This is a new word I have coined to describe the nature of what religion is, both in terms of its origin, and also of its current usage. This article will examine how pseudophilosophy is distinct from legitimate philosophy, for the same reasons that pseudoscience is distinct from legitimate science. Pseudoscience is recognized as superficially seeming to possess some sort of scientific validity but, upon closer inspection, can readily be seen as erroneous. Examples of pseudoscience include astrology, creationism, faith healing, clairvoyance, and other discredited ideas. This article will examine both pseudoscience and pseudo philosophy and examine how the two fields are related and intertwined.
Let us begin by examining some of the characteristics of a pseudoscience.
The first is dogmatism. If one makes a scientific claim, and then resists any effort to refute it, this is the first indication that one is being dogmatic, and true science does not operate in this way; people who make dogmatic claims and refuse to alter them no matter what the circumstances are antithetical to the aim and spirit of real science; peer review is a key component in the scientific method and any scientist who refuses to subject his findings to possible refutation is not a scientist at all. True science, then is predicated on skepticism. If one has an idea that they absolutely refuse to alter, the claim is probably not scientific in the first place.
There is no peer review process in pseudoscience; a claim is made, and merely accepted rather than critically examined. In any legitimate science, experts present their findings which are then subjected to a rigorously critical examination by contemporaries. This includes detailed examination and various testing methods. Only after the scientists are satisfied that the claim cannot be invalidated and that all the testing is satisfactorily completed will the scientists announce that the claim is indeed true. Even at this point, the true scientist is wary, recognizing that there may be any number of unforeseen factors that may in the future invalidate the claim.
The next characteristic of pseudoscience is closely related to that just discussed: pseudoscientific claims are neither testable or falsifiable. The latter, in particular, constitutes the very essence of such claims: no amount of evidence, however convincing, can invalidate the theory in the mind of the adherent. Closely related to this idea can be seen when impossible or nearly impossible standards are set up by which the true believers, claiming to be “open minded,” will admit that their claims can be refuted. Even then, they will invariably show their dishonesty. One example of this can be seen in the claim of the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. For years, true believers in “Nessie” claimed that if the Loch Ness Lake were drained, evidence would be found to prove her existence. When this was finally done, a few did change their opinion, but most cling tenaciously to the notion that she still exists. They want to believe she exists, and no amount of contrary evidence will dissuade them. The same phenomenon applies to religious claims and, more generally, to any claim of supernaturalism. A supernatural claim cannot be tested, and thus cannot be falsified; consequently, it cannot be scientific.
A corollary of this is the notion held by many people adhering to a pseudoscience is the notion that their position is not taken seriously and this is illustrates some kind of a “conspiracy” against their belief. In the various manifestations of pseudoscience, people asking for critical examination of the claim and possible refutation of it are often viewed as part of a “conspiracy” that exists to defame them or their belief. This can often be seen in creationist literature, which claims that the scientific community is “biased” against them and will not take their claims seriously. The simple fact is that such claims have in fact been thoroughly examined and rejected by all but a few fringe scientists unable to separate their religious beliefs from the findings of science.
Next, extremely suspicious “evidence” that is often introduced to prove the veracity of the claim. Secondhand observations, unclear photographs, and urban legends are common examples of such evidence; the famous 1934 photograph supposedly of the Loch Ness monster is a case in point. But by far the most common form of such “evidence” is totally subjective in nature and can be seen in the individuals’ claim to “just know” even though they are unable to introduce any objective evidence in support of their claim. This tactic is ubiquitous in the religious community.
Notice how all the above examples of pseudoscience can also be applied to religious believers, particularly of the fundamentalist mindset. Let us now move on to religion, using the above as a comparative analysis in order to justify the coining of a new word, “pseudophilosophy.”
