilson's book, if not long before) and, like the creationist argument against evolution based on the First Law of Thermodynamics, a bit subtle to refute (or, more exactly, to respond to. Bad ideas, like heresies, matter, and energy, are never destroyed, just driven off for awhile). So I'm not interested in the theodicial issues here; rather, I'm interested in the phenomenological one.

Mr. Harris insists religion is false (specifically the religions of the Book, presumably, since Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all worship the God of Abraham) because the existence of God for those three religions cannot be established. To which the only reasonable answer is: can Mr. Harris' existence be established?

Sounds like silly response, at first, but think about it: if you were to present to me someone who, by careful documentation (Driver's license, Social Security card, even documentation of fingerprints, etc.) could be identified as the Sam Harris who wrote The End of Faith, you would only have established the identity of the person so presented. You would not have established his existence.

(This is the curious twist in the famous "Turing Test" for artificial intelligence. If the computer program can fool me into thinking I am conversing with a human being, have I established the existence of a human being? Have I even established the existence of human intelligence in the computer? It is, you see, a phenomenological question we have to answer, not a scientifice one. Because science never establishes existence at all. It identifies; but it establishes nothing.)

This line of argument is Soren Kierkegaard's, not mine. Kierkegaard goes on to ask: Can we ever establish the existence of Napoleon? We can establish the historical identity of a person known to history as Napoleon, but his existence, his being? How do we establish that?

Consider, for a moment, even the necessity of the issue: for believers, it is a non-starter, but the critique there is that faith is "blind," that the argument bootstraps its way into its position. To which one response (to put it as briefly as possible) are the closing remarks of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. This is the example of Abraham: when God comes to Abraham, God is unknown to the patriarch. There may be presumptions, presuppostions, hopes, that God is someone not wholly unknown, but on that the text is silent. Abraham leaves his land and follows God only because of faith. It is this faith that Paul proclaims Abraham's righteousness. Faith is precisely that experience of human existence whereof one cannot speak. (In fact, Wittgenstein's later argument would be that the believer and Mr. Harris are using entirely different "language games," and therefore not so much contradicting or opposing each other, as literally "talking past each other.")

Harris's question, in other words, makes something of a category mistake. The matter is one for phenomenology, and faith, not science, nor reason. Reason does not, and should not be seen to, explain the entirety of human existence. What one cannot speak of, one may still experience. Abraham is, famously, a man of few words. But this means, also, that Mr. Harris' argument, at least as presented in this article, is not in the least dispositive; as philosophers as recent, and as non-Christian, as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida could have told him.

And which is why I won't be bothering to read Mr. Harris' book. I've been to seminary. We covered this, there.

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