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There are Beliefs, and then There are Beliefs

Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, claims that people’s religious beliefs are often without any scientific validity. He cites in particular the Islamic belief that if one kills “enemies of the Faith” (that is, non-believers) by blowing them up along with one’s self, one is guaranteed an immediate place in paradise. This belief, Harris says, is not only dangerous to world peace; it is without any factual basis. A less-drastic belief (to non-believers) that he mentions in his book is that of Fundamentalist Christians who believe that the bible is the literal word of God.

Harris argues from the viewpoint of positivism, a philosophy developed by Auguste Comte in the beginning of the nineteenth century, which stated that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge. Positivism has come to be an assertion that scientific knowledge is physical knowledge. “If it can’t be measured, it isn’t real.” Harris is currently in research studying the physical effects of beliefs on the brain. His assumption is that “beliefs” are nothing more than particular brain states.

However, in criticizing other people’s religious beliefs, Harris is committing a performative contradiction—implying that his belief is true, while other people’s beliefs are not, because their factual basis can’t be demonstrated. In fact, neither can his.

Ken Wilber, in several of his books, writes about performative contradictions—statements that violate their own claims. For example, he says that the “New Paradigm” approaches to the question of valid truth “are internally self-contradictory.” While the postmodern insight that the world is not an innocent perception of ours, that it is in part  an interpretation that we add to what our senses tell us, the argument that “there is no objective truth, only different interpretations,” is plainly illogical. If everything is an interpretation without any basis in reality, then the claim itself has to be read in the same light. If the claim is true, then it is merely an interpretation itself, with no more basis in fact than any other—therefore, of no consequence. It is internally self-contradictory.

All this is not to claim that a belief about blowing oneself up on a crowded bus is anything but detrimental to a peaceful society. The basis for my generalization is grounded, not in measurable fact, but in a belief that a world I want to live in does not have such preventable tragedies. My belief, which I admit I’ve never subjected to scientific scrutiny, is supported by a lot of history and inductive reasoning.

And I believe that Sam Harris’s book won’t do much toward eliminating suicide bombing. Its polemics are apt to do just the opposite—reinforce the resistance of religious fundamentalism to what most of us in America believe is of high value: peace and freedom.

There are points in our thinking where we run out of demonstrable facts. We all do this, even hard-core empirical scientists. Science itself is based upon a faith that it will answer questions that no other method has been able to do. Ken Wilber, in his book The Marriage of Sense and Soul, proposes that science be opened up to include ways of knowing that are not physical. It is possible, he says, to apply the same criteria to questions of the mind as to questions of the senses—sensory experience is but a sub-set of direct experience. Verification of findings in any realm depends upon the agreement of knowledgeable peers, and these exist in non-physical realms as well.

The most fruitful attitude toward beliefs of all kinds is apt to be that they are all tentative, amenable to confirmation or rejection as the various states of the world become clearer to us. That they are an inevitable characteristic of human thought seems certain. Even that idea is offered as tentative—who knows what new discovery will prove it wrong?

 

May 4, 2006

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