Religion was born in the mind of primitive humans who struggled to make sense of the world around them and to comfort their many fears of what must have seemed a truly terrifying existence. Our ancestors of thousands of years ago were pre-literate, or perhaps proto-literate peoples who had no scientific method enabling them to examine the world around them and make logical deductions and abstract theorems from their observations. No doubt their world was a terrifying one; forces of nature such as earthquakes, famine, flooding and other natural disasters left them in awe of their surroundings. Gradually, they began to make up stories in order to explain these phenomena. Out of these legends, religion was born as humans invented their first gods. These deities were provided with two characteristics that were to remain up to the present: the gods had more knowledge than humans, and they had more power. For example, humans did not know what caused the weather, but the god of weather did know and possessed the capacity to change it at any time. The world was thus seen to be run by divine fiat.
It was obvious to our ancestors that these gods had to be appeased so that they would look kindly on them and not capriciously cause these various disasters and tragedies they constantly encountered. Thus arose another key component that exists to this day: the concept of religious ritual. Equally obvious was the fact that anyone in the community who failed to obey those rituals or act in ways conducive to the welfare of everyone else must be harshly dealt with. Thus was born the idea of clannishness and religious discrimination.
The ancient Greeks are usually given credit for introducing philosophy as a discipline, although many historians and cultural anthropologists now credit earlier civilizations, at least for introducing certain aspects of philosophy. It should not be imagined that the Greeks were open to all kinds of truth claims; the fates of Socrates and Protagorus alone attest to that fact. Nonetheless, the foundations of philosophy as we use it today were laid in ancient Athens: metaphysics (the study of what exists), epistemology (the study of knowledge), morality (behavior and its consequences), politics (what kind of governmental operating system should society possess), and esthetics (what constitutes good art). All of these branches were based on observation and analysis; i.e. the scientific method. Plato and Aristotle both wrote extensively in each of these areas.
Notice that the first three, metaphysics, epistemology and ethics are foundational both to philosophy and to any religious system. Religion provides mythologically based stories to explain such questions as where “all this” came from, who we are, how we should behave, and so on. The difference is that in religion, none of these answers, since they are based on stories, can be empirically observed or rationally demonstrated; they must instead be accepted on faith. While religion in its earliest formulation can thus be viewed as a type of primitive philosophy, humankind made a monstrous error when religion was allowed to maintain its status as a valid field of endeavor when logic and plain old common sense came on the scene to offer explanations as to the real nature of reality. At this point, religion and mythology should have been abandoned as outmoded artifacts. Instead, twenty-five hundred years later, religion remains, to our detriment as a species, a major force in our otherwise modern world.
So in what ways is religion a type of pre-literate philosophy?
In terms of metaphysics, religion makes subjective, rather than objective claims about the nature of existence; one’s emotions and feelings assume the role properly assigned to the reasoning faculties. Most notoriously, most religions posit the existence of a deity or deities that conveniently cannot be objectively analyzed or examined. Note again the similarity with pseudoscience here: most religious believers, like their pseudoscientific brethren, claim to “just know” that their deity exists and they consequently will resist any effort to disprove its existence. Again comfort, rather than intellectual honesty is the key issue here; real philosophers are interested in contrary opinions and willingly engage in fruitful debates to that effect.
This is not to say that believers have not produced voluminous books and articles claiming to “prove” a god’s existence, or of the veracity of a given faith. However, no matter how many times the first cause rationalization, the various cosmological rationalizations, and other alleged “proofs” are refuted, most believers ignore the facts, and these rationalizations continue to rear their ugly heads to this day. It goes without saying that there is a huge industry dedicated to producing tons of soothing pseudophilosophical pap designed to keep believers satisfied of the veracity of their religion.
That religious beliefs tend toward dogmatism is likewise self-evident. There are many assumptions underlying such beliefs one of which is the idea that something this ancient must be true. Invariably ignored is the fact that contemporary evidence refuting religious claims has often been destroyed by the religious in their fanatical effort to rid the world of any competing ideas. The burning of the ancient library of Alexandria was but one effort to destroy “pagan” knowledge by the fledgling Christian church. This and other strong-arm tactics have allowed the church to re-write history to suit its particular needs.
