False faith claims and faith as a cognitive sickness

I happened upon a post on Huffington yesterday that caught my eye. “Why faith claims should be ‘corrected': A Professor’s Argument” by Paul Pardi.  It’s a post about Peter Boghossian, a philosophy instructor at Portland State who wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed that generated a stir. Pardi’s article is a short summary of his interview with Boghossian for the Philosophy News podcast.

In short, Boghossian believes faith claims should be corrected as “wrong” in the classroom. He argues that it is not the specific claims that he is against (I don’t believe him for a second), but the ways of thinking that lead to accepting those claims (I wholeheartedly believe him here). In addition to this, Boghossian also stated that be believes faith is a cognitive sickness. Boghossian believes that critical thinking is essential and students that accept ideas that cannot be empirically tested should be told that they are wrong in their beliefs, thus correcting their faulty thinking.  I wholeheartedly agree with the former and wholeheartedly disagree with the latter.

I am not an expert in philosophy and have never claimed to be. But I know enough for my input to be relevant in the discussion. I know more than a bit about critical thinking, empirical claims, science vs. pseudoscience, and, important to this post, the philosophy of positivism. I know a positivist when I see one and Boghossian’s position here fits the bill.

Positivism is regarded as a failed philosophy but has gained traction as of late, especially with the New Atheists. It states that knowledge can only come from empirical or testable ideas. Thus, claims that cannot be subjected to direct testing or verification are non-scientific (good so far) or not factual (debatable, based on how you define words) or not meaningful (not good). To see this, consider an example. Creationists are commonly ridiculed and their ideas are debunked because they cannot be experimentally tested. (From how own admission, it was a student who espoused Creationism “absolutely” that was the impetus Boghossian writing this article.) From a scientific perspective, this is absolutely correct and is why Creationism is considered to be pseudoscience. However, to say that only scientific knowledge is meaningful (strong positivism) is itself unverifiable and is one reason why positivism is considered to be a failed philosophy.

Later in the article, Pardi writes that Boghossian makes a distinction between public and private beliefs. It appears that Boghossian is a “weak” positivist in that he doesn’t believe all non-scientific claims are meaningless, but some instead are “private” beliefs (religion, taste, morality are given as examples). It doesn’t seem that he believes that these beliefs are meaningless as defined above but that they cannot be debated publicly and thus are meaningless in the classroom. I’m assuming that he would be a relativist in these areas, although it’s possible that he is a “strong” positivist. I’m assuming the former, but it doesn’t really matter for this post.

Before I continue, I should note that it is possible if not likely that there is more to Boghossian’s position than seen in the 2 short articles that I linked to above. That being said, even if his beliefs are more complex, I don’t think he’s being misrepresented since he wrote one of the posts.

Again, I’m not an expert in philosophy as Boghossian is. And also, it’s important to point out that I’m not one who shies away from taking science to extremes. If I’m honest with myself, it is easy for me to default to positivism as well, since it is ingrained in me to solve problems by designing experiments and collecting and analyzing data. However, I would never label myself as such, because I know that it is a failed philosophy and I cannot reconcile it with my Christian beliefs. Also, as you all know I’m not one to take shots at people. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that I bet Boghossian is an outstanding and engaging teacher and would clearly make for a wonderful and intellectual conversation partner (to me, at least). That being said, this discussion is such an important one to me that I felt compelled to comment here.

But back to the issue at hand. Let’s focus on the “publicly debatable” areas of facts. I am not a positivist myself and thus would argue against it. However, that is not what is at stake here. What is at issue to me is that Boghossian is taking the stance that positivism is the only appropriate philosophy (without directly saying it) and that those that do not espouse it aren’t critical thinkers. 

That’s crap. Plain and simple.

Philosophers do not all agree (and most are against, to my knowledge) on positivism as a worthwhile philosophy, so why should undergraduates be forced to adhere to it? To teach young students of philosophy as such does them a disservice in their education as a whole and in philosophy, in particular. Maybe I’m missing something but on an indirect level, Boghossian appears to be forcing a particular philosophy on his students. And, as judged by philosophers, a poor philosophy at that.

