Sunday, March 06, 2005

Unreasonable, But Correct

PZ Myers has a thought-provoking article over at The American Street today, which, coupled with Robert M. Jeffers' ruminations about Wittgenstein, which he wrote in response to my ruminations about pop science, were...um...

Jeez, causality is harder to elucidate than I thought!

Anyway, Wittgenstein once said something more or less like this: "I'm not a religious man, but I can't help seeing every problem in religious terms." That's true of pretty much all of us, I think. For one thing, our language is religiously charged, never more so than when we describe dropping napalm on children, or the immorality of pre-emptive war, or similar atrocities. Remove religious concepts from language, and you impoverish your ability to speak, precisely when it's most necessary to speak. I find this interesting.

Here's how Myers' piece ends:

"[S]ecular" is not inferior to "religious", but is actually a higher kind of value, better because of its universality.
Now, I enjoy arguing epistemological points, so I might take issue, here and there, with what can be known or demonstrated at a given point, and what implications this has for the distinction between religious and secular thought. Still, Myers is quite correct; the moral community must be as inclusive as possible, but religion very often attempts to limit moral consideration to a "deserving" few, usually on the basis of some depressingly rational set of tribalist assumptions. This is wrong, because morality is responsibility - or obligation, as Simone Weil puts it - that one feels without "reason." The more universal are the duties which it imposes, the more unreasonable it is, in the worldly sense.

Of course, no one's ethical values actually are universal. But we have an obligation to make them as universal as we can, as Myers notes, unreasonably and correctly.

34 comments:

Rmj said...

Ever the problem of religions, of course. The Hebrews were told they would be a light to the nations, that through Abram all the nations of the world would be blessed.

And then they promptly divided the world into the children of Abraham, and everybody else.

Christians were given "The Great Commission," and, in the words of Leonard Bernstein, "We turned it into a sword/To spread the word of the Lord."

It is an unfortunate consequence of humanity, a principle recognized by sociology: people need groups to identify with, to get identity from: and they then turn around and have to defend zealously the boundaries of that group (because every group is known precisely by its boundaries, i.e., by whom it excludes), in order to preserve that identity.

Which, of course, bumps right up against what you said: "The more universal are the duties which it imposes, the more unreasonable it is, in the worldly sense." One test of morality, no?

And in another example of the weirdness of synchronicity, someone today handed my a copy of Jack Miles' God: A Biography, a book I had avoided but now intend to devour, and Miles opens by noting that the God of Abraham permeates even secular Western culture, and acting like God isn't so fundamental to our culture is just, well, not really credible.

Thersites said...

You ever read David Lawton's book on blasphemy, called, uh, Blasphemy? Lawton has a good bit on Britain's attempt to open up its anti-blasphemy laws, which are still I believe on the books, to include other religions, especially the two other highly popular monotheisms. Lawton points out quite sensibly that the big problem with this broadmindedness is the common religious idea that professing a belief in a God other than your own has been historically seen as, uh, blasphemous.

Thersites said...

Oh, and I have written a post which scathingly denounces blogwhoring over at my blog. Check it out.

Phila said...

RMJ,

Re: "one test of morality," that's just what I was getting at in my scatterbrained way. If "rational" morality is directed towards gain for oneself (or one's family or friends or ethnic group or country) - as sociobiologists used to argue - then the wider one's circle of obligation is, the less rational and the more moral it is.

Thersites said...

"acting like God isn't so fundamental to our culture is just, well, not really credible."

Fundamentalist atheists are every bit as annoying as religious fundamentalists. I find the absolute absence of doubt pretty spooky and alarming. Those who believe in everything are always the same people as those who believe in nothing.

Phila said...

Thersites,

Well, I think both extremes come from the same basic place, which is why the most extreme atheists and fundamentalists are able to switch sides so easily.

On a certain level, I do admire the passion on both sides, even if I don't always enjoy their company very much!

Rmj said...

"Lawton points out quite sensibly that the big problem with this broadmindedness is the common religious idea that professing a belief in a God other than your own has been historically seen as, uh, blasphemous."