In religion, we see that supernatural claims are curiously and conveniently untestable and, more importantly, unfalsifiable. In an attempt to show their “open mindedness” believers will often, like those who accept pseudoscience, set up ridiculous tests or standards in order to “falsify” their beliefs. As an example, one believer I knew many years ago told me that the only way he would accept the non-existence of his god would be for that god to descend from the heavens and tell him that in the future, he (god) would no longer be existing. Ludicrous? Of course. But not at all atypical of this type of mindset.
There is no real counterpart to scientific peer review in religion. If people do not accept what is being said in a given church, they may choose another church or, more hopefully, critically examine those claims and reject them. What does exist in religion is a type of support group atmosphere. This exists at all levels, from the church hierarchy down to parishioners. Church leaders want attendance not only to fill their coffers, but because they recognize that, left to their own devices, believers may come to question their church’s dogma. That is why the same platitudes and bromides, to say nothing of the same stories are constantly repeated. It also helps us understand the religious mindset a bit better; people who are left alone might begin to question religious dogmas; constant church attendance re-enforces these ideas and repeatedly drums them into people’s heads.
As previously mentioned, many people who think in this way become avid conspiracy theorists who imagine themselves as the unwilling victims of discrimination. The conspiracy aspect of religious pseudophilosophy can be most tellingly illustrated if one listens to today’s right-wing religious leaders, radio hosts, and politicians. Despite the obvious fact that religious fundamentalism is more powerful today than at any other time in American history (Christian fundamentalists have literally taken over the Republican party) their leaders still scream that they are being persecuted for their beliefs.
Of course, any “evidence” the religionists can produce supporting their views is flimsy at best. If it weren’t, their claims would be obvious to all and the various competing religions of the world would then disappear. But objective proof is not what religion is about, since none of the faith-based truth claims of any religion can withstand critical scrutiny. The Bible itself doesn’t even come close as proof; disagreements over the various texts not just between sects, but even among fundamentalists who think it should be interpreted exactly as written.
Finally, the mindset of the religious pseudophilosopher must briefly be examined. Most non-believers have encountered devoutly religious people who become positively unhinged when their beliefs are questioned in any way. They obviously feel threatened by logical inquiry which indicates at some level that, no matter how loudly they may proclaim their unswerving faith, they are in reality extremely unsure of themselves. Again, their irrationality needs constant re-enforcement, hence the constant church attendance. Their emotional instability renders them incapable of accepting the fact that there are people in the world who do not think in the same way as they do and that, as a consequence, their beliefs just possibly might be wrong.
There is one important difference between pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy. In legitimate philosophy, we possess the ability to promulgate objective criteria by which good philosophy can be differentiated from bad philosophy and/or pseudophilosophy. This is not always an easy task; many renowned philosophers are controversial. For example, there are many books available on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy, but that does not mean that his views and conclusions are objectively verifiable or universally accepted. This is not necessarily a bad thing; objective analysis of Wittgenstein’s work, and that of other controversial philosophers, can indeed be rewarding, but such inquiry need not necessarily lead to dogma, either pro or con. Indeed, the true spirit of philosophy, like that of science, should rest upon the willingness to examine various ideas objectively and either accept them or reject them on their merits, or lack thereof. Much ink has been spilled discussing the pros and cons of Wittgenstein’s ideas, but no blood has yet been spilled to the best of my knowledge.
Contradictions cannot exist in the real world; something cannot be A and not A at the same time and in the same way. Ideas that have been repeatedly falsified and proven to be detrimental, such as are found in most religions, should be rejected by all thinking people, though to do so requires a great deal of inner fortitude that many people unfortunately simply do not possess. Likewise, claims that are untestable and non-falsifiable should be recognized as being so far removed from reality that they cannot even be wrong. It is a waste of time to even consider them.
Philosophy thus stands in opposition to pseudophilosophies, which, while they may be subject to re-interpretation, are not subject to refutation. People that do refute pseudo-philosophies tend to leave the faith because they have recognized them for what they are: outmoded, outdated, and illogically conceived views of reality that bear no resemblance to the observable world.
By: Jon Nelson