Monday, December 29, 2008

Michael Novak, Religion, and "Blicks"

I recently finished Michael Novak's book "No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers." One of the questions Novak seeks to answer in this very cordial book is, "Why do atheists and religionists scream past eachother? Why are arguments that are so convincing to the one never convincing to the other?"

I've often wondered this myself. I am quite read and "up on" the publications made by both the "new atheists" like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and the religious interlocutors like Chris Hedges and David Berlinski. In so being, I have noticed two things: (a) each side, whether deliberately or not, caricatures the other by misunderstanding the other's point of view; and (b) each side rehashes the same arguments that seem so convincing to them, but are never adequate to convince their opponents.

In attempt to explain this, Novak explicates an interesting concept, borrowed from philosopher RM Hare, but fleshed out by Novak himself: the concept of the blick.

In short, a blick is a worldview replete with necessary presuppositions. In Novak's words:

"A blick is part of an intellectual habit, the part that shapes one's pattern of judgment concerning what is real or not real, true or false, credible or lacking in credibility... A blick is a way of viewing reality that is not usually overturned by one or more pieces of countervailing evidence." (Kindle Edition, loc. 2267)

A blick is not only a set of propositions, but the groundrules each of us uses to decide what is to count as a valid proposition, and the type of phenomena which can be seen as evidentiary. A blick is not only, then, the view that god exists, but the belief that emotion and intuition be allowed as satisfactory undergirdling reason for the claim. On the flipside, a blick is more than the view that there is no evidence for god, but includes that atheist's 'groundrule' that only what may be observed can be existentially real.

To make it even more direct, my fiancee is earning her masters in Professional Writing with a specialization in rhetoric. One rhetorical theory she was explaining to me - I don't recall its title - suggests that when one is seeking to argue to another, one needs to make sure that one is using the type of argument that the OTHER would find convincing. It does little good to argue that something is experimentally corroborable to a postmodernist with zero trust in science. It would also do little good to argue the morality of x because of its fit within a capitalistic framework to a socialist.

This is very close to the idea that, to be persuasive, one must attempt to argue within the matrix of the other person's blick, or else - as evidenced by the current debate between theists and atheists - you will talk right past eachother.

To my eyes, this makes much sense. Why do all of the books by 'new atheists' and their opponents seem to make the same arguments over and over again that are convincing to those making the arguments but never to their opponents? Becuase the arguments, more often than not, hinge on assumptions - presuppositions - that one side holds which the other side does not. God cannot be real because its existence cannot be verified? This will hold little sway to a religionist that imagine's god to be outside of space and time. Our strong intuition about the 'perfect fit' between us and the universe is excellent evidence that there must be a god? This will not do against the atheist that already dismisses intuition as evidence for an existential claim.

Interestingly, the rhetorician Stanley Fish has written on his blog about this very phenomenon. In an article called "Atheism and Evidence" he writes:

"What is and is not seen will vary with the faith within which observers look... Those who have not found the arguments of natural selection persuasive will not see what Dawkins and his colleagues see, not because they are blind and obstinate, but because as members of a different faith community – and remember, science requires faith too before it can have reasons – the evidence that seems so conclusive to the rational naturalists will point elsewhere." (paragraph 11)

The message that I, an atheist, take from all of this is, "Like it or not, we are all presuppositionalists." The biggest 'heat' that Fish took about this article was from atheists suggesting that there is no faith necessary to believe in science and/or atheism. Even as an atheist and believer in science, I beg to differ.

In order to be a believer in science you have to have several "faiths" (all of which, though, can be justified by their pragmatic efficacy). First, I have to believe that the scientific method is a reliable one for capturing the truth of things (even if I acknowledge that science is tentative, I have to believe that it's attempts are better than guesses.) I also have to believe in the integrity of the scientists and the enterprise; as many of the experiments done and results gotten are technically beyond my ken, I have to, contra some extreme theists, believe that the participants are not simply part of a grand conspiracy and can be trusted as truthful and ojective.

Lastly, in order to be an atheist that claims scientific grounds for my belief, I have to hold to the rule that that which is not testable cannot be claimed as an existant. In less philosophical terms, I have to hold that "God exists," is a testable claim that only pans out when god is detected via the senses, or that "God exists" is NOT a testable claim, in which case, it is beyond talking about.

This is my blick. And this explains why I find it infuriating to talk with the theist, as the theist doubtless finds it infuriating to talk with me. I cannot begin to enter into their mindset as I am sure they cannot begin to enter into mine. Our blicks are simply so deep and deeply rooted that oscillation between the two is difficult. (Generally converts "think themselves out of" one blick and enter into another, but this type of conversion is rare.)

The idea of the blick has helped me articulate a feeling I have always had about the difference between atheists and theists; we simply see the world and interpret experience differently. The theist regards their strong intuition of design, purpose, and goodness as evidence for God (where the atheist regards intuition as insufficient). The atheist regards the scientific evidence as making the "god hypothesis" unnecessary and absent-looking (while the theist rejects the use of sceintific reasoning as exhaustive of all there is). Either way, the two will seemingly never agree because they disagree on groundrules.


  1. The answer to all this is simple. Atheists rely on rational explanations, whereas theists rely on the supernatural and holy books. The two cannot be reconciled through argument. Instead, atheists and theists could always try living beside each other in peace. Stranger things have happened.

    (see my blog against atheophobia)

  2. Tufty,

    I understand what you are saying and, as an atheist myself, sympathize with your points. To my thinking, atheists do have the rational arguments while theists do not.

    My point is to try and figure why the theists see it the other way around - why they are as convinced as we that they have the rational arguments.

    I have been thinking about the concept of the 'blick' as outlined by Fish in the article I cited for quite a while. While I, and everyone else, take sides on who is correct (everyone sees themselves as correct), Fish and Novak have hit what I feel to be a main point in the disagreement: Before anyone will be convinced, we have to recognize that both sides have differing ideas of what is to count as rational and what types of arguments count as persuasive.

    So, I am not saying that theists and atheists are on equal footing (if I was, I would not have chosen sides). Rather, I am simply recognizing that different people have different ideas of what constitutes 'rational' and 'persuasive.'

    (This has helped me think through why the debates between atheists and theists always produce the same arguments back and forth, with one side offering their most convincing arguments to no avail. Each side seems to talk past eachother. This may be a reason why.