Sunday, January 4, 2009

Why no one should feel uncomfortable, I think

I think we have Adam to blame for launching us into this thread that seems to have jump-started RIMATARA. And, I think we should thank him for that. Ian and I have done our fair share to heat things up, so to speak, and it seems now (at least according to Ian) that this might just turn out to be yet another tiresome "atheist vs. theist" debate. If it were true, it would be something to signal a rather normal -- not to mention boring -- blog has begun and you should ignore it so it can die quickly. Now, you may indeed want to spend your time in better ways than reading this blog since, after all, there are better -- much, much, much better -- things to do, I am sure; but, if these recent exchanges have anything to do with it, I think they might be an indication of good things, not bad ones, to come. Let me explain.

Adam and Ian are not religious atheists. What I mean here is that they are not devotees of a non-god. They are not claiming certainty over their skeptical views about theism. This is a very good thing indeed. Otherwise we could simply dismiss them as adherents of another religion: atheism.

Now, my quibble with them is that they are not totally godless. They seem to represent the modern turn towards a religious devotion to science. There are two clear differences in modern scientific outlooks as I see it. Let me sketch them here briefly.

One, is a Newtonian outlook. This is not to claim any entry into Newton's mind, it is just a place holder. This outlook see the world as "explainable" through what we call scientific inquiry or method. The hard thing to put your finger on, though, is where human inquiry gets "sciencey". Where and why does it become the new religion of modernity rather than the old, outdated ways of looking at the flat, Ptolemaic world? This view of things is still the dominant one, as I see it.

The second view is the Quantum outlook. This one is still suffers from a great deal of assumptions about epistemology (that is, how knowledge gets "sciencey") but it has one great insight -- the world, at its core, is a mystery. This mysterium tremendum of the world opens the door, once again, for a discussion not so unlike the pre-modern one. Only this one has been augmented by the things we can say about the world (e.g. the earth revolves around the sun, thus far it seems to us), albeit carefully and modestly.

I may have some big problems about science with Adam and Ian, however, none of them centers around belief in a higher power or not, it is just a dialogue over the foundations of knowledge, which is a good dialogue to have, I think. So, to restate what I meant to get across earlier, I wonder what we mean by "sense" here (hence the openness to mental "disorder"), I am not denying it completely, I just think that we could be much smarter -- and humbler -- about it.


brogonzo said...

There's a lot here to talk about, and I'll do what I can to address all your points, but if I miss something, mea culpa.

First -- You're correct in distinguishing between "dogmatic, religious" atheism and the variety that categorizes myself (and Adam, as he illustrated below). Adam actually rejects the term, and I suppose he'd instead consider himself "agnostic," but, like me, only in the sense that we're all also agnostic about unicorns, goblins, and Celestial Teapots (see Bertrand Russell). "Atheism" is really a very misleading term -- as Sam Harris points out, we have no term for someone who doesn't believe in the tenets of astrology or alchemy. "Atheism" is merely the absence of belief in God, but the word conjures up notions of religiousity or of some kind of codified, dictated belief system. Anyway, the point here is that I acknowledge that there's no way that I can prove that there isn't a God, but there's no way for me to prove that there isn't a Flying Spaghetti Monster either.

As to the charge of "religious devotion to science," I think what we need to do is separate out two of religion's roles. The first is a means of understanding the world, which I think Adam has already dealt with, but I'll revisit briefly. Scientific inquiry has, in my view, provided new and much better ways of explaining the natural world than religion ever has, and it's these explanations that led to the start of the first religions -- our ancient ancestors asked themselves, "Where does fire come from?" and been more or less stuck with the notion that some much more powerful, godlike being must have created it... or that the fire itself was a god. We know now that fire is a chemical reaction that involves the oxidation of specific naturally-occurring chemicals, and we're better off for understanding the truth -- thanks to this knowledge, we're able to drive to work in vehicles that use internal combustion engines for power.

So in that sense, yes, science does sort of operate in a way similar to religion. However, the enterprises of each could not be more different.

In all revealed faiths, truths of the universe are set forth in some holy book -- you can take your pick of the Torah, the Bible, or the Koran. These supposed truths constitute the "starting point" for inquiry within each faith, and they must be accepted without question. Therefore, all knowledge that comes after prophecy must be made to square with the already-revealed truths of scriptures, which has resulted in some contemptible mind-bending over the years -- including laughably cretinous explanations for dinosaur fossils. It's an extreme example, but the belief persists to this day: near Fort Knox, where I was stationed for three years, there's the "Creation History Museum," which contains animatronic displays of dinosaurs set in dioramas alongside rather-Caucasian-looking "cave men." Scholars in ages past have debated at length over the number of angels that can dance on the end of a match.

