The curse of faith

I don’t do faith. I may do trust. I may do confidence. But I don’t do faith. I do confidence when the balance of evidence and reasoned argument and reasonable assumption is sufficient to persuade me that an individual, group or organisation will perform as claimed. I do trust when the balance of evidence and reasoned argument and reasonable assumption is not sufficient to persuade me that an individual, group or organisation will perform as claimed but the cost of them failing to perform as claimed is small enough that I’m prepared to take a calculated risk. I don’t do faith. Ever!

Faith is not, as some suppose, merely belief without evidence. True faith is belief against evidence. It begins with faith that faith is a good thing. And that the stronger the faith the better the person. Given that faith absolutely requires that the individual forsake the intellect which is the defining characteristic of humanity, it’s not easy to see how it might be argued that faith is a good thing. But I don’t do faith so it is difficult for me to comprehend a state of mind which eschews reasoned argument. To those afflicted by faith the idea that there might be a place for reasoned argument is at best perplexing and at worst quite incomprehensible. Faith requires neither reasoned argument nor evidence. It just is.

Convinced that there is great nobility in abandoning intellect for faith, the afflicted ‘reason’ that the more irrefutable the contrary evidence that is rejected the greater is the demonstration of faith and therefore the more noble the individual. The ultimate act of faith is denial of the evidence of one’s own senses and the content of one’s own mind. That epitome of the dystopian novel, George Orwell’s 1984 is actually about faith. Orwell himself maintained that the totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy. The concept of doublethink – believing two contradictory or mutually exclusive things simultaneous and without distinction describes a manifestation of faith. Winston Smith’s betrayal of Julia is Orwell’s representation of the ultimate act of faith – the denial of love.

The story ends with Winston Smith having given himself over entirely to faith. If he is required to prove his faith by believing that 2 + 2 = 5 then he stands ready to do that. He will not merely believe that 2 + 2 = 5, he will know that 2 + 2 = 5. 2 + 2 will equal five – not just for Winston himself but for everyone. It will be true for the entire universe. For me, this denial – or should we perhaps say ‘reforming’? – of basic arithmetic rather than Winston’s betrayal of Julia is the ultimate act of faith. It is the act of manufacturing a new truth that cannot be truth but is. It being truth, the universe itself cannot be true. The ultimate act of faith is the ultimate doublethink – everything is true and nothing is. With each and both of these things being both true and untrue at the same time.

The intellect is vacated completely. There is only faith. Faith which does not recognise itself as faith but regards itself as the unexceptional acceptance of reality at the same time as it holds itself to be an exceptional state of mind such as bestows immeasurable nobility. Faith is both worthless and the only thing that matters.

Two things have prompted me to reflect on the nature of faith today. Yesterday, I had a series of exchanges on Facebook with a number of individuals representing the monstrous regiment that is the #WheeshtForIndy mob. Otherwise known as SNP/Sturgeon loyalists. Truly the ugly face of the Yes movement.

Some will ask why I bother engaging with this rabble at all. But I find their utter lack of reasoned argument stimulating even as I find their rejection of the very concept of evidence massively frustrating. It is, of course, futile to use reason to argue a person from a position they did not arrive at by reason. (An aphorism that might have been inspired by the SNP/Sturgeon loyalists.) I do not engage with these dullards in the hope that I might bring about a Damascene conversion. I engage because their unreason provides a backdrop against which reasoned argument and presentation of evidence stand out more starkly than they otherwise might. Of course, I have little patience for proud ignorance and am not inclined to conceal my contempt for those who abandon themselves to faith. This usually ends up with one or more of these #WheeshtForIndy bollards appealing to the Fecaboko censor-monkeys in order to silence me. A tactic familiar to those who participate in online campaigning in support of the independence movement as being a common practice among British Nationalists.

