Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Certainty, the Rational Mind, and Atheism

Today I finished reading On Being Certain by Robert Burton. Overall, the book is a great reminder of why it's important to question our beliefs and convictions, as the author explores some interesting studies from neuroscience, showing how they indicate the presence of a "feeling of knowing" that lurks in our unconscious mind and may even inform our conscious thoughts and decisions. Burton's book is brief, well-written, easy to read, and has a couple of fascinating thought experiments in it.

One of the things he addresses is the debate between reason and faith, or science and religion, to put it in another perspective. In a chapter simply titled "Faith," Burton takes on Paul Davies and Francis Collins, as well as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. All four men are called to task for certain statements that reflect a feeling of knowing. Davies and Collins make religious assumptions based on their observations of the universe, while Dawkins and Dennett make their own sort of assumptions. I admittedly cringed when I read a quote from Dennett declaring, "I have absolutely no doubt that the secular and scientific vision is right and deserves to be endorsed by everybody".

Absolutely no doubt? I would think a philosopher should know better than to invest such certainty in something. Since I became an atheist, I have always tried to avoid the trap of absolutism that is typically the hallmark of religious faith. I may not succeed every time, but On Being Certain has renewed my understanding of how valuable it is to try. Consider the difference between saying that x is 99.99% probable versus saying that x is 100% probable. I myself used to dismiss the difference and frequently point out that 99.99% is "pretty much" 100%. But as Burton rightly points out, these proportions are not "pretty much" the same. To say x is 100% probable is not just to guarantee that x will happen, but it is to also deny the mere possibility of x not happening. 99.99%, on the other hand, doesn't make such a pledge of denial.

We live in a universe of probability, and all that we know and believe is filtered through our unique perspectives. In respect to most questions, there is no single black-and-white answer. Part of valuing reason and evidence means recognizing their limits, and only going so far as those tools will properly allow us to go. Especially with supernatural claims, I do not think we are able to assess their certainty to an absolute degree, except in a slim few instances. When a claim violates one of the laws of logic, like the law of non-contradiction, or the law of identity, then I believe we can be sure of its falsity. This does not amount to a "feeling of knowing," but comes down to the simple fact that logical absurdities are incoherent under any perspective and cannot exist any more than a square-circle can. A universe where x is not x, or where x can be x and anti-x at the same time, is senseless chaos. In our universe, when matter and anti-matter collide, they change into energy. There is never a logical contradiction.

I will grant that the laws of logic are not well understood as far as their origins go. To some, they are foundational axioms that are self-evident; to others, they are just descriptive emergent properties of the universe. Whatever the case, they appear to be the best indicators of the strongest kind of knowledge around. However, the overwhelming majority of religious claims escape the ruthless grasp of logical absolutes. I know there is no god that is perfectly good and perfectly evil, yet I can't rest on such certainty against the resurrection. The two claims are very different in nature and content.

This distinction is one not tackled by Burton, disappointingly. Of course, he is a scientist and not a philosopher, but if he's going to delve into the territory of reason, it seems that he might want to address some of the major components of reason. Logical absolutes and logical fallacies are absent from discussion in the book, and yet these are arguably elements of reason that are mind-independent. The fallacy of composition, for example, will hold true regardless of whether or not minds exist to observe it. A galaxy with lots of tiny planets is not necessarily a tiny galaxy. Even if nothing existed, the law of identity (A = A) would remain inviolate because nothing is nothing, not something (speaking hypothetically here; I know physicists hold a different idea of nothingness from traditional philosophy).

This brings me to my primary criticism of On Being Certain. In a chapter on reason and objectivity, Burton strives to dispense with what he calls "the myth of the autonomous rational mind." As a disclaimer, I have said for quite some time now that I doubt bias is escapable. This has inspired me to stop criticizing those who start with a conclusion and then seek out the evidence. We all do this to some extent. The real problem lies not in attempting to justify our views, but in how we go about doing it. When we criticize someone for putting the cart before the horse, we criticize them for distorting the evidence to fit their conclusion, not for simply starting with a conclusion. In other words, begging the question is a fallacy for how it treats the evidence, not simply for beginning with a particular aim.

However, I take issue with Burton's belief that the mind is somehow incapable of, or hopelessly inept at, analyzing and judging itself. He rightly points out that there is no such thing as complete objectivity - we can't step outside of our minds and consider our thoughts with pure reason. But I don't think that Dawkins and Dennett believe we are capable of this either. Reason is not useful because it turns us into flawless and impartial judges, it is useful because it helps to mitigate our intuitions and emotions, by which we can strive to be a bit more objective. Complete objectivity may be impossible, but why should we assume that all is lost unless we have 100%? Burton elsewhere notes that claiming 99.99% probability is by no means "settling" for something of lesser value. It is not only more intellectually honest and humble, but it is also more accurate, since 100% guarantees are often over-zealous and presumptuous.

I should note that I may be mistaken in my reading of Burton's view on this. While he makes fairly firm statements and criticisms of the autonomous rational mind, he is also a scientist, and he defends evolution against creationism and medicine against pseudoscience, often by appealing to evidence and reason. Burton also distinguishes the "logic of discovery" from the "logic of justification," noting that we have "no mechanism for establishing the accuracy of a line of reasoning until it has produced a testable idea" (p. 151). This I agree with. Logical absolutes and logical fallacies have demonstrated their accuracy by application for thousands of years during which they have been tested time and time again, with no refutation thus far. If these lines of reasoning are reliable and accurate, can they not be useful in analyzing and judging our thoughts? Perhaps Burton would consent to this too, and yet his insistence against an autonomous rational mind provokes the suspicion that he might not.

Something I noticed while reading On Being Certain is that the author doesn't always fully flesh out a thought or claim. In a subject like the mind, this is understandable, but it's also discouraging. Those who don't pay close attention to Burton's juggling of numerous ideas may come away from the book thinking that no mode of thought is better than any other, or that we don't really have our own thoughts. I questioned if this was what he was saying on a few occasions, but found later statements to resolve things toward the contrary.

At the end of the book, Burton advises choosing our words more carefully, suggesting we ought to say we "believe" instead of that we "know." While I do sympathize with him on this generally, I think there is also a point at which certain caveats are implied. I may tell a friend that I know x without stating that I only think it's highly likely, but he will understand what I mean. In this age of postmodernism and multiculturalism, it's become fairly commonplace for many of us to leave some room for doubt and diversity in our views. On the other side of things, saying we "believe" in evolution sets us up for an unending and fruitless argument over whether or not evolution is a belief system rather than a fact or scientific theory. As with everything, there are moments when moderation is good and necessary, and other moments when it is more of an inhibition.

Wrapping up this review, I will say that this is one of the most enjoyable and challenging books on the brain that I have read in recent years. It will leave you thinking about how we think, how we know, and how we think we know what we think we know. It can be quite humbling to reflect on the traps our minds often fall into, and atheists are not inherently any better at avoiding these traps than theists. Despite my disagreements with a couple of his criticisms of Dawkins, Dennett, and atheists in general, I appreciate Burton for keeping the playing field level in his confrontations with science and reason in addition to faith and religion. Our goal should not be destroying religion, or forcing our worldview upon others, but merely to think more critically ourselves. There is truth in the saying of Matthew 7:3-5: we first need to be able to see for ourselves before we go around dishing out advice to others.