Monday, May 15, 2017

Jonathan Sacks selling the belief in God

On my Facebook recently I linked to this important and inspiring address to the parliament of the EU by Jonathan Sacks – former chief rabbi of the UK, now a prominent, highly respected international commentator. I agree with pretty much every world of that address. It exposes the lie of those who claim to be anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic – the polite hypocrisy of Europe’s leftist intellectuals. I very much admire Sacks’s intelligence, courage and communication skills. But this blog is about something else – a criticism that I have of another aspect of his work, a mild criticism, but one I feel compelled to register.

Johnathan Sacks was educated as a philosopher in the world’s most prestigious universities. He obtained his Ph.D. at Cambridge studying under the eminent philosopher Bernard Williams. He also studied philosophy at Oxford and Kings College, London. One may certainly expect that he have a deep understanding of the logical rigors of philosophical discourse. This is part of the reason I found a recent book of his so disturbing. I refer to his The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, published in 2011, and widely admired. I think the book is deeply flawed.

Originally I intended to critically review the book, examining its contents in detail in the review. But, I now think that this is unnecessary and, in any case, might strike the wrong tone. The problem with the book, and with related work and pronouncements by Sacks, can be summed up by clarifying and exposing just one basic logical flaw, and that is the purpose of this blog.

As I interpret him, Sacks’s position (in this book and in many other places) can be summed up in two separate propositions. The propositions are not actually related, but he makes it seem as if they are.

  1. There is no contradiction between religion and science– hence no contradiction between religion and modernity.
  2. We need religion to keep modern societies from imploding.

Both might be valid propositions, and I believe they are if, but only if, the second is interpreted in a very different way from the way that Sacks intends it.However, he then proceeds, mostly implicitly, to a third proposition

      3. Therefore we should embrace religion – we should embrace its beliefs and its rituals.

Number 3 is already clear from the Introduction in his book, where he attacks the “new atheists’. “It makes sense to believe in God” (11). And chapter 14 (entitled "Why God?"), to which this refers, is an extended argument for believing in God.

My point in this blog is simply that proposition number 3 is nonsense. Or, more accurately, it is arguing in a nonsensical circle. So now I explain.

Consider proposition 1. Indeed, there is no contradiction between science and religion, as long as religion is understood to be about one’s values, about what one believes is right and wrong, good and bad. A religious person believes that these values come from that entity we call God. It is one of a set of deontological belief systems, systems that are grounded in fundamental beliefs taken to be revealed to us somehow and that are not open to question – they are treated as self-evidently true, whether we feel able to explain them in terms of some other values or not. They are the values we appeal to when considering what ought to be done, or how we ought to act in any given situation. But, and this is important, being fundamental, we believe them because we believe them, not because we can justify them in terms of some other value we believe. If we believe they are God’s words that is enough for us.

Science has essentially nothing to do with this, unless we are talking about the facts of revelation and affirming or disputing these facts. It is clear that beliefs about revelation by the faithful are pretty much insulated from critical scientific examination. There are foolproof methods for reconciling these beliefs with any scientific finding. God could have put the fossils there to make us think they were millions of years old being one example. So, these matters aside, science is about how the world works, about what the consequences of any action will be. Religion is about what we ought to do. Science is about how things are. Religion is about how they ought to be. These are entirely separate matters. They operate in different realms. As David Hume pointed out a long time ago, you cannot get an ‘ought’ from and ‘is’. Ought statements are normative statements. Is statements are positive statements. To know what to do, we need both. We need the empirical discoveries of science to inform us about the consequences of our actions and we need some way of deciding which consequences are good, bad or ugly; that is, we need some way of evaluating consequences.

In that sense, Sacks may be right, religion and science are partners. But, being right, he is not original. As a philosopher he certainly knows that Hume made this abundantly clear. And Sacks’s treatment is definitely inferior and more obscure than Hume’s. But that is not the real problem. The real problem is that he proceeds to confuse matters more with propositions number 2 and 3.

Proposition 2 is a positive statement. That is, it is a statement about how the world works, not about how it should work. It is an assertion about reality. What is this assertion? Sacks sees Europe and many other parts of the world caught in moral decline. He sees the miraculous European civilization, the result of centuries of painful social evolution, as slowly decaying, the reemergence of anti-Semitism being a prominent, but only one, manifestation of this. And he diagnoses this as the result of a “loss of religion”. Religious belief provides secure moral boundaries, a framework for moral action that guards against excess and profligacy. It is well known that modern Europeans are often openly hostile to religion, to its practice and to its influence in any form. They revere the anti-religious secular state. Sacks sees this as the key problem.

As I intimated above, I think, in one sense, he is right. I think he is right in thinking that belief in the secular state is the problem. This belief is responsible for the erection of the European welfare-state with punitive taxes, ubiquitous regulation, and high levels of dependence on state-sponsored services. It has, as Sacks notes, encouraged the erosion of individual accountability and responsibility for the consequences of individual actions. It has blunted incentives for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Where one might differ with Sacks of course is in diagnosing why this has happened. Certainly it is a kind of idolatry – a belief in the supernatural powers of the state government fueled by the good intentions of powerful individuals, and a loss of belief in spontaneous (external) supra-individual processes. It is a fatal conceit to think that powerful individuals can achieve a social utopia. And, certainly, a belief in God as usually understood, might have prevented this conceit (though, judging by liberation theology, it might not have). But, more fundamentally surely, the problem is a loss of belief in the sanctity of individual property rights under a universal rule of law. If you want to call that belief a “religion” then we can agree with proposition 2. We certainly need renewed faith in the values of classical liberalism (and these include the separation of religion and state, the right of individuals to practice their religions peacefully) if we are to arrest the economic and social decline of European civilization. He seems to come close to this when he realizes that Christianity is a force for freedom, but only when it is not an instrument of a powerful state (witness the Inquisition and the Crusades).

It is proposition 3, as I suggested, that is the real problem. This is a normative statement, but a complex one. It is a recommendation, a prescription for “action”. But, it is complicated by the fact that it is predicated on a prior positive statement. It is what we call an “if … then” statement – to wit – if proposition 2 is true, then proposition 3 follows. So, if it is true that a loss of “religion” is what  explains the European decay, says Sacks, then to reverse this we need to reintroduce religion – reestablish religious beliefs and the enervating discipline that comes with them.

There are multiple problems with this. The least is the meaning of “religion” as already explained. We can leave that aside – although clearly Sacks would probably not agree that secular classical liberal convictions are the necessary and sufficient elements we seek.

More important is the structure of this proposition. It is a call to believe, because belief is good. You see the problem? How do we know belief in God is good? What is the standard by which we judge here? If we know what is good because of what God tells us, then we are saying nothing more than we ought to believe in God because God says so, which makes no sense. It assumes you already believe in God.

But that is not what Sacks means. He means we should believe in God because then we are more likely to get the kind of society we want. In other words he is justifying this belief on consequentialist grounds. He is saying belief in God is good because it brings good consequences (will prevent the moral decay of society). But hang on, how do we know what “moral decay” is? Don’t we already need to believe in God for that so that we can consult his revealed word to determine that? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim that belief in God is the basis of all other moral beliefs and argue that we ought to belief in God because it is more likely to give us what we already believe is desirable.

Let me put it another way. I am an agnostic on matters of cosmology. There are things that appear to me to be beyond our knowledge and comprehension. But I do not believe in revelation – there is nothing in any revelation story that is even remotely persuasive to me. Certainly I do believe in certain values as self-evidently true. I do believe in the values of classical liberalism, in the autonomy of all individuals, and equality before the law, etc. This belief is a combination of simple intuition (deontological) and consequential (it brings the kind of society I prefer – which also has an empirical (positive) component to it). Sacks is saying to me, if you want to stem the moral decay of Europe then believe in God and support others embracing that belief. How ridiculous is this? How does one suddenly decide to believe something that one doesn’t believe? Of course, one can pretend to believe and act as if one believes, perform the rituals, etc. Is this what he wants? What exactly does he mean by “Why God?”?

Belief is not the direct result of a choice, of an action. One cannot choose at any moment to consciously believe what one does not believe. One can choose to keep an open mind, to resolve to examine rival claims and assertions no matter how unlikely they may seem. But, surely one should do this anyway, as a result of belief in productive scholarly discourse.

In the final analysis Sacks’s arguments on this are sadly, and surely unforgivably, given his impeccable qualifications, incoherent.

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