The root of the antipathy between "reason" and "religion." Both have their "gods," i.e., ideals which they regard as transcendent of individuals, desires, group decisions, whatever. And declaring both wholly compatible with the other, is blasphemy, i.e., refusing to give due regard to the established boundaries.

Which is why the whole "God gene" discussion is so ludicrous. It is an attempt to subsume "religion" to "reason." Logic, of course, would dictate that there must be a "reason" gene, as well. But reason, you see, truly is transcendent, and what is more, puts us in touch with the basis of reality, while faith is merely illusion. It's Platonism all over again, but since Platonism appeals especially to mathematicians, who are the most "reasonable" and "logical" (and so, Aristotelian, and not mystical at all!) of thinkers, then it must be true!

And truth, as we all know, is the ultimate transcendent.

Cervantes said...

For those who haven't checked it out yet, we're trying to toss together the religious and the humanist in one blog and see what happens:

Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems I posted a discussion of humanistic ethics and all that stuff a few days back. It's just a lot easier to blogwhore than to make y'all read the whole thing here. Excerpt:

Many religious people believe that God is the only source of morality -- that only by referring to God can we know right from wrong. Therfore, non-religious people must be wicked.

The kind of ethics found in the Old Testament is what the pedants call deontological, that is, rule-based ethics -- a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. The Ten Commandments are among the most famous such lists in the Old Testament -- but watch out -- there is more than one version. However, there are many more rules in the Old Testament of course. . .

Cervantes said...

And now to get on this thread, two comments:

Responding to Robert M's comment about tribalism, the humanist project is to get people to perceive all of humanity as their "in group." Maybe our psyche's require some external enemy to make that work, but if we can just come to recognize the fragility of life on earth and the vast universe waiting for us to discover together, I think we have a chance.

Second, I don't believe it is fair to say that reason has its own "gods." Scientific beliefs are not based on orthodoxy or the blessing of any hierarchy or community. They are based on evidence. They must be testable. And when new evidence is found, old beliefs are overturned. Not that scientists don't get seduced by orthodoxy, but eventually, the truth wins out because observation and experiment find it.

That is a completely different kind of belief from religious belief.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

well, says another fool jumping in here----i have heard rumors that there are actual scientists who utilize reason for science and yet maintain a belief in a personal god. and maybe there are instances of one tribe of rationalists killing members of another rationalist tribe over doctrinal differences.


is blogwhoring a sin or a corruption of reason?

dread pirate roberts

Rmj said...

Cervantes--two observations:

First, you assume reason is dynamic, and belief is static. Jack Miles' book is a swift refutation of that, if you know nothing else about faith.

Second, your very assertion affirms my point that "reason" presumese superiority over faith, which it then sets about to confirm. This is the kind of "paradigmatic" thinking that Thomas Kuhn was talking about (which also undercuts your position). It is nothing more than static Enlightenment philosophy, withered (as all philosophies and theologies do) to a set of unassaialable verities which you then propose as universal truths.

How very Platonic of you. Aristotle, the great observer of phenomena, would be disappointed.

Third, Kuhn and David Hume would like to have a word with you.

and Fourth, "tribalism" as I said, is something most religions seek to overcome, too. That they never do says more about their followers and human nature, than about their aims. It is the same aim as "reason," but that doesn't mean one is any more likely to be successful than the other.

Unless you agree that "reason" is antithetical (i.e., heretical) to faith. But the arrogance of that position, in human history, is frankly mind-boggling. Not only have humans never been such simplistic creatures of faith as many critics of belief presume, but that position also imagines that reason sprang full-grown from the brow of a handful of dead white Europeans, the better to be the immaculate salvation of the world.

And even the most arrogant Enlightenment titans, were never quite that arrogant.

Phila said...

Cervantes,

Thanks for the link to your site...I meant to work that in here, somewhere! I put a link on the front page, too.

I responded to the post you've quoted over there. But I'll observe that what disturbs me about your position - disturbs me primarily as a matter of logic, I hasten to add - is that no workable, reliable system of ethics is currently based on demonstrable fact. Faith, at least, recognizes that it's extrapolating beyond the evidence. But a science-based ethics, subject to correction or abandonment as "old beliefs are overturned," is kind of a pipe-dream...a matter of faith, really. Are we to wait until science "proves" that it's immoral to drop napalm on children before we make a judgment about it?

