Precis for “The Unnecessary and ‘Naïve’ Epistemology of The End of Faith

In Chapter 2 of The End of Faith, Sam Harris offers an account of the nature of belief.  This account can be seen as an epistemology of belief that underlies his criticisms of religious faith.  It is suggested here that this epistemology is misguided and therefore open to criticism that would only obscure his essentially correct arguments against religious belief as rival truth claims to other, more justified, forms of belief.  In place of his epistemology is offered pragmatism[1], an ‘epistemology’ that both accounts for the truth of what Harris says and avoids the philosophical errors he makes.  Nothing of substance in Harris critique of faith changes: Harris’ conclusions are merely endorsed from another point of view, one which is articulated in five stages.

First, after some opening remarks that lay out the scope and purpose of the essay, the epistemological stakes in any debate over realism and neo-pragmatism are circumscribed in the section, “The nature of belief and the underlying problem.”  In this section, Harris’ invocation of “naïve realism” as an epistemological stance is examined in light of the traditional philosophical problems inherent to the idea of mind representing the world and knowing that world only through its own mediating representations.  It is suggested than any such attempt to resolve this issue in favor of either naïve realism or neo-pragmatism ultimately argues in a circle.  Specifically, any attempt to understand belief as conformity to and correspondence with an antecedent reality either invalidly endorses one position on this circle, or it presupposes what it seeks to explain.  In its place is suggested a concept of belief as ‘conformity’ to tested consequences—to wit, pragmatism—along with a promissory note to develop the argument later in the essay.

Second, with these stakes laid out, Harris account of the nature of belief as such is examined.  Specifically, five epistemic principles from Harris argument are derived and discussed consecutively in three sections: “Beliefs as propositional assertions and principles of action”, “The necessity of logical coherence and non-contradiction,” and “Beliefs as true or false representations of the world through a mirroring correspondence.”  These five epistemic principles are that 1) beliefs are propositional assertions or statement of fact; 2) that these assertions represent principles of action; 3) that these beliefs must logically cohere with one another—specifically they should not contradict; 4) that these logically coherent and non-contradictory beliefs represent the world; and 5) that these representative beliefs either correspond (when true) or don’t correspond (when false) to reality in a relationship where belief is said to mirror the world.  The first two sections discuss 1-3, while the third discusses 4 and 5 together.

In the first two sections, the first three of these five epistemic principles are discussed in terms of the kinds of belief we likely have, then they are recognized as accruing to belief in its uses even as they are rejected as characteristics of belief as such.  In short, each commits what pragmatists call the “philosophic fallacy”—that is, they conflate properties accruing to belief in its eventual function with properties inherent to belief as such in its antecedent existence.  As such epistemic interest, propositionality, logical coherence, and non-contradiction are rejected as properties inherent to belief itself and instead said to characterize belief in its specific uses.  Some of Harris’ specific examples are discussed, and in each case the principles of belief Harris describes are ultimately endorsed, just from the pragmatic point of view.

In the third section, any mirroring correspondence between belief and world as endorsed in an epistemological “naïve realism” is examined in light of the problems facing any epistemology of belief.  Specifically, the problems inherent to any attempt to say that representations mirror reality are examined, and as a result of these problems, naïve realism is endorsed in an evidentiary role, even as it is denied any other epistemic status.  The meaning of ‘belief as conformity to tested consequences’ is then partially fleshed out.  In the discussion, specific attention is payed to the temptation to grant naïve realism a direct epistemic role beyond insuring direct, reliable evidence, and the discussion itself centers on the analysis of a simple perceptual belief, “the grass is green,” through which the limits and temptation of naïve realism are exemplified.  Ultimately the idea of a mirroring conformity to the antecedently real is rejected, and the fact that pragmatic epistemology equally accommodates naïve realism and neo-pragmatism is asserted—again, to be developed at a later time.

Third, the “philosophical fallacy” is examined in more detail in the section entitled “The ‘philosophic fallacy’ again”; this section culminates the preceding argument and amplifies it in a discussion of Harris’ lunchbox example.  It is shown that this example most poignantly conflates eventual function with antecedent existence in so far as it assumes that the applicability of logic to a specific perceptual situation implies that perceptual situations themselves are inherently logical.  In its place is offered a functional account of both the genesis and applicability of logic that preserves the applicability Harris points out without committing the error or ‘writing’ logic into the intrinsic features of existence.  In this respect, once again, the basic point Harris makes is affirmed, albeit from a pragmatic point of view.

Fourth, the promissory notes on the value of pragmatism as an ‘epistemology’ are finally made good in “Pragmatist epistemology exemplified: the scientific conception of atmospheric pressure.”  In this section the discovery of atmospheric pressure is used as an example of pragmatism in action, in that pragmatism suggests that philosophy adopt the pattern of discovery and confirmation successfully used in the physical sciences.  In short, the discovery exemplifies the pragmatic method.  Naïve realism is again examined in its evidentiary role, and Harris’ epistemological commitments are contrasted with those of pragmatism one by one.  It is shown that in each case pragmatism accounts for the position Harris takes, even as it more faithfully follows the methods and assumptions of scientific practice than Harris’ own epistemology of belief.  The distinction between philosophical and scientific questioning is specifically laid out, and pragmatism as correspondence with tested consequences as opposed to conformity to antecedent reality is given its final statement.

Fifth and lastly, Harris denial of freedom of belief is re-examined in light of the discussion of his epistemology up this point.  It is asserted that contra Harris, all we really have is freedom of belief, though it is equally stressed that we have virtually no freedom of justification—i.e. that the truth of belief is circumscribed by the limits of how beliefs can rationally be formed and justified.  In other words, Harris’s lack of freedom of belief is replaced with a lack of freedom of justification.  The convergence of Harris largely unarticulated notion of rationality with the specifically pragmatic notion is then observed, and Harris essential point about the intrinsically defective epistemic status of religious belief is fully endorsed, but again from a pragmatic point of view.

Some concluding remarks on the essential agreement between Harris and the positon laid out in this essay follow.  It is stressed again that nothing of substance in Harris’s critique of faith changes, only the means to reaching the same conclusion.  It is suggested, however, that a potential loophole in that critique is now closed, leaving religious devotees to supernatural deities no room to obfuscate their way out of it.


[1] By “pragmatism” here is meant traditional American pragmatism, not the watered-down (if it can even be called that) and ultimately silly “pragmatism” of Richard Rorty, or the American analytic neo-pragmatists who share the name.  For the ways in which Rorty’s “pragmatism” is essentially a pseudo-pragmatism best refuted by not taking it seriously in the first place, see “Richard Rorty is no pragmatist”, “Philosophy and the Fun-house Mirror of Nature,” “E-piss-temological behaviorism,” “Cling-ons in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”, and “Uh, it’s really dumb to sacrifice answerability to the world” under the heading “Anal-lytic” on this blog.  Discussion of other neo-pragmatists, especially Quine and Davidson, can be found there as well.


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