Sunday, June 09, 2013

Brendan Sweetman on the Faith of Secularism

"For the secularist, the belief that everything that exists is physical is based on faith in part; it cannot be fully proven by rational argument or by appeal to the evidence. In particular, the secularist has not proved that the human mind (consciousness, thoughts, ideas, etc.) is physical. Of course, he might believe that it is physical or hope to prove it one day (a misguided hope, I hold), but right now he believes this on faith. He might claim that it is a rational faith; whatever about this point, it is still a belief based partly on faith."

—Brendan Sweetman
Why Politics Needs Religion: The Place of Religious Arguments in the Public Square (pp. 119-120). Kindle Edition.

12 comments :

John Moore said...

Sweetman seems to be saying secularism is just as bad as religion. But wait - I thought religion was supposed to be good. Now I'm confused.

Anonymous said...

Secularist =/= naturalist

Bob Seidensticker said...

I've never understood the logic behind this defense. "Well, yeah, I have faith. But ... but SO DO YOU! So there!"

The believer is determined to drag the atheist down to his level, but does he really want to acknowledge that he's at a lower level?

Brian Auten said...

John,
It seems to me he is just pointing out the fact that holding a purely materialistic/naturalistic view is not something that can be proven. It's not a bad thing to hold a view that cannot be proven. But I think he's simply pointing this out because some naturalists assume that their position is epistemologically superior.

Anonymous,
I agree. I think Sweetman is not being too precise in his terminology. I don't think he's arguing that secularism equals naturalism. I think he is just using the term secularism to mean naturalism perhaps.

Bob,
I don't think Sweetman's statement can be show to be a tu quoque fallacy. I think what he is saying is true regarding the epistemic position of naturalism. If one disagrees with him, then why not show his error?

Dr. Polhemus said...

My belief in naturalism, and in particular my belief that the human mind is physical, is not based on faith at all; it is supported entirely by rational argument and the evidence. There is a great deal of evidence that the universe is governed by physical laws without any intervention of an outside consciousness and that the human mind is the result of the physical working on the human mind.

I go to bed at 10pm. When I wake my clock says 6am. I hear birds singing. There is sunlight coming in the windows. Is my belief that it is morning based in part on faith? Perhaps it is on faith that I believe the clock? No, I know how my clock works and I have a great deal of evidence that it keeps reasonably good time. Perhaps I have faith is the birds? No, I have quite a bit of evidence that the time when birds sing in the morning.

I have not proven that it is morning, but I don't know how I could ever prove that. Proof is something that is done within an axiomatic system, not something that one does to establish beliefs about the world.

I believe Sweetman is being very silly.

MaryLou said...

I'd be interested in hearing your arguments that human consciousness is physical, Dr. P., as well as your understanding of where the laws of physics originate.

Anonymous said...

I think Dawes would say that the prior probability of there being an explanation that will be related in method and by type of explanation to an already successful scientific research tradition is high. In that case, it is not 'faith' at all.

Dr. Polhemus said...

MaryLou, If consciousness is physical, I would expect physical changes to the brain (injury, surgery, introduction of psychoactive medications, etc.) to have a dramatic effect on the behavior of the residing consciousness. This is indeed what we find. If consciousness is not physical I would expect such physical changes in the brain to perhaps manifest in an inability for of the non-phyical consciousness to operate certain functions, but for the consciousness itself to be unchanged. There are examples that seem to fit this model as well, like partial paralysis or inability to find words.

On the whole, I find the evidence for a physical consciousness to be more convincing. I understand that others may reach a different conclusion looking at the same evidence. I don't assume that everyone who disagrees with me is basing their conclusion on faith rather than evidence (unless they say outright that their beliefs are based on faith, as many people do).

We could get into a back-and-forth about whether this or that piece of evidence is relevant or strong. We could debate whether the cumulative argument is convincing or not. That would miss the point of my criticism of Sweetman. My belief is based entirely on argument and evidence, not on faith.

I say this with the knowledge that my beliefs about consciousness could be wrong. New evidence or more persuasive arguments could change my mind. However, the evidence and rational arguments that I have looked at so far lead me to believe that consciousness is physical. My belief is not based, even in part, on faith. This is why I believe Sweetman is being very silly.

Anonymous said...

Dr Pol
That seems to be mistaken.

If consciousness and brain states are identical, I would expect the "subjective feel" of a conscious state to turn up in detailed description of a physical state. However, a description of waves of physical and chemical excitation travelling along a neuron, and the indirect effects of those waves on nervous system, does not descibe the accompanying feeling - the" what it is like" of pain or pleasure.

That's not a hypothesis -it's an observation. The irreducible difference between conscious and physical events and objects is data that a good hypothesis must explain, or explain away.

Furthermore, few have denied that humans are embodied. Rather, many have argued that there is more to humans than their bodies.

Finally, what Sweetman is referring to is a confidence in one's worldview even though one's worldview does not compel belief in every rational agent. Sweetman would contend that he has excellent evidence for the Christian worldview, and that he is open to counter-evidence.

Graham

Anonymous said...

PS: I review the book here :

http://www.saintsandsceptics.org/how-open-is-the-secular-mind/

MaryLou said...

Thanks for that detailed response, Dr. P. I wonder though, about this statement:

"I say this with the knowledge that my beliefs about consciousness could be wrong. New evidence or more persuasive arguments could change my mind."

Given the fact that you are not 100 per cent sure of your beliefs and acknowledge they could be wrong, that suggests to me that there IS an element of faith in your beliefs after all.

Dr. Polhemus said...

MaryLou, maybe I am confused by your use of the word "faith" (or maybe it is "belief.") I don't experience belief as an on/off switch. In some things I have great confidence, because there is a tremendous amount of evidence. In others I have no opinion because I am not aware of any useful evidence.

Let me ask a about a quantifiable example. I decide to place bets on a series of coin flips with my friend. I choose. He flips. I lose. I lose again. I lose 1000 times in a row. At that point, while I am not certain, I strongly suspect that he is cheating.

Would I be overstating may level of confidence if I said, "I believe you are cheating"? If I decide to stop playing based on my suspicion am I acting on faith?

I would answer "no" to both of those, but it seems that you would answer "yes." Am I understanding?

Gavin

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