I have to confess that I'm really not sure what everyone's arguing about. While I enjoy the dialogues about this stuff - usually - the idea that one's rationality depends on which undemonstrable set of assumptions one prefers is kind of alien to me. And while I respect your position, I'm not sure I would call it "rational." But then, to be irrational is sometimes a good thing...which was the point of my post. PZ Myers' apotheosis (ha!) comes when he extrapolates far beyond fundamentalist "rationality," and arrives at secular "irrationality." And that seems to me to be true of morality generally; it's most moral when it's least materialistic and least rational.

Most of the disagreements between you and Jeffers seem pretty pointless, ultimately. The only really worthwhile question, to me, is: how does one arrive at a consistent and truly compassionate ethics without a leap of faith of some kind? I don't think it can be done, personally. And the scientific response, thusfar, has either been quasi-mystical (see my pop science article) or roughly equivalent to "Further along we'll know more about it." Unfortunately, people need ethical guidelines now, so simply issuing an IOU doesn't cut it.

Look at it this way. I'm vegan because I don't want to eat animals. Am I to take that as an irrational stance - and therefore as a contemptible and substandard form of cognition - because it can't be justifed scientifically? Or am I to follow the promptings of my conscience regardless, and to recognize that in this case, "irrationality" is, for me, a higher truth?

It's a pretty easy decision, for me.

Phila said...

Oh, BTW, Cervantes...the specific beliefs you're espousing here aren't based on evidence so much as induction. That's not quite the same thing, and as RMJ hints, inductive reasoning has some built-in flaws. And of course, they tend to get worse the more one relies on them...they're negligible in some cases, but they're definitely not a very good foundation for arriving at cold hard certainty about the meaning of life.

Rmj said...

For the further record, and may it please the Court...

Jeffers recognizes that he tends to get lead-footed and jack-booted in these discussions, for which he humbly apologizes, even as he realizes he's relying on the "better late than never" defense, when "never" is the wiser and sounder course...

He throws himself on the mercy of the court, pleading that he just gets really tired of people with know no knowledge or background in theology or religion speaking as if they know all that needs to be known on the topic, when we all agree that "pseudo-science" like "creationism" and "intelligent design" are bad science and bad theology, if only because we get enough training in science to recognize crap reasoning when we see it.

Theology really was the "mother of the sciences" in Western culture for several centuries, and he'd just like to see a little more respect paid to mother, if you get his point. Which he admits he tends to get all hot about, and then make badly, and he's really sorry, and he doesn't mean it, and he promises not to do it again.

Until next time...

Phila said...

RMJ,

Despite knowing far less than you about this stuff, I agree; I think the basic epistemological issues are incredibly straightforward, the ethical issues as regards freedom of conscience even more so, and I don't understand why questions of belief/disbelief on the Left cause so much anxiety and debate. If you and Cervantes agree that Bush shouldn't have bombed Iraq, and that young-earthers shouldn't be teaching biology class, and that we have a moral duty to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, you agree on pretty much everything important. I find it troubling that Cervantes or anyone else would attempt to challenge you on the finer points of ontology, particularly while lacking a firm logical footing from which to do it.

I'll tell you what else bugs me: the notion that by being, say, an atheist, one has somehow made a giant intellectual leap. I don't see any evidence that that's the case, but it certainly must be comforting to believe that even if one doesn't have the virtues of our greatest religious authors and artists and scientists, one doesn't have their "flaws," either. (There may be more to this trade-off than meets the eye, of course.)

But then, most philosophies offer false comforts and easy answers.

Anyway, your apologies are not legal tender here...particularly when your patience must be manifest to just about everybody.

That said, if you don't want to explain theology to the uncomprehending, you went into the wrong line of work, wouldn't you say?

PS...re your "mother of sciences" comment, I was comtemplating a post a while back on how religion, back when it saw nature as a form of revelation, granted to science the very authority with which it was later challenged. I'll gladly cede the topic to you!

Cervantes said...

Hey now folks, I think we're making an awful lot of assumptions about what I do and do not know anything about. I happen to have a pretty good education in the development of modern Christian thought, I know a helluva lot about the Bible and I have made a fairly deep study of Buddhism and Hinduism as well as more recent reading about Islam and popular Christianity. I happen to think I know exactly what I am talking about.

