Friday, October 28, 2011

Faith, Evidence and Anonymous

In today’s Telegraph.co.uk blog post, Francis Phillips did a fairly good job of explaining why Shakespeare lovers should avoid the Roland Emmerich film Anonymous.

The premise of the movie is the ill-regarded theory that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford,  wrote the plays attributed to the Bard of Avon. The only attraction the theory ever had is its contention that a college graduate must have written such masterpieces of literature as Hamlet, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice … certainly not some lout of a glover’s son from Warwickshire with “little Latin and less Greek”.

It’s not my task here to re-write her take-down, which could have gone further into the why of the “de Vere authorship” theory’s falsehood. Rather, I would draw your attention to her penultimate paragraph, where she quotes scholar James Shapiro: “Mr. Emmerich has made a film for our time, in which claims based on conviction are as valid as those based on hard evidence.” To which Phillips adds the sideswipe, “I am surprised that author Dan Brown hasn’t (yet) taken up this theme.”

Phillips is a Catholic writing for a Catholic journal, so I doubt she saw what I saw. Truth is, it took me a minute or so to see the implications of Shapiro’s comment, as funny as it was. Eventually, though, it dawned on me that you could substitute “faith” for “conviction” in Shapiro’s jab without changing his meaning.

Wait a minute. Let’s drill into this a little further before we move along.


First, before you accuse me of over-reaction: Shapiro would have no purpose in making the statement if he didn’t wish to directly oppose “conviction” to “hard evidence” and imply that conviction without evidence is not valid and should not be held so. “Valid” and “invalid” are absolute states, so we can’t mitigate his position by saying “not as valid”.

For us in the [twentieth] century, the words “faith” and “belief” have come to be understood within a context established by Luther, Pascal, Descartes, Kant, Kirkegaard, and many others who have followed the same path. The result in the present climate is that faith is not considered to be a form of knowledge, nor does belief entail certitude. To believe is neither “to be certain about” nor “to know”. In Hebrew, emunah [“faith”], translated into Greek by pistis, means objective certitude regarding the truth. In our modern parlance, however, faith is nothing more than a subjective conviction divorced from objective knowledge as well as from certitude about it. When we see how the fourth Gospel employed the terms gnosis and pisteuein, we will understand that faith in God was an act of knowing which included an objective certitude of what was known.[1]

If we take Claude Tresmontant’s definition as a starting point, then we see that most of our current battles with non-believers and dissidents start off by conceding the context set by Luther, Pascal et al. But we can believe (or have faith in) X without implying that X is not backed up by “hard” (i.e. scientific) evidence or that our belief/faith is a mere subjective preference. Indeed, to say “I believe X” ought to mean “I accept X as a fact”.

Now, it’s true that many facts are backed up by hard evidence. But the evidence doesn’t make them true; rather, they illustrate the truth of the fact. Without evidence, you may not be able to demonstrate the truth of X; it doesn’t follow, however, that X is therefore false, or that we’re justified in concluding X to be false until it can be proven true. “Absence of evidence is evidence of absence” is an example of what logicians call an ad ignorantiam fallacy. It takes more than the absence of evidence to establish a proposition as false — you must have evidence to the contrary.

But then, not everything we hold to be true is demonstrable by evidence. For instance, you can’t prove the basic principle of reason that “a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same manner”; either you accept it as a fact or you don’t, but if you don’t then reason stands on shaky ground.

This understanding of truth or factuality extends to moral principles. You can’t prove that theft is wrong, or provide evidence of its wrongness, in the manner that you can prove wrong the statement “the speed of light is 25 miles per hour”. But the inability to prove either the morality or immorality of theft doesn’t make the principle “stealing is wrong” subjective.  For, among other things, a fact can be “an objective consensus on a fundamental reality that has been agreed upon by a substantial number of people”. Given such a consensus, to say “That’s your opinion” or “Well, I disagree” doesn’t undermine its factuality. [Update: This is not to deny the role of God or religion in morality; God as the source of Good gives Good an objective nature and encodes it into the DNA of the universe.]

I don’t know that I could condemn Anonymous, as I see nothing obviously wrong with fiction based on “what if” questions. (The Da Vinci Code, however, has so many factual errors it doesn’t even succeed on the “what if” level.) But certainly Shapiro is right to protest the rampant intellectual dishonesty of postmodern American culture, in which a right of privacy can be “found” in a document that makes no mention of it, in which a silly, bumper-sticker statement like “You can’t legislate morality” can be passed around as a maxim of profound depth.

The postmodern treatment of faith as something that exists only in the gaps of knowledge and evidence is but one symptom of that dishonesty. Christians and Jews have ceded that ground long enough. It’s time we took it back.


[1] Tresmontant, Claude (1989). The Hebrew Christ: Language in the Age of the Gospels. (Whitehead, Kenneth D., Transl.) Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, p. 151; emphasis mine.