I strongly suspect that it is more common now for independence advocates such as myself to be suspended from Fecaboko or Twitter or whatever at the behest of others who claim affiliation with the Yes movement than as a result of complaints from our British Nationalist opponents. Yet another way in which the Yes movement has come to be fatally divided and ineffective. It is all too easy for anyone to weaponise the Fecaboko censor-monkeys against dissenting voices. The censor-monkeys are there to persuade the authorities that the social media companies are serious about policing their platforms. It’s easy to imagine them having quotas of complaints to uphold. But I digress.

At the heart of the SNP/Sturgeon loyalists’ faith position is something I call with irony the weight of a battleship, ‘Nicola’s Great Secret Plan’. There are other aspects to their faith position. The belief that the fight to restore Scotland’s independence is being won by Sturgeon and the SNP leadership, for example. This is often expressed with the mantra ‘never closer to independence’. Both these things are demonstrably untrue. But that only makes believing them more gratifying. Such is the nature of faith. Also, the belief that dissenting voices within the Yes movement, and particularly bloggers such as myself, are simultaneously an inconsequential and ineffective rump and the greatest threat to the independence movement. There’s that doublethink again.

The ‘Nicola’s Great Secret Plan’ myth is the patently deluded notion that Nicola Sturgeon has devised a strategy that nobody else is capable of coming up with. She is keeping the strategy in reserve ready to spring it on the British Nationalists at ‘the optimum time’ (to borrow one of Pete Wishart’s favourite inanities) and thus produce from nothing a glorious victory. It’s all pish, of course. The mythical ‘Great Secret Plan’ necessarily assumes a huge if not infinite number of options some of which are known only to Sturgeon and her inner circle. Bear in mind that this being obvious nonsense is no impediment to the faithful believing it absolutely. The reality is that there are only a limited number of options open to Sturgeon – and far fewer than she might have had but for her predilection for squandering this political gold – and all of those options as well as all possible permutations thereof are well-known and fully understood by those from whom she is supposedly concealing her ‘plan’.

The faithful cannot dispute any of this. They don’t even try. They have no reasoned argument and even less evidence in support of the claim of a ‘Great Secret Plan’. They see no need for such things. Articles of faith are beyond challenge. The very idea of questioning the existence of a ‘Great Secret Plan’ is a form of heresy. Those who do question it are condemned to the fires temporal and eternal. Or Fecaboko Jail.

The faith position of the SNP/Sturgeon loyalists is a threat to the independence movement and to democracy itself because it prohibits scrutiny. It leaves our political leaders free to do anything. Or nothing. It paralyses the Yes movement as everybody awaits the unveiling of this devastating strategy. It forbids consideration of actual strategies. To think about a Plan B when you’ve been told Nicola has a brilliant Plan A is disloyal. It is heretical. The faithful believe in the ‘Great Secret Plan’ despite the fact that Sturgeon herself (or her close allies) has at least sketched what she intends. The ‘Great Secret Plan’ is to mimic as closely as possible the process and the campaign used for the 2014 referendum. Sturgeon has said that she intends to adhere to the Section 30 process. She has said or strongly implied that the campaign for a referendum should it ever happen must follow the ‘gentle persuasion’ model favoured by those who haven’t the stomach to confront the British state and excuse their timorousness by choosing to believe that the British state will cooperate honestly with a process intended to end the Union.

Not even the words of their own high priest can dent the faith of the #WheeshtForIndy mob.

The reason I singled out the denial of arithmetic as the ultimate act of faith is that it is basically the denial of science. It is a denial of the matrix of knowledge that humankind has constructed over millennia. The essential difference between scientific knowledge (or understanding) and faith positions is that the former fits well in this matrix of knowledge. Other parts of the matrix don’t have to change dramatically in order to accommodate new scientific knowledge. You can’t fit 2 + 2 = 5 into that matrix without breaking the whole thing. Its implications for pretty much every other part of the matrix are just too profound.