Having now pre-qualified myself, there is absolutely nothing wrong with inductive evidence. That just means observing facts about the world. The discovery that the stars are light years away and are big balls of fusing hydrogen just like the sun is based on induction. That doesn't make it anything short of absolutely proven to every reasonable and sane person's satisfaction.

Second, you can call theology the mother of anything you want, but it is not a science. It does not advance by the methods of science and it does not depend on any form of verification for its conclusions.

Third, I agree that RMJ and I share very broad ground regarding questions of ethics and politics. There is no reason why we should not be able to have a civil, friendly and constructive discussion about the areas where we do not agree. I believe they are important simply because the question of whether we proceed on the basis of faith or science has great implications for the future of humanity. And no, I do not believe that they are ultimately compatible. I'm entitled to that opinion, I don't think it is offensive for me to hold it or affirm it any more than I should be offended by people who express religious beliefs. We just disagree.

Phila said...

Cervantes, I don't think RMJ was trying to insult you, and I certainly wasn't. However, there's a big difference between someone who's devoted a good chunk of his life to theology, and amateurs like us. Wouldn't you agree? I mean, it's just a fact that he's going to have certain insights/knowledge that you and I lack.

Re: induction, the arguments over it are well-known, and there's no reason to rehash them here. Suffice it to say that one example of valid induction says nothing about other instances, especially in cases where no conceivable verification is possible.

Rmj said...

Cervantes--

Let me just be a real Aristotelian and point out that an appeal to authority is one of the classic logical fallacies of rhetoric.

Having said that, I meant only to "attack" your argument, not you personally; and to the extent I did the latter, I withdraw the reach of my generalization, and will anxiously await being shown the exception to my poorly stated rule.

Oh, and as the "mother of science," theology was staking it's historical Western claim to having preserved the thought of Aristotle (father of logic) and Plato, and the Pre-Socratics (through Aristotle). You also have to remember "science" is simply Greek for "knowledge," and not, to the Greeks, even the most important knowledge. But it is the philosophy of science (or, rather, the tools of that philosophy) that I am attempting to employ here, so quite possibly the confusion is caused by my efforts, again.

Phila said...

Cervantes,

My depressing biz meeting's over at last, so I can stretch out a bit.

You say that the differences between your views and Jeffers' are "important," because "the question of whether we proceed on the basis of faith or science has great implications for the future of humanity."

Thing is, RMJ isn't arguing that theology belongs in science classes - quite the opposite - so your claim is kind of incoherent; again, you're on the same side. Plus, I think that if we truly want to be rational, we have to accept the fact that we're going to proceed (and regress) by means of faith and science, as we've always done; it's madness, IMO, to imagine otherwise.

That's fine with me, because my view is that intellectual stasis is unhealthy; intellectual variety is as valuable for evolution as genetic variety, really. Hell, the Big Bang was first posited in the 20th century by a Catholic, because it fit the demands of creation ex nihilo. Our problem is not achieving victory over Error, but pursuing tolerance and accomodation. (And humility, where possible.)

I don't think your views are offensive, personally. I share Thersites' viewpoint that it can be creepy when someone is so remarkably adamant about knowing the Meaning of Life, but to each his own. My personal stance - which seems to be increasingly rare - is that the question is undecidable and that it's therefore pointless to argue about. I'm not interested in where we came from; I'm interested in what we're going to do while we're here. Thus, whether you're right or not is basically a matter of indifference to me. Certainly, it's unclear to me what I'd gain by adopting your position on the Meaning of Life, which seems to me to be neither pragmatic nor truly scientific. To devote so much energy to squabbling over metaphysics simply doesn't seem rational to me, which perhaps disqualifies me from participating in this debate! I can say this much: if all I'd gain by adopting your worldview is a willingness to find fault with Jeffers', you can very definitely include me out. The game's not worth the candle, as the saying is.

Last, you're right: theology doesn't proceed by the methods of science. But neither does morality, so far as anyone knows. The example from my own life upthread, having to do with veganism, is the best one I can give, and I'm interested to know what you think about it.