In addition, it is also apparent that Boghossian is lacking in knowledge of faith claims and their complexity. I’m sure this isn’t the only area in which he’s lacking. And you know what, me too! Just because I have a Ph.D. in Biochemistry doesn’t mean that I can claim to be an expert in philosophy, even in the philosophy of biology. And I most certainly cannot claim to be an expert in psychology, religious studies, or theology.

And that’s fine, because I don’t. I won’t.

As an educator, it is my responsibility to teach, challenge, encourage, mentor, and model the life of the intellect for my students. With regard to the first and the last, I can only do so if I teach in my own of expertise. I do not teach or speak as an authority on other disciplines because I am not an expert in them. Call it humility, call it my ethics, call it fear, call it whatever, it is not my position to speak as an expert in areas that I have no training in beyond what my students would have.

Of course, courses are not taught in a vacuum, and as such there will be a multiple times throughout a semester when issues will arise that are peripherally associated with the subject matter at hand and more intimately associated with a different discipline. Educators don’t have to stop the discussion or lecture then and there but they sure as shoot should mention when they are moving out of their expertise and into areas where they are not experts. I will absolutely share my position, but I do so with the implicit understanding that I am not speaking as an expert. Sure, my opinion matters but it does not represent the state of that field or the position held by experts. In matters of faith and religion, I believe Boghossian is overstepping his bounds and should be called out for doing so. It’s not that he needs to stick to philosophy, but that he should speak on peripheral matters with humility and respect.

So that’s my position on the matter. What’s yours? I would love to hear from those with a better understanding of philosophy because it’s possible I’m missing something. I would also love to actually speak with Boghossian because I am interested in hearing what his full position is on these matters. Is he a positivist? For him (and others of a similar ilk, for that matter), how did he/they arrive at that philosophy? Do positivists really believe that facts only come from empirical studies? Does Boghossian feel that he is being misrepresented?


About justintopp

Biology professor/mentor who loves sports, laughter, science & religion/theology (especially mind, evolution, soul, and what it means to be human), and most of all, his bride and baby girl.
This entry was posted in Materialism, Philosophy, Philosophy of science, science vs. religion. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to False faith claims and faith as a cognitive sickness

  1. John says:

    Good start. Here is a resource from Dallas Willard on the topic, “Blind Science vs. Blind Faith: Some Thoughts on Breaking the Deadlock.”

    http://dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=104

    This may be the crucial issue in the science vs religion debate – that one side only deals with facts, and the other only deals with faith.

  2. Pingback: Jesus Creed » Do Faith Claims Have a Place? (RJS)

  3. philwynk says:

    “In addition to this, Boghossian also stated that be believes faith is a cognitive sickness.”

    Where’s the empirical evidence that faith is a cognitive sickness? I think Dr. Boghossian needs to be corrected about this…

  4. justintopp says:

    Philwynk,

    Well, there is evidence of brain disorders in which people have religious “types” of experiences or exhibit religious behaviors. But, I agree with you, the evidence for his position is VERY weak.

  5. Pingback: The yes-so-weekly links roundup | A biologist's view of science & religion

  6. Adam says:

    I think that when he calls faith a cognitive sickness he is referring to the damage one does to their ability to properly reason when they follow faith inspired guidelines, not an actual sickness. If you base your decisions on belief rather than fact you are deteriorating your ability to make sensible, justifiable conclusions.

  7. justintopp says:

    Adam,

    Thanks for your comment. Having said that, I understand that his position and would disagree. Also, as a person of faith, I find his statement extremely offensive. Feel free to check out the blog, but I don’t think one would find evidence of my inability to properly reason because I am a Christian. And there are many other Christian blogs out there that would be similar. Yes, for some, it is true that faith trumps reason. Perhaps, especially undergraduates that have been brought up in fundamentalist homes! But blanket statements like those aren’t good and simply aren’t true.

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