Monday, March 01, 2004

Logic envy?

I'm in the midst of an interesting discussion over in Rand Simberg's comments section that began as an argument about whether the death of Jesus on the cross was "the greatest injustice in history" and has turned into a discussion about whether free will is logically incompatible with an omniscient god (small g).

That argument is of course older than the hills, and so I won't rehash it here. What I find interesting is not so much the argument or its resolution, but rather the fact that people, and particularly religious people, keep arguing about it. What I find most fascinating is that on the religious side of the discussion the motivation seems to be not only to convince people that yes, man has free will and God is omniscient, but (and this is the interesting part) that there is no logical contradiction in this position.

Why is it so important that the religious position be seen as compatible with logic? After all, there is no logical reason to believe that logic is an effective guide to Truth (whatever that is); you have to take that on faith. Why can't religious people say, "No, it's not logical, but I believe it anyway?"

To be fair, many religious people do say that. But it seems to me that a substantial portion resist this position with all their might, and spend inordinate amounts of time trying to "reconcile" religion and logic or religion and science.

The only explanation I can think of is that many religious people suffer from "logic envy". Deep in their heart of hearts they think that there really is something to this logic thing, and they just can't bring themselve to dismiss it. But why? As I said, there is no logical reason to "believe" in logic. I have two theories.

The first theory is that our brains are just wired for it. There is an evolutionary advantage to being able to think logically and so humans are driven towards it by a mental hunger just as they are driven towards food by a gustatory one. (Or, if you prefer, our capacity for logic was given to us by God as a consequence of being created in His image.)

Theory the second: logic is not inherently "good" or "right", but it is effective. The computer I am using to write this (and the one you are probably using to read it) was not created by prayer, it was created by logic. Likewise for cars, antibiotics, light bulbs -- the effects of logic are pervasive in modern life. And so religion, seeing this effectiveness suffers from "logic envy". There is a visceral satisfaction that comes from being able to prove something. It is so poweful that religious people often lose sight of the fact that proof is fundamentally incompatible with faith.

What people on both sides of the discussion seem to lose sight of is that the effectiveness of logic has limitations. Logic is effective in the objective sphere, not so much in the subjective one. Logic provides little guidance when it comes to figuring out what is good, or just, or beautiful, or why sunsets are romantic, or what the meaning of life is. These are precisely the kinds of questions where religion has a vastly better track record of providing answers that are satisfactory for most people, and it's a shame that some religions do not seem to feel secure in this success.

Attempts to reconcile science and religion are doomed to fail -- and that's a good thing. Humans experience both objective and subjective realities, and these two realities operate under different rules. Logic is an effective tool for dealing with the objective reality of computers and cars and light bulbs, but it has (so far) been (mostly) ineffective when dealing with subjective realities -- love, passion, and the need to have a purpose in life. To meet those needs, religion is for most people much more effective. So it's good that we have both.

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