Phila said...

Let me just be a real Aristotelian and point out that an appeal to authority is one of the classic logical fallacies of rhetoric....
Let me just be a pedantic asshole and point out that the argumentum ad verecundiam is a fallacy only inasmuch as the appeal is to an authority without particular, recognized expertise in the subject under discussion.

I don't think you can make that case, in this instance.

Rmj said...

Phil--

Just want to say, apropos of nothing but your mention of it, that metaphysics (by and large) gives me the willies (too?).

Which is one reason I like Wittgennsteins "7" in the Tractatus. Well, that, and I agree with Continental Philosophy that there is more to life than what is apparent from the realms permitted by Empiricism.

Such as: why, exactly, do I love my wife? Selfish gene theory says I do because she can give me children. But she already has. Now why?

I guess I prefer Hamlet's jibe at Horatio: "there are more things in heaven and earth,...than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Metaphysics tries to explain what the nature of some of those "things" are. Which is fine, but it really doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. But then, as Wittgenstein asserted, not much else does, either.

And it's the "else" that's the interesting stuff. Sins. Logic. Things like that.

Rmj said...

"I don't think you can make that case, in this instance."

Oh sure I can. If I walk into court and claim to know whereof I speak because of my alma mater, my law school, or my record in court, no one in the court will be impressed except maybe my client. And my client won't be impressed long, if that's all I have to say.

My law degree may be from Harvard (it isn't, BTW, not by a long shot), but that doesn't mean I can make a winning argument to the jury. It's not what I know that persuades the jury, but what I say to them. My degrees and experience mean nothing without an argument they find compelling.

Which was my only point.

Phila said...

RMJ,

As I said, something in your article caused me to drag ol' Ludwig down from the shelf and revisit him...I don't even remember what. It was one of those sudden, odd little flashes that made me realize I'd been looking at things from the wrong perspective.

I still object to his oft-quoted remark that "We're not here to have a good time." (I think we're to do just that, among many other things.) His particular brand of dourness has always rubbed me the wrong way. I've admired his ideas without quite admiring him, but you caused me to view him far more sympathetically.

But metaphysics...agreed, basically. I enjoy reading it, but it often does seem to muddy up what are, to me, fairly simple issues. It also seems a bit...escapist. As does science, sometimes. And philosophy. And debate. And...well, you get the idea.

I think what alienates me most about this sort of metaphysical debate is the assumption that once a given person has avowed the "right" beliefs, something important has been settled. But it hasn't; there's nothing about believing in atheism or religion that disqualifies one from being a fiend in human form. Cervantes is a great person not to the extent that he's "conquered superstition," but to the extent that he's compassionate and humane, and eager to help people who are suffering; that's the side of him I'm interested in and drawn to, because I'm interested in being, not belief. Same goes for you, of course...but I find your views on these issues simultaneously more profound, and more simple, and - oddly enough - more rational in the sense that they don't jumble faith and science together. Whether they're correct as literal descriptions of reality is as immaterial to me as whether I'm "right or wrong" to be vegan...that's not how these questions are settled, IMO.

Phila said...

RMJ, re the fallacy, you're quite right. I misread the post, got completely confused, and somehow thought the authority referred to was Aristotle, and not Cervantes himself (?).

My mistake.

Rmj said...

Phila--

Since I'm stuck in a place where all I can do is post comments for a minute (and may not be doing any more tonight), let me just say:

what you just said (minus all the undeservedly complimentary stuff about me).

Myself, I find you and Cervantes much more interesting. And let it be said it is the argument that drives me, not the personalities. I have no doubt you'd both be fine people to go to a pub with.

We could even talk politics safely.

Rmj said...

"My mistake."

Mine, actually, for being snarky again.

Cervantes said...

First, Phila, I wish you would get Haloscan commenting, Blogger usually takes forever to load the comment page.

Second, how do you know what I consider to be the "meaning of life"? You may have deduced something about my feelings on this, but I don't recall stating them anywhere that you might have read them.

