Presuppositions, Faith, and Reason: Which One is Out of Place Here?
Atheists and others who buck the established religious systems have suffered from a bit of a PR problem since the beginning of recorded history. There are countless stories of the heretics, the blasphemers, and the impious being imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Atheism wasn't even a prerequisite; Socrates was sentenced to death for only believing in one of the gods in the Greek Pantheon. The official charge: impiety. Why is it that this stigma has taken root so firmly within the minds of human beings? Why has this trend persisted for millennia?
The answer is faith. Faith is the cause of this discrimination against the religiously atypical. The situation is as true today as it ever was, although in most civilized lands the punishment is much less severe. Perhaps one will only be ostracized by their family, classmates, or colleagues after revealing their lack of religious affiliation. The Islamic countries appear to be the main protagonists of violence in the name of religion these days, but the particular brand of faith which one uses as justification is not at all important. Faith is an effective tool to not only insulate oneself from reality, but also to vilify those who appeal to reason in its stead.
One of the ways in which this "faith" meme is propagated and perpetuated is by deception. Whether intentional or not, the general consensus is to paint faith as a virtue, or at the very least harmless. This misinformation has gone on for so long now that it is impossible to ascertain from whence, or whom, it came, but there is no shortage of people incapable of seeing through the propaganda who then become replicators of it.
A good example of this is Peter Sellick, who wrote "The Rationality of Faith". He contends that rationality does not exist purely as a method by which one can properly comprehend their surroundings, but rather that it is context specific-no one "rationality" being any more valid than another. All belief systems, or lack of belief systems, rely upon presuppositions, thus they are all the same. It is only after the presupposition is in place that rationale can be applied. How terribly ironic that the arguments in support of faith so frequently are more erudite versions of, "I know you are, but what am I?"
Perhaps there is some misunderstanding here of the nature and connotations of the word "presupposition". What Sellick is missing here is the understanding that most linguistic utterances have some kind of presupposition that is generally known, assumed, or accommodated by the group to whom they are speaking. That demonstrates one use of the word "presupposition", but it carries with it philosophical implications when one does not clarify.
A presupposition is generally anathema to skeptics and rationalists, as it indicates that the conclusion has been drawn before the premise. We tend to believe that all areas of life are subject to critical evaluation and logic, even if we aren't perfectly implementing it at all times. Logic is nothing more than a formula into which one plugs variables and determines if the outcome is satisfactory. Sellick's use of "presupposition" seems almost deceptive in that he attempts to start out using the term linguistically, but then applies it philosophically.
He cites examples such as medicine-it presupposes that health is "better" than illness. (He doesn't state exactly what it's better for, so I will use it colloquially here.) He also uses science, claiming that scientists share the presupposition that nature can be understood using objective methodology. Is this not a poorly constructed attempt to conflate these disciplines with religious faith, which is by nature entirely different? Health being preferable to illness isn't a presupposition-it is apparent to every person from the time he or she catches their first cold. It is a valid conclusion that one comes to after examining the difference between health and disease. Science is no different. The scientific method was developed after millennia of attempting to figure out how to assess a phenomenon and discovering that the results could be reliably verified if one followed certain guidelines. It is like logic in that it is a formula-something which can be utilized to formulate proper conclusions.
His assertion that "reason can only exist in a tradition that shares common premises and is directed towards certain goals" is preposterous. If you already have a "goal" or a conclusion, what good is reason at all? Why not just call it faith? After all, what he is proposing is that faith supplies the end result and reason justifies it. If faith in and of itself is a virtue, why does it need to be defended at all? I wonder how Mr. Sellick would explain the many formerly religious people who now advocate atheism. Didn't they already have a conclusion, but then were persuaded otherwise--by logic and reason?
Stepping outside of any presuppositions is the necessary hallmark of a rational thinker. His misunderstanding of this concept is further elucidated when he faults philosophers like Descartes for ushering in an era of "radical skepticism" resulting in "liberalism" and moral anarchy. In Descartes' "Meditations on First Philosophy", he engages in a thought experiment in an attempt to discover the foundational elements of existence and consciousness, but in no way advocated that as a permanent state of existence. Even he points out that at some point, one must make a decision or be paralyzed for eternity. Ultimately, though, Descartes still falls back on older arguments, such as Anselm's ontological argument for god, and that is precisely why he misses the mark. If anything, Descartes provided ammunition for those who presuppose the existence of god, and in fact, that argument is still used today.
I know that within the confines of religion, using critical thought to determine anything for oneself is tantamount to blasphemy, and it seems that Sellick desires a return to times when all of our choices were mandated and handed to us-by god. He says this:
The resulting void is called liberalism in which every man is his own orthodoxy. This move amounts to the fragmentation of human society in which justice is reduced to individual human rights; faith is reduced to spirituality; action in life is reduced to lifestyle; and the operation of reason is reduced to serving material acquisition.
How exactly does it fragment the population if we learn to accept one another? How is justice not founded upon human rights? Is reason not exercised in many areas other than "material acquisition"? This is a caricature of what would count as rationality to anybody not so bent on defending their own beliefs. This is a classic case of projection from a person who wants to destroy reason and put faith in its place, all in the name of piety and the moral code of archaic traditions. If faith is so rational, why is it that the only way that this argument can be made is by reducing the value and importance of reason to bring it down to level of mere faith? How about attempting to show how the belief in something for which there is no evidence is a rational conclusion, instead of doing the theological equivalent of mudslinging and then cheering because everybody's covered in dirt at the end? Sometimes people need to stop "rationalizing" their presuppositions and start being rational.