The religious theory, to put it in more philosophy-of-science terms, is fixed. There is no way that the words in the Bible (or Torah, or Koran) could be untrue, so any discrepancies between what we observe in the world and what is written in Genesis is merely apparent and not real. This necessitates explanations that are, although in many cases intellectually rigorous, simply too convoluted to accept wholecloth.

If what we're trying to do is come up with a fuller understanding of the universe, then "Occam's Razor" is helpful -- it's the principle that tells us we should not take on any additional or unnecessary assumptions (it's often rendered as, "the simplest solution is usually the right one."). Discarding Holy Scriptures as a source for understanding the world helps, because without them, there's far less to explain, and, surprisingly enough, our current explanations of the world work very well (much better, actually) without them. There's plenty more to talk about here, and I wouldn't pretend that this constitutes a "God doesn't exist, Q.E.D." proof of any kind. My point is only that scriptures, in every case, raise more problems than they solve.

The Newtonian vs. Quantum notions of the universe are things I'll have to deal with later -- but that's another great discussion to have, and as far as I know, the debate is ongoing.

samrocha said...

Well, forst of all, sorry for assuming your non-atheism. I see what you mean and I have read Russell's "Why I am Not a Christian" which I find to be a deplorably sloppy piece or work. The worst that I have read so far, and I love Russell's work on analytic metaphysics.

My major problem is that you are talking about religious fundamentalism, the belief that the texts of revelation are narrowly confined to strict interpretation that the world must be conformed to, or else. To say that is what religious is, is about as useful as saying that strict Positivism a la A.J. Ayer is what science is.

It sets up quite nicely for your argument, but what about those who take exegesis and hermeneutics seriously enough to use the sacred texts in more sophisticated ways, the way that we use literature in general?

So, I hate to pull out the fallacy card, but this look to be a straw man. So much so that, if this is religion, then, I am an atheist too.

brogonzo said...

Okay, maybe I am being unfair. However, there's still this: either the scriptures are the revealed word of God, or they aren't. If they are, then you're going to have to do a lot of wrestling (I don't know much about hermeneutics or exegesis, but I'm tempted to put them in this category) to get them to make sense with the visible and explained world, since a lot of what's contained in them is batshit insane.

If they aren't, then what you've got is a rather interesting set of ancient books that provide insights into human history and cultural development, which is what I consider them to be. Are there lessons to be learned from the Bible? Sure. If we're equating the Bible with literature, then yes, reading the Bible can be valuable in the way that reading MacBeth or Beowolf is valuable. Fortunately, neither MacBeth or Beowolf are purported to have divine inspiration, so we're free to take from them what we will.

I actually haven't read Russell's "Why I Am Not A Christian," but I'm familiar with his celestial teapot argument, which is useful inasmuch as it helps explain what people mean by agnosticism and "practical" atheism.

samrocha said...

Of course the Scriptures are the revealed word of God and "the heavens are telling the glory of God and all creation is shouting for joy". In other words, if what we mean by revelation is the way in which the infinite is made visible by the finite, then, Scripture, Beowulf, majestic waterfalls, and "all creation" are part of the revealed.

Now, we have certain thing that seem to contain deposits of intelligibility that need to be ruminated and poured over -- much like good, dense poetry -- but that doesn't place it as "only this, or else." It is "this AND everything else." The task of exegesis and hermeneutics is just the task of interpreting scripture. It is a literary task of finding meanings in language using all kinds of tools that make for a really fun time.

In the end we are left with too little, finitude. Like the mathematical problem of expressing infinity, even scripture cannot fully reveal the unspeakable.

brogonzo said...

So what's so special about scripture? And am I even speaking with a Christian?

samrocha said...

I don't know, what are you doing, exactly?

brogonzo said...

I spent many years being a Catholic, and I had been under the impression, at that time, that scripture was - as opposed to any other book, or rock, or waterfall - the explicitly revealed word of God.

Now, if you want to play silly language games and say that everything is the revealed word of God, that's fine, but you're going to have to give up the things that follow from the insistence on the inerrancy of scripture. If you're not making a distinction between scripture and "everything else," then what you're essentially arguing is parallel to Baruch Spinoza's pantheism -- God is everything, so there's really nothing to get excited about.

And as far as that "straw man" accusation goes -- I may not be able to argue the point against scripture against you (particularly if we're going to get mired in ridiculous pseudo-philosophical non-language), but there are a hell of a lot of people who take the literal words of the Bible (and Koran) very, very seriously.

Squaring the circle, whether that's by way of excluding some parts from consideration, or by "hermeneutics and exegesis," is simply performing the convoluted mental gymnastics that I've already complained about.