The Buddha said that first causes are unknowable. Then he proceeded to elucidate a system of meaning and being in the world that most people call religious. However, he did not believe in God. What I have been saying in recent posts on the Dialogue and in comments here is that god is unnecessary for ethics, for meaning, for the kinds of experiences and feelings that most people think of as spiritual, or really, for explaining anything at all. That doesn't prove the negative existential statement about God (the least likely kind of statement ever to be provable), it just means that there is a satisfying, humane and meaningful approach to life that doesn't depend on the god concept.

I don't recall ever attacking religious belief as such, although I have made it clear that I do not share it. But why is my stating my view any more "arrogant," "fundamentalist" or "smug" or whatever you want to call it than someone stating the contrary view that he or she does believe in God? I am equally entitled to my opinion -- one which, by the way, happens to be very much in the minority and widely scorned.

If y'all wish to continue this discussion, I will eventually get around to stating my concerns about religion and why I want to encourage religious people to think critically about their beliefs. It seems to me that beliefs one is unwilling to expose to scrutiny and objection, or to take the trouble to defend beyond merely dismissing one's critics as insufficiently credentialed or uninitiated into the mysteries, are beliefs one isn't very secure about after all.

Perhaps Philalethes or RMJ would like to start posting on the Dialogue site. If it's okay with DPR and Speechless, it's fine with me.

Phila said...

Cervantes, if your position is simply that the "God concept" is unnecessary for a satisfying and humane life, then we agree.

You asked me, "Why is my stating my view any more "arrogant," "fundamentalist" or "smug" or whatever you want to call it than someone stating the contrary view that he or she does believe in God?"

It isn't! Or if it is, it'd be strictly a matter of tone, rather than the nature of your belief vs theirs. I do indeed think that a lot of Christians (for instance) are smug, arrogant fundamentalists...how could I not?

If I gave the impression that I think you personally are any of those things, I'm sorry. As I've said, I simply reject the view that Jeffers' view of the world and yours are so incompatible as to require endless ontological debate. I consider both of your inferences about reality to be reasonable, and as far as I can tell, you're both exemplary people. Jeffers himself has granted - more times than I can count - that one need not believe in God to be a good and ethical person. I feel the same way, and it seems like DPR and Speechless do, too. Granted there are people who don't believe this...but we don't seem to be engaging with them at all, and I don't like seeing RMJ treated as a surrogate whipping-boy for a philosophy that he doesn't actually hold.

I'm always willing to argue over epistemic questions - though it gets very redundant very fast - because that's the kind of geek I am. But in practical terms, what are we really accomplishing, when we already agree that one can be an ethical atheist, or a religious scientist? Unless someone has the goal of compelling outright capitulation - which is a goal I reject completely - it seems to me that we'd all be better off talking about practical matters. And whatever you think of the assumptions about reality behind what RMJ has to say, I'm sure you'll agree that he has a lot of wise and important and practical things to say, and that he says them well.

janeboatler said...

Cervantes,

I can just hear one of the early fathers of the Christian church say to you as you dispute with him, "My son, you are not far from conversion."

janeboatler said...

Cervantes,

I can just hear one of the early fathers of the Christian church say to you as you dispute with him, "My son, you are not far from conversion."

janeboatler said...

Cervantes,

I can just hear one of the early fathers of the Christian church say to you as you dispute with him, "My son, you are not far from conversion."

janeboatler said...

Cervantes,

I can just hear one of the early fathers of the Christian church say to you as you dispute with him, "My son, you are not far from conversion."

janeboatler said...

Cervantes,

I can just hear one of the early fathers of the Christian church say to you as you dispute with him, "My son, you are not far from conversion."

Rmj said...

I'm with Cervantes. Blogger comments suck. Haloscan basic is only slightly better, though, so...
If y'all wish to continue this discussion, I will eventually get around to stating my concerns about religion and why I want to encourage religious people to think critically about their beliefs. It seems to me that beliefs one is unwilling to expose to scrutiny and objection, or to take the trouble to defend beyond merely dismissing one's critics as insufficiently credentialed or uninitiated into the mysteries, are beliefs one isn't very secure about after all.Only came back to say that challenging my beliefs is (a) precisely what seminary, for me, was all about, and (b) precisely why I prefer to read religious philosophers instead of most theologians.

Phila is right: Cervantes and I really don't disagree. But I love the "argument," anyway, which is my sin.