Similarly, the idea of ‘Nicola’s Great Secret Plan’ simply can’t fit into that matrix of our knowledge of politics without requiring that we invent new options. Then those options won’t fit unless we drastically alter the rest of the matrix of knowledge. All parts of the matrix of human scientific knowledge connect with all other parts. No part can be altered without affecting all other parts – even if inconsequentially. Likewise, no new pieces of knowledge can be added to the matrix unless the affected parts of the matrix can accommodate it.

This is how the rational mind assesses truth. Things that fit the matrix of human knowledge without causing it to disintegrate may be considered true for present purposes. Things that cannot be added to the matrix without reworking or rebuilding the entire edifice must be considered untrue unless and until a way is found of making the matrix and the new knowledge compatible. The matrix of knowledge is not immutable. It can change to make way for new knowledge. In fact, it is doing so constantly as the fund of scientific understanding grows at an accelerating pace. At the most rudimentary level, however, fit means true and no fit means false.

Faith causes people to adamantly maintain the unchallengeable truth of things that cannot be accommodated by the matrix of prior knowledge. Things that aren’t even made of the same stuff as the knowledge in the matrix,

Which brings me to the second reason I’m thinking particularly about faith today – anti-vaxxers. The headline over Kirsty Strickland’s column in The National today caught my eye – “This is the reason why we shouldn’t be mocking anti-vaxxers. I at first thought this must be Kirsty telling us we should take the pronouncements of anti-vaxxers seriously. It wasn’t, of course. She is saying we should take seriously the impact of the anti-vaxxer propaganda. Their anti-science propaganda has the potential to do real harm. It can result in unnecessary suffering and avoidable death. Of course we should take it seriously.

Anti-vaxxers adopt a faith position. Especially those who link their detestation of Covid vaccines to some conspiracy theory. Which seems to be most of them. And the conspiracy theory is vast. Lots of variations on a central theme of mysterious and malign forces seeking to control lives. Completely disregarding the fact that our lives are already controlled to the greatest extent human nature allows and that non-mysterious and largely benign forces have managed to achieve over centuries without the need for any conspiracy.

Even setting aside the demented conspiracy theories about governments wanting to turn us all into automatons or whatever (What the hell would government do with that degree of control?) the anti-vaxxers are science-deniers. Vaccines work! Not perfectly. But they are known to be effective in preventing unnecessary suffering and avoidable death. Our knowledge of vaccines fits comfortably within the matrix of human knowledge. It fits, for example, with our knowledge of how viruses behave in populations. Just as you can’t shove any old thing into the matrix, so you can’t take anything out without dealing with the knock-on effects. Denying those knock-on effects is not a satisfactory way of dealing with them. Asking what those knock-on effects are after taking that chunk out of the matrix proves only that you failed to think through the implications of what you were doing. Anti-vaxxers want to rip all our knowledge of viruses and vaccines out of the matrix and replace it with what they believe. With their faith position.

Those afflicted by faith afford their beliefs, however bizarre, the status of knowledge. Thus utterly devaluing the very concept of knowledge. If what is merely believed has the same standing as what is known in the scientific sense of that word then the models of our world on which we rely are reduced to an amorphous mess. They cannot be relied upon. Especially when those substituting their faith positions for actual knowledge come to be in positions of influence and power. And that seems to be increasingly the case. Which is a worry, to say the least.

If ever the fight to restore Scotland’s independence needed rationality and pragmatism it is now. Instead, we have a party of government in thrall to people who put delusional faith before intellectual rigour. If ever the world needed the same hard-headed rationality and cold realism it is now. Instead, we get people such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and a plague of faith-addled, science-denying conspiracy theorists pulling governments this way and that way and every way except the way suggested by our fund of knowledge.

If we are living in a world where men can be women simply by saying it is their belief that they are women then we are not just in deep shit, the shit has completely taken over.

At the scale of my own immediate concerns, if the fight to restore Scotland’s independence is being conducted by or under the significant influence of people who mistake their faith in ‘Nicola’s Great Secret Plan’ for knowledge of its existence and efficacy, then our nation is lost. And Alba Party supporters can wipe the smug off their faces because they have their own faith-based foolishness – such as the super-majority myth.

