Friday, April 20, 2007

Andrew Sullivan on Faith

I find Andrew Sullivan quite brave in the final post of his debate with Sam Harris. He writes
You then ask why I should find it is so hard to imagine my non-existence? Your good points have made me realize more fully why I feel the way I do. The reason I find it so hard to imagine, I realize, is that I believe that God loves me. …

The reason I cannot conceive of my non-existence is because I have accepted, freely and sanely, the love of Jesus, and I have felt it, heard it, known it. He would never let me go. And by never, I mean eternally. And so I could never not exist and neither could any of the people I have known and loved.
I find it amazing for someone who lives in today's secular society to say something like that — Sullivan especially, who lives by his intellect. Yet there it is. As I said, I think it's quite brave of him to be as open about his faith as he is.

Of course I think he's mistaken. The mistake he makes in my view is quite simple. Sullivan is confusing his subjective experience (of feeling something, which he calls the love of God) with a fact about the world. Subjective experience, and especially our conceptualization of our subjective experience, is just that, subjective experience. It is something that goes on in our minds. This is not to take a dualist position. What goes on in our minds has a physical basis. But it's a level of abstraction above that physical basis. (This is a fairly long discussion. But a fundamental example here is that the software that implements the conceptual models we use to run our lives is a level of abstraction above the electrons flowing in computers. The electrons are required to run the software, but the conceptual models they implement, conceptual models like words on a blog, are not the same thing as electrons. See my papers on emergence for a fuller discussion.)

So the point is that the love that Sullivan feels cannot be taken to imply the existence of a lover. Yet that's exactly what he does. It's such a simple mistake that I'm surprised that neither he nor Harris comments on it. As I quote Richard Feynman as saying,
Science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves about the way the world is.
And as I quote myself as saying,
Buddhism and humanistic psychology are what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves about our subjective experience.
We must treasure our subjective experience. That's what makes us human. But we can't automatically turn our subjective experience into beliefs about the world. As Blue says about our species,
Humans: smart enough to have ideas; foolish enough to believe them.

No comments: