‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 5.3: Is Boghossian authentic?

Peter-Boghossian-Manual-Creating-AtheistsIn my last piece on Street Epistemology I reiterated why Christians should strongly reject Boghossian’s misunderstanding of the word faith and not allow themselves to have something projected upon them which they simply don’t believe.

I am still in chapter 4 ‘Interventions and Strategies’ and at the subheading ‘Divorce Belief from Morality.’ At this point Boghossian states that it is not virtuous to pretend to know things you don’t know. Since I have already commented on this in my last post I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say that Christians, and I suspect most other religious people, would completely agree.

When Boghossian says:

“The belief that faith is a virtue and that one should have faith are primary impediments to disabusing people of their faith.”

Remember that Boghossian himself has asked us to interpret him as saying:

“The belief that pretending to know things you don’t know is a virtue and that one should pretend to know things one doesn’t know are primary impediments to disabusing people of their pretending to know things they don’t know.”

It’s important we don’t equivocate here and think that Boghossian is talking about Christian faith since we have already seen how radically different his usage of the word is. We must take him at his word as meaning the latter translation.

So personally, as a Christian, I have absolutely no problem in the slightest with Boghossian’s view that pretending to know things you don’t know is not a virtue. In fact, Christians would all agree that pretending is not a good or moral thing to do given the importance placed on being honest in a Christian worldview so this should be an area of common ground between Boghossian and Christianity. What is odd is that he does not appear to know enough about Christianity to see this area of common concern. (Of course I’m dying to know how it is, based on his metaethics, he knows there are objective virtues but maybe he will explain that later.)

If this were a dialogue it is at this stage I would like to ask Boghossian whether he thinks misrepresenting people’s beliefs is a virtue.

It certainly seems odd to me that Boghossian does not consider that it’s possible a religious person would agree with him on this matter. He certainly does not offers his SEs any advice on what to do in this eventuality. It is as if Boghossian really thinks that all religious people are, knowingly or unknowingly, pretending. So when Boghossian says “…faith is a failed epistemology” I have no problem with that in the slightest because I know what he means by ‘faith’ and what he means by faith is not what I mean when I use the word ‘faith’.

Boghossian has a little section discussing the relationship between being religious (having ‘faith’) and morality but he really does seem under the illusion that religions teach that once you become religious you will become morally perfect. I don’t think I know of any religions which teach that. You get something close to that in Wesleyanism (the theology of John Wesley) but, even then, they are not arguing for complete moral perfection but rather for a striving toward godly holiness. It’s certainly not taught by the three main monotheistic religions.

So when he gives examples of morally virtuous non-theists and when he instructs his SEs to get the religious person to name “examples of the faithful” who are immoral I’m confused as to how he’s been taken in by some popularist notion that ‘being religious’ makes you, by necessity, a virtuous person. Maybe this is a common problem in the United States but in the UK even religious people don’t tend to think that religious people are the ‘goodies’ and non-religious people are the ‘baddies’. That’s a very strange notion to me and it’s one which is quite foreign to historical Christianity as well. So, far from being the “shock and awe” moment Boghossian thinks it would be, this feels like another “Duh – of course!” moment to me.

DELUSIONS

I wonder what you think the word delusion means?

The Oxford Dictionary defines a delusion as:

“An idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, typically as a symptom of mental disorder.”

The Cambridge Dictionary has:

“Belief in something that is not true.”

Merriam Webster has:

“a belief that is not true : a false idea”

“a false idea or belief that is caused by mental illness”

a: “something that is falsely or delusively believed or propagated”

:  “a persistent false psychotic belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary; also :  the abnormal state marked by such beliefs”

It appears to be uncontroversial to think that if one is claiming another person to be deluded that this means it can be shown that they hold to a belief which is obviously false and that this belief may well be so seriously false as to qualify as a mental disorder. These appear to be the two common meanings of the word in English usage.

Here come the word games again!

Now notice what Boghossian does with the word deluded:

“The difference between misconstruing reality and being delusional is the willingness to revise a belief. If I’m genuinely willing to revise my belief I’m less likely to think it’s a delusion. ‘Are you willing to revise your belief that [insert belief here]?’ Posing this as a question is helpful because it gently reinforces the idea that they’re harboring a delusion without telling them they’re delusional.” [Loc.1441]

The section in this chapter where Boghossian discusses this is called ‘shortcuts’ and it’s where he talks about the importance of being open to having one’s views changed. Because Boghossian focuses so much on belief revision in this section it pretty much sounds as if he thinks the single most important criterion for a delusion is an unwillingness to revise one’s belief. In fact, that is the criterion he uses between a delusion and merely being mistaken. But that opens a whole can of worms. People generally have plenty of beliefs they are mostly unwilling to have challenged. People like to sound certain about their existence, about the love they feel for their children, about the wrongness of genocide, and about which football team is the greatest. Are people ‘deluded’ merely on the basis that they lack a willingness to revise their beliefs on such matters? That would certainly be a highly controversial linguistic proposal. In reality it’s a serious watering down of what the word delusional commonly is taken to mean. Personally, I am not open to revising my belief that I love my children. I know that as fundamentally as anything I could possibly know. Does that mean I am deluded? Well according to Boghossian’s new reworking of the definition of the word – yes. Am I bothered he thinks I’m deluded that I love my children? Not in the slightest!

If Boghossian would add the requirement about the belief being “obviously false” (and, in this section at least, he does not make it clear whether he would or not) then Boghossian has a very serious problem. The problem is that theism is not generally regarded as being obviously false (certainly not among professional philosophers – even ones who are atheists) and Boghossian has not yet made any case for theism being obviously false in his book. So if Boghossian wants to classify theism as a delusion, in the more traditional sense of being obviously false, then he has his work cut out. He needs not only to demonstrate it as being obviously false to his own satisfaction but also to the general satisfaction of his peers. But he hasn’t done that. In fact, he is not published in the field of philosophy of religion at all to date.

This is why I think he is changing the common meaning of the word. By doing so he gets to accuse people of being deluded but what many people won’t spot is that he means something very different by the term. It leaves him without the burden of needing to demonstrate theism to be demonstrably false.

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So in order to announce, as frequently as he does, that ‘people of faith are deluded’ Boghossian has watered this sentence down to mean ‘people who pretend to know things they don’t know are unwilling to revise their beliefs’. The second sentence is far less controversial than the first sounds (according to traditional definitions and common usage) and, in fact, many religious people could logically agree with the second. So he’s not being anywhere as near as controversial as he first sounds when you take the nuances of his translation into account. (Although it’s worth noting that the statement is not true analytically a priori and would require some serious evidence to establish – evidence he doesn’t bother giving. In fact, I have encountered plenty of examples of people pretending to know things who have been open to correction. I think that causes his contention to be a dubious one at least.)

In this section there also appears to be some incredible irony going on. Boghossian advises the SE to ask the person of ‘faith’ what it would take for them to change their belief (to create a moment of “doxastic openness”).

When he applies the same question to himself, however, this is what he says:

“If they’ve asked me what it would take for me to believe, I’ll use a variation of American physicist Lawrence Krauss’s example in his debate with William Lane Craig: if I walk outside at night and all of the stars were organized to read, “I am God communicating with you, believe in Me!” and every human being worldwide witnessed this in their native language, this would be suggestive (but far from conclusive as it’s a perception and could be a delusion).” [Loc.1422]

Message_from_the_Stars_by_OrionStorm

I claim this to be ironic because it appears that Boghossian is more or less admitting that there is virtually nothing which would be able to change his mind! He appears to be saying that any evidence based on his perception could be a delusion. But then – what evidence is there which does not depend on some sort of personal perception? How can he reasonably escape that? Boghossian appears to be claiming that the only degree of evidence which would be able to change his mind on the question of God’s existence is some degree of evidence so strong that it would prove God exists to everyone on the planet beyond a shadow of possible doubt and in some way he does not have to depend on his own perceptions. If that’s not obfuscating on the question then I don’t know what is. I have already claimed that Boghossian is guilty of ‘going nuclear’ when it comes to possible evidence for the existence of God and this passage in his book appears to demonstrate this point even more clearly. The complete and utter irony of all this is just hilarious.

If a theist used this kind of response this is what it would sound like:

‘I will change my mind on whether God exists or not if you can prove to me that God does not exist but do so in such a way that the proof does not depend on my perceptions in any way and also in a way which convinces everybody on the planet as well.’ 

Do I think that Boghossian would accept that as a serious suggestion that this theist was doxastically open to being shown to be wrong? Of course not. I think he would suggest this requirement is an unreasonably high one but it is the requirement Boghossian himself uses regarding his own doxastic openness.

Could it be, therefore, that one of the most important epistemological virtues Boghossian extols is one he himself lacks?

In this lecture below Boghossian talks about how “forthright speech” is important. He says that speaking clearly, honestly, and directly is a must when discussing these issues. [See especially 3:01-4:21.]

He says:

“If everyone were authentic we wouldn’t have to figure out what others mean because everyone would say what they actually mean. And saying what we mean is essential because the only way to solve problems is by speaking clearly, honestly, and directly.”

It is my contention that Peter Boghossian is not following his own advice. You have to do a LOT of digging to figure out what he is talking about. And one thing is certain – a common dictionary won’t help you understand him much either!

What most people will hear when he says ‘people of faith are deluded’ and what he means are two very different things. Boghossian takes words which have common meanings (as expressed clearly in the dictionary) and then he uses them in very different ways insisting that his usage of the word is the only authentic one. He ignores what other people mean by the use of these words which actually causes communication and dialogue to be more problematic than it was before.

Boghossian contends that clear speech and willingness to revise beliefs are integral indicators of authenticity. Since I have shown that he constantly uses words with obscure, personalized, idiosyncratic meanings and he does not appear to know what evidence could change his mind on whether God exists or not I am therefore forced to ask myself whether Boghossian is himself authentic according to his own criteria.

If I am going to ‘fight the fakers’ I must therefore fight Peter Boghossian.

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PS. I could easily offer you two quick ways you could overthrow my theism. One a priori and one a posteriori. If you could demonstrate using logic that the mere Christian concept of God is illogical then you could demonstrate God is a priori untenable. Secondly, a posteriori, if you could show that Jesus never existed or that the records of his teachings are fakes or that he did not rise from the dead bodily – then I would have to revise my beliefs completely.

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2nd June 2014

This is what Peter Boghossian just tweeted:

ScreenHunter_378 Jun. 02 08.33

If you consider yourself an agnostic, in the sense given in the dictionary (any but the Boghossian edition of course), you might feel a little annoyed that Boghossian is rebranding you in order to take such a cheap shot. If you feel this way then you have an important insight in what it’s like being a theist because this is exactly what Boghossian does to theism all the time as well.

Also, if Boghossian is to be taken at his word, this means he’s moved on from his position that he is not a 7 on the ‘Dawkins’ scale’. If it’s completely impossible that God exist then Boghossian must have now moved to a 7. But this means he knows there is no God and if he knows that then he cannot revise his belief. But Boghossian has previously said that any claims not open to revision are delusions! So is Boghossian deluded once more?!

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About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
This entry was posted in Atheism, Atheist apologists, Epistemology, Faith, New Atheism, Street Epistemology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 5.3: Is Boghossian authentic?

  1. labreuer says:

    This opens up an intriguing possibility: what separates [some] theists and [some] atheists/skeptics is a language barrier. Francis Schaeffer discusses this happening within Christianity when he notices denotations of various “Christian words” eroding, leaving only a religious connotation that, without the structure of denotation, will slowly erode via the undulating waves of culture. I was recently skimming Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations, in which he shows how one of Newton’s optics drawings got subtly distorted over time. Several key optical facts got completely lost because the copyists didn’t understand the specific scientific truths that the diagram was meant to convey. I’m reminded of A Canticle for Leibowitz, where a circuit schematic was preserved, even though the meanings of all the symbols was completely unknown.

    Boghossian seems to roughly define ‘faith’ as “not-science”, ‘atheist’ as “rational thinker”, and ‘delusion’ as “bad thing I never do”. I wonder if Manual can be seen as a work of self-justification. It’s almost like a Christian Confession, except the Christian is probably a lot more humble than Boghossian. These parallels are fascinating.

  2. Pingback: Reviews of “A Manual for Creating Atheists” by Peter Boghossian | Biblical Scholarship

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