The faithful are everywhere, like a parasitic infestation sucking the sense out of our politics and our public policy. We are facing a pandemic of faith that will destroy our civilisation as surely the deadly virus that will someday enter the human population. Which will kill us first?



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11 thoughts on “The curse of faith

  1. Throughout the article , I could not stop thinking about religious faith, to which the same argument applies. It forces one to question their faith which they may not want to do as it is their comfort zone which they want to cling to, indeed may have to cling to for relief. Questioning their faith, of whatever persuasion, may bring them to the abyss or the truth of reality, unpleasant as that may be.

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      1. Only in the sense that I hoped people would, of their own volition, make the comparison between religious faith and the faith that intrudes into our politics. I’m not saying politics is just like religion. Perish that simplism! what I’m saying is that faith – belief against evidence – is a pernicious blight wherever it intrudes.

        The human intellect is powerful enough to make a formidable tool. Or weapon. Faith disarms us. It deprives us of the tools to solve problems. That, I suspect, has always been the purpose of religious faith. I find no reason to suppose faith in the sphere of politics doesn’t serve the same purpose. It all comes down to power. All human interactions are transactions conducted in the currency of power. Power being relative, the means of reducing another’s power has to be valued as much as the means of increasing one’s own power.

        In the article, I didn’t want to get into a debate about religion. Although people were bound to make the connection for themselves, I tried to focus on the politics of public policy. I may not have been as successful in this as I had hoped.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Faith is confidence or trust in a person, thing, or concept although I would accept most people connect faith with religion but it does not have to be religious and again it depends on what is meant by religion. We verge on an esoteric debate so I shall leave it there.

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    1. I made a point of not mentioning religion. But the relevance should be obvious. Where we should have been striving to keep religion out of formal politics we’ve instead ended up making our politics more like religion.

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      1. I always think of the splatter-comedic character Ash from Evil Dead II in relation to our deranged messiah complex, pathologically-desperate-to-be-liked FM. Fighting demons called Deadites in the modern day, Ash inadvertently transports himself back in time to the Middle Ages. Confused knights look at him, his car, his chainsaw and shotgun and proclaim: “HAIL HE WHO HAS COME FROM THE SKY TO DELIVER US FROM THE TERRORS OF THE DEADITES! HAIL! HAIL!”

        I just paraphrase it to the pack of (often young) crackpots and crazies who obsessively support their heroine standing round screaming “HAIL SHE WHO HAS COME FROM THE SKY TO DELIVER US FROM THE TERRORS OF THE COVID! HAIL! HAIL!” Laughing here. OK, you won’t get many people who make such oblique references, but why not? Keeps like interesting. Now get hailing, Nicola heretic, or get cancelled! 🙂

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  2. Excellent Peter.

    Mark Hoofnagle on his “Denialism” blog many years ago suggested that denialist positions almost always degenerate into conspiracism, because:
    “…denialist theories that oppose well-established science eventually need to assert deception on the part of their opponents to explain things like why every reputable scientist, journal, and opponent seems to be able to operate from the same page.”

    He also came up with the wonderful term “Crank magnetism” to describe “…the tendency — even for otherwise “lone issue” cranks — to accumulate more crank beliefs over time.”

    Starting with the merely delusional: eg.

    “England is a civilised rational country that will negotiate fairly with Scotland for its Independence”

    …we quickly move on to fantasy:

    “And if they won’t Nicola has a secret plan…”

    …then on to denial of equal human rights : “A woman’s magic word makes a man a rapist…”

    ..and then… the coup de grace: an attack on biology itself:

    “Men can become women by magic declaration”.

    -Scotland’s political “leadership” appears to be descending into a kind of righteous medieval orthodoxy akin to that which brought us the persecution of supposed heretics and